While the show may have intended to illuminate and subvert the stereotypes facing sex work, it's gotten a lot of heat because of what many dominatrixes claim to be a misrepresentation of BDSM culture.
Sex positivity is a buzzy term people love to throw around these days, and while it's a good thing that more and more content creators are exploring the stories and experiences of those involved in sex work, it shouldn't be treated as another clickable trend.
When content focused on highlighting the sex work industry isn't handled with the proper nuance, research, and sensitivity required, it can yield some pretty ugly results.
In 2018, the U.S. Senate passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) / Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) bill, which was intended to curb online sex work. In actuality, the legislation silenced and endangered sex workers by forcing them off of their safe, online platforms––essentially their legal storefronts––and deterred the actual policing of online sex trafficking.
The ramifications of the bill––which conflated consensual sex work with nonconsensual sex trafficking––were felt across the internet. Forums that provided services and community for legal sex workers were shut down almost overnight, from the classifieds section of Craigslist to the escort service Cityvibe, and even the furry dating site Pounced. Now that websites are being held liable for the content created on their platforms, many platforms have resorted to shadow-banning: a practice that restricts an account's ability to be found or searched, preventing new people from following and discovering the page. Twitter is one of the main offenders, restricting and filtering out accounts related to sex work from hash tags, searches, and discovery features.
So when Netflix's new BDSM-centric dark comedy, Bonding, created the Twitter account for its protagonist Mistress May, adorned with a blue check and all, many sex workers saw it as a slap in the face. But the Twitter account was just one problem of many that members of the Dominatrix community have vocalized since the show's premiere.
Bonding chronicles the life of Tiff (Zoe Levin), a grad student who pays her bills by working as a Dominatrix under the title Mistress May, with the help of her best friend and aspiring comedian, Pete (Brandon Scannell), who gets roped into her BDSM world. While the show clearly intended to illuminate and subvert the stereotypes facing sex work, it's gotten a lot of heat because of what many dominatrixes claim to be a misrepresentation of BDSM culture.
In an Instagram post, Doyle outlined the show's inception, explaining that Bonding is loosely- based off of his real life experience of becoming the "assistant" to a dominatrix when he first moved to New York City. He wrote that his intent for the show was tied to "dissecting the many ways the patriarchy has had a stranglehold over sexuality and shame." The show's saturated visuals, he explains in the NY Post interview, are a creative choice meant to "subvert your expectations of what you think dominatrix culture is." He admits that the show's plot is "highly fictionalized," and that he is less interested in creating a show about himself and more interested in creating something that reflects what he learned about sexuality along the way. In the same interview, he states "The important thing about the show for me is we are exploring this world, but not exploiting it."
Utter garbage. Parodied for profit. FOSTA/SESTA is literally killing people and here you are, @netflix, hand out, collecting cash while workers are jailed, evicted, killed. Shame on you.
— Megara Furie (@MegaraFurie) April 25, 2019
"The show purports to unpack the stereotypes of life as a dominatrix, but really just reinforces them at every turn. The main character is reduced to an archetype of an angry, traumatized woman who aggressively yells at men and is a control freak. Like most mainstream portrayal of BDSM, a nuanced understanding of power dynamics, consent and negotiation are utterly missing."
Bonding's flaws range from fundamental to technical. Many have commented on Tiff's ill-fitting corsets, party-city-looking whip, and inept basic rope work. Other pointed out that if Tiff is supposed to be New York's premiere Dominatrix, then why does she operate out of an underground dungeon? But then there are more critical issues like her inability to properly negotiate consent and boundaries with her clients and friends.
The show especially misses the mark when it comes to consent awareness, a major pillar of sex work. For one, Tiff tricks Pete into doing kinky things he's not comfortable with. Her reasoning is "if I told you what we were going to do before we did it, then you wouldn't do it." Some of Tiff's experiences with her clients align less with the tenets of BDSM and more with straight up abuse. This depiction undermines some of the main principles of BDSM practice such as risk-aware consensual kink (RACK) and Safe Sane Consensual (SSC).
