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Speculative Fiction, Intersectional Feminism, and Dirty Jokes
Content Warning: Sexual topics, kink, kink-shaming, slavery.
Note: This post has been edited slightly for minor grammatical mistakes, and to expand slightly on what SSC/RACK imply for the overall health of the interlocking alternative lifestyle communities.
Wednesday I posted the Oi! Spaceman podcast episode dealing with our reaction to Under the Lake/Before the Flood, which was a fascinating recording for us because it really was a case of finding some of the meaning of the story as we discussed it. It might make for a slightly disorganized listen, but it was enlightening for myself and I think for my wife and co-host.
The primary way my own views on the story evolved was in the discussion of Prentiss, the Tivolian undertaker, a member of a race of happy slaves imagined as a mincing sexual submissive. I originally took the portrayal at face value, primarily there to provide exposition and provide some levity (ha ha look at the ridiculousness of masochism!), but Shana correctly pointed out that putting this character within the context of a story in which magic runes implant subconscious commands that influence the way you behave changes the meaning a bit. To wit: the Tivolian desire to be dominated, whether cultural or genetic, parallels the subconscious mind control of the technology of the Fisher King, which is after all just a way of subverting the individual’s will to inbuilt memetic propogation. This parallel makes the text much richer than it would be otherwise, and I’ll definitely be considering it in some future venue, whether on the podcast, the blog, or elsewhere.
And then of course Jack Graham had to post a wonderful piece on the way that the Tivolians as happy slaves reflect larger social consciousness about oppressed populations in fiction and in life, and I knew I had to continue the conversation. I’m really trying to not let this blog just become a “what Jack said,” but seriously, go read what Jack said.
What I want to do here is to take a look at how kink and other alternative lifestyle communities handle the questions of dominance and submission, and then ask what that understanding implies for the wider world of heirarchy, on both an individual and social level, all through the lens of a minor species in Doctor Who. And I haven’t even had my coffee yet. We’ll see how this goes.
Without getting into the details of either my personal life or the myriad ways that people agree to do naughty things with one another, it should be patently obvious to anyone reading this far that none of it happens without everyone agreeing that they want to do it; all parties must consent to whatever activity is taking place before any fun times can happen. Since there are so many people who like to do things and have things done to them, and the preferences and attitudes about those things vary so widely, pretty much whenever two or more people want to engage in anything a long, sober, and mutually respectful conversation has to take place, with any hidden assumptions laid bare and clear rules about how to further communicate personal needs during and after the encounter. (This absolute need for clear communication helps to explain why the relationships of those in these communities are often more stable than those without — once you’ve negotiated the hows, whos, and whys of suspending a partner from a chandelier or dripping hot wax, figuring out who’s going to pick up the kids from school is pretty straightforward.)
Thus the baseline, required standard for anything to happen is that magic word consent: did everyone say yes at every stage of proceedings, without withdrawal. This is the low bar of intimate relationships: no one said no. However, it is only the starting point for a pleasurable/fulfilling encounter/relationship, in much the same way that “it was forty-five minutes long and had moving pictures,” might describe a television show, but would probably be a damning indictment in a discussion of a particular episode. (Not that I’m attempting to minimize failure of consent by comparing it to bad television.) Expanding on the basics of permission, many in these communities use the mantra “safe, sane, and consensual (SSC)” to describe the basics of healthy interpersonal relationships: in addition to permission, we must ensure that the activities performed are not dangerous to those involved, and are engaged in without undue bias due to mental illness. SSC has its own issues: 1) “safe” is basically never completely achievable, and “safer” is probably preferred and 2) who’s to say that people somewhere on the sliding scale of mental illness aren’t able to engage in healthy sexual behavior? To that end, many prefer to use the standard of Risk-Aware Consensual Kink (RACK), and the various controversies surrounding the use of these terms within the various alternative lifestyle communities is far, far outside the realm of this piece.
Regardless of where on the SSC/RACK debate one lies, though, it’s clear that the community at large considers not just the basic question of consent, but is also highly invested in considering the overall health and quality of the relationships its members engage in. This is key to what follows, so it’s worth pointing out specifically.
Social Heirarchy through the Kink Perspective
What’s the takeaway for us? Well, firstly, it’s clear that those involved in the production of big-budget mainstream establishment entertainment like Doctor Who are vanilla enough not to find such portrayals as Prentiss offensive/problematic — he’s a simplistic stereotype of a kinkster, filtered through ideology and designed to be a figure of fun, and in that sense barely more nuanced than Mickey Rooney’s yellowface in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Since there’s scarcely a vision of healthy kink in mainstream media (even Secretary has its issues) it’s hard to blame the production staff for this overtly — their sin is likely ignorance, not malice.
