Punish Me. A film by Angelina Maccarone

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Nov 082011

Ranai’s blog has an interesting discussion of the German BDSM film Verfolgt (meaning “Hounded” in German), released as Punish Me in English. (IMDB) Briefly, a young male criminal and his older female probation officer begin a sadomasochistic relationship, with her on top. (I haven’t seen it so I can’t discuss the film itself in detail.)

There’s a lot of food for thought here, about the nature of male submission and female submission, its depiction in media (both mainstream and pornographic), and the influence of the commercial BDSM scene on the non-commercial. Fashion choices are only the most obvious form of this influence.

Elsa doesn’t need a costume. Inside subcultures, dictates of commercialisation and sexism still cause a good deal of female hetero beginners to ask ‘I want to dominate my man for the first time. What should I wear?’. This does not refer to people who actually have clothing fetishes themselves, but to people being collectively or individually pressured into costumes. It is immensely pleasant to see a female character simply going right ahead. Costume? What costume?

Jan and Elsa don’t buy and sell their interaction. They are in a personal relationship. Most people don’t get told by pervasive cultural narratives that the default of their sexuality is sex work. Heterosexual dominant women and submissive men get told just that. Our culture still overwhelmingly frames a man submitting to a woman as a commercial service which a man buys from a woman he is not otherwise in a relationship with. To the point of casting dominant and sadistic women as sex workers by default, and submissive and masochistic men as clients by default. To the point of pressuring many women into imitating prodoms and porn performers in their personal lives, and to the point of causing many men to act as if they were clients even in non-commercial, personal contexts (client mentality). To the point of, in the wider culture and in many sadomasochistic subcultures, effectively erasing and repelling women who happen to be sadistic and/or dominant in their personal lives. It is gloriously refreshing to see a story of a submissive man and a dominant woman doing their own sadomasochistic stuff inside a personal relationship.

A malesub-femdom love story would be so against the grain of culture’s rules about love, sexuality and gender that it might be illegible as a love story. People would look at it and scratch their heads, unable to understand it.

Nazi fashion in East Asia

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Sep 112011

For a while, I’ve been aware that Nazi imagery pops up in Japanese and Chinese culture every now and then, such as this set of pictures in the Daily Dot. I attribute this not to fascistic tendencies or even ignorance, but a historical and geographical distance so great that swastika armbands and black SS uniforms carry no real semiotic meaning, and signify nothing in particular. They’re just another fashion note, like the Chobits-style ear horns the “bride” wears in the above picture.

Contrary to what you might thing, people in Asia don’t just shrug this off. From the comments to the Chinasmack blog post:

To say you are mentally retarded doesn’t seem appropriate for your age . . . So, in the end I won’t be describing you both but instead wish for you: That the guy will forever remain a virgin, that the girl also forever remain a virgin, that you will be hit by a car when leaving your house, that you will be electrocuted when you bathe, and that for all of your offspring, the boys will from generation to generation forever be slaves, and the girls will from generation to generation forever be whores.

What’s the difference between this and someone wearing a [Imperialist] Japanese military uniform to take photos?

Asshole, your ancestors just rolled over in their graves.

I also wonder if there is some kind of “beautiful loser” thing going on here. We view these signifiers in the context of the defeat of fascism decades ago, so we can see them as signifying tragedy, of good people in bad situations. For example, here’s the Wikipedia plot summary of the “Slipstream” segment of The Cockpit anime:

A disgraced German fighter pilot is assigned to escort a captured American B-17 bomber carrying his childhood sweetheart, her scientist father and a fearsome secret cargo – a Nazi atom bomb. The night before the mission the pilot’s sweetheart begs him to let enemy planes destroy the bomber before the cargo can be used, even though she and her father will die with it. On the next day, After shooting down two of three RAF attackers by using the brand new Ta 152, the pilot allows the third Spitfire to destroy the bomber.

Here’s an inherently dramatic situation, a character torn between duty and humanitarian concerns, opening up the possibility of masochistic sacrifice and redemption in annihilation.

