Last night on The Hour, George had on Tricia Helfer, of model/Battlestar Galactica fame. She’s promoting a new movie, Walk All Over Me, in which she plays a professional dominatrix. While George and her had a chat about the challenges of playing a dominatrix (which she likened to playing a robot, like her BSG role,) it got me thinking about how Hollywood depicts the relationship between female dominants and submissives and how it deals with “kink” in general. Mainstream film and television has never been very good at depicting the BDSM community, pushing characters who participate into the fringes and only increasing the stigma that surround their personal and professional choices. I’m curious to see how Walk All Over Me, also starring LeeLee Sobieski, tackles the issue.
Admittedly, I’m facinated with how intimate power dynamics can completely contradict or emphasize one’s own personal political ideologies. Specifically; can a submissive be a feminist? Where does the dominatrix identity fall into feminist politics, if at all? Frankly, in writing this I found it difficult to find SM characters in film and television that weren’t caricatures, added only for laughs, or damaged victims needing to be saved.
For the interest of my analysis of some more “feminist” SM characterizations, I’ve picked one indie film’s personal life submissive and one mainstream television professional dominant.
Only highlighting my fascination with the question of feminist ideology and kink, my list of favourite films includes Steven Shainberg’s Secretary, the 2002 indie black comedy starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader. (Notably, Shainberg also directed Fur, also worth a look if you’re interested in the idea of less than traditional attractions.) Based on a Mary Gaitskill short story, Secretary centres around (the completely charming) Lee Holloway, a young woman recently released from a mental hospital after being admitted for self-harm, who subsequently gets a job as a secretary for lawyer E. Edward Grey.
The relationship between Lee and her demanding boss quickly becomes sadomasochistic in nature, although not immediately sexual. It is apparent that in order to eliminate the urge to self harm from her life, Lee is in need of a relationship where she can submit, a relationship she quickly finds with E. Edward Grey. What results is surprisingly beautiful - the film is a very sensitive look at the SM dynamic (however arguably unrealistic,) never exploitive or judgmental of either character’s feelings or inclinations.
Despite the fact that Lee’s character is submissive by definition, she is uniquely empowered. Throughout the film she has a more “traditional” romantic relationship with Peter, but his inexperience and inclination towards marriage and suburbia repulses her, only pushing her more towards her domineering boss. Ironically, the more she submits to Mr. Grey, the more in control she becomes - a subversive and touching message that carries you into the film’s heart-wrenching, poetic climax. From the New York Times:
…Cinematic sadomasochism (usually in the form of a cartoonish leather-clad dominatrix wielding a riding crop) has tended to be a visual joke shoehorned into a movie to certify its sexual hipness. But when it becomes the subject of a film, the humor vanishes, and the mood turns grim and clinical.’Secretary’ breaks that mold by remaining gently amused at its fun couple’s fantasy role playing. But even when it’s laughing, the laughter is more collaborative than derisive. Lee may be shown crawling around the floor with an envelope in her teeth, but the movie still insists on seeing her as a plucky heroine plotting her own sexual emancipation.
Lee sums up her feelings on the pain she’s felt in her life at the close of the film: “In one way or another I’ve always suffered. I didn’t know why exactly. But I do know that I’m not so scared of suffering now. I feel more than I’ve ever felt and I’ve found someone to feel with. To play with. To love in a way that feels right for me.” And herein lies why the film is feminist to me: Lee chooses submission and that choice brings her strength.
I want to say for the record that I am a crime drama junkie, but not without reservation. Prime time crime dramas too often fail in their depictions of women, and their perpetual victimization, violence and sexualization for shock value (and ratings) leaves a lot to be desired from a feminist standpoint. Occasionally there is a little gem from the writing department, a moment where women are complex and empowered, even those who usually live on the heavily-judged fringes.
Heather Kessler has only appeared in four episodes of CSI but I’d argue she is one of the more memorable (feminist) characters ever to grace the genre. More commonly known as Lady Heather, a professional dominatrix, successful dungeon owner turned online entrepreneur, her character has been described by Melinda Clark (the actress who plays her) as “a multidimensional person who hadn’t been seen, a dominatrix who was much more evolved — enigmatic and empowered.”
What was most interesting about Lady Heather’s introduction to CSI was Gil Grissom’s (forensic entomologist and the night-shift supervisor) immediate facination with and attraction to her. Lady Heather, while embroiled in the drama and accusation of a murder occuring at her fetish club, becomes an object of the rather reserved Grissom’s affections right away, their relationship tender, intellectual and seemingly non-sexual (although that detail is hotly debated by fans.) This from Slate.com:
…we witness Gil’s remarkable tolerance, even fascination, for alternate lifestyles… Investigating the props at a local dominatrix house, he tells the formidable madam, Lady Heather, “I find all deviant behavior fascinating, in that to understand human nature we have to understand our aberrations.” (When Lady Heather asks about his own “outlets,” he cites books, bugs, and roller coasters.)
Their exchanges reveal more about human nature and intellect than the BDSM identity, but are valuable because they focus on Lady Heather’s depth and intelligence, rather than aiming to paint her as a freak show for mainstream viewers to gawk at:
Lady Heather: The most telling thing about anyone is what scares them. And I know what you fear more than anything, Mr. Grissom.
Grissom: Which is?
Lady Heather: Being known. You can’t accept that I might know what you really desire, because that would mean that I know you. Something, for whatever reason, you spend your entire life making sure no one else does.
Grissom: Lady Heather, you’re an anthropologist.
CSI never actually solidifies (or admits) the relationship between Grissom and Lady Heather (that’s usurped by his affection for Sarah Sidle - to which I say “booooring,”) but the writers do a nice job of humanizing their relationship amongst an overload of drama and over-the-top violence. Lady Heather herself is characterized by her increasing complexity, a constant contrast between her literal dominance and her vulnerability in regards to her family.
As Lady Heather herself puts it, “There are a lot of things you can give a man — your body, your time, even your heart. But the one thing you can never, ever, ever let go of is your power.”
It will be interesting to see how Walk All Over Me deals with professional BDSM. Will it be played for laughs or for sex appeal, as “small town girl runs into big time trouble as she takes on her roommates identity as a dominatrix to pay the bills”?