I want to talk about “Mad Men.” I want to talk about how kinky sex and sadomasochism get used in pop culture as narrative markers to show, either how evil a character is, or how damaged a character is. And I want to beseech the producers of pop culture to please, please, knock it the fuck off.
I’ll get this out of the way first: I love “Mad Men.” I think it’s one of the best programs currently on TV; actually, I think it’s one of the best programs that’s ever been on TV. This isn’t a “Mad Men did this thing, therefore they suck” piece. This is a “”Mad Men did this thing, and I still love the show, but I really wish they wouldn’t do this, especially since it’s such a depressingly common pattern” piece.
So. In last Sunday’s episode, “Man With a Plan,” Don Draper and Sylvia Rosen take their torrid affair into a hotel room… where things get seriously kinky between them. Don orders Sylvia to crawl on her hands and knees and fetch his shoes — and although she declines to crawl, she does fetch his shoes…s and gets on her knees in front of him, to put his shoes on his feet. And thus begins a very intense interlude of sexual dominance play between them, in which Don orders Sylvia to undress, get back into bed, and stay there in the hotel room waiting for him, while he comes and goes at his leisure. In which he phones her, instructs her that she’s going to wait for him without knowing when he’s coming back, and then orders her not to pick up the phone again — an order that she obeys. In which he sends her a beautiful and sexy evening dress from Saks Fifth Avenue, and then, instead of taking her out to dinner, orders her to take it off for him, right there in the room. In which he takes her book away from her, controlling even what she thinks about when he’s not there. In which she asks him for instructions, asking, “What do I do now?” — and he tells her, “You fall asleep the minute I close that door. I’m flying upstate — and when I come back, I want you ready for me.” In which he tells her, “You are for me. You exist in this room for my pleasure.” In which both Don and Sylvia both seem to be getting off, hard, and at great length.
We’ve seen Don’s kinky side come out before. When he and Betty broke up and he was living alone, he hired a prostitute to slap him in the face while having sex with him. And he and Megan have some sort of kink going on in their sex life… kink they only talk about obliquely (when Don suggests that Megan is picking a fight so they can have rough sex, she uncomfortably says, “This isn’t about that.”) But this episode spells it out much more clearly, and at much greater length, than the show ever has before. And I won’t deny it — as a kinky person, I found last Sunday’s sequence incredibly sexy. The fantasy of having a willing human sex toy holed up in a secret room, for you to enjoy at your whim — or the fantasy of being that sex toy — is, for many kinky people, super-duper-hot. Myself included. And it’s a fantasy that could easily be acted out consensually, by any number of sane, ethical, happy sadomasochists.
But here’s the thing. In this scene — in all of these scenes — Don’s kinkiness is used as a narrative marker for how broken he is. The fact that he wants to dominate and control Sylvia in the bedroom, and keep her secluded and away from the world for his use only… it’s used as a marker for how he wants to isolate and control the women in his life generally. The fact that he and Megan play dominant/ submissive sex games… it’s used as a marker of how screwed-up the power dynamics are between them. The fact that Don hired a woman to slap him in the face… it’s used as a marker of how guilt-ridden Don is, especially when it comes to women and sex, and of what a dark place he is at this moment in his life. It’s not just that Don is kinky, and is also emotionally broken. It’s that Don’s kinkiness is being used specifically as an indicator of how broken he is.
And I am sick, sick, sick of this shit. I am sick to freaking death of kinky sex — or even just a display of the outfits and equipment of kinky sex — routinely getting used as a cheap, easy, quick-and-dirty way to indicate that a character is either evil, or damaged, or both.
Pulp Fiction. 8mm. American Horror Story. Body of Evidence. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Blue Velvet. The General’s Daughter. The Night Porter. The Crow: City of Angels. Little Shop of Horrors. Bitter Moon. Cruising. Bones. Practically every third episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Hell — just about every police/ detective/ crime show where kink or SM is part of the plot. Hellraiser. Star Trek. Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer: as much as I love that show, the way it uses kink as a marker for evil seriously pisses me off. Evil characters are kinky; good characters aren’t; when characters go back and forth between evil and good (Faith, Angel, good Willow and bad Willow), they become kinky when they’re evil, and drop it when they’re good, and flirt with it when they’re on the fence. Or, like Buffy herself in Season 6, they become kinky when they become emotionally damaged. The only exception is Xander and Anya… and for them, kink is just one small part of a varied and imaginative sex life. Any character for whom kink is a central part of their sexuality and their identity… evil.
