It’s Not Just Katie Roiphe: How ‘Girls’ is Also Giving BDSM a Bad Name

In a recent piece defending HBO’s Girls, Amanda Marcotte attacks “the strange belief that female characters on TV need to be paragons of virtue and excellent choice-making”. Why should it be problematic that the main characters on the show make bad decisions, lack self-awareness, and have disastrous encounters with the opposite sex? Maybe it shouldn’t. But when one show still causes this much furore, it’s clear that a female-dominated show is still novel enough that it will be taken as reflective of what women are, and what women want. And there, for me lies the problem.

After Episode 1 aired, most commentators were too busy focusing on the all-white cast, and the characters’ bratty, privileged status to mention Hannah’s (played by writer Lena Dunham) reluctant participation in a disempowered sexual relationship. Perhaps it just rang so true with a lot of viewers, who have endured selfish, uncommunicative sexual partners and/or been too embarrassed to speak up in the bedroom, that no one felt the issue was up for debate. So far, so depressing. But I can understand why people might congratulate Lena Dunham for depicting sex as it really can be – awkward, embarrassing and unsatisfying, especially when one’s partner attempts to act out porn scripts without your consent.

Unfortunately Episode 2 sees Hannah slide from the ‘bad sex’ frying pan into the ‘coercive, demeaning sex’ fire. Here, writer Lena Dunham is in danger of playing into the hands of the likes of Katie Roiphe, whose recent Newsweek article claimed women are becoming S&M submissives in the bedroom because equality is just, y’know, a turn-off. Not only does Hannah have another unsatisfying encounter with Adam, where she is clearly bored, unsatisfied and faking enjoyment – she claims to have ‘almost come’ afterwards, an obvious lie – but he tries some particularly discomfiting ‘kinky’ moves which Hannah is obviously uncomfortable with. He verbalizes a paedophilic fantasy about her being a schoolgirl he has abducted and who he will send home ‘covered in cum’. Hannah’s disgust and confusion is apparent to the audience from her facial expression and body language, but she says nothing. Adam asks if he can ejaculate on her chest (and yes OK, he does at least ask), which she consents to, then he forcefully presses her face to one side with one hand and keeps his hand pushed into her face while he masturbates. Again, she says nothing, but is clearly not enjoying herself.

With the blogosphere apt to light up the moment women are depicted having S&M sex (see 50 Shades of Grey), I think unfortunately Girls is – perhaps unwittingly – playing into the Katie Roiphe stereotype – that as women have obtained more rights and respects in society, their need to be treated like crap in the bedroom in order to ‘balance things out’ has intensified. As a feminist, and someone who enjoys and practises BDSM, this really disappoints me. The misrepresentation of what BDSM, and consensual female submission is about, is not only wearisome – it’s harmful. Submitting to your partner in a truly consensual S&M scenario does not mean lying back, rolling your eyes and putting up with whatever creepy fantasy they decide to enact upon your body. It means negotiating a clear set of rules and acts beforehand – everything from physical acts permitted, to equipment involved, to language that is acceptable – and then ‘playing’ together, with the knowledge that the submissive can stop the scene at any time if they are uncomfortable or upset by it. Why is a woman who chooses BDSM for her own pleasure – not out of love, loyalty, coercion or being too embarrassed to refuse – never represented in mainstream media, instead of Lena Dunham’s bored, unsatisfied Hannah, or E L James’ lovestruck, utterly passive heroine?

This isn’t an armchair commentator speaking – I’ve been in these situations, negotiated these rules, and always had them respected by my male partners. I have experienced nothing but excitement, pleasure and most importantly, respect, in the BDSM scenarios I’ve participated in. This is what’s absent from many mainstream depictions of female submission, and it’s absent from the uncomfortable pseudo S&M that Hannah grimly endures. The disregard for female agency is further cemented in the episode when Marnie says to Hannah in Girls that Adam should not be treating her the way he does because “he’s not your boyfriend”. Oh, and it would be OK to shove his hand into her face without asking during sex, if he was her boyfriend? Love or a relationship is not a ticket to coercing someone into an S&M scenario.

What’s missing from Girls, and from Katie Roiphe’s understanding of female submissives, is that you need the freedom and respect that sexual equality gives women, before you can ever participate in a truly consensual S&M relationship. Hannah in Girls is definitely not doing that – and it saddens me that female submission is still being depicted this way, because it is feeding Roiphe’s stereotype that women secretly enjoy degradation and coercion because we didn’t really ‘want’ freedom in the first place.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted April 20, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    Do Roiphe and Girls and Mr. Softee and the rest realize the subs control the scenario? Subbing’s not being coerced into things you don’t want to do…at least it’s not supposed to be.

  2. Posted April 22, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read “50 Shades of Grey” but I know it’s basically BDSM porn in book form. Porn really shouldn’t be held to any standard of realism, or representation of healthy relationships.

    Although that really underscores the main point of the original post–that there are not enough representations of BDSM that AREN’T porn.

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