Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Kink in Primetime

So, when I saw ABC’s promo for last week’s episode of Forever, “Ecstasy of Agony,” well, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. It’d looked like just another lame attempt by mainstream media to portray BDSM & kink in their shows to titillate their audience with sexual boogeymen. I had planned on just skipping it, figuring it not worth my time.

But, like I’d said, I’m a fan of Sherlock-ian tales. And I was bored at work. So I checked it out.

And it wasn’t bad. It was actually pretty good.

Was it perfect? Well, no, but what is?

But it tackled the kink lifestyle with respect and with more than a bit of real understanding, making me wonder if there’s some kinky kin on the writers staff. The episode let us be people and real characters, instead of just caricatures, victims, or monsters. I like that the show actually explains why people are interested in something that seems counterintuitive to most people in a way that most, non-kinky people can understand. Which, as I’ve said before, isn’t always easy.

Like, when one detective asks why someone would “pay three-hundred buck and hour to get their asses kicked,” I like that our immortal main character, Henry Morgan, responds, “You’ve never consumed alcohol to excess? Never driven beyond the speed limit? Or engaged with a partner of dubious sexual history?” Pointing out that we all engage in activities that, taken out of context, seem ill-advised. Activities that involve risk. Even a lot of risk. But, when we weigh the risk-to-reward ratio, we often do them anyway, because we get more out of it than what we risk.  Yet almost no one blinks an eye at most of the risks we take for granted—some, like speeding, skydiving, and sea-deep diving, that carry far more risks than kink does—don’t judge people for engaging in them. We’re willing to, in most cases, live and let live, so long as nobody gets hurt. Is kink really all that different?

As a sensation-play kind of girl, I also really liked how philosophical they got about the idea of pain. The idea that it serves a purpose. It can teach us. It can protect us. It can be useful. And, for kinksters, it can be transformative, can give us a sense of control in an often harsh world by “[trading] one sort of pain for another more harmless one.” By allowing us to decide when and how and with whom we encounter pain. How, by not running or hiding from it, kink often gives us power over pain and fear. If just for the space of a scene.

One of the most impressive things, in my opinion, that mainstream media can do—something that it too often fails at—is managing to make kink look titillating without demonizing it. I’ll admit that, before the episode aired, I assumed that the killer would be some bastardized vision of a kinkster—some psychotic Dominant or some deranged submissive. When the episode started, I figured, if the crime wasn’t committed by a kinkster, it would most likely be the jealous wife who killed her closeted, kinky husband. 

But, while the show definitely played on those common, rather offensive tropes, I was glad that they didn’t play into them. Kink can look scary sometimes. It can look harsh. And it can look like it’s all about weird, sordid, illicit sex. And, in all fairness, it can be scary, harsh, weird, sordid, illicit, and sexual. That’s the fun part. And I like that the episode recognized that. It had an excellent balance between pleasure and pain, between security and uncertainty. From the sub’s smile in the very first opening scene to Henry’s own fascination with exploring kink with the show’s Domme, Iona, you can see the episode’s characters playing with the ideas of pain, power, and humiliation. Keyword: playing. During both scenes shown in the episode, you can see signs of negotiation and communication. Iona may push boundaries, but she checks in regularly and reassures as well as she threatens. The kink shown is all consensual and enjoyable. It’s depicted as a healthy and fun part of these characters’ lives. 
In the same vein, I really like that not everyone understood. The main character, Henry, got it. The Domme, Iona, got it. You even get the feel as if the show as a whole got it. But kink isn’t something that makes sense to most people. For all the Fifty Shades Effect has done to bring kink into the mainstream consciousness, people still don’t see it, don’t understand it, for what it is. And, often, like with the show’s detectives, people don’t get it because they don’t want to. They’re more comfortable thinking about it as a joke or a disorder or an evil in the world. And, while I don’t like that that’s a truth we have to live with, I really liked that the show portrayed that. Particularly with the cops. They presumed the worst about Iona simply because of who she was. Thought that the victim brought this upon himself because of who he was. The show did a good job of showing how seeing people do kink made them deeply uncomfortable. Like, in the instance they saw kinksters do what they do, those kinksters stopped being something those cops could understand. Stopped being someone they knew how to relate to. Stopped being one of the people they served and protected.

