Love not given lightly

May 21, 2008 at 12:00 am

The whip cracks, a dude moans; is it pleasure or pain he's feeling? Is there even a difference? Well, to any submissive worth his weight in salty tears, there isn't much. And the safe, sane, and consensual art of domination and submission (D/S) is, in its purist sense, pretty much absent from the silver screen — though it's a taboo topic that's freely mocked, misunderstood and derided in mainstream film.

Emma Peel paved the way for mainstream proto-dommes — and fueled testosterone fantasies around the globe — on '60s TV show The Avengers. Her comely frame and form-fitting leather bodysuit left just enough to the imagination, didn't it? But she was all about femme power as much as her persona was about tension and tease; a campy, action-heroine pinup in fetishized garb, one that resonated long and loud. That persona returned in force with the gothic attire of Aeon Flux, Underworld, Elektra, The Matrix, etc. And the garb with the most influence in recent cinematic history belongs to Michelle Pfeiffer's Cat Woman in Batman Returns — her PVC cat suit has decorated the covers of myriad fetish magazines.

With whip in hand and liberated libido, Cat Woman 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). 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 living in a male-defined world.

While dommes aren't at the fore of American cinema, female protagonists can be coded dominant in a way similar to the subtle symbols that signified a character's homosexuality when the Hays Code's moral standards took hold of American film in the 1930s. And this stuff runs far deeper than an outer layer of fetish garb. 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. They're putting on airs and taking femininity to an absurd end.

Whether they're 24/7 dommes or kinky women, pimple-faced comedies have been home to a host of frighteningly powerful gals in recent years (EuroTrip, Tomcats, American Wedding). But these appearances are punchlines 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, how will handle whip-wielding women who take what they want? By running away, penises tucked between their legs, that's how! The D/S lifestyle is an easy target for laughs and is used in film to parody our expected gender roles. Men are seen as weak and women ball-busting psychos.

Penned as erotica, Anne Rice's Exit to Eden 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 between the adult story of Mistress Lisa (Dana Delany), her new submissive Elliot (Paul Mecurio) and the bad plot. Even people who'd disavow genital torture might rethink it if given the option between that and enduring Rosie O'Donnell and Dan Aykroyd in a tacked-on bit involving international intrigue on an island of dominants and submissives. The schtick 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.

The film exemplifies a common theme of D/S-centered films with its ties between 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.

Exit to Eden is an American rarity. The majority of dominatrix roles are found in foreign fare with the most famous being Bulle Ogier in Maîtresse. An artful Barbet Schroeder exploitation film provides a proper tour guide for an intimate exploration of D/S. Released in 1976, the sexual revolution of the '60s and '70s 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.

Lingering on the outskirts of cinema, 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), punk fetish (Skateboard Kink Freak) and other taboo topics. At the other end of the spectrum sits D. Stevens' 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" is an insult to trees.

Recently, two Canadian 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) seems to suppress 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 has zero 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 professional dominatrix. 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.

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). Only Lady Heather (Melinda Clarke) of TV's C.S.I. can be seen as a positive role model, 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).

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 remains cloistered when not openly mocked or utilized as a simple source of titillation. As evidenced by Secretary, D/S might have its leather boot in the back door of the cinema.

Mike White is a freelance writer. Send comments to