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Thinking Kink: Did Sex and the City Get BDSM Right?

It's easy to forget just how groundbreaking Sex and the City was in the late '90s when, with gay kisses and incest on our prime-time soap operas (well, here in Britain anyway), we thought we'd seen it all. Cue a show with four women talking about butt sex, and you had something so incendiary that this then-15-year-old had to tape it off the the TV and watch it when my family were all out. SATC—the series, not the films. We do not speak of the films—was lauded for its frank, open discussions of sex (and the notion that women might—erk!—enjoy it) without taking anything too seriously. But did it ever manage to move beyond the media's often cartoonish portrayals of BDSM?

Samantha gets more than she bargained for when her date goes 'in the closet'Throughout SATC's six seasons, fragments of BDSM imagery were regularly dropped into episodes without further explanation. In one episode, Samantha mentions she keeps nipple clamps in her "goodie drawer," and in another, Miranda is disconcerted to find her date has spanking fantasies. Another episode sees one of Samantha's conquests chaining himself up in his own kinky closet and asking her to slap him, but a pejorative view on kink is inherent in the episode's name: "The Freak Show." Samantha is regularly depicted as a dominatrix figure, an image often used to deflect criticisms that BDSM is all about glorifying female submission.

In the season 2's "La Douleur Exquise" (translation: The Exquisite Pain) the makers actually gave a whole episode over to exploring BDSM themes—with varying results. It kicks off with the girls attending an opening of an S&M (as BDSM was previously known) club. The opening tracking shot of opulent decor and glorious food is quickly contrasted when we see a woman chained to a giant spiderweb being flogged (my safety-first eye noticed that the woman is being flogged on her stomach, which is a strict no-no). A riding-crop-wielding, top-hatted Samantha is running the guestlist, and is a visual contrast to Charlotte who turns up in "vanilla" clothes and responds to Sam's complaint, "The invitation said kinky!" with an innocent, "I kinked my hair!".

As tends to be the case with SATC, humor is never far away and Samantha spanking the bare-assed waiter for getting her drink order wrong is definitely an example of how easy it is to play BDSM for laughs. However, Samantha also states the case for open-mindedness, telling a shocked Charlotte, "Don't be so judgemental. This is just a sexual expression—all these people have jobs and pay their bills." A reminder that kink is just one part of consenting adults' lives is often missing from media representations, so props to SATC for including this.

Samantha (R) defends kink as a bemused Miranda looks onHowever, messages get mixed as the episode progresses. The "pain" that Carrie is experiencing in her relationship with the commitment-phobic Mr. Big is compared to BDSM throughout her commentary ("And then I realized—I was in an S&M relationship with Mr. Big"), a metaphor which runs the risk of perpetuating a major misunderstanding about kink—that it's all about pain (and not the pleasurable kind), that it's abusive, and that it entraps people. Carrie's commentary equates her emotional pain with the physical pain that BDSM is assumed to be synonymous with, even though pain is only one part of kink, and for some players, not included at all.

Carrie's claim that she has "tied" herself to Mr. Big is clearly meant to evoke bondage imagery, but comparing consensual restraint to being trapped in a bad relationship does both BDSM and victims of abuse a disservice. BDSM is about pleasure – whether that is gained through the controlled infliction of pain, restraint, or humiliation—to which both parties have consented. There is no pleasure to be gained from an emotionally abusive relationship, however much Carrie attempts to romanticize it in her voiceover: "Was I addicted to the pain, the exquisite pain of wanting someone so unattainable?". Comparing consensual masochistic practices to letting someone treat you like crap for real only serves to feed into the myth that BDSM is a cover for abuse, and all participants are damaged people.

The rest of the episode remains in lighter territory but continues to pathologize kinky people: Charlotte's encounter with a foot fetishist is described as "dirty, kinky, freaked-out" and the man himself is portrayed as sleazy and somewhat predatory, having taken advantage of Charlotte's supposed shoe fetish (NB—wanting to buy lots of shoes isn't a necessarily a "fetish." Wanting to lick them or come over them is). In another scene, Carrie agrees not to judge Stanford's underwear fetish and cyber-promiscuity, as if these are things he should automatically be ashamed of.

"La Douleur Exquise" certainly made for a funny and fascinating episode of Sex and the City, but in terms of bridging the gap between the kink and vanilla world, it didn't quite make it across the latex-lined divide.

Previously: Welcome to a Blog on BDSM, Feminism and Pop Culture, Debunking BDSM Myths

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Comments

6 comments have been made. Post a comment.

really? *rolls eyes* i would

really? *rolls eyes*
i would be thrilled if we never had to talk about sex and the city again, as if it were anything other than a boring ass television show. feminists insisting on maintaining a discuss of the show "so, i'm carry, and you,re whatever the other ones are names" are SO FUCKING TIRED. let's let it go, k guys?