That might sound harsh. But the show portrayed that beautifully. With the way the cops examined the victim’s body, how his injuries went from cut-and-dry evidence to solve a man’s murder to being a complete and baffling mystery. How the detectives suddenly became far more curious about why a man would want to be lashed than who’d killed that man. You could see this in the way the cops went about solving the crime. It often felt less like finding justice for the victim, but more as a gottcha witch hunt against Iona. And, finally, you can really see it when the wife confesses that she’d gone to Iona to explore her husband’s kinky secret for herself. There’s a look on the detective’s face—of disgust and disappointment—when their last, true victim, the jilted widow of the killed kinky man, became one of them. There’s something interesting in that, in that moment, the investigation stops in the show. The plot is forced to shift to make the murderer much more active and present by kidnapping and torturing Henry, to force the cops to care about a killer they’d long since lost interest in. It’s not a nice reality, but it’s one that’s nice to see dealt with honestly in the media. 

Along with kink, I like that they didn’t demonize Iona for being a sex worker. Well, at least the show didn’t. Again, many characters, from the cops to the PI, did. Calling her a prostitute or a whore or a skank. Or, worse, as inherently dangerous. But I love that the show never let them get away with it. It took a clear stance against that kind of thought. From making her—at least, mostly—a safe, sane, consensual top in complete and competent control in-scene to making a parallel between Henry’s job as a medical examiner and Iona’s job as a Domme. Showing that it’s ridiculous to assume something about a person because of their job. After all, if Iona’s job where she “beats people for a living” makes her automatically violent, what would it say about Henry who has a job “[dismembering] dead bodies” or a cop who surrounds themselves in death and crime? 

And I really enjoyed how they portrayed Iona in her job. Like I’d said, I loved Irene Adler in BBC’s Sherlock, but one of the things that makes me like Iona more than Irene is that Iona is a service Domme. Irene is a frighteningly intelligent and manipulative woman who managed to make money off of something that she already loves, playing game of power. She never really seems to care much for her clients or sees them—or anyone, really—as more than a means to an end. Her interests are always entirely self-centered. It makes her interesting, certainly, and lord knows there are tops out there like that. It doesn’t necessarily make them bad tops, so long as they practice SSC kink. But Iona is much more like the tops I like to play with. 

Iona genuinely cares for her clients. She’s protective and observant, with an eye toward trying to ease and help her clients. I love that before she was a sex worker, she was a therapist, further cementing that caretaker take on topping. If anything, her flaw is that she cares too much, will try to help to the detriment of herself. She has a history of getting too close to clients and letting them get too close to her. She’s willing to be harassed by the cops instead of violate her clients’ privacy and the trust they put in her. The only thing that makes Iona break her clients’ privilege is the risk of harm to another person, then she does it immediately.

This isn’t to say that she’s some kind of selfless saint or doesn’t enjoy her work. No. You can see it while she works, she loves and needs this as much as her clients. Her service is just another part of how her particular kink works, as important as wielding a whip. One of my favorite moments in this episode is when Iona tells Henry, “Most people think my job is about what I do to my clients. It’s what I don’t do. I bring them right to the edge. And, in that moment where they are completely vulnerable and I can do anything I want to them, I stop. It’s ironic, isn’t it? […] That the only way you can truly feel alive is to give another person the power to destroy you.” What I love—love, love, love—about that is that she says this while handcuffed in the interrogation room facing a murder charge for a crime she didn’t commit because she won’t give up her client’s name. Proof that this concept of having power over someone works both ways. As a top, her bottom—in truth—has as much power over her as she does over them, no matter what it looks like to an outsider.

I also really liked that she’s more than just her Domme persona. Another of my favorite moments is when Iona gets let out of jail. When she’s allowed to just be a girl and Henry’s just a boy and their flirty cute-meet looks like anyone else’s. Sweet kiss and all. I like that they gave her this moment where the roles drop. Where you can see that she’s more than a costume or a persona. That there are parts of her that are just like everyone else. Where, at her heart, she’s just a woman who wants many of the same things most women want. 

I also really liked the wife’s character, the reasonings behind her actions and decisions. I liked that she knew, from the start, that her husband was seeing Iona. That she knew it was something that he needed and that she was willing to let him have that. Even if it meant him having it without her. I love the line where, after the detective asks her if she was jealous of Iona, she tells them that “Are you kidding? She gave me my husband back.” It’s not a perspective we see often and it was nice to see. 

