Kinky feminist: What to watch

Image credit: Evert F. Baumgardner

I am pretty attentive when trying to spot the kinksters in my favourite TV shows – and, perhaps simply because my viewing preferences tend that way, they’re not very hard to find. Although, it could be that since programmes like Game of Thrones have seized the popular imagination, show runners have collectively decided that it’s not always in their best interest to deliver the same vanilla content to our screens. You know the stuff I mean – close ups of panting mouths, heaving breasts, and then the predictable thrust, his eyes boring into hers. Etc, etc. 

But I have also noticed that when a character on TV or in books is kinky, this is rarely posited as a positive trait. In fact, the scene from Game of Thrones that springs most readily to mind involves Joffrey – one of the most hated characters of all time – ordering one prostitute to beat another with a wooden pole, under pain of death, and after the brief, teasing insinuation that perhaps he’s just a bit of a voyeur. This trope of evil characters being sexually deviant is one that can be seen over and over, following in the footsteps of the ‘depraved homosexual’ trope (think Silva in Skyfall, rubbing his palms up James’ thighs). In my experience, the media has a tendency to exploit that which does not conform before it represents it in a way that is healthy and accurate.

However, I rarely feel like the way kink is explicitly portrayed in the media impacts the way I or a partner do things in the bedroom. For one thing, if a villainous fetishist on TV has sex, it is most commonly a non-consensual act. The psychopathic serial killers in Luther and The Fall do not ask their victims for permission before committing crimes that are obviously sex-driven. This, of course, is very different to what happens between two consenting partners – and I have never felt like a person I am sleeping with has been picking up tips from BBC’s latest crime drama. And then there’s Fifty Shades – not a book that many who already enjoyed BDSM took seriously, but one that would have shaped the understanding of those who were new to the concept. 

What I do feel has an impact on how I’m treated by my partners is the way women in general are depicted in the media. Not kinky women, but women full-stop. If every show a person watches and every book they read is a reinforcement of gendered stereotypes, then it’s unsurprising that such stereotypes become points of reference during sex. And so I have realised that my search for positive portrayals of kink is in fact very similar to the search I have been conducting most of my life — the endless scanning of pages and flicking through channels to find representative content. 

Stories in which women are centre-stage rather than sidelined, and stories in which men are allowed to be vulnerable, are the same stories that challenge our expectations and make room for a spectrum of sexualities. I don’t need to see female protagonists with whips in their hands, cuffing horny and willing boyfriends to the headboard – but I absolutely wouldn’t say no to female protagonists who aren’t portrayed as having submissive qualities central to their personalities. 

Today, such stories are already easier to find than I remember them being when I was younger, and dedicated to watching anything that looked like it might have a lesbian in it (an occurrence that usually coincided with a tragically low budget). In fact, it’s been a while since I watched a show that didn’t push back at gendered stereotypes in some way – and, in the interest of injecting a little bit of spice into exam term, here are three recommendations:

Black Sails: I have never seen another show so successfully and satisfyingly turn heteronormative tropes on their heads. Plus, it’s about pirates, which suggests you’re onto a winner even before you realise how subversive it is. (Kinky moments include Anne Bonney tying up and riding her boyfriend – she’ll get to her girlfriend later.)

Sense8: What happens when eight people realise that they have a telepathic link? Some very classy orgies. Also, lots of reassurances that it’s a-okay to flip off the gender binary. (Side-note: this show does have a plot.)

Outlander: A breath of fresh air for anyone tired of it always being the young woman who is whisked off her feet by the older, more worldly and sexually experienced man. Being a fan of time travel also helps.

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