More importantly for the political issues, discussion of the way that kink culture treats voluntary submission has strong lessons for the heirarchies in which we all live and work in the real world. An individual desiring submission is seen by mainstream culture as weak and spineless, but placed in other contexts we may see submission as noble: a person volunteering for military service in defense of their nation/people, or perhaps submitting to the authority of a religious order, or even working for a political party in furtherance of some end. In these cases, we consider the submissive act to be in some sense value-neutral; whether working within and submitting to an organization is a moral act or not very much depends on the nature, function, and morality of the organization itself. In short: submitting to goals of the organization of the Ku Klux Klan is very different than doing so for the Jesuits, neither of which is much like submitting to the will of the US Navy, the Democratic Party, or the local homeowner’s association.
Is it fair to directly compare individual sexual/relationship submission to working within an organization for a larger goal? Certainly having unguarded and honest conversation with sexual submissives reveals a wide range of feelings and reasonings for their submission, and a wide degree to which they wish to maintain autonomy — some want only to “bottom in the bedroom” while others desire to subsume their whole selves in another person (and everywhere else on that spectrum). Recurring themes in this sexual submission are the desire to quiet the outside world, to let go of control, to trust in another to provide support and comfort, even if only for a short time — this emotional need to leave the stress and planning to someone of a higher authority is very prevalent in larger-scale heirarchial structures, especially in very strict religious orders. Few of us have the skills/expertise/inclination to manage every aspect of a large organization; most of us are content to use our time and energy on a more limited skill set, subsuming ourselves into a larger whole.
Alternately, it’s also worth looking at the role of the dominant in the situation. In the alternative lifestyle context, the dominant/top may be nominally “in charge,” but this comes with a strong doctrine of responsibility for the health/safety of those submitting. Authority and responsibility go hand in hand, and examining this in the larger context of social organizations, the more people that submit to their authority, the greater the degree of responsibility to behave morally towards those submitting and to the larger world becomes. Basically, if a billion people are genuflecting towards the fucking Pope, he’d better damn well be an exemplar of a human being, personally and politically.
(And in case any person out there wants to snicker at the idea of the poor ignorant sheep submitting blindly, the primary way that most of us subsume our identity into larger organizations is through our jobs — most of us have little problem “drinking the Kool-aid” our boss feeds us and still pretend to be happy autonomous individuals thinking for ourselves. I fail to see a moral advantage in submitting to Wal-Mart’s policies in service of their desire to make an extra few cents on cutoff slacks rather than for a desire for a great orgasm, let alone a submission to an organization working towards a more socially-oriented goal.)
The Happy Slave
On our podcast episode Shana connected the memetic repeating of the beacon to the genetic/cultural programming of the Tivolians, and connected that with the inbuilt assumptions of culture vis a vis patriarchy/ingrained misogyny. By this example, the many “women against feminism” take the side of their oppressors honestly, heartily, and with full consent, but is that consent uncoerced? Obviously not, if we are to take seriously the idea that mental states can be influenced by culture, and that decisions are not made by emotionless robots built on pure logic. Ironically, the submissive woman actively choosing a literally fetishized “1950s-style” relationship with a dominant person has probably considered these options much more so than the nominally “free” vanilla woman who accepts the nature of her subjugation subconsciously — the former, being a member of an alternative subculture, has almost certainly spent much more time understanding and choosing whether to accept or reject her subconscious biases.
Looked at through the intersectional/social lens, we’ve then shown that virtually all organizations engage to some degree with the idea that individuals will subsume their identities to some degree into those organizations, and therefore have some level of responsibility for the care of those individuals, at least within the domains of the submission. Further, we’ve seen that the dominant individuals/organizations take on large levels of responsibility for the health and safety of those submitting to that authority, and on ensuring that the purposes to which those submitting have their resources placed are at least broadly within the confines of what those submitting want, both stated wants and those unstated.
“Happy slaves” come about, then, in one of two ways: 1) biases are unexamined and the dominant individual/organization takes advantage of submissive individuals without uncoerced consent or 2) biases are examined, and the person submitting does so with a rational or emotional cost/benefit to themselves and the world around them in mind. Obviously this is a spectrum, and most relationships, either of the individual or the organizational level, will find themselves somewhere in between. The happy slave trope as shown in Under the Lake/Before the Flood pretends that such examination of bias and uncoerced consent simply isn’t necessary for some, through either genetic or cultural reasons, and argues that the oppression/subjugation of certain people (wink, wink) is reasonable, and possibly even commendable.
Can we reject outright any idea of an individual submitting to another, or to an organization? Of course not — on such relationships any society is built. But in order to understand these relationships on an ethical level, we must consider the biases (stated and unstated) in all parties to the relationship, and coercion, whether physical, mental, emotional, or other, must be accounted for before the relationship me be condoned. To put it bluntly: choice is a necessary component of liberation, but it is not sufficient for liberation.