When women are portrayed as submissive in popular media, the reaction broadly seems to be either "that's hot" or "that's offensive." When men are portrayed as submissive, the reaction is more likely to be one of pity or derision. I recently attended a play party and got chatting with a male dominant while a male submissive was strapped to a nearby spanking bench and flogged by his female dominant. The submissive was young, slightly built, and wearing only a skimpy G-string. The dom I was conversing with admitted he found it hard to watch another man being dominated, because he felt the male submissive was letting their side down. "I want to say, 'be a man!'" he admitted, although he went on to say he respected that submission made this particular man happy. In her essay "Maid To Order: Commercial S/M and Gender Power," Anne Mclintock points out that "S/M theatrically flouts the edict that manhood is synonymous with mastery, and submission a female fate." Indeed, the media fascination that results every time a powerful man is caught associating with a dominatrix implies an ongoing curiosity about BDSM's power to invert gender stereotypes.
But, as I mentioned in my last post, the tendency to see a man being dominated by a woman as a jokeworthy subject implies at best a discomfort with a man being submissive, and at worst, such a strong refusal to believe women can truly have any power over men that any scenario depicting this must be comical or unrealistic. The episode of Secret Diary of A Call Girl I wrote about in my last post shows Belle hollering instructions at her sub—currently cleaning the toilet bowl with his tongue—while she casually flips through a magazine. It's undeniably humorous, not least because we're seeing a man is his late 50s wearing nothing but a PVC thong and apron, on his knees doing housework. But, the episode seems to ask, what kind of "real man" would actually find this erotic?
The discomfort with men being submissive is often reflected by a prurient media that loves to know the filthy details of any kinkster's activity just so it can disapprove of them. When Max Mosley was outed as having enjoyed an S/M party with paid female participants, the British tabloids—known for being jingoistic, homophobic and hostile to any woman who isn't constantly displaying her breasts—had a field day. The concern was ostensibly whether the party had overtly Nazi themes, but I suspect this was largely a pretext for outrage so that the media could then reveal all the filthy, kinky details of precisely what Mosely got up to. What everyone really wanted to know was, how could this powerful man enjoy being treated like a little beyotch by a group of women? Although Mosley did play some dominant roles during the party, the (now-defunct) News of The World also reported with glee that he "enjoys being whipped til he BLEEDS" (their caps). A public male figure may manage to move past a sex scandal if it's clear he's retained his manly, dominant role throughout (think Bill Clinton), but if he's allowed himself to be whipped and had his backside shaved by bossy uniformed women? Nope, we can't respect him "as a man" any more.
A recent episode of the BBC's Sherlock Holmes series, "A Scandal in Belgravia" reinforces this prejudice against male submissives. The clients of the seductive dominatrix Irene Adler are mostly men working in positions of authority—she mentions a policeman, Ministry of Defense official and a forensic scientist. Adler's work is dismissively described by Mycroft Holmes (Sherlock's uptight brother, played wonderfully by Mark Gatiss) as "recreational scolding."
Perhaps the tendency to trivialize female domination comes from the need to reassure oneself that male submission is not "real," and therefore not a threat to men's sense of their own power. And yes, Mycroft is right that in this case, female domination is just a job that involves play-acting fantasies. But why then do Adler's male submissive clients discomfort Mycroft so much that he accuses Adler of "catering to the whims of the pathetic"?
The ongoing association of submissive behaviors with femininity, and femininity itself being seen as a demeaning state, is troubling for us all. It can't just be that masochism is considered unmanly—after all, inviting and enduring huge amounts of pain in the boxing ring, the football field, or in war are viewed as extremely masculine. If Max Mosley had been left bloody after a hearty session of rugby, all well and good. But to be left thus because you invited a group of women to flog your backside? Our reactionary media is still struggling with that one.
Photo credit: rachelkramerbussel