Lying somewhere on the boundary between affectionate fetishism and domestic violence, spankings between lovers or would-be lovers were a staple of Hollywood romance movies. Jezebel has a pictorial and essay on the subject, by Andrew Heisel. This was reflected in real-life practices of the time, when husbands were expected to treat their lives like children.
In American film of the period, the rules were pretty strict about what sexual acts could be shown, and some of the sexuality was sublimated into spanking.
It’s an idea not of romantic but parental love—and one key to the logic of film spankings. In Frontier Gal, the hero first gets the idea to spank his wife after he spanks his five-year-old daughter. The girl cries, but, previously uncertain of the affections of her estranged father, she’s also pleased. Through sniffles, she says, “Fathers spank little girls because they love them…. Oh gosh, you love me.”
“I do,” he responds, just realizing it himself. At the end of the film, he puts the idea to use on his wife, spanking her as their daughter watches. While his wife is confused, the little girl is thrilled, finally saying, “Daddy, you spanked mama.… That means you love her.” Suddenly, the wife catches on and a kiss forced against her stammering lips seals the arrival of marital harmony.
Such treatment could escalate into face slaps, blackened eyes, beatings and worse. This coincided with a lot of cultural anxiety about women’s place in society.
The essay includes links to various sites cataloguing spanking in mainstream movies and television. One of the most interesting points is that spanking (distinct from other forms of corporal punishment) seems to be a recent invention, almost unheard of before the 20th century in either fiction or non-fiction sources.
…it’s a struggle to find examples of this form of marital discipline occurring very long ago. The spanking forums, which revel in finding precedents for their kink, come up really short on any before the last century. Of course, the more violent practice of wife beating, and the law of coverture that authorized it, has a long, ugly history—but wife spanking was new. It makes no appearance in histories of domestic violence. It was a particularly modern response to modern anxieties.
As we saw in the ambiguity over debates about corporal punishment in the 19th century, it’s hard to parse out this complex mixture of sexist contempt, fetishistic thrill and affectionate physicality. The discourse starts with concern for humiliated and beaten women, but easily shifts into erotic stories about women’s spanking clubs.