Hell, you even see this in Secretary. Even in the Holy Grail of kinky pop culture, both the main characters are pretty damn broken — and their brokenness is intimately tied in with their kink. Mr. Grey’s emotional disconnection and control issues get transferred over to his sexual dominance; Lee’s passivity and unhealthy self-cutting get transferred over to her sexual masochism. As much as I loved that movie, there were things about it that seriously troubled me: the idea that broken people just need to find each other so they can fix each other… and the idea that consensual sadomasochism is the provenance of broken people.
Start watching for this pattern. You will see that it crops up freaking everywhere. TV Tropes has an entire page about it… with multiple examples from TV, movies, comics, anime, videogames, literature, and more.
Are you in any doubt about how these markers commonly get read by mainstream audiences? Karmen Fox at the Baltimore Sun said of these scenes, “Then the horror show begins. Nothing gory or graphic, but it’s by far the most loathsome we’ve seen Don. Ever.” Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter called Don’s behavior in these scenes “mean and creepy and unlikable.” Eleanor Barkhorn at The Atlantic commented, “She (Sylvia) said she was leaving because she was ashamed, but I hope she was also motivated by good, old-fashioned indignation. What kind of a guy talks a woman into waiting around in a hotel room for him, all day, without reading material? I’m sighing in frustration just thinking about it.” Michael R. Hall at Awful Advertisements noted, “He (Don) then orders Sylvia to crawl on her hands and knees to find his shoes, because he’s a monster,” and added, “Surely, Sylvia is self-respecting enough to leave this power trip charade. Oh, wait. This is Mad Men, so Sylvia actually derives pleasure from the emotional abuse.” Jen Chaney at Esquire described the scene as one in which Don was “demanding that his mistress act like the abused star of whatever dominant/submissive novel E.L. James is currently working on,” and continued, “Really, the guy was all charm. And yet for some reason, Sylvia totally played along with this garbage. As a woman who is opposed to sex slavery even when it does involve complimentary hot little red dresses from Saks, it was disappointing — and, honestly, a little unrealistic given what we know about her character — to watch her acquiesce to the Demands of Master Draper. Is every woman in this man’s orbit always willing to strip down and clean his house or become a temporary shut-in?” Andi Zeisler at Bitch Magazine said, “This was everything terrible about Don distilled into an hour. I don’t really care if erotic mind games are his coping strategy for stress; his treatment of Sylvia — demanding that she crawl on her hands and knees, telling her she exists only for him, asking her “Who told you you were allowed to think?” — is just a slightly more extreme version of how he treats all the women in his life.” Amy Sullivan at The Atlantic called these scenes “over-the-top, beyond what any sane woman would tolerate,” and even said that “those scenes were particularly hard to watch a week after three women were rescued from a decade of being trapped as sex slaves in Cleveland. Don’s line, ‘You exist in this room for my pleasure,’ sounded even creepier in this context than it otherwise would have.” (As if consensual, easily-walked-away from dominance games and brutal, non-consensual kidnapping and rape and years-long imprisonment had anything to do with each other.)
Mean. Creepy. Unlikable. Loathsome. A horror show. Everything terrible. Monster. Abuse. What kind of guy does that. No self-respecting woman would do that. Beyond what any sane woman would tolerate. Comparable to genuine sex slavery. Garbage.
This is a huge part of how the world sees consensual sadomasochists.
And inextricably tying consensual sadomasochism with either moral bankruptcy or emotional damage doesn’t help.
I don’t expect every single depiction of consensual sadomasochists to be dreamy and perfect. I don’t even want that. But when you see a pattern crop up in popular culture over and over and over again — black people are criminals, gay people are sad and crazy, women are incompetent and over-emotional — that’s when it starts to be a problem. And it’s been a problem for kinky people for decades. Producers of pop culture: Please, please, knock it the fuck off.