The whip cracks! A man moans. Is it pleasure or pain he’s experiencing? Is there a difference? To any sub worth his weight in salty tears – no, not much, as long as it’s safe, sane, and consensual. The art of dominance and submission (the erotic element of D/s in BDSM – Bondage/Discipline/SadoMasochism), is in its purest sense, absent from the silver screen. Superficially explored more and more, power exchange is a taboo topic that is freely and frequently mocked, misunderstood and derided in film, though mention of the scene keeps emerging each decade in both mainstream and underground cinema. What is the fascination and fear of love not given lightly?
Emma Peel paved the way for mainstream proto-dommes on the ’60s TV show The Avengers, fueling fantasies around the globe. Her comely frame and form-fitting leather bodysuit left just enough to the imagination. She was all about femme power creating tension through tease; a campy, action heroine pinup in fetish garb, resonating long and loud. That persona celebrated redux in force with ever-so-clever, dynamic smiling domme gals getting some action in the Charlie’s Angels action comedies with Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu; and again morphed into scenes of gothic attire with Aeon Flux, Elektra, The Matrix, Razor Blade Smile and Underworld.
The garb with the most influence to American audiences in recent cinematic history belongs to Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in Batman Returns; that PVC cat suit has decorated the covers of myriad fetish magazines. With whip in hand and a liberated libido, Catwoman could’ve been a force with which to reckon. Unfortunately, she was declawed by her psychosis and rampant need for a man (in a bat suit no less). Like so many other apparent dommes of the silver screen, she walked the walk and talked the talk but didn’t live the life. She was still just a fantasy fixture in a male-defined world.
One wouldn’t have to be trussed up in Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth to confess that allegedly dominant women in cinema are too often anything but; instead they’re like little girls clip-clopping around in their mother’s high heels, faces slathered in make-up, putting on airs and taking femininity to an absurd end.
Adolescent pimple-faced comedies have been home to a host of frighteningly powerful gals in recent years (American Wedding, EuroTrip, Tomcats), but these appearances are punch-lines with the dominatrix personifying an über-femme, a device meant to scare the bejeezus out of boys and insecure men. These male characters can’t even deal with regular females, and run from the dressed-up clown versions of dominas, penises tucked between their legs! Comedic to the point of demeaning, power exchange is overtly used in mainstream film to parody expected gender roles and controversial points of sexual orientation. The men are seen as weak and the women as ball-busting psychos. It’s an easy laugh.
The majority of dominatrix roles are found in foreign fare with the most famous being Bulle Ogier in Maîtresse. This artful Barbet Schroeder exploitation film provides a proper tour guide for an intimate exploration of D/s. Another more sexualized scenario played out in The Image (also released as The Mistress and the Slave), Radley Metzger’s take on the power relationships. These mid-’70s films were products of the ’60s sexual revolution. This era gave more screen time to D/s than it had ever gotten before. The party would be over by the ’80s with D/s safely tucked back into the cinematic closet.
Somewhere between these tropes are tepid thrillers that further enforce the relationship between sexual fetish and criminality. These works remove sexual pleasure and emotional fulfillment from the equation, leaving the sensationalistic aspects of torture and bondage at the fore. The most infamous use of BDSM as a murder weapon comes courtesy of Uli Edel’s Body of Evidence where kinky sex is put on trial with emphasis on Madonna’s turn as a femme fatale. Characters are emotionless automatons with progressive sexual interests shown as a false option for actual personal connection.
Meanwhile, Brett Leonard’s Feed puts a cop on the trail of fetishists around the globe. Though consensual, there is no safe or sane sex in this 2005 film. The plot plays out against the world of fat admirers (chubby chasers) by way of a murderous sociopath who feeds women to death to work out issues with his mother. Stylishly shot with an ironic soundtrack ("Yummy Yummy," "Cherish," "Tainted Love"), there is no attempt to portray fat admiration (or any other fetish) as anything other than freakish, dangerous, and – ultimately – at the heart of a crime.
The 2006 film Consequences (a.k.a. Playroom) is an early cheapie entry in the torture porn cycle popularized by the Saw and Hostel films (by way of Judgment Night and Deliverance). The tale of five friends who go on their annual wild weekend trip; two of the horn-dogs leave a bar with a pair of hotties only to fall into the mad machinations of a filmmaker who likes to groan and wear a lot of jewelry.
With scenes looking like they’re right out of a porn film, the only difference is that the guys aren’t having fun getting corn-holed and spanked. Films like Body of Evidence, Feed, and Consequences give the scene a bad name with their misleading impressions.
Exit to Eden exemplifies the awkward marriage of the criminal and sexual underworlds. The peculiar mix of pain and power coupled with the intrinsic raw emotion of D/s subject matter gives a reputation of prurient madness. The subject matter telegraphs an association with the seedier side of life. Those who engage and enjoy the edgy activities walk a razor-thin line of normalcy, if not legality.
Penned as erotica, Anne Rice’s tale was unsuccessfully grafted onto a comedic espionage plot, resulting in something that resembled The Story of O as a hot slapstick mess. Adapted by Bob Brunner and Deborah Amelon in 1994, there are few intersections of the over-arching plot with the adult story of Mistress Lisa (Dana Delany) and her new submissive Elliot (Paul Mecurio). Even people who’d disavow genital torture might rethink it if given the option between that and enduring Rosie O’Donnell and Dan Akroyd in a tacked-on bit involving international intrigue on an island of dominants and submissives. The shtick is laid on so thick and the depiction of D/s so stilted that any shred of erotica is as muted as a ball-gagged subbie.
