Look at a beloved genre TV show, movie, or comic book. Is there simmering sexual tension marked by shifting power and the exchange of control? Do the characters strut around in leather corsets and wield whips? Does someone get tied up? You’re looking at BDSM (variously standing for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism) at play. Which really doesn’t come as a surprise, because geeks are kinky as all get out.
Older, more conservative narratives would have us believe that people who engage in BDSM are somehow wrong or depraved. But the sheer presence of kinky characters across so many stories—whether hiding in children’s shows as jokes for the parents, or in the case of Farscape’s Scorpius, hiding in plain sight—simply proves how universal the notion of power exchange is.
Remember your safe words, ’cause it’s time to meet our favorite fictional kinksters!
Wonder Woman Learning that the first notable female superhero symbolizes several aspects of BDSM culture tells you a lot about the mindset of the man who created her—a man who experimented with BDSM and lived in a polyamorous triad within which he raised a family in the 1930s and ’40s. William Moulton Marston presented Wonder Woman as an alluring example of the interplay of bondage and submission, combining the theme of submission with ideals of justice and the greater good. Les Daniels and Chip Kidd’s Wonder Woman: The Complete History quotes Marston as saying: “Only when the control of self by others is more pleasant than the unbound assertion of self in human relationships can we hope for a stable, peaceful human society.” Once that connection was made, Wonder Woman’s bullet-deflecting, bondage-inspired cuffs; her thigh-high boots; and, most tellingly, her golden lasso that forces anyone she ties up to do exactly as she says, had a clear inspiration.
Scorpius’ entire life centers around regulation and control. Born a half-Sebecean half-Scarran hybrid (the only one of his kind), Scorpius had issues of a significantly temperate nature: His Scarran half thrived in heat, the same heat that was deadly to a Sebecean. So, he encased himself in a coolant suit that he designed—which came out as a shiny leather bodysuit with tails.
We see Scorpius get into some kinkier activities over the course of the show, particularly in his relationships with Natira and Sikozu; he also has a permanent, adoring Yes Man in his second, Braca. But it’s his obsession with and continual domination over John Crichton that drives a large portion of Farscape’s conflicts. Scorpius will do anything to get to the wayward astronaut and the wormhole knowledge in his brain, even playing a sub to the woman who deposes him. (It’s hard to forget that time he played dead while Grayza had him dragged around on a leash.) The trick of a true dom is being in charge even when appearances indicate otherwise. Scorpius doesn’t care about what people think of him. He’s aware that he holds every card.
Catwoman In Frank Miller’s comics (and possibly Christopher Nolan’s films) Catwoman is explicitly a prostitute, and in the 1960s Batman she’s a jewel thief, but Tim Burton’s Catwoman is a feminist vigilante—an intelligent, angry woman who resorts to terrorism to fight against her evil boss, the patriarchy, and possibly even the commercialization of Christmas. Also, she’s a Domme.
Her weapons? Where Bats uses his fists, she relies on claws and a long, expertly cracked whip to fight her enemies. But when she uses them on Batman, the results are a little… different. The fight at first seems to be functioning as foreplay, but gradually it becomes clear that this is the main event. This is how they communicate, and how they express their complicated love and admiration for each other. In Batman Returns, we get an enthusiastic, consensual, totally equal BDSM relationship that puts Secretary to shame.
The Borg Queen She likes her leather bodysuits (well, maybe they’re leather), and she prefers to have her playdates strapped to tables. Considering the reputation of the Borg, it makes sense that their Queen might feel the need to carefully arrange her audiences. When she’s got Data pinned down, she offers him quite a few carrots, foremost the chance to become more human than he ever dreamed. But Data knows that all this kindness is really just a prelude to the absolute power she will wield over their galaxy if he lets her change Earth’s history and he rejects her manipulating offer.
But he was tempted. For exactly zero-point-six-eight seconds.
