It has been a few weeks of strenuous debate on the net about kink and how it’s portrayed in the media. Meghan Murphy (Rabble.ca) and William Saletan (Slate), who both have a large mainstream reading audience, wrote posts exhibiting a basic lack of understanding about kink and BDSM. They each, in their way, made exaggerated and very inaccurate correlations between kink and criminality – even murder. I felt like I was back in the 50s reading articles that stereotyped all gay men as pedophiles because one gay man was caught molesting a child.
There were some very eloquent, well-argued responses. “I Am An Abuser” from Michael (Molly’s Daily Kiss), “Do Your Homework” by SexGeek, and “BDSM & The Faulty Personality Presumption” by Isabel (Diary of an Undercover Kinkster).
I’m not going to revisit any of the arguments or defenses. That’s been covered. What I’d like to address is lesser but, for me, very thorny issue of how BDSM or any kink in particular is portrayed in fiction. Like many racial minority, feminist and GBLT action groups, the kink community wants to be represented in a positive light in the media. And I understanding why that is. Decades of having these groups depicted as criminals, cretins, and predators, they want the inaccurate stereotyping to stop. And not just in non-fiction. They feel that positive portrayals will encourage culture-wide acceptance of who they are as people. And they’re not wrong. Films like “Philadelphia“, TV shows like “Queer as Folk“, books like Sarah Water’s “Fingersmith” have probably done more to get the normative majority to reconsider their prejudices than anyone cares to admit.
At the opening of her post, Isabel says “I was watching last week’s episode of CSI, a show I usually love, when I was wacked across the face with a similar storyline to what I’ve often seen before – BDSM portrayed in a negative light.”
This is an issue I am really, truly torn about. On one hand, I recognize the enormously beneficial aspects of positive portrayals of minority groups. On the other, I feel that there is a grave danger in any fiction writer being at purely at the service of social activism; for me, that is nothing more than propaganda. Furthermore, I feel that a constant demand to only represent, say, kinky people, in a positive light, means that I am not seeing them as individuals with individual stories, but as posterboys/girls for the group. And that is as much a stereotype as a badly executed and inaccurate negative portrayal.
So, what’s the solution?
I believe that part of the answer is to consider the complete oevre of the creative producer (or, in the case of CSI, look at the series over time. It has produced some very intelligent and sensitive kinky characters as well. You can’t accuse them of always using kinksters as villains.)
Another partial answer can be found in the work of people like Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City Series) or Sarah Waters (Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith, Affinity), or Laura Antoniu (The Marketplace Series) who almost completely contextualize their stories within their subcultures, portray them with accuracy and can then allow for both the protagonists and the antagonists to belong to the same sub-culture.
My solution – and it’s a very imperfect one, I admit – is to rely on really in-depth and complex characterization. I believe our individuality is fundamentally more significant, more important, than any membership we might have to a group. I have written gay, kinky, racial minority antagonists. But what makes them antagonists is not their sexual orientation or their racial background. It’s their individual behaviour. Similarly, my protagonists have been kinky or gay or Asian, and their goodness is also not a product of their sexual orientation or cultural background. They’re simply a good person.
I know this does not sit well with the various social action groups. And I acknowledge and understand why they wish I were more of a Maupin or a Waters. But for me, as a writer, the story and the character come before the politics. I don’t feel it’s my job to be a social activist, but to tell stories well. I understand that other writers feel differently, and I respect their choices.