Tiff is characterized as icy and self-serving, often brandishing a couldn't-care-less affect and even putting the people around her in precarious situations. It's a portrayal that reinforces the 'heartless b*tch' stereotype, rather than highlighting a dominatrix's care-taking and empathetic qualities. There's also the optics issue: Tiff is an attractive, young white woman who enjoys all of the privilege that comes with that. The show would do well to feature a more diverse range of sex workers from different backgrounds and modes.
One Domme named Mistress Velvet tweeted: "Am I the only person not here for @bondingnetflix ??? It's superficial and unrealistic. Like as an ACTUAL PRO DOMME I'm SO OVER mainstream portrayals of BDSM that erase risk aware and trauma informed care / consent. We are not one dimensional / not heartless. We are caretakers."
Am I the only person not here for @bondingnetflix ??? It's superficial and unrealistic. Like as an ACTUAL PRO DOMME I'm SO OVER mainstream portrayals of BDSM that erase risk aware and trauma informed care / consent. We are not one dimensional / not heartless. We are caretakers.
— Official Mistress Velvet ☭🇬🇭 (@MissVChicago) April 25, 2019
Other episodes reveal that perhaps the show's writers aren't familiar with the proper procedures and safety precautions that sex workers use. In another episode, Tiff skips vetting her client because of an offer-you-can't-refuse sum of money, which would be considered a case of risky malpractice for anyone in the industry.
There's also the storyline about Tiff's trauma and sexual assault, which they imply led her to sex work. It's a harmful stereotype often associated with sex workers' that undermines many Domme's experience of freely choosing to get into the business, not as a result of trauma, but as a road to empowerment.
One SW wrote on Twitter: "None of us are the target audience, nor does it seem we were considered during the production process. This is for college age civvie women who want to dip their toe into SW for lols without ever taking on any of the risks."
The problem I see is that this is not for sexworkers. None of us are the target audience, nor does it seem we were considered during the production process. This is for college age civvie women who want to dip their toe into SW for lols without ever taking on any of the risks.
— Tess McGill (@randomsexworker) April 25, 2019
When considering the issue of target audience, one has to question whether this show was written for sex workers to relate to or as an introductory, simplified glimpse for a demographic who's never been exposed to the industry. If it's the former, it's failing. But if it's the latter, then perhaps credit is due for Bonding's attempt to de-stigmatize the stories and lives of sex workers.
People aren't necessarily knocking this show once and for all, but rather calling out the way the show misses the opportunity to create a more accurate and authentic reflection of life as a Dominatrix. Many have pointed to the sex-worker written web series Mistress Mercy, as a model of what real representation could look like. If Bonding were to bring kink educators and professional dominatrixes into their writing room who have actually experienced the sex work industry they would gain valuable consult into the intricacies, norms, and experiences of sex work. But until then, Bonding will likely continue to fall short of its potential.
Sara is a music and culture writer.
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Breaking down the bias of comfort films.
With the constant onslaught of complicated news that 2020 has brought, sometimes you just want to be able to shut off your brain, relax, and feel happy.
Enter comfort films. These are the feel-good movies that feel like a warm hug when you finish them, the ones that allow you to escape for a short while. We often turn to these types of films in times of trouble or extreme stress, and when we're not sure what films of this nature we should watch, we turn to the Internet for options.
Rivera's "Glee" character was not just important, she was groundbreaking.
As a young queer girl growing up in the south, I was lucky that my parents weren't homophobes.
My parents believed that people were sometimes born gay, and while they wouldn't "wish that harder life" on their children, they certainly made me and my sister believe that gay people were just as worthy of love as anyone else. I was lucky.
Still, in my relatively sheltered world of Northern Virginia (a rich suburb near Washington D.C.), homophobia wasn't as blatant as hate crimes or shouted slurs, but it was generally accepted that being straight was, simply, better.
In high school, it wasn't uncommon to use "gay" as an insult or for girls to tease each other about being "lez." While many of us, if asked, would have said we were in support of gay marriage and loved The Ellen Show, being gay remained an undesirable affliction.