You could also see this as a way of Japanese people thinking about their nation’s legacy as a defeated, surrendered power by displacing the narrative onto another defeated military power, Nazi Germany.

May 172011

Bountiful BC is a community of about 1000 people near Creston BC, home to a Mormon splinter group that practices polygyny, one man with multiple wives. The shortage of women has driven the age of marriage and child birth down to the early teens, and there’s been reports of young women being moved across the border to similar communities in the US. There are also problems stemming from a lack of places for younger men in this community.

The BC Attorney General hasn’t been able to prosecute the community’s leaders, because of claims of religious freedom and the difficulty of getting people in a tight-knit community to come forward and testify. The AG has turned to an old, rarely used law, Section 293 of the Criminal Code, which criminalizes any form of polygamy or any kind of conjugal union with more than one person. It hasn’t been used in decades, when it was used against First Nations.

Right now, the BC Supreme Court is conducing a reference to determine the constitutionality of S.293. Critics say that the law is overly broad and vague, and intrudes on people’s personal lives, and could apply to people who practise polyamory or even live together as roommates. Supporters say the law can be “read down” to apply only to cases where exploitation is clear.

Apart from the many kinky people who are also poly, this case is relevant to kinky people in general.

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May 112011

Steele, Valerie and Jennifer Park. Gothic: Dark Glamour Yale University Press, 2008

Trunk, Jonny. Dressing for Pleasure: The Best of AtomAge 1972-1980 Murray & Sorrell FUEL, 2010.

S/M as fashion is not exactly the same thing as S/M as a sexual practice. There’s considerable overlap, but they have followed different paths into the mainstream.

As of 2010, we’re so used to seeing BDSM/fetish fashion in Hot Topic, in music videos, on fashion runways and in big budget movies that it is hard to believe that the look was ever countercultural.

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Nov 232010

Mahdavi, Pardis. Passionate Uprisings: Iran’s Sexual Revolution Standford University Press, 2009 Google books

Iranian woman - Tehran

This fascinating book is based on a series of Mahdavi’s visits from America to Iran between 2000 and 2007, which gave her an interesting longitudinal perspective of social change in Iran.

Mahdavi’s book explores a particular “thin slice” of Iranian society: young, urban, secular-minded, middle-class (or wishing to appear so), over-educated, under-employed, mobile (via cars and mobile phones), and exposed to the developed world via Internet and satellite TV. The men go clean-shaven and hair-gelled. The women wear tight-fighting mantos (coats) and headscarves that show their streaked hair, plus multiple layers of makeup. It’s a particular style of dress that has developed by dancing on the edge of Iran’s sartorial laws, under which a bare ankle, a three-quarter sleeve or a few centimetres of exposed hair could result in harassment, arrest or being whipped. Its also a statement against identifying with the ascetic look of morality police. They drive to house parties (no night clubs or other public venues), drink imported liquor, dance (completely forbidden) to Iranian-American hip-hop, and screw around, all the while looking over their shoulders.

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Nov 092010

“Cool is conservative fear dressed in black.” Bruce Mau

On the last day of the Leather Leadership Conference 2010, I wore a red corduroy collared shirt in preparation for the flight home. It very quickly became apparent that how much I stood out in a sea of men and women in black t-shirts.

Sometime around 1820, black clothing for men came as a fad, but it never went. After the flash of men’s attire in the 18th century, the black or dark suit became the standard wear for all men in Europe, and even more so in the United States; Charles Dickens was considered something of a fop for his colorful attire when he crossed the Atlantic. There are several reasons for this: the new cult of masculinity as sober and rational, the Victorian cult of mourning, the rise of the Calvinist-capitalist bourgeoisie.

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Oct 312010

Slate has a short piece on why Hallowe’en costumes are so sexed up, attributing it to a “rogue holiday” partially appropriated by gays, kind of Pride in the fall.

The Victorians enjoyed a good costume ball on Halloween, and some daring get-ups, like Gypsy outfits, were popular. But risqué costumes were not pervasive until right around Gerald Ford’s presidency, when homosexual communities in the United States adopted Halloween as an occasion for revealing, over-the-top attire.

