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Acceptance Via Normalization, Understanding Via Pathologizing

February 23, 2010
tags: , ,

I’m reading a scholarly article about BDSM and mainstream representation, which I’ll write more about when I’ve finished it. Near the beginning, I ran across a paragraph that made me think:

Instead of promoting politically progressive forms of acceptance or understanding, these representations offer acceptance via normalization, and understanding via pathologizing. In the former mechanism, SM is acceptable only when it falls under the rubric of normative American sexuality. In the latter mechanism, SM is understandable only when it is the symptom of a deviant type of person with a sick, damaged core. Both mechanisms offer a form of acceptance or understanding, but these forms do not further the cause of sexual freedom. They allow the mainstream audience to flirt with danger and excitement, but ultimately reinforce boundaries between protected and privileged normal sexuality, and policed and pathological not normal sexuality. These mechanisms solidify the ideological dichotomies that animate American understandings of sexuality, where normal is heterosexual, monogamous, romantic, private, married, and suburban, while abnormal is nonheterosexual, nonmonogamous, unromantic, public, unmarried, and urban (e.g., Rubin, 1984/1993). When viewers accept or understand BDSM in these ways, they utilize a mode of distanced consumption, where representations of SM offer a tantalizing glimpse of something other (sexy, exotic, kinky) that is safely viewed and evaluated from a detached, privileged, and normative position.

[P. 105, italics in original, bold supplied.]

And what I thought was, “ain’t it always the way?” It strikes me that we’re still watching the same process through the decades with gays and lesbians. Acceptance via normalization is easy enough to see: the pull to assimilate. The representation of gays and lesbians has often been bland, neutred and safe (Will and Grace, Queer Eye). Understanding through pathologizing has plenty of history, too, and comes through in the patronizing stereotypes as much as the insane-killer plotlines.

Much of het support for gay and lesbian rights (the B and the T are generally silent in formulations from outside the GLBT community, and within it how much better it is, is very debatable. I’m looking at YOU, HRC.) is tolerance, not acceptance: dependent on the rhetoric of immutability such that the position of gays and lesbians becomes an underdog story of people with a “handicap.” I mean to import the ablism in that formulation, as I think the concepts are close parallels. Extending some rights as reform, to people for whom the mainstream feels sorry, can be called noblesse oblige or tolerance or compassion; it may even be better than nothing, but it’s condescencion, and condescencion is never really acceptance. We don’t feel sorry for our equals. We don’t say “not that there’s anything wrong with that” unless we accept that the background assumption is the contrary.

The other thing that I thought when I read that paragraph was that the process of dichotomizing is very high stakes for the mainstream with BDSM. The conjugation is an old joke: “I am erotic; you are kinky; they are perverted.” My experience is that there’s a huge difference between identity and practice; there are lots of people who don’t see themselves as BDSMers having lots of very kinky sex.* Therefore, policing the border of normal has personal implications for a lot of folks.

I came across Weiss’s article because I saw a reference to The Secretary, which grates on me because both characters are self-hating and damaged — but it’s the best mainstream presentation of BDSM that’s been put in front of American audience. (Preaching to the Perverted, which I saw in its original run in London, is better, but it’s almost unknown outside BDSM circles in the US). Like trans folks and bisexuals, and like gays and lesbians in past generations, the representation of BDSMers is almost always either as the pathetic object of ridicule (East of Eden, Choke) or dangerous and pathological (too numerous to mention). Or … both! Thanks, Quentin Tarantino! (psst — I like your films, but you owe us one. How about writing a dominant woman as the moral center of a story arc?)

*There’s also a practical downside to this, though. Many BDSM activities come with heightened risks, and folks should learn to do them safely instead of winging it. People telling themselves that what they do isn’t at all unusual are unlikely to simultaneously accept that they should do some research and control the risks.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 24, 2010 11:59 pm

    Secretary is a poor example because all of the characters are damaged or quirky, not just the ones with BDSM interests. The most normal character is Lee’s boring boyfriend Peter, and he mentions a nervous breakdown in his past. Lee actually comes off to me as the most well-adjusted character of the lot. Other things about the film annoyed me (lack of negotiated consent, unrealistic circus towards the end). Pathologizing was low on the list, though.

    However, it is the only mainstream American representation of BDSM as something other than comedy or horror (as you said). For me, it was a romantic comedy I could finally relate to. A vanilla audience probably wouldn’t come away from the film with the same conclusions I did.

    It would be nice if more people would recognize the difference between “oh the poor queers/kinksters/_____, they can’t help it” and “wait, there’s nothing wrong with being queer/kinky/_____. The former is rather alienating when you happen to be queer and kinky, even if the people saying it mean well.

    • March 1, 2010 1:49 am

      Agreed: everyone in Secretary was riddled with issues.

      That movie rocked my world because, although the kinky stuff was arguably coming from a damaged place, it was portrayed as having a healing influence. The crux of the movie wasn’t “how will these two characters learn to get past their horrible urges and be normal,” it was “how will these two characters learn to stop feeling guilty over these harmless urges that make them happy?” And that, for me, is pretty huge.

      Also, it must be said–sometimes kink DOES stem from personal trauma. So, okay, one of the only movies that treats BDSM seriously happens to portray it in this way; it doesn’t make the portrayal invalid. Just means we need more movies that show the other end of the spectrum.

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