Sadly, Mistress Lisa may be entrenched fully in a D/s world but she harbors dreams of a vanilla life. These are as shameful to her as a need for BDSM is to a so-called straight person. Similarly, Tanya Cheex (the lovely Guinevere Turner) keeps her vanilla past locked away from the other patrons of her House of Thwax in Preaching to the Perverted. This 1997 UK film follows the British blueprint of outsiders finding acceptance as seen in Kinky Boots and Just like a Woman.
If judging solely by their filmic representations, dominatrices are flawed females who lack the love of the right man. They are shrews in bustiers and black leather waiting to be tamed. This hysteria lies at the center of Neil Coombs’s Dom (a.k.a. The Dominatrix) and, to some extent, Eric Werthman’s Going Under. These unusual melodramas from 2004 balance power exchange and romance with some awkward, albeit interesting, results.
In the early years of the 21st Century, two films have brought D/s to the fore; Steven Shainberg’s Secretary (2002) and Robert Cuffley’s Walk All Over Me (2007). These look at both sides of the D/s coin; Secretary the bottom and Walk the top.
Though Secretary is an erotically charged examination of power exchange, the protagonist, Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) suppresses her need for self-mutilation via spanking. Everything turns out for the best in the end, but initiating the D/s relationship between Holloway and her boss, E. Edward Grey (James Spader) requires an inherent flaw in Holloway as opposed to a genuine need. The mind-set reflected sees D/s as a lifestyle choice and not an integral part of one’s personality. However, Secretary allows viewers to understand D/s as a form of therapy. Holloway and Grey play off each other; one’s yin to the other’s yang. Together they exorcise their demons in a deeply personal and satisfying exploration.
In Walk All Over Me, D/s is far more ancillary to the plot and merely a means to an end for the two main female characters. When Alberta (Leelee Sobieski, looking like the lovechild of Helen Hunt and Chloë Sevigny) runs away from her dead-end life she arrives on the doorstep of Celene (Tricia Helfer), a Vancouver dominatrix. It doesn’t take long until Alberta – who’s known for jumping from one mess to another – dons some shiny leather boots and pretends to be Celene for a new client, Paul (Jacob Tierney). She inexplicably falls head over heels for him in a matter of minutes, shortly before learning that he’s involved with some dangerous dudes from Ontario. This begins a convoluted plot involving stolen money, ruined expectations and bondage.
Despite the upscale lifestyle that Celene enjoys – in her nurse, cop, or army outfits – it’s all artifice. The same can be said for the film’s D/s quotient; it’s used for the wacky factor as well as an aid in creating an uneasy blend of comedy and crime drama, revisiting the errors of Exit to Eden.
Celene lacks empathy for her clients and sees them as living cash machines. She could’ve been a spokesmodel or acted in Community Theater if the pay were better. Instead, she’s using her vocation as a domme as a shortcut to her life plan of becoming an actress. The rare domme, Celene uses her real name and doesn’t put up many barriers between herself and her clients. Perhaps because she’s so superficial she has nothing to hide. There’s little discussion of professionalism or the lack of sexual contact/intercourse involved with being a pro-domme. Even Alberta assumes that the trappings of domination – floggers, feathers, leather masks, et cetera – are merely accoutrements of a prostitute. It’s far easier to fathom that a man would pay for sex than to be debased at the behest of another person.
Outside of Hollywood or well-funded Indie fare, D/s boasts porn auteurs and hacks taking swipes at the subject. The best explorer of fetishes, Maria Beatty, has provided a steady stream of artfully-directed films which spotlight subjects such as tickling (Box of Laughter), spanking (The Elegant Spanking), medical fetishism (Doctor’s Orders), Weimar perversity (Ecstasy in Berlin 1926), and other taboo topics. At the other end of the spectrum sits D. Stevens’s 2006 effort The Pet. Marketed as an empathetic exploration of D/s, the film is a pathetic exploitation tale dressed in leather. Lukewarm erotica at best, The Pet is reminiscent of the worst parts of Exit to Eden with its tepid human trafficking plot and unbearable acting. To call star Andrea Edmondson wooden would be an insult to trees.
Be it sensual or sexual, D/s eludes explanation because much of it takes place above the neck and not below the waist. A wonderful alternative to copulation in diseased time (bodies clad head-to-toe in latex redefines safe sex); D/s is the most difficult sex play of all as it requires an active imagination.
Portrayals of D/s in cinema are scant with positive dominatrix roles. Characters engaged in D/s are mentally imbalanced (Secretary), dangerous (Body of Evidence, Pulp Fiction), or deadly (Payback). Lady Heather (Melinda Clarke) of TV’s C.S.I. stands as one of few positive role models of dominas in popular culture, though she’s had bad luck with crimes taking place in her Las Vegas dungeon (and her penchant for vigilante justice isn’t necessarily admirable). Even though the show’s main character returned to Lady Heather in his time of need, she ultimately lost out to the good girl.
It’s not up to every cheesy comedy, lame action film or coming-of-age tale to provide humanistic portrayals of D/s and dommes. Kink can be funny, strange or even cute. Mainstream acceptance shouldn’t be thrust upon cinematic D/s – the taboo nature enhances the excitement – though it doesn’t need to be shorthand for criminality, unhappiness or insanity. Despite its integration into a handful of films, D/s still has its leather boot in the back door of cinema.