Hexadecimal Even though most of ReBoot’s viewers were too young to get the many adult references the creators crammed into the show, they got a pretty clear visual when queen of chaos and crazy virus Hexadecimal strutted into every scene in her stiletto boots and leather corset. (All the Tropes points out that Hex’s kinkier look debuted around the time that BDSM was becoming more mainstream.) What’s interesting is that Hex is dressed as a Domme but she’s the one who gets tortured—usually by her brother Megabyte, which is pretty damn weird. We ultimately learn that Hex could have escaped anytime she wanted to, but she likes being tied up. So, is she a Domme in charge like Scorpius, or a genuine SWItch?
Agent 711 When Brian K. Vaughan mapped out the series arc for Y: The Last Man, he didn’t know that the narrative would veer into a BDSM-inspired suicide intervention for protagonist Yorick. That brilliant idea came from Vaughan’s co-creator and artist Pia Guerra: Vaughan told Bookslut in 2006, “[Pia] mentioned in passing that if Yorick is an escape artist, his great nemesis would be a mistress of bondage.”
In the “Safeword” arc, Agent 711—recognizing survivor’s guilt and suicidal impulses from reading Yorick’s journals—drugs the last man, trusses him up, and appears every inch the punishing domme. While her appearance may match what one expects from a BDSM encounter, her methods do not. 711 begins their session by first trying to rape Yorick, then harshly demeaning his chosen sexual identity for not wanting to have sex with her or any other woman. She ultimately presents him with the option to kill himself as a way of slowly prying out the source of Yorick’s depression: How a childhood incident of molestation and his first sexual experience with his beloved Beth left him stamped with self-disgust. How since the plague, Yorick has wondered why he deserved, out of all the world’s men, to live.
It’s BDSM as therapy, albeit with the very problematic dimension that none of it is consensual. But for Yorick, it’s necessary: Only in such a controlled environment can he confront his self-sabotaging impulses and experience a truly transcendent moment of realizing who represents hope to him and inspires him to complete his quest.
Xenia Onatopp Xenia is a reminder that BDSM is often shorthand for bad, and in this case it’s the kind of bad most men would (or rather, do) die for. At roughly the same time that ReBoot’s Hexadecimal was getting a thrill out of being tied up, Famke Janssen’s Bond femme fatale was crushing men between her thighs—and getting off from it.
This lust murderer with a surname to move even the most stalwart Bond fans to groans had a pretty simple black widow M.O. with admirals and secret agents alike.
The Hellfire Club For a less consensual take than Catwoman… Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s run on Uncanny X-Men introduced The Hellfire Club, a secret society bent on—wait for it—world domination! The club was based on a series of actual gentlemen’s clubs that used their meetings to satirize religious piety, which eventually transformed into The Phoenix Society. Hmmm… Claremont was apparently also impacted by a particularly kinky episode of The Avengers. Claremont’s version of the HC is run by Sebastian Shaw and Shaw’s White Queen, Emma Frost, who makes some daringly fetishistic sartorial choices.
The themes of submission and dominance recur often throughout Claremont’s run on the comics, usually centering on villains trying to control Jean Grey and Storm. He often explicitly uses corsets and chains to show the characters’ lack of power. Claremont also made sure that his female characters had more agency and strength than was always common in comics at the time (in Storm’s case, he linked that power to her comfort with her body and sexual freedom) and even gave The White Queen herself a monologue about sexual agency and costuming.
Spike Even aside from his whole “fool for love” speech, Spike has a very specific sub-y M.O.: He finds a woman and makes that woman his reason, his everything. It begins, if we’re frank here, with his mother. He holds her on a pedestal until Drusilla comes along. And then he is at Dru’s beck and call for ages, catering to her every whim.
Then he turns to Buffy (which he is against consciously, but his subconscious does the work for him), and no matter how much the Slayer tries to keep him at arm’s length, Spike is determined to be of use to her. He babysits her little sister, he encourages Buffy to use him sexually, and at the end he willingly gives his life to her cause without hesitation. We’re not quite sure that’s being a fool for love, but it’s being a fool for something.
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