The Halloween parade in New York City’s Greenwich Village began in 1973 as a family-and-friends promenade from house-to-house organized by a local puppeteer and mask-maker. It quickly became a neighborhoodwide party, however, and since the Village was New York’s de facto gay district, the gay community cottoned to it. The event, with its drag outfits and otherwise rebellious costuming, became famous in New York and across the country, as did similarly bawdy Halloween parties in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood and in West Hollywood.

Over on Change.org, an article points out that “One Woman’s Costume Is Another Woman’s Nightmare“, and asks about appropriations of native American dress as sexy costumes.

…the “sexy squaw” stereotype and subsequent appropriations are dangerous for non-fictional Native women, considering that “1 in 3 Native women will be raped in their lifetime,” and “70% of sexual violence against Native women is committed by non-Natives.” Compare that figure to the 1 in 6 overall American female population who is a victim of rape.


Consider the “Chiquita Banana” stereotypes of Latinas, oversexed black Jezebels, or the seemingly pliant and sexually subversive Japanese geisha. All of those stereotypical costumes correlate with a tame, sexually pure image of white women, like the European colonist with her full-length skirt, the Scarlett O’Hara on the plantation.

(The Scarlett O’Hara comparison is a bit off, as Scarlett was definitely not the Southern white feminine ideal, just as Rhett was a rogue and a scoundrel.)

A cursory examination of the costume section of the Wicked Temptations online catalog reveals a lot of less-than-progressive language and imagery. There are “Gypsy” costumes, “Native” costumes (“Our Natives set of costumes and accessories will prove why everyone decided to move to and settle on your land.”), “Nuns” (a classic), “Alpine Maidens” and “Schoolgirls.”

I think that when people talk about ethnic costumes as sexual fetishes and compare them to real-life sexual violence, there’s the implication that if you somehow got rid of the sexy costumes, the violence would stop, or at least be diminished. I’m not convinced it would. I’m not even convinced that if you somehow got rid of the underlying attitudes and fantasies that make a costume sexy, some of which goes back centuries, it would affect the violence. Don’t confuse a symptom for a cause.

Oct 172010

Fussell, Paul. Uniforms: Why we are what we wear Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Fussel is a snob, a crank and a square (he refers to “skate-board enthusiasts and other pseudo-degenerates”), and he would probably agree with all those adjectives assessments. He fully admits that his book is about surface impressions, but that’s what a uniform is: a surface, a membrane between the world and the self. It covers up the flawed individual and makes the wearer represent an ideal. Fussell contends that, despite the status accorded to individualism, people like wearing uniforms, even lowly ones. However, one of the first thing people do when given uniforms is to customize them for comfort, utility or style. In extreme cases, this produces the paradox of the unique uniform; WWII-era leaders, like MacArthur, Patton, Montgomery, Hitler and Eisenhower, had distinctive uniforms made for them.

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Sep 192010

Goodlad, Lauren M.E. and Michael Bibby, ed. Goth: Undead Subculture Duke University Press, 2007 Gbooks

Emerging from the Romantics, emphasizing the truth of extreme experiences, and probably wearing too much black, the goth culture and the BDSM subculture are close cousins, if not actual siblings.

Goodlad and Bibby identify Goth as splitting off from punk, but with an emphasis on internal emotion and sensual expression instead of punk’s extroversion and asexuality. It borrowed from many other ancient and external influences, such as the occult, pagan religions, and the BDSM/fetish culture. Goth survives, while grunge, for example, has faded out. Like BDSM, goth prospered on the frontier of the World Wide Web, experiencing a flowering in the mid-90s. The authors also observe a later decoupling of goth style from goth culture (The Matrix being Goth style without Goth attitude, Donnie Darko and Buffy the Vampire Slayer being Goth attitude without goth style).