Hi Anonymous, You're clearly

Hi Anonymous,
You're clearly not a fan of SATC, which is fair enough. I just felt it merited discussion as it was a long-running show that prompted a lot of discussions, especially amongst women and feminists. I definitely don't believe it was necessarily reflective of what women are actually like, but the fact it was often interpreted thus shows the power of the media to dictate how women are viewed.

"Charlotte’s encounter with a

"Charlotte’s encounter with a foot fetishist is described as “dirty, kinky, freaked-out” and the man himself is portrayed as sleazy and somewhat predatory, having taken advantage of Charlotte’s supposed shoe fetish (NB—wanting to buy lots of shoes isn’t a necessarily a "fetish." Wanting to lick them or come over them is)"

So let me get this straight: you seem to find nothing wrong with a salesman doing what he did to Charlotte? I remember the episode quite vividly. Charlotte sees a pair of shoes in the window, and the salesman tells her that she'll get them for free as long as she models the new pairs for him, and when she does, he makes sexually suggestive sounds and moans? You don't think that's predatory? And OMG it's so wrong for a show to portray someone with a fetish as a predator! Come on. There are people out there with fetishes who are predators, who use others in a predatory manner, and there is nothing wrong with showing this. People aren't as stupid as you think they are: Viewers aren't going to walk away thinking: "Ew, OMG, all men/people with shoe and foot fetishes are all perverts and predators!" What that salesman did WAS predatory, and there is nothing wrong with showing that sexual predators are in the most innocent places and that showing that yes, people with kinks can be predators too.

That's kind of my take with this kind of criticism. All of the episodes discussed aren't meant to teach viewers about BDSM (or S&M), they're meant to show the viewers how the characters encounter and interpret BDSM in their lives, and their opinions. Carrie is not into BDSM, so she doesn't view it as pleasurable, so naturally, with the theme of that show, she's going to equate it with her flawed relationship with Big.

Hi Mariam. I definitely don't

Hi Mariam. I definitely don't think there is 'nothing wrong' with what the shoe fetishist guy did to Charlotte. What I do think is questionable is the way the makers of SATC defaulted to portraying someone with a fetish as immediately sleazy and predatory.

I am well aware that there are predators and abusers in the BDSM scene are there are anywhere, and this is definitely something I want to look at later in this blog series. My concern is that, as a representation of kink on an influential mainstream show, this was a very negative one, and risked tarring all kinksters with the predatory brush. I agree with you that this doesn't necessarily mean every viewer will interpret the scene as reflective of all fetishists - however, I do think in a culture where kinky people are already written off as 'dirty' 'damaged' or freakish in some way, this was not helpful.

Your comment shows you feel the power of media to influence thinking about BDSM is limited, which is a perspective I am trying to consider in this blog. Given the Katie Roiphe shitstorm and other commentary about kink in the mainstream media (a British newspaper described 50 Shades as 'depraved' last week), I am not personally convinced.

But you see, that's something

But you see, that's something we have to deal with on a daily basis. At work, school, home, on the streets, predators are everywhere (not to sound paranoid). And they might have kinks, they might not, and sometimes they use their kinks in a way to try to harm you (because that's also what gets them off). In the whole course of the show, they portrayed one person, in one episode, as someone with a kink who was a predator. If you can point someone else out, be my guest. I'll never forget when I worked at a bridal salon, we would have a caller who would make sexually suggestive remarks about him wearing the clothes, if we had panties for him to try on, all the while breathing heavily. I'm not saying he was in the BDSM community or that it was a kink (seemed that way to me), but he was definitely a predator and I was a victim of one of his calls.

The reason why I don't see a huge problem with that character (Buster was his name, if I recall), is that he wasn't someone one of the women were dating, he was a salesperson. If he were a romantic interest, I can't help but feel it would be different, and I would agree with you. But it was his position as a salesperson, she was alone in the store, and he used his power to give her a free pair of shoes so he could use her. I *liked* that they showed that because it reminded viewers to be careful, that even seemingly harmless salespeople can be predators too.

I do appreciate you trying to change the perspective on BDSM. And 50 Shades is depraved only in that it's a terribly, terribly written book and an abomination to the literary community ;-)

LOL

50 Shades is depraved only in that it's a terribly, terribly written book and an abomination to the literary community

LOLOLOLOL - How true!!!! I forced myself to read the book so I could see what all the fuss was about. Got about halfway through just couldn't take any more. My 10 year old can construct stories more eloquently