[This was written as a comment on a blog post by Greta Christina, but it seemed worth posting here, not least because I’ve written something like it three or four times before, and if I have it here I can just point.]
I’d like to say something in defence of Secretary, because I think it’s wildly kink-positive, and that “their brokenness is intimately tied in with their kink” is a mis-reading. The characters are (start off) broken and damaged, but I don’t think the film suggests that’s because of kink. They’re damaged-and-kinky, not damaged-because-kinky, or kinky-because-damaged. And it’s a drama. If you’re going to portray kinky people in a drama, they’re going to have to be flawed and have issues. What you hope is that the drama doesn’t link flawed and kinky causally, and I honestly think that Secretary doesn’t do that. In fact — and maybe uniquely — it does much better than that: it shows the characters becoming stronger as they become more aware of and comfortable with their kinks.
The film makes pretty clear that Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character is being slowly fucked up by her family. The cutting is about her taking control of her life when her family situation allows her no control. That’s entirely separate from kink — to the extent that the cutting disappears as she takes control of her life in other ways, and discovers herself through kink. It’s entirely right to argue that most portrayals of kink in popular culture are awful, but it’s a mistake always to read causality in the characters, or intentionality in the writing, because we’re so used to seeing it.
The connection between James Spader’s character’s fucked-up-ness and kink is a bit more complicated, but I don’t think it reflects badly. To the extent that he’s fucked up by kink, it’s not his kinkiness that does that job, but his insecurity about it. That’s actually very real, and makes his character sympathetic (to me, at least). Again, this brokenness disappears as he becomes more aware of and comfortable with his kink. It’s very hard to read that as anything other than kink-positive. It does portray someone for whom kink is — at least at first — massively conflicted and challenging, but I like that. It’s interesting, and certainly reflects my experience of being a man coming to terms with reconciling M/F dominant feelings with feminism. I’d probably have some qualms about a man in that situation who didn’t find that there were some emotional rocks on the road. Too much kink writing portrays two-dimensional dominant partners as monolithically in control and sure of themselves. Spader’s character finds a nice balance between that and a Fifty Shades wanker.
Being kink-positive is great, and, yes, there could be a lot more of that in popular culture, but in a drama it’s just not especially interesting. I’d much rather have drama that explores the challenges of kink — especially in the context of a society where kink is so stigmatised. So long as it doesn’t link kink and character flaw causally, recognising that kinky people are just as fucked up as the rest of society is great. Damaged-and-kinky is how most of us are, isn’t it?