Forget Fifty Shades: 5 Better Portrayals of BDSM Relationships

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Even with 100 million copies sold and a Hollywood trilogy underway, the jury is still out on whether or not there is anything redeeming about Fifty Shades of Grey. Some think-pieces have celebrated the franchise for opening up discussions about sexuality, but many others condemn the films for inaccurately representing BDSM relationships. Throughout the film, Grey, the smoldering billionaire boyfriend—and master—of the sweet Anastasia, coerces his submissive to sign contracts, take punishments and more generally “consent” to sexual activities that she is uncomfortable with—an opposing narrative to healthy BDSM relationships, which are based on mutual trust, safety and pleasure.

The second film in the trilogy, Fifty Shades Darker, has now been released. While I’m not opposed to a little pleasurable pain (even if it comes in the form of a bad Hollywood film), I do have some steamier suggestions for those of you looking for more nuanced representations of BDSM dynamics.

The Story of O

I first came across The Story of O on my friend’s coffee table in the form of a graphic novel (talk about accessible foreplay!). The infamous book—and now comic—tells the story of a woman named O who gets tied up (literally!) in a secret society of wealthy masters. First published in France in 1954 and written under the pen name Pauline Réage, the book was initially banned for its violent sexual content, but has since become one of the most infamous writings on BDSM. Unlike Fifty Shades, The Story of O also highlights the ways in which O’s masters care for her well-being—even when they’re getting rough.

Kushiel’s Legacy

Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel's Legacy books take place in a fantasy world not unlike earth—except in Carey’s land, there’s no such thing as sexual perversion, and pleasure-seeking is considered a virtue, not a vice. In fact, the novel offers an extremely feminist view on BDSM interests. Phèdre, the protagonist, receives special treatment for her fetishes—her love of sexual pain even helps her to avenge a plot against her homeland (spoiler alert!). While the series takes place in an alternate world, the novel offers a much healthier perspective on real life sexuality than Fifty Shades: rather than treating Phèdre’s kinks as her fatal flaw, they are used as a source of her empowerment.

The Addams Family

Though PG-rated, the 1991 cinematic version of the beloved TV series The Addams Family is one of the most accurate and loving portrayals of BDSM relationships in popular culture. Gomez and Morticia Addams’ marriage is characterized by their insatiable lust for one another, as well as each other's willingness to play a little rough. Both characters take turns being dominant, debunking the myth that BDSM relationships require fixed roles. “Last night you were unhinged. You were like some desperate howling demon. You frightened me,” Morticia says in the first line of the film. “Do it again”.

Venus in Fur

A contemporary revisiting of an old BDSM tale, Venus in Fur is a challenging film by Roman Polanski based on the David Ivres play of the same name (which was inspired, in turn, by the 1870s novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whom the term “masochism” originated). The 2013 French film is daring for its on-screen depictions of female dominance and male submission. Centering around a playwright who wants to bring Sacher-Masoch’s novel to the stage, the film fuses an erotic classic with modern-day sexual politics. While some critics are quick to call out the misogynistic undertones of the film, others applaud the nuanced treatment of gender roles and desire. Whether or not you’re a fan of Polanski, Venus in Fur is undeniably more compelling to watch than Grey’s troubling temper tantrums!

Secretary

The 2002 rom-com is a little over-the-top when it comes to representations of sub/dom relationships, but it isn’t without its perks. Lee Holloway is a secretary who becomes submissive to her boss, who also happens to be named Mr. Grey. Unlike her Fifty Shades counterpart, however, Lee displays an intense desire for the BDSM relationship and keeps her subordinate personae in the bedroom—or in this case, the office. This division is important, illustrating how submissive partners can still be self-sufficient and autonomous in their day-to-day lives.

It’s not easy to find realistic representations of BDSM—cinematic tropes reign over real human urges and desire is displayed for its entertainment value rather than its accuracy. In order to get the scoop on what BDSM is really all about you have to learn from the pros—you might even meet one on Feeld ;)