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On Netflix’s ‘Bonding’

Even subcultures don't get a get-out-of-jail-free card for misogyny.

May 6, 2020

Lauren Parker
//photo from Netline

’m going to begin this piece with a disclaimer: I’m not a professional. I dabble in kink. The kink I dabble in often has an implied, if not an outright, power component and is generally practiced with romantic partners.

A lot of my adult sex life has been about seeking more than partnership. I’ve actually been seeking community. I moved from a small town in New Hampshire, where I was driving an hour and a half to attend pagan sex parties, to the Bay Area where I could attend panels, parties, meet ups. I felt less alien, even boring. Where I come from being my age and unmarried was strange. Excavating my relationship with sex as a young, Midwestern queer femme who grew up in a place where purity rings turned your fingers green can be a whiplash-weird experience. You begin with classic gender roles that condition you to believe that your value lies primarily in being demure and virginal.

While the Midwest is not the only place this is common, anywhere with a big Christian influence is going to subscribe to an old fashioned concept of gender, the theatre of heterosexuality can easily bleed into BDSM.

As a femme dominant, I’ve sat through a lot of conversations in which men try to talk me out of these identities because they have confused my preferences for a grind against their concept of true nature. Needless to say, I needed kinky friends, and spending time with other queer kinksters has been important.

For those of us who later fell into the arms of feminism and were ready to take on the Man, the strange straggling of third wave feminism focused a lot on empowering women through living this perceived feminist life. Which is a fancy way of saying that there is a very clearly a socially acceptable form of power play and it varies on who is dictating the role.

A lot of the narrative around femdoms (female dominant in a BDSM or sexual setting) is that they seize power in a world that provides them none, and thus beating men (and the vanilla public fascination with the beating parts) is a righteous and empowered stance, while being a female submissive is just betraying feminism altogether. It wasn’t until I jettisoned both strict gender roles and this anemic feminism that I was able to build a true community of perverts. We all got to hang with each other behind closed doors, and usually had pretty good snacks, and we talked about the relative problematic nature of desire.

The conclusion we came to was that bedrooms are probably not the best place to navigate our political theatre, so if you’re a consenting adult with another consenting adult, just have fun. But outside of those closed doors, it’s hard to get people who don’t do what we do to understand what we’re about.

It is in the context of this experience that I watched Netflix’s “Bonding.” “Bonding” is a scripted dark comedy series created by Rightor Doyle following a young queer man named Peter (dungeon name: Carter) as he sorts through his complex relationship with his ex-girlfriend from high school, Tiff, and becoming her professional assistant. Tiff is a dominatrix and graduate student with a pretty intense level of disregard for intimacy. She has goals of becoming a therapist (another job with strict boundaries), and seems interested in merging her BDSM work with therapy. Tiff has an unsettling relationship with boundaries in that she seems to have none and also too many.

I like the show, though I understand that a lot of professional sex workers do not. Tiff (Mistress May) is a flawed and complicated person in a way that I think could make a satisfying character, but is often delivered as harsh and flat. Does she do her client negotiations on screen? No, they are either implied or ignored. Is that important to the plot? Yes. It’s a farce and the hijinks they get into to provide for her clients creates a zany backdrop for a fraught relationship between a queer man and the women in his life. Also she wears a collar (?) and there’s carpet in the dungeon (barf).

However, Bonding isn’t really a show about BDSM. Kink is just window dressing.

The show is really a coming of age story for a queer guy who serves as a shy doormat for everyone in his life — his gross roommate, his friends at the comedy club, dating — and then grows. Boundaries are a big part of the show but not between domme and client, between Tiff and Peter. Tiff is domineering and the sort of cautious and caustic that comes from heavily implied trauma. It’s easy to relate to someone who does cock and ball torture for a living if you are constantly victimized by men, but yeah it’s a vapid stereotype that rarely gets fully explored.

The thing that makes Bonding different from media like 50 Shades of Grey, is that the goal for Tiff isn’t for her to get out of the field. She’s trying to be better adjusted while staying in the domming business. Her redemption lies in her processing her trauma, not in her abandoning the work, but that’s where the centering of her narrative stops. Bonding does have humor, which I think we need to have more of in the mainstream art about kink.

So much stuff about us is played so serious. Hudsy Hawn’s memoir musical From Vanilla to Kink is a funny, sexy time, smearing the line of what gets done in the dungeon and singing and dancing about it on stage. It’s on Youtube, and Mistress Hawn is a charismatic delight.