Goth style offers an ambivalent alternative to conventional standards of gender and beauty (the football jock and the perky cheerleader), but one that has it’s own strictures. Non-skinny goths of either sex are swimming upstream, and one essay observes that while goth give men greater license to perform femininity, it doesn’t give women license to perform masculinity, instead promoting a waif-like ideal. (As is often the case with those who defy gender, it’s about expanding options for men only. I’ve noticed that on the Second Life marketplace, you can get a “femboy” avatar, which is a male skin on a female body shape, but there doesn’t appear to be any avatars of female skins on male body shapes, or even a name for such a configuration.)

Trevor M Holmes, a former male exotic dancer, reported on an oral ultimatum from management, making tans and pumped up biceps and chests mandatory, and ordering “Act more masculine– no swishing, no frilly clothes– and act straight.” Why? “That’s what our customers want.” There’s a policing of desire here, that even (or especially) gay men must promote and prefer the ideal masculine sex object and subject of the straight-acting jock.

Skipping a lot of very interesting essays, what first caught my attention was Jason K Friedman’s “‘Ah am witness to its authenticity’: Goth style in Postmodern Southern Writing.” Thomas Jefferson, in the eighteenth query of Notes on the State of Virginia, wrote about masters in psychic bondage to their slaves. (Karl Marx also used the language of ghosts and vampires to describe the political and economic.) This ties into the South-as-Orient/sexual heterotopia idea I mentioned in previous posts.

Other essays touch on gothic fiction and the intersection of the BDSM subculture and goth subculture. These essays frequently touch on two fundamental questions about subcultures: if you join a subculture where everybody dresses the same, is it truly liberation? And can subcultures truly escape commodification by the mainstream?

So, is there anything truly revolutionary or transgressive in goth (and the same could be asked of BDSM, and many other subcultures)? Or is it just another marketing category? Somebody once said, there’s value and merit in being a punk in Orange County; but the moment the OC punk can articulate why being an OC punk is important, he or she can’t be that anymore. The same could be said of the kids in Saturday Night Live’s “Goth Talk” sketches, trying desperately to inject some magic and history and mystery and style into their suburban lives as they plug the Gloom Room, “right next to the Pizza Hut on Hibiscus Road.” Bless their monochromatic hearts.

Jun 162010

“Alejandro” is the second time Lady Gaga has visually referenced The Night Porter (dir. Liliana Cavani, 1974) in her videos.

The first time was in the “Love Game” video, in which she wore the dark pants, suspenders and officer’s cap look Lucia wore in that iconic scene. This seemed to be gesturing towards the early 70s, post-Stonewall/pre-AIDS downtown New York City scene as an image of sexual freedom and adventure. However, the video doesn’t engage with the implications of the source image. It’s just a bit of early 70s nostalgia, bereft of any particular meaning for Gaga’s primary audience who wasn’t even born when The Night Porter came out.

The video for “Alejandro” does address the themes of the source material: the militarism, the eroticism, etc. There’s a problematic connection drawn between fascism/militarism and homoeroticism. The nun imagery at the end seems to suggest that the only way Gaga’s character can be acceptable to a fascist man is to become an asexual image of virtue, nun-like.

There’s something a bit paint-by-numbers in this, particularly considering the similarities to Madonna’s videos. Homoeroticism? Check. Fascism? Check. Bra with gun barrels? Check. Swallowing rosary? Check. Latex nun uniform? Check. It’s pretty easy to generate 15-minutes of controversy with this kind of material, without sparking any particular debate or getting people to change their minds about anything. There’s certainly a long (if not always noble) history of anti-clerical agitprop, but whether that has actually made any difference is another question.

It put me in mind of MIA’s notorious “Born free” video. (Not currently on Youtube.com) Mia’s video employs the simple strategy of depicting pogroms and ethnic cleansing, but targeting red haired men. It’s a simple inversion strategy, one that generates shock, but doesn’t necessarily spark any deeper understanding or change attitudes. This is what the philosophers and poets in the late 1700s/early 1800s did when they tried to imagine themselves into slave bodies. I don’t know if this had any direct impact on the debate over slavery, but it did eventually contribute to the evolving form of BDSM porn.