Sex and the City S02E12, “La Douleur Exquise!”, aired August 22nd, 1999 IMDB Title translates to “the exquisite pain”
Sex and the City was a popular dramedy series about single women in New York City around the turn of the millennium.
The opening narration of this episode makes it clear that BDSM is just another aesthetic to be adopted, consumed, and abandoned, befitting the series’ consumerist ethos.
Carrie (vo) “New York City restaurants are always looking for the next new angle to grab that elusive and somewhat jaded Manhattan palate. Last year it was fusion Cajun. Last month it was mussels from Brussels. And tonight, it’s S&M.”
There actually was a BDSM-themed restaurant in NYC in the late 90s, called La Nouvelle Justine.
Carrie and her group of friends take this as an opportunity to dress up, like everything else.
Carrie: “See, this is what happens when the mayor shuts down the sex shops. It pops up in your cuisine.”
A handsome man in a leather harness serves their drinks, and Samantha gets into the dominatrix persona. She finds fault with her drink and very lightly beats his ass with the crop.
Charlotte: “How does he wait on tables dressed like that? It’s humiliating.”
Carrie: “Well, the summer I worked at Howard Johnsons I had to wear an orange hat.”
Samantha: (points crop at Charlotte) “Don’t be so judgemental. This is just a sexual expression. All these people have jobs and pay their bills. They’re just having fun with fetishes. I wonder what your fetish is.”
Stanford: “Charlotte has a thing for Crabtree and Evelyn potpourri.”
Charlotte: (pushes away crop) “I don’t have a fetish.”
Samantha: “We all have a fetish. The difference between us and them is, they’re putting it out there where everyone can see. I think it’s healthy and fabulous.”
Samantha normalizes BDSM first by asserting that kinksters are part of the productive economy, and then by asserting that everybody has fetishes.
Carrie leaves early to visit her boyfriend, known as “Mr. Big”, before he leaves for Paris. Samantha gives her the crop and the top hat.
While Big and Carrie share sexual attraction, they get into a fight over Big’s refusal to commit and include her in his life plans.
Over lunch the next day, Carrie is upset and asks “Why do I keep doing this to myself? I must be a masochist or something.”
Carrie (vo): “That’s when I first realized it. I was in an S & M relationship with Mr. Big.”
Carrie (vo): (typing on computer) “In love relationships, there is a fine line between pleasure and pain. In fact, it’s a common belief that a relationship without pain is a relationship not worth having. To some, pain implies growth. But how do we know when the growing pains stop and the ‘pain-pains’ take over? Are we masochists or optimists if we continue to walk that fine line? When it comes to relationships, how do you know when enough is enough?”
Way back in the 19th century, Krafft-Ebing defined masochism as a disorder exclusive to men, as a departure from the norm. Women were supposed to be attracted to stronger men who would naturally confine and torment them. It wasn’t until much later that masochism was seen as a problem for women.
Carrie and Big have another fight when he comes back.
Carrie: “You said you loved me.”
Big: “I do.”
Carrie: “Then why does it hurt so fucking much?”
Carrie (vo): “I was the real sadist. He might be the one with the whip but I was the one who tied myself up. Tied myself to a man who was terrified of being tied down.”
While the metaphor might be strained, Carrie does realize that her suffering is at least in part her choice. Masochism does involve control of the party inflicting the suffering. Realizing that is the first step.
Carrie and Big break up (for now).
Carrie (vo): “Did I ever really love Big, or was I addicted to the pain? The exquisite pain of wanting someone so unattainable. […] I wanted to go to him, but I felt like I was tied to the chair. Some part of me was holding me back, knowing I had gone too far, reached my limit. And just like that, I had untied myself from Mr. Big. I was free. But there was nothing exquisite about it.”
Three other plotlines also comment on kink, indirectly.
Stanford, Carrie’s obligatory gay male friend, is chatting on a website about men in designer underwear. He’s reluctant to meet a man face to face, because of his nebbishy looks. Eventually, he goes to an underwear party at a gay bar. A handsome man cruises him, and strikes up a conversation over Stanford’s designer trunks, bought in Paris.
Carrie (vo): “Stanford Blatch had never felt more special.”
Stanford’s plotline suggests that personal style can make up for a less-than-ideal body. However, he also says he got the underwear in Paris, which makes them a statement of his wealth and privilege that he can go to Paris.
Charlotte, the group’s designated good girl, naturally loves shoes, and she drifts into a situation with a fetishist shoe salesman. In exchange for letting him put shoes on her feet, she gets designer shoes at a massive discount or for free.
Carrie (vo): “When a foot fetish meets a shoe fetish, all reason goes out the shop window.”
The others make Charlotte realize she is trading sex for material goods. She returns the shoes, but the salesman talks her into letting him put multiple shoes on her feet, and apparently climaxes.
Carrie (vo): “Charlotte felt like Cinderella. Cinderella in a dirty, kinky, freaked out, storybook, parallel universe.”
As Barbara Ehrenreich, et al, observed in Re-Making Love, BDSM is the perfect form of sexuality for a consumer-capitalist culture. The Stanford and Charlotte subplots show material objects can be a part of a sexual exchange. Stanford has no problem with his underwear being an icebreaker that gets him talking to a desirable man, while Charlotte can’t continue the transaction once she overcomes her denial that she is exchanging sex for shoes (even if the man doesn’t touch any part of her higher than her ankles).
Miranda’s subplot involves her getting involved with a guy whose fetish for sex in public places goes beyond kink into compulsion. This is already an ethically fraught practice, and the man escalates until he is literally fucking Miranda in front of his parents. Apart from the consent issues, nobody likes to be used exclusively as a prop in somebody else’s fetish scenario.
While people like playfully whacking others with crops (non-consensually), there’s no exploration of why anybody would want to be on either end of the whip, much less discussion of consent or negotiation. Women are fetishized, but not fetishizers.
Strangely, the most sexually adventurous of the quartet, Samantha, only appears briefly in this episode. Kim Cattrall (Samantha) has done kinky or kink adjacent roles before, such as in Live Nude Girls.