The critique of Bonding is legitimate, and my affection for the weird and complex relationship between Peter and Tiff doesn’t mitigate that the show has big huge problems. On the one hand, Bonding does something really interesting by making me like all of Tiff’s clients. They have a rapport with her, some of them even have a supportive friendship with her in the confines of her dungeon.

That’s something I’ve absolutely seen in the Kink wild. No pro-domme I know has an adversarial relationship to her clients. They are providing a service, not a retribution narrative, and dominant players generally like their play partners. Many have deep sympathy for how men are victimized by patriarchy, and especially how submissive men are treated with suspicion by society. However, Tiff is a traumatized control freak who is bad at intimacy and communicating. There’s no getting around that.

I read that more as a signifier of her youth than her job. She’s young. Her professor is a lech. Her corset doesn’t fit. I too have found myself at the mercy of a man who demands tribute of flirtation and attention of younger women, and I’ve mostly had office jobs. It’s understandable that she would want a job with clear boundaries and not the sort of job where you’d expected to grease the wheels — say customer service or non-profit work.

But it does feel like one more disaster on the pile, and while it might have greater commentary about women and the workforce in general, it’s sloppy. Tiff has no friends, no community, and I, frankly, really would have liked to see a coffee date with all her domme friends and watch them laugh and have a good time. She is so incredibly walled off that she reads single note.

Bonding is written by a queer former assistant to a dominatrix. The story follows a queer assistant of a dominatrix. It doesn’t focus fully on the dominatrix’s journey, Tiff is NOT above reproach, and we’re expected to grow with Peter, not Tiff. I took this as a writer staying in his lane. He wrote what he knew. But Dommes don’t get a ton of media about us (and apparently I’m going to have to write a romcom of two dominant tops navigating a meet cute because no one else wants to do it for me).

There’s a handful of teenage comedies that play dominatrixes off as latex-clad rapists (Eurotrip, etc), there’s shows like Sherlock where Irene Adler is a domme to show she’s a femme fatale, and then there’s a particularly baffling episode of House (Season 1, Love Bites) where a dominatrix has gotten so involved with a client she sneaks into the hospital in scrubs (in SEVERE violate of HIPPA) to “check” on her ailing client.

The best show I’ve seen hands down is easily Mercy Mistress which, surprise, is created by a pro-domme, and better navigates the complexities of consent, scenework, and client relationships than Bonding. It’s beautifully shot, well written, and allows both the mistress and the client to have growth arcs. Nancy is Harlots is a pro domme WITH a shit ton of trauma and is a lesbian, and still she has friendship with her clients and full emotional range. With no focused representation in the mainstream, it means the stuff we get is harder to swallow. We all sat through the 50 Shades nonsense, and we were moderately polite about it.

We are not all control freaks like Tiff (*cough* present company excluded) and a lot of kinksters aren’t even pro-dommes, nor express their kinky side with sensation play (beatings, specifically), and I can understand the frustration pros feel in watching their jobs become pageantry for a young woman to work out her issues with men.

Misogyny invades kink art because misogyny is the lens through which we see the world. We live in a world where power is premium, and power play in the day to day is not consensual. It’s easy to use that a lot of women like it when men take charge in bed as a right to rule women. But unlike most shows, the true problem in Bonding is leveraged by Tiff.

She has little regard for Peter’s boundaries, fears, or anxieties, and the implication is it’s because he’s gay and shy. Homophobia is just misogyny in slightly more mauve packaging. Tiff is a bully to him, and even when he gives great vulnerability and tries to talk to her, the only way they can engage fully is with her wearing a mask. Arguably, Bonding is a beauty and the beast story, but Tiff is the monster, and Peter is left to do the arduous work of getting her to respect him. This is interesting conflict, and evokes a bit of a father/son coming of age story arc, but yes, Tiff is a misogynist. Gender and sexuality remain a soupy quagmire.

While I want to live in a world where kink is not the platform that we play out gender roles, I accept no realm is untouched. There are going to be tops and bottoms who are gross misogynists, and their attraction to BDSM comes from a deeply misogynistic place (From Vanilla to Kink has a whole section about this) but I bristle that kink should to be the theatre that the vanilla public uses to sort out their misogyny.

If you only take women seriously when they have stern voices and latex, you’re a problem. If you can’t respect submissive men, it’s the same problem. We are all more than our gender, sexualities, and fetishes, but they are certainly part of us. I’m hoping Bonding is able to grow from here, and that more mainstream fetish content gets made, because we still haven’t told my story yet — which is I’m a queer, dominant leaning femme pillow princess who gets bossed around by her cat.

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