copyright 2005 by Pat Powers
In "Imbalance of Power," we teasingly promised -- or obliquely threatened, as some call it -- to explain how you can make exciting, interesting movies that involve sexual power imbalances by focusing on character.
These techniques will work on any combination of genders and with any gender on top or on the bottom, but since our tastes -- or depraved appetites, as some call them -- are definitely maledom/femsub, that's the way we'll go.
Despite this treatment Cheyenne falls for the bounty hunter and when they bed down for the night, she winds up planting hot kisses on his lips until he takes her, even though her wrists are still tied together.
We never really understand Cheyenne's feelings here. Granted, the bounty hunter is a LOT hunkier and nicer to her than her husband or any other guy in the film. But ... is he THAT hunky and nice? Or is she just so used to being dominated to the point of sex slavery by the men around her that she doesn't really have a problem with being tied up during sex? Is she trying to use the bondage to play on the bounty hunter's dominance tendencies so she can manipulate him better? Or is she just naturally attracted to powerful men? Does she LIKE being tied up?
We don't know. The movie doesn't give us a fucking CLUE! Hey, how about letting us into Cheyenne's head just a LITTLE if she's going to be the fucking lead in a fucking romance? Would THAT be too much to ask?!!
OK, OK, I'm all better. Really. Deep breath.
By contrast, let's take a look at the few -- the very few -- movies that have already done some interesting stuff along these lines.
"The Collector" would seem to be a great example along these lines, but I maintain that it isn't. The characterization is excellent, but the relationship is only sexual for the male captor, Ferdy. His captive, Miranda, tries to understand him, and at one point even plays the sex card to try to break through to him, but to no avail. The story is a straight-up tragedy, as Miranda, the product of a genteel, upper-class, artsy-set upbringing, does not realize what a monster Ferdy is, and muffs what few attempts she has to escape from him, because she is not resolute enough to do what she has to do.
There's no doubt there's a power imbalance between them, and that as far as Ferdy's concerned their relationship is sexual, but Ferdy is such a sociopath that there can't be any real contact between the two of them. Although it has maledom/femsub trappings, it's basically an ooga-booga monster story, albeit one with characterization far superior to anything you might see in a lesser work.
"Vicious Circles" is a better example of what we mean. The protagonist, Andrea Hunt, signs on to serve as a slavegirl-for-hire for a billionaire and his friends, for $2000 a day, when her brother is set up to take a rap for drug smuggling. It looks like a setup for a Lifetime "they done her wrong" story, as the poor little sister is dragged through all sorts of terrible experiences out of devotion to her set-up brother.
But that's not the way it turns out, because Andrea is only PLAYING at being a slavegirl. She is in fact a very capable and dangerous person to deal with, as the plot eventually reveals. By focusing on the slavegirl's character and having it be very different from the role she's playing, you get a plot that goes in surprising and interesting directions. As Andrea puts it at one point, "You know, chess isn't the only game where at some point a pawn may turn into a queen."
Another interesting character is Dawn in the film "Kiss the Girls Goodbye." She's kidnapped by a psychopath named Carl and chained up in a hidden basement room by Carl, wearing a big harness gag the whole time. The interesting part is where, about two thirds of the way through the movie, Dawn is rescued and escapes from Carl's clutches -- physically. Mentally, she's still Carl's creature, and she finds herself unhappy as a free woman, ignored, no longer subject to all the attention lavished on her by her obsessive captor. In fact, she seems more anguished as a free woman than as Carl's captive.
When Carl encounters Dawn again, all he has to do is say, "Get in the car." She doesn't just not resist, she cooperates in her abduction this time, a far cry from her response the first time.
The real giveaway comes when Dawn is rescued by her friend Stephanie for the second time. She dutifully follows Stephanie out of the room she's been imprisoned in but still wears the harness gag. Stephanie, who's clearly begun to suspect that Dawn is not all that innocent a victim this time, sees the gag and snaps, "And take that thing off!" which Dawn obediently does. But now the audience knows what Stephanie has in a way pointed out -- that Dawn is wearing the gag harness voluntarily. She likes it in some fashion.
It's a subtle and interesting characterization which is sadly flawed by the fact that Dawn is never given any voiceover narration while gagged, so we can only guess what she's thinking most of the time.
Or take some of my work, which I know pretty well. I use character to advance stories, sometimes as the basis of stories, all the time. Practically all of Karg deals with how a futuristic space traveler responds to the experience of being a slavegirl on a primitive planet. In fact, I use her experience of being directly linked psychically with other minds in her futuristic society to provide a framework for her understanding of the relatively primitive minds she encounters as a slavegirl.
The members' section story "The Mmmphing in Cell 49" is a horror story about a psychologist at a women's prison whose job it is to periodically check on women who are forced to wear hoods and bonds for weeks at a time as punishment for violating prison rules, to make sure they're not going insane while unable to communicate. (It was inspired in part by the fact that early prisons did in fact drive their inmates mad because they denied all contact between the prisoner and ... anyone, even one another. It wasn't intended as punishment, though -- it was thought that having long periods of solitude would allow the prisoners to commune with themselves, get right with God, and reform themselves. Sort of Henry David Thoreau in a cage. Drove a lot of them clinically insane.)
The suspense in "Cell 49" is ALL psychological. Is the woman in the hood insane? Is she likely to go insane? Can the psychologist convince her to do what's necessary to save herself from being rendered a living zombie by her experiences?
The story "Slave" in the guest section is, like "Vicious Circles" a lesson in the difference between one's assigned role in a relationship and one's real character, a difference which drives the surprise at the end of the story.
What makes these stories special is the focus on the character of the women in the ropes, chains and gags. The genre doesn't really matter here -- Karg is SF, Cell 49 is speculative fiction and Slave is what would be called a mainstream short story if it didn't have all the good sexual bondage in it.
My point here isn't how great my stories are, although I'm certainly happy to make that point ;). The main point, however, is that by focusing on the characters and how they respond to the bondage you develop stronger stories. This is especially true of the femsubs. If they're just so much tied-up and gagged baggage, audiences have more trouble caring about them. And the audience doesn't understand why or how the femsub adjusts to her bondage, so when she acts, it seems phony and unnatural.
What has made subfems such an impenetrable mystery is not reluctance to explore submissive sexuality, but the simple laziness and unimaginativeness that has long plagued Hollywood where female characters are concerned, causing so many lead roles for women to be reduced to that of "The Girl."
Most subfems in movies are just another iteration of "The Girl." Maybe the success of "Secretary" will demonstrate that "The Girl" doesn't work as a lead in ANY kind of movie, even when she's supposed to be submissive. "Secretary" is totally character-driven, with the lead protagonist a femsub who gets into a consensual submissive sexual relationship (primarily expressed through spanking). In short, it directly deals with its protagonists feelings about her submissive behavior, instead of avoiding them. Result: huge critical success, great box-office (for an indie film) and there are rumors of a potential Oscar nomination for Maggie Gyllenhaal, the actress who plays the submissive lead.
But of course, you don't NEED to make a film about sexual submission (which "Secretary" was) for this to work. Any show which has a maledom/femsub theme will benefit from portraying the woman's emotions and personality. And it's not some weird, twisted kinky thing, it's called "character development" and it's generally considered a very good thing for any kind of film.