But I also liked that the show layered that even more. The wife actually was jealous, as most women would be. After all, as she says, it hurts her to know that it took another woman to get her husband to open up. That she, as his wife, wasn’t enough for him. In almost any other show, this would have been her motive for murder—just as I’d feared at the beginning of the episode. But I love that those feelings didn’t drive her to kill. They drove her to try a scene with Iona. She couldn’t understand what her husband saw in Iona, so she—like a sane human being—sought to understand by giving it a try. It was perfect. The best reaction a character like her could have had. 

You can also really see the difference between healthy relationships with kink and unhealthy ones in this episode. The care and consideration between Iona and her clients during their kinky play provide a perfect contrast to the murderer, Wadlow, and his complete self-interested narcissism. It’s great that the episode shows that bottoms can cross boundaries too. I actually would have like to see more of that. I think the show could have done this better. For one, I wish that they’d gone more in depth about how he’d crossed boundaries with Iona, further emphasizing that being a bottom doesn’t mean you’re powerless or non-threatening, just as being a top doesn’t mean that you’re always in control. That it’s a relationship that requires trust and consideration from both sides or it breaks down. I also really, really wished that they’d had Iona resign as his therapist after Wadlow crossed boundaries or at least quit playing with him entirely while they worked on more traditional forms of therapy. 

And I wished that they’d found ways to show his topping as being in direct contrast to hers. I thought the show did do a fairly good job of showing the difference between Iona’s play and Wadlow’s torture, showing how one is done with desire and care while Wadlow’s abuse comes from a place of hate and psychosis. This could have been a perfect opportunity to give us more from the killer. To develop his character and divulge his motives. Like I love the slight hints of motive in the show, like how he buys the same toys as hers, like the collar on a pulley. I would have liked to see more of that. I think it would have been fun, story-wise, to see him further subvert and pervert her play style. Very much like a “this is what she used to do to me, what she does to you, and if this is the only connection I can have with her, I’m going to take it. I’m going to hurt her and you with it.” Especially considering that Wadlow was essentially using kink inappropriately to deal with his stepfather’s past abuse, this kind of misguided mimicry makes sense for his already messed up mind. It would have shown that, almost like the flip-side of the cops, Wadlow really doesn’t understand kink either and doesn’t really want to. Isn’t interested in doing it responsibly. He’s just using it as a cover—a veiled excuse—to viciously and selfishly channel the deep hurt and fury inside himself. Again, I don’t like the fact that this is part of the kink reality, but it’s nice when it’s portrayed as what it truly is: the very opposite of what real kinksters do.

Lastly, I was really intrigued by the deliberate contrast between Iona & her clients, Iona & Henry, Henry & Nora, and Maureen & Abe. This episode juggled a lot of relationships with a lot of issues running through each. But it managed to weave all of those together beautifully, showing that they’re not as different as people think. That we all—kinky or vanilla—hurt each other in a million ways that can sometimes hurt so good. At least, when kinksters cause pain, we’re trying very, very hard not to cause harm, which is more than can be said for some of the things the vanilla characters did.

But, like I said, the episode isn’t perfect. There were quite a few nit-picky things that bugged me. Like Iona Payne’s name. Really? Really? You have this smart, fun character and you give her a corny, porny alias? And how in both scenes we see, she cuffs her bottoms before stripping them first. I get that it’s network TV, but how did she leave lash marks all over the victim’s back but still leave his suit perfectly pristine? She stripped him, that is the only way. Why is the romance novel cover considered ironic? Why would it be ironic if she likes Harlequin-esque romance? If anything, if she wanted to be ironic, it should have been a sex-negative book or a Cosmo-ish sex 101 book. How she restricts Wadlow, after he breached boundaries, to once a week during daylight hours. How does this even make sense? How many times a week are these clients coming to see her? And how do they afford that? Particularly at $300/hr? I’m assuming that each session is at least two hours, so that’s $600 per session. To be restricted to once a week, that means you’d at minimum be paying $1200 a week to see this woman? Uh, who has that kind of money? 

But, more than the nit-picky stuff, there were definitely things that I found problematic about the episode. Like how, of course, I was not happy that Iona chokes her patients. That’s dangerous and ill-advised. And someone who Dommes for a living should know better. That’s just asking for something to go wrong. There are better, safer ways to explore with breath play than choking a person with a collar on a pulley. That’s kink 101.