Even more insidious, I was instilled with the belief—by my church and my peers—that if gay and lesbian people could be straight, they would. But since they were simply incapable of attraction to the opposite sex or fitting into traditional gender roles, we should accept them as they are as an act of mercy. At the time, this kind of pity seemed progressive and noble. Those in my close circle of family and friends weren't openly dismissive or condemning of gay people, but we saw homosexuality as a clear predisposition with no gray areas.
Specifically: Gay men talked with a lilt, giggled femininely, and were interested in things that weren't traditionally "masculine." Meanwhile, gay women dressed like men, had no interest in makeup or other traditionally female interests, and probably had masculine bodies and features. In my mind, before someone came out as gay, they did everything in their power to "try to be straight" but were eventually forced to confront the difficult reality that they felt no attraction at all to the opposite sex. I viewed homosexuality not as a spectrum, but as a black and white biological predisposition that meant you were thoroughly, completely, and pitiably gay.
As a child, when I began to experience stirrings of attraction for other girls, I would reassure myself that not only had I definitely felt attraction for men in the past, but I also liked being pretty. I was a tomboy as a child, sure, but as I got older I recognized that my value was increased in the eyes of society if I tried to be a pretty girl. As it turned out, I even liked putting on clothes that made me feel good, I liked applying makeup, and I liked some traditionally "feminine" things. In my mind, this meant that I couldn't be gay, because gay women didn't like "girl" stuff.
As a teenager, I began to learn more about the difference between gender and sexuality, and the fluidity of both. I began to let myself feel some of the long-suppressed feelings of queer desire I still harbored.
Still, in the back of my mind, the instilled certainty of sexuality as an extremely rigid thing sometimes kept me up at night. What if I was gay? Would I have to change the way I looked? Would I have to give up some of the things I liked? In my mind, being gay meant your sexuality was your whole identity, and everything else about you disappeared beneath the weight of it.
But then, Santana came out as gay on Glee.
GLEE - The Santana 'Coming Out Scene' www.youtube.com
If you didn't watch Glee, than you might not know the importance of Naya Rivera's character to so many queer young women like myself. Santana was beautiful, she was popular, she had dated boys, she was feminine, she was sexy, and she was gay. There's even evidence that Santana had previously enjoyed relationships with men.
But the character came out anyways, not because she had to or because it was obvious to everyone around her that she was gay, but because her attraction to women was an aspect of her identity she was proud of. It wasn't an unfortunate reality she simply had to make the best of; it was an exciting, beautiful, aspect of her identity worth celebrating.
Before Santana, it had never really come home for me that being gay wasn't an entire identity—that it wasn't an affliction or disorder, but just another part of a person. She also didn't suddenly start wearing flannels or cutting her hair after coming out. She was the same feminine person she had always been. I had never realized that being a gay woman didn't have to look a certain way. Santana and Brittany's gay storyline showed two femme-presenting women in love, and for me, that was a revolution.
If it wasn't for Naya Rivera, we may never have had that important story line.
"It's up to writers, but I would love to represent [the LGBTQ community] because we know that there are tons of people who experience something like that and it's not comical for them in their lives," Rivera told E! News in 2011. "So I hope that maybe we can shed some light on that."
While Rivera herself wasn't gay (the importance of casting gay actors in gay roles is a separate conversation), she understood how important her character was to the queer community. "There are very few ethnic LGBT characters on television, so I am honored to represent them," Rivera told Latina magazine in 2013. "I love supporting this cause, but it's a big responsibility, and sometimes it's a lot of pressure on me."
Rivera wasn't just a supporter of the LGBTQ+ community on screen. In 2017, she wrote a "Love Letter to the LGBTQ Community" for Billboard's Pride Month. In it, she wrote, "We are all put on this earth to be a service to others and I am grateful that for some, my Cheerios ponytail and sassy sashays may have given a little light to someone somewhere, who may have needed it. To everyone whose heartfelt stories I have heard, or read I thank you for truly enriching my life."
Now, as we mourn the loss of Naya Rivera, at least we can take comfort in knowing that her legacy will live on—that the light her Cheerios ponytail and sassy sashays gave us won't go out any time soon.
Excuse me, I have to go weep-sing-along to Rivera's cover of landslide now.
Glee - Landslide (Full Performance + Scene) 2x15 youtu.be
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