Pretending to be kinky: Mainstream and heteronormativity

Posted: December 7, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

The first thing I would like to talk about today is Margot D. Weiss’s article “Mainstreaming Kink” from the Journal of Homosexuality (50: 2, 2006). This article is, primarily, about the way kink, and more specifically BDSM, is represented in mainstream media.

In case it needs to be explained, BDSM is actually a smooshed acronym; that is to say, it should probably be BDDSSM. It’s a combination of B/D (Bondage and Discipline), D/S (Dominance and Submission) and S/M (Sadism and Masochism). BDSM is kind of a catchall term. Weiss uses BDSM and SM interchangeably “to denote depictions, perceptions, and interpretations of sexual bondage, dominance/submission, pain/sensation play, power exchange, leathersex, role-playing, and some fetish” (104). All of this stuff is known more colloquially by the much tamer word ‘kink’; hence the title of the article.

The problem, and Weiss is quick to point out, is that the mainstreaming of kink hasn’t had the beneficial result one might hope it would have. As she says, “Instead of promoting politically progressive forms of acceptance or understanding, these representations offer acceptance via normalization and understanding via pathologizing” (105). That is, the mainstreaming of kink has been done by making people accept it as normal (through flooding, inundation, or other ways of putting/keeping it in the public eye) and has made people understand it as something that is fundamentally wrong with people; that it’s a sickness, or at best that people who engage in kink are ‘wired wrong.’

Why is this a problem? Because one of the things that attracts people to the idea of kink is that it is not normal. Weiss tells us that “The continued popularity of mainstream media representations of SM signifies the growing desire of the public to experience something authentic, unalienated, undisciplined, and noncommodified” (106). That is, people want something real, something that is not made normal or commercial, and the mainstream media presentations of SM go against this desire, but do tempt people with the possibility of there being something more out there.

The representations of BDSM is not entirely honest, and certainly not positive. Weiss tells us that “rather, these depictions are at once mocking and sincere, normalizing and pathologizing. This flood of increasingly  spectacular images marks the entry of BDSM into the postmodern and media-driven mainstream consumer landscape” (108). The more media shows these images, the less other they are, and therefore the less power they have. This has shifted BDSM from being something exotic to being just another pathological thing people do, and it is done by the overuse of these images in beer ads, Hollywood movies, etc (110).

This is not all bad, Weiss tells us. “In American liberal political paradigms, the mainstream representations of sexual minorities is a sign of progress. The time line is as follows: first representations and visibility, next acceptance and tolerance of the minority, then an empathetic form of understanding, and finally sexual freedom” (112). So this is a positive step; it is movement for those interested in the kinky side of life towards more freedom and understanding.

And this movement needs to be made. BDSM is generally seen as abnormal. It is, as the public generally believes, nongenital, nonprocreative, nonmonogamous, commercial, public, and not relationally-oriented (114). That is, the general conception is that BDSM is not sex in the traditional sense; it cannot be used for procreation, it involves multiple partners, happens in public, is paid for, and is not part of a ‘healthy’ relationship. In actuality, it is often engaged in as foreplay among monogomous partners who are otherwise completely heteronormative. This is the image that is presented in the mainstream media, though not necessarily in a positive way. The mainstream neuters representations of BDSM so that they will be tenable to the public at large. As Weiss tells us, “It is either labeled, coded, or entomologized as pathological, or rendered accessible, visible, and comfortably normal (i.e., not really SM). Both dynamics enforce boundaries between normal and not normal, and the systems of privilege and power that work through these distinctions” (121). Mainstream BDSM is normalized, simplified. Made acceptable.

Which in itself is a problem. Weiss tells ust hat “Viewers do not want BDSM to be something acceptable (and normal) or something understandable (and pathological); they want BDSM to be somehow outside these systems of power and privilege, discipline and control” (122) because “SM continues to represent, at least in fantasy, something dangerously outside, even as the representations themselves become more mainstream” (123). So while representations of BDSM may become mainstream and acceptable, the practice itself must (according to public desire) remain outside, remain other. Which would then pull the real practice outside of that cycle of sexual freedom.

These false representations, this ‘kink-lite,’ may be doing more harm than good for the community of BDSM practitioners. “Instead of challenging systems of sexual privilege and power, mainstream representations of SM (both normalizing and pathologizing) reinforce the normativity of the distanced viewing subject. SM promises a fantasy of kinkiness that can titillate the viewer-citizen out of the banal and lifeless existence of socially compliant bodies, while at the same time it serves as a limit against which a normal, vanilla, procreative, heterosexual, and suburban sexuality is defined” (127). Which means that an accurate representation of BDSM as other would put limits on the heteronormative; that is, it would show that there are other options, that it is not, in fact, a binary.

Comments
  1. Michael Kunzel says:

    Wiess should have also investigated how people within the sub-culture are normalizing the scene. BDSM is a perfect example. SM was the blanket term but wasnt sweet enough, thus the creation of BDSM. BDSM lived a short life, because now the catch all phrase is D/s. D/s is the perfect normal term because it focuses on power, which of all the SM sexual behaviors, power is the easiest for society to wraps its head around. In the quest to normalize the scene from within, sex is removed from the power equation. The power most refer to when talking about power is non-scene related power and has nothing to do with SM.

    This normalization of the power dynamics has created a niche for those who want absolutely nothing to do with sexually depraved acts of simulated cruelty and restraint within the kink community. Now the sexual minority can visit sites geared towards them and be label pathological by their peers. The pathological effect espoused by Wiess is apparent with the move of the sub-culture from awareness to establishing boundaries and policing its members. Resembling the Institution of the Chuck that was mocked and satirized by early erotic sadist.

    Mainstreaming, in my opinion, has done more harm than good.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s