I’m also not a fan of the whole idea of BDSM as therapy. I think it’s fine for the victim to have used it to de-stress, to use kink as an outlet for vulnerability and insecurities that he can’t show in other areas of his life. I think that’s perfectly healthy. Kink can be freeing, liberating, and, yes, relaxing. But I really think it’s irresponsible to portray kink as a form of professional therapy. 

For one, it perpetuates the idea that we’re damaged. Like we all have deep, dark, secret pain that we work through in-scene. That’s a dangerous idea. Kink is complicated enough; no one should be doing it if they aren’t in good-working order, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Kink, in all its forms, essentially destabilizes stable parts of your life. That’s the point of it. It’s what makes it exciting. It’s what makes it what it is. It creates power imbalances. It changes the meaning of pain and sensation. It allows you to step into and out of roles. It allows you to do and be all manner of things that you aren’t and can’t in the real world. If you aren’t going into all that on steady, sure ground, nothing you do within it is going to make you more so. In fact, it has a good possibility of making you worse. And, in doing so, you could be taking down anyone else involved in that scene with you.  Any emotional issues you bring into a scene, will still be there when that scene ends. Because kink doesn’t solve anything. And it’s not supposed to.

Which is why Wadlow should never have been Iona’s client. Depression or aggression issues from past abuse isn’t something you fix with kink. It’s something that needs to be worked out far outside the dungeon. A person shouldn’t even be playing inside a dungeon until that work is done. Because, as I said, kink without proper context can be confused with abuse, when they are in fact polar opposites. Once Iona discovered Wadlow’s issues, she should have dropped him as a client and referred him to another therapist who specializes in cases like his. Even as just a play partner, she had no business playing with him. When you can say “given what his stepfather did to him, he’s capable of anything” about one of your partners, that is when you know you should not be playing with them and shouldn’t have. Ever. This is a huge RED FLAG. The reddest.

Of all things that bugged, what bugged me most was that we never get much about Wadlow. He’s just crazy and a past abuse victim and obsessed with Iona. I don’t even think he was that kinky. He’s never shown as enjoying kink the way kinksters do. He’s just seen as deeply troubled and unstable. I’d like to know more about him because I still don’t know why he did what he did. After all, there are kinksters who’ve experienced abuse in their past and have never gone and would never go crazy and hurt people. In the exact same way there are vanilla people who can say the same. Which is my point. Abuse and kink aren’t linked. Not in any way. His abuse isn’t enough of a reason for him being violent and dangerous. Neither is his seeing a kinky sex worker. So, really, the only thing we have to explain why he does what he does is that he’s crazy. And that does kind of reduce him to just a monstrous boogeyman, even if he never quite feels like a kinky one. Again, I don’t think he felt offensive, but he certainly felt underdeveloped.

Also, I’m not sure how I feel about the skeezy PI scene. As much as a part of me wants to love it when Henry white knights and punches the guy out, it feels cheap. I actually preferred the subtle prejudice of the other detectives better. Because it feels more real. Not that there aren’t people out there who think like the skeezy PI, who see all sex workers as skanks and whores and kinksters as insane. There are. But, oddly enough, I feel less threatened by them than by the more subtle kinds of hate. Like with racism, homophobia, and sexism, when it’s overt—like the KKK or the Westboro Baptist Church—it’s easy to see as wrong. People, as a whole, don’t give it any credence. It’s easy to identify and combat. But, when it’s subtle, that’s when things get tricky. Those are the kinds that rarely get someone punched out. You rarely get people stalwartly protecting your honor against that. Hell, most of time, you don’t even know if you ought to feel offended or not. If you have the right to feel wronged. It’s the kind of prejudice that, as someone who’s different, you see more often. That, in small ways, here and there, you deal with most days of your life.

But, as I said, over all, I liked the episode. It’s one of the best portrays of kink I’ve seen on network TV, problematic or not. And it ends with a great commentary on some of the biggest elements of kink, sensation, perception, and connection. “Our body feels pain to warn us of danger. But it also reminds us we’re alive. That we can still feel. That’s why some of us seek it out. While others choose to numb it. […] But what if feeling nothing is the worst pain of all? What if the sharing of pain connects us to others? And reminds us that none of us is alone, as long as we can feel?” I like that the episode ends with a sense of community for a lifestyle too often shrouded in isolation. Again, the episode may not have been perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction. And I was happy to see that.

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