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Jun 24 2008

The Bank Job, And The Normalizing Of Kink

Please note: This piece includes references to my personal sex life. Not in any great detail, but it might be too much information for family members and others who don't want to read about that stuff. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Bank job poster
Warning: This isn’t a proper movie review. Not at all. I barely even mention the movie’s plotting and construction, its writing and acting, its lighting and camerawork. This is a lot more like that Saturday Night Live sketch, the one with the welder’s review of “Flashdance.”

This is the sadomasochist’s review of “The Bank Job.”

Which I certainly wasn’t expecting to write when I saw the movie.

Quick precis: “The Bank Job” is an unusually well-done bank heist movie, set in England in the 1970s, and based — loosely — on real events. And one of the movie’s main MacGuffins — an object everyone is chasing after, an object driving the plot — is a series of photos of a member of the House of Lords cavorting at a brothel… a brothel offering, among other things, sadomasochistic services, catering to what is often known as “the English vice.” These photos of an MP being tied up and flogged have obvious blackmail potential; hence everyone in the movie being very interested in them, and attempting to steal and swindle and threaten them away from one another. (There’s another, more central MacGuffin in the movie, also involving naughty photos of a famous person; but that’s a post for another day.)

Scandal Poster
Now, secret sex — even secret sadomasochistic sex — being used to drive a movie plot is hardly unusual. It’s barely worth even mentioning, much less writing an entire column about. But there’s something about the kink in “The Bank Job” that’s very unusual indeed… so unusual in mainstream movies as to be almost unheard of.

And that’s this: The movie’s attitude towards the sadomasochism is entirely casual, and entirely non-judgmental.

The SM scene in the photos — which we get to see a bit of as it’s being secretly photographed — is more than just safe and sane and consensual. It’s friendly. It’s happy. The MP at the center of attention is smiling, enjoying himself, and even making requests in a very “topping from the bottom” manner. Devotees of the more classic forms of SM might chide him for his manners and his poor form — and obviously the fact that he’s being secretly photographed for potential blackmail purposes isn’t so cool — but nobody could say that he isn’t having a good time.

What’s more, the women in the brothel — the women tying up and whipping said MP, as well as the women catering to more conventional desires — look happy to be doing what they’re doing. They’re not victims, they’re not prisoners: they’re professionals, doing their job and enjoying it a fair amount.

And while the characters in the movie are of course aware of the photos’ shock value — and hence their blackmail value — none of them seem personally shocked or surprised. There’s no, “This man likes to be beaten? Merciful Zeus! What wicked debauchery has this world descended to? And a Member of Parliament, too!” They’re amused, they’re entertained, they’re immediately aware of the photos’ potential value and perfectly willing to take advantage of it… but none of them seems upset, or concerned, or even the least bit surprised, by the fact that a member of the English aristocracy gets off on being beaten.

Crow 2 city of angels posterAnd in movies with SM in them, this attitude is so rare as to be almost unheard of. The usual cinematic approach to SM is to treat it as a marker for real-life cruelty and abuse, or real-life martyrdom and self-destruction. Sexual sadists tend to be evil drug lords or something; sexual masochists are either prisoners of the sadists, or prisoners of their own sick, destructive desires. And when movies show SM, they typically try to have their cake and eat it too: using SM imagery to excite and titillate the audience, while at the same time condemning and punishing the people who engage in it.

Either that, or the whole thing gets treated as a big joke. Treating SM as just another sexual variation — and treating society’s objections to it as silly and hypocritical — is rarer in the movies than dildos at a church picnic.

Secretary Poster
There have been other pro-SM movies, of course. “Secretary” leaps to mind. But that was a movie specifically about an SM relationship. “The Bank Job” is the first mainstream movie I can think of that has SM as a side plot, a casual, secondary plot device with not that much attention paid to it… and that still pays the attention it does give to SM with basic acceptance and an acknowledgement of its right to exist.

I don’t know if this marks the start of a trend, or if it’s just a one-time fluke. But I just want to say this, to all the sadomasochists who have been coming out over the last couple/ few decades and trying to educate the public about what we do: Good job, everybody. Coming out works. It’s slow going, but it works. Keep it up.

3 comments

  1. 1
    valdemar

    While I haven’t seen the movie, the ‘normalising’ of sex-as-fun is unremarkable in the British media. S&M doesn’t feature a lot on TV but where it does it is seen as harmless or even charming. More interesting (perhaps)is the approach to gay/lesbian/bisexual fun – Doctor Who and its spin-off, Torchwood, have been banging this drum fairly loudly.
    Doctor Who, an early evening ‘family show’, quite definitely aimed at kids, often has gay characters and knowing ‘wink wink’ references. In the first season the Doctor pointed out to his ‘modern’ companion that, in the future, being bisexual will be normal.
    Oddly, there has not been the usual right-wing tabloid outcry about this, perhaps because the show is a bit of a cultural icon. Or maybe we really have made progress.

  2. 2
    Eclectic

    I’ve seen it before in British TV. It’s been a long time, so I’m really scraping my memory here, but it was a regular show about an antique dealer (or maybe he was an appraiser) who gets wrapped up in interesting crimes on a regular basis (thefts, inheritance disputes, forgery, and smuggling, mostly), which, in one episode I saw, happened to interrupt a minor character visiting a dominatrix.
    It may have been a minor plot point; I think perhaps the minor character was a suspect who hadn’t provided an alibi, and this was explaining why he hadn’t provided one, but I was thinking that the writers wanted an interrupting-intimate-moment scene without flashing nude bits around.
    So they had a white-haired gentleman in underwear and leather cuffs scuttling out the back door, and pretty much being ignored. This was referenced once in passing, at the end of the show “You should see where he gets his sense of discipline.”
    So the main character saw and noticed, but had an actual crime to investigate and wasn’t going to get sidetracked.
    I was quite pleased. It’s not serious or alarming, just funny.

  3. 3
    valdemar

    Eclectic – sounds like Lovejoy, which starred Ian MacShane, now famed for Deadwood. I’m sure there are lots of other examples. The S&M kink is generally perceived as amusing. It’s interesting to ponder what form of legal sexual activity would be seen as beyond the pale on UK TV. The racial barrier was pretty much smashed in the Eighties, and the gay/lesbian taboo was gone by the mid-Nineties. Big age gaps between partners are still a bit iffy, though.

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