Subscribe to Bitch—an award-winning, 80 page feminist magazine. Image Map

Thinking Kink: The Female Dominant in Pop Culture

Milla Jovovich as 'Katinka' in Zoolander

The female dominant (domme, dominatrix, domina, mistress, etc.) may appear to be a more defendable BDSM stereotype than that of the female submissive. On the surface, fem-doms invert negative stereotypes about female sexuality and the "female" personality. They are women who take control, who behave aggressively, who know what they want and demand it with force if necessary. In other words, they take on characteristics traditionally seen as "male." But while they may be accused of letting feminism down less often than their submissive sisters, dommes have it just as rough when it comes to the media.

For one, the shock value of the female dominant rests on deeply conservative ideas of gender binary—that men are This Way, women are That Way, and anyone daring to embody characteristics deemed as belonging to another gender is immediately a transgresser. As long as dommes are seen as not traditionally feminine, we know they're still being judged by rigid gender standards. And if we see dommes as more positive role models than fem subs, then we are effectively denigrating every "traditionally feminine" quality, as well as subs themselves. In other words, if we respect dommes because they act "more like men," we can hardly claim they're flying a good flag for us ladies.

Whenever I think of dominants on TV, in movies or in books, I picture an older, severe-looking woman dressed in restrictive clothing, wielding a whip. She's usually white, slim, and cisgendered. A foreign accent designed to emphasize her erotic "otherness" might be thrown in—think Milla Jovovic's PVC-encased baddie Katinka in Zoolander, or Frau Farbissina, the authoritarian leather-clad villain in the Austin Powers films. Yes, these are comedies, so the characters are naturally going to be played for laughs, but it's interesting that the idea of a sexually powerful woman is seen as so amusing in the first place. Does the threat a domme poses to patriarchal structures mean she must be neutralized with a laugh track?

It's not as if dommes escape the narrow dictates of what constitutes "sexy"—the clothing associated with them is deliberately restrictive and exaggerates "feminine" sexual characteristics, ensuring women can act manly but still appear female and sexy. I'm sure there are plenty of dommes who genuinely love corsets, spike heels, and PVC—as well as those who wear it as part of their profession—but I'd wager there are also fem-doms who are just as happy brandishing a flogger in jeans and a t-shirt, especially butch, LGBT, or genderqueer women. Yet I'm struggling to think of an example of a domme in pop culture represented this way.

Lucy Liu terrifies a classroom full of men in Charlie's AngelsOn the occasion we see non-white dommes, racial stereotypes often rear their ugly heads—think Lucy Liu in Charlie's Angels, clad in black leather, terrifying a classroom full of male office drones by savagely smacking a pointer on the desk and grabbing one man by his hair. In Margot Weiss's BDSM study Techniques of Pleasure, Midori, an established Asian BDSM educator, admits that the prevalent stereotypes of Asian women as either "delicate flowers or dragon ladies" are hard to break. One of Midori's more interesting solutions is to be "particularly sadistic while wearing a traditional kimono, thus mixing the 'delicate flower' image with hard-core sadism." Now, that might be a good way to disrupt the Asian stereotyping we're so often served by the Western media, but it also would be pretty groundbreaking to see women of different ethnicities appearing in the media divested of obvious ethnic symbols altogether.

And it is possible to do. In the second book of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire, protagonist Lisbeth Salander's sometimes play partner Mimmi Wu initially is described like a typical "dragon lady" dominatrix (the police discover "patent leather, corsets, and fetishist whips" in her apartment). However, when Mimmi and Lisbeth actually have a dom/sub play session together in Chapter 7, Larsson only mentions that both women are wearing t-shirts, keeping BDSM costuming stereotypes firmly at bay. Mimmi Wu's race is entirely absent from Larsson's description of her as a dominant sexual partner, and the scene focuses instead on fun and lust, not clothing styles and bodily appearances. Perhaps it's our loss that Stieg Larsson didn't live long enough to write some more sex scenes, especially BDSM ones.

So what do y'all think—do female dominants have it any easier in the media, or are they merely subject to different but equally bothersome expectations? What examples of dommes in pop culture would you like to see more, or less of?

Previously: Did Sex and the City Get BDSM Right?, Debunking BDSM Myths

Enjoy reading this article? Good news! Our quarterly magazine, Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, is packed with 80+ pages of feminist analysis, reviews, illustrations, and more. Subscribe today!

