Thursday, February 19, 2015

One Three Two: Masks

I'm still thinking about the objections to "Fifty Shades". So many of the articles I've found on line seem to take it as a necessity that the makers of the film should've consulted "experts and practitioners" about BDSM and followed their admonitions. Understandable, I suppose. There's a "community" that wants to be "properly" portrayed. Didn't we go through all this with gay groups in the 1970s and 1980s--- the insistence by an outsider group that they have the final word on how others portray them? For that matter, hasn't "representation" been a key issue for all marginalized groups over the last fifty years? The BDSM community is desperate to establish itself as a legitimate community,  desperate to free itself from being taken as inherently about abuse and violence and misogyny. Understandable, yes. But still something that I find utterly irrelevant.

All things considered, "experts and practitioners" would be the last people I'd go to if wanted to discuss how to present s/m on film or in a novel.

I've never been much for "community". I'm not good at any of the things that build community. Whatever interest I do have in s/m isn't about community, and I suppose it's not about what writers on the topic like to call "the power exchange".  I'm not at all sure what I'd ask experts about. I suppose that a skilled practitioner of shibari could tell me how to tie intricate knots and do rope bondage that's as pretty as origami.  I have to laugh about that, though. I've been hopeless at knots all my life. I've always told people that repeatedly failing the knot-tying test kept me out of the Scouts. Asking about bondage itself means, well, nothing to me. The BDSM community, like any other community, must have its own terms of art, its own specialized vocabulary. That doesn't mean anything to me, either.

If I asked anyone about portraying s/m,  I'd ask designers--- fashion designers and interior designers. I'd ask photographers. I'd ask rare book specialists. Really--- those are the people I'd ask. I'm not interested in the politics or ethical debates. I'm interested in the aesthetics.

I know that means I'll never be someone who's part of the "community" or the "lifestyle". My interest is about style and ritual as part of sex. My interest is always in the idea of crafted moments, in the idea of being part of a performance.

Here in the days of the gender wars, there's a part of the trans* world that is openly hostile to people who think that trans* is about sex, and even more hostile to people who are old-school transvestites, people who dress up for sexual reasons, people who are seen as mere fetishists. Authenticity is what's demanded (though authenticity is a fetish and obsession all its own).

By that standard, then--- no. I can't be interested in s/m for "authentic" reasons. I see it not as an end in itself, but as an occasion for performance. The BDSM groups I've read about disdained those who saw s/m as "dress-up" and not as a way of living.  That's fine. What I do with lovely young companions is very much dress-up. It's getting into character. It's learning lines and backstories and finding the right sets and soundtrack. It's about class markers and certain kinds of style. It's a fashion statement and as formal and stylized as eighteenth-century court dances. Yes, it's all about surfaces, about how it looks. It's about its literary pedigree, too...but isn't that tied into style and looks?

I suppose that's why knots don't matter to me. Rope is too material, collar. Bind with silk, blindfold with silk. Or just cross a lovely girl's wrists and whisper to her that she's to imagine that she's bound with white silk. One more step into abstraction.  Decor matters--- and nothing is in red. I just wanted to note that.

I've always said that there are two choices in sex--- hot or cold. I've always leaned toward cold. That doesn't mean heartless, by the way. But it does mean stylized, ritualized, abstract. It means seeing sex as a kind of performance piece, something where decor and dialogue and fashion matter.  I've asked lovely girls to be part of what really are scripted pieces, and I've been lucky enough to have them accept. I've been lucky enough to have young companions understand that what we're doing derives from literary sources and fashion photography, that we're doing something abstract and formal.

I'd never consult "experts and practitioners". Nothing that I do is about politics or ethics. What I want with a lovely young companion is not community or even the flesh. What I want, in the end, is to tell a story, to be lost inside something worth reading, something that is about surfaces. But then--- haven't I said for years that pleasure for me is never, never unmediated?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

One Three One: Red

I've not been to see the film version of "Fifty Shades of Grey", and I can't really see myself making the effort. I never read the novels for the same reason--- I couldn't see myself making the effort.

Nonetheless, I suppose it's something I should comment on, at least in passing. The initial reviews say that it's not much of a film, though that was to be expected. They also say that there's very little on-screen sex or nudity, and that strikes me as a grave failing. A film about s/m that steers away from sex? Unless it's a film that can rely on a deeply thoughtful and clever script--- unless the sex can be made into something very meta ---that's a very grave failing indeed. And even then, you'd need a certain stylish presentation of the young heroine's body.

The BDSM community seems to have joined the moralists  and the gender studies crowd in despising the film.  There are two strands of argument there. One is simple enough, of course: the argument that the film promotes abuse and violence against women. The other argument, the one made by the BDSM community, is that the film fails to present what BDSM is "really" about. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by that. The studies I've read about BDSM scene all talk about how "the lifestyle" tries to downplay the idea that BDSM is about sex rather than "building community".  Do I have to say that I have no use for either set of arguments?

I've always said that an s/m film or novel should be a Bildungsroman, that it should be about a kind of learning experience, about learning how to move into a new world and master its rituals and styles. I can't see how an s/m story would work that isn't about discovery and new worlds. That there's a young and innocent girl at its heart is a key thing. Oh, it would still be interesting to write about a young man learning to be a dominant, and I've said before that I'm surprised that no one has done that, but it's the story of a young, lovely, innocent girl discovering a new world and new kinds of pleasure that'll attract me. I'll make a note about about "innocent", though. It doesn't (or needn't) mean "virginal", and here in the second decade of the new century, is there a middle-class or better girl in North America who doesn't know that s/m exists? Still, an inexperienced girl exploring a country that's new to her--- it's the thrill of discovery that's the heart of the story.

Thinking about that for just a moment, it strikes me that of course I'd feel that way. So much of my life has been about learning and discovery. I've been an academic, after all. Learning and discovery mean a great deal to me, and the experience of both learning and teaching is at the core of what my life has been about. Isn't one of the deep pleasures of being a roué that experience of introducing a lovely young companion to new things?

I suppose I don't have any problem with the idea of an s/m story based on the heroine's diaries. That's a classic structure, after all. But I'd want her to be both more introspective and more literary, more willing to associate what's happening to her with books and film. And however shy and innocent she might be, I'd want her to be someone who asks questions, who applies all the things that have made her studious and bookish to the experience she's sought out. That may just be me, of course, and something that's from my own memories. I can close my eyes and recall a lovely young companion grinning at me: I've figured this out. You tie my wrists up with silk scarves because you just totally can't tie knots in rope, right?  I can recall long, slender fingers through my own and a girl looking at the displays at a very old-school English riding shop: This one's a bat, this one's a crop, she said. What makes them different from a whip? The girl who's learning about new worlds would do her homework, of course. Any girl who'd be with me would do her homework, would ask questions, would want to get the details right.

Let's note, too, that I find some things in the film silly. A...Red Room of Pain? Really? There's nothing that can't be done there that can't be done in a smallish, book-lined living room with a couch. Minimalism works in these matters, and so does imagination.

I have no moral or political objections to the film. The actress playing the heroine is rather lovely, though of course she could be taller and thinner. Those things go without saying. I don't see that the film promotes abuse, and I'll give the back o' my hand to any moral objections. If the film doesn't do anything for me, it's because it's not sexy enough, because the director stayed away from emphasizing the sexual connection. If the film doesn't do anything for me, it's because there's no sense of delight and discovery.