“You should not work to make the audience comfortable with what they are witnessing at all.”
Notes on style, Pg.4
Slave Play by Jeremy O Harris is a 2018 three act stage play. Three modern interracial couples (two straight, one gay) attend a retreat to work out the issues in their relationships via slavery-based roleplay. This reveals and strains various faultlines in their relationships and their psyches.
Love & Human Remains is a 1993 drama film. It tells several interwoven stories of people in the big city, while in the background a serial killer murders women. The main character is David (Thomas Gibson), a gay former actor who coasts through life as a waiter and nightclub regular.
Love definitely has some resemblance to Cruising: paranoid people in an urban environment, a serial killer who could be anybody, masculinity in crisis. We get glimpses of the killings on news shows, but the characters, too self-absorbed, skip past them.
Benita (Mia Kirshner) seems to vibe on that urban paranoia. She’s primarily a dominatrix, often telling classic urban legends (e.g. “the guy with the hook” or “the baby sitter and the extension cord”) during her sessions with men in her apartment.
Queer as Folk (US) S01E15 “Ties that bind” Aired April 1, 2001 IMDB
In most of the TV episodes discussed in this project, BDSM is talked about, and we see the implements and the outfits, but we only rarely see actual play. The US version of Queer as Folk already pushed the envelope of cable television by showing plenty of gay sex, so it was willing to show play too, up to a point.
It’s the Leather Ball weekend at the fictional Babylon club in Pittsburgh. Friends Ted and Emmett snipe at each other’s wardrobe choices.
Ted: “I can’t believe you went out in public dressed like that.”
Emmet: “My mother used to say, find your best feature and play it for all it’s worth. So that’s exactly what I do.” [turns around to reveal he is wearing pants with the butt cutout.] “Besides it’s called a leather ball. You could have at least dressed for the occasion.”
Ted: “I did. I wore a leather belt.”
Emmet: “You are such a stick in the mud.”
Ted: “Why, because I don’t want to look like a cross between a Nazi stormtrooper and Roy Rogers?” [eyes a guy in Western-leather gear with a bullwhip]
Lasting Marks is a short documentary on the infamous Operation Spanner case, in which gay men in 1980s Britain were arrested and tried for consensual sadomasochism. I should point out that the documentary is mostly scans of newspaper articles and legal documents, with a voiceover interview with one of the accused.
Cruising (1980) is a thriller directed and written by William Friedkin, based on a novel by Gerald Walker.
William Friedkin, well known for directing The French Connection and The Exorcist, already had history (not necessarily the good kind) with LGBTQ topics when he directed The Boys in the Band (1970), released only a year after Stonewall. Even before it was made, Cruising was controversial, and gay activists repeatedly interfered with the filming. However, the film also included many patrons of gay leather clubs in the club scenes.
Cole, Shaun. ‘Don We Now Our Gay Apparel’: Gay Men’s Dress in the Twentieth Century. Berg, 2000 Amazon
If there’s a predominant theme in Cole’s book on the history of gay fashion in the twentieth century, it’s that gay fashion is always imperfectly mimetic, a tangled mix of “passing, minstrelization and capitulation”, to quote sociologist Martin P. Levine (pg. 3)
Most people encounter BDSM fiction before they encounter BDSM in real life, whether in the form of narratives or online encounters. This means that people tend to imprint on those fictions and receive ideas like: Masters are (or should be) wealthy, sadists, men, leather wearing, etc. Slaves are (or should be) without limits, make no decisions, etc. These assumptions cause problems later on. So what is the proper relationship between BDSM fiction, particularly Master-slave relationships, and actually living them?
Williams, Tennessee. “Desire and the Black Masseur” Tales of Desire New Directions, 2010. Originally published 1948
Dipping into the “literary figures who wrote kink” well, we find Tennessee Williams’ short story, “Desire and the Black Masseur.” A meek man wanders into a steambath, gets pounded and later killed and literally eaten by an African-American masseur. The end.
As a narrative of homoerotic interracial masochism, it works pretty well. The fact that the masseur is not named and only identified as “the Negro” means that is isn’t exactly racially progressive, but this is a story of fantasy, of a masochistic desire for regression and annihilation.
The narrative suggests that the drama of Burns’ masochism and the sadism of “the Negro” is a kind of cosmic drama of revenge and redemption for slavery and racism. I wonder if there’s a parallel between this story and, say, the race and gender subtext of Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs and other works: the white, Christian man submitting to the (possibly Jewish) woman.
You could say there’s two kinds of masochistic scenarios: one which goes against the dominant flow of power in society (e.g. this story, Venus in Furs) and the other which follows the dominant flow of power (e.g. Story of O), though the last case may subvert the dominant paradigm. E.M. Hull’s The Sheik does both: female submitting to male, white colonizer submitting to Oriental colonized (who turns out to be an Englishman anyway).
The subversive element may be secondary and optional to the experience of masochism, but it does render masochism more visible and legible.