Subscribe to Bitch

Comments

8 comments have been made. Post a comment.

One of the characters I

One of the characters I thought of was Lady Heather, from CSI - she was a dominatrix who owned her own sex establishment, and though she was seen as very content with her work, she does mention being discriminated against for her job.

Lady Heather

Thanks RJ, I agree she's an interesting one and I did look at various clips of CSI when thinking about this piece. Are there any episodes you know where the audience actually see Lady Heather domming? I could only find ones of her running the establishment where other women are actually doing 'the work', and all those women were dressed stereotypically as either dominatrixes or in schoolgirl outfits etc.

Lady Heather at Work

I can't remember off the top of my head if they ever show her working. Although my fuzzy brain does seem to remember her doing something kinky in some context in one of the episodes she's in (but I could just be making that up). There is heavy implication (or outright statement) though that she forms a relationship of some sort with Gil and that the relationship is at least partially sexual in nature. Also, the actress who plays her also played a former companion/whore who owned a whorehouse in an episode of "Firefly." /pointless interjection about shows I used to watch a lot.

You're right to point out

You're right to point out that portrayals Dommes only seem to subvert the role of women. What's problematic for me is that they simply fulfill another role: instead of the virgin/madonna/good girl stereotype, they're often fulfilling the other stereotype of slut/whore/bad girl. Which is often my concern with bdsm in general: there seem to be two options, sub or Dom. Just as I'm always trying to find a third way of being within culture as a whole, where is the third way within the realm of bdsm? Would love your thoughts on this.

Excellent point!

I think I would agree with you Kate - unfortunately when women are offered a different portrayal of them, it often sadly ends up being just another side of the same reductive coin. Although many folks in the BDSM community identify as 'switches' who alternate between dom and sub, and others simply label themselves 'kinksters' or just plain 'unsure', we don't tend to see this discussed in popular culture - I guess the media likes to fit people into boxes. I did think Stieg Larsson did a nice job of not labelling either Lisbeth or Mimmi as virgin/whore or even necessarily sub/dom, instead just depicting them as two strong women having fun.

I'm particularly interested to see how LGBT and genderqueer people feel they fit into BDSM - as I mentioned, the overly femininised clothing of the dominatrix may not appeal to women who identify as butch - but it could appeal very much to a cross-dressing straight man! People with fluid sexualities and gender identities are often overlooked by a media made nervous by their unwillingness to fit into limited stereotypes. I'll keep thinking about the 'third way' and report back...

For people who are actually

For people who are actually in the lifestyle, the stereotypes you see really don't exist except as something to be laughed at or fought against. Which includes LGBT.

Leather culture is a side of BDSM that originated in L/G communities and has since gone 'mainstream' w/i BDSM as a whole. Butch women may dress in more 'masculine' outfits if they are dressing up for a scene or party, but then, most straight femdoms don't go in for the stereotype. Most seem perfectly happy domming in jeans and bare feet. The same for men.

Not saying that prejudice, stereotypes and other B/S don't exist in BDSM, cause they exist everywhere.

As far as a 'third way' - what media NEVER mentions is that many people within BDSM don't identify as either Dom or sub (or as sadist or masochist). Some identify as 'switches' or 'versatile' (that they can take more than one role), and many just ID as 'kinksters' and don't worry about specific roles, just have fun.

Lucy Lui

Lucy Lui also played the domme Pearl in the movie Payback..

It seems that the edited for TV versions are happy to keep in brutal violence but edit out most of the BDSM related violence.

My personal problem with the

My personal problem with the portrayal of dommes in the media is that I've only seen them exist as a toy for a man's sexual fantasy. Yes, she's strong and dominant, but she is only there to serve as a plaything so the guy can get off to whatever "sick" or "sadistic" pleasure that he craves; the dominant doesn't exist in her own right, but only for the "deviant" man who isn't satisfied by traditional sex play. So she is still upholding the gender binary. And, of course, the camera focuses on her with the male gaze while she wears shiny black leather./latex and sports a riding crop.

The only mainstream deviation of a dom/sub that I can think of isn't even for a female. The Rubber Man (encompassing all the people who wore the suit) from American Horror Story played a major part in the outcome of events. The Tate as the Rubber Man committed both rape and murder while wearing the suit, and it was used as a scare tactic within the story and as a way to terrify audiences. So BDSM was definitely not portrayed in the best of ways (even though it was a super effective scare tactic).