I wanted to have this review up by Valentine’s but life got in the way! 💘 Anyways, here’s a post about Eleanor Davis’ BDSM, the first in the 2016 lineup for Frontier, a quarterly comics magazine that features one artist, usually up-and-coming, per issue.
I don’t want to write too much about BDSM‘s plot up front because appearances are not quite what they seem. In fact, I would recommend avoiding reading any reviews or synopses. Without giving anything away, I will describe BDSM as a comic about two women, Victoria and Lexa, whose relationship involves power exchanges. If you do not wish to be spoiled further, stop reading this post when you see the grey text.
Plot aside, the art is lovely. Throughout the comic, Davis uses fluid linework to create bold, compositions that give this short comic a dynamic feel. This also helps to marry the more cartoonish designs of the characters (especially the anime inflected eyes and facial expressions) with the subject matter.
Another visual aspect I enjoyed was the lettering. I don’t talk about lettering much, but I like how Davis represents speech; you can almost hear the characters’ voices out loud.
Davis also does an excellent job of demonstrating the power dynamics at play through the story’s artwork and dialogue rather than spelling anything out. It gives the various power exchanges between the characters a richness in context that the reader must tease out themselves.
BDSM is a promising start to this year’s Frontier series. I bought the digital subscription of Frontier so this comic was delivered right to my inbox. For those of you looking for a hard copy, here’s a list of Frontier stockists. If you like Davis’ work, I also wrote a little blurb about her minicomic, Fuck Wizards.
Now, to dig into BDSM a little more. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll italicize BDSM in reference to the comic whereas BDSM will reference the BDSM scene and community.
Although the title of the comic is BDSM, the story actually has precious little to do with BDSM culture or the leather community. It is briefly suggested that Lexa may be associated with either/both when she cleans someone’s leather boots, but that’s about it. This is not to say the work has failed but I do think the title is misleading. The comic has far more to do with gender relations and power than BDSM. On that note, I thought it would be worth breaking down the power plays and transgressions of boundaries in each scene.
BDSM begins with a porn shoot for the film “Slut Servant 6,” so it is perhaps an ironic decision to make the most formalized and consensual power exchange scene in the comic the most performative and “fake” one. In this scene, Victoria dominates Lexa by ordering Lexa to lick tea she has spilled on the floor. However, even here, the boundaries between fantasy and reality blur. Between takes, Lexa freely admits that she enjoys performing this act of humiliation and is perhaps, genuinely aroused by it.
The next scene takes place in the studio lot where Victoria, Lexa and the shooting crew take a coffee break. We immediately see through Victoria’s tough girl veneer; she may play the role of a dominatrix, but in reality, she’s struggling to be treated as an equal by male colleagues who do not see her as such. Victoria’s attempts to be accepted by her peers are further undercut by Lexa’s coffee run; Lexa’s willingness prompts the crew to ask Victoria to be their gopher too. This gendered power imbalance is further underscored when Victoria accidentally spills her coffee on a crew member’s boots. Lexa drops to her knees to clean them, but not before crew members ask Victoria to lick up the liquid. The gendered dynamic of woman=servant is so strong, no one considers the option of having the man clean up his own boots. So here is a transgression of professional and societal boundaries where Victoria is being sexually objectified and harassed on her coffee break.
Notably, Victoria’s resultant anger is not directed toward the men who have subjugated her; she would rather try to continue to curry their favour while unleashing her contempt solely upon Lexa and herself. Victoria’s internalized patriarchal views are further demonstrated by who she thinks should be performing these acts of unpaid labour: an intern or the absent Mercedes, which suggests that her strategy is to throw another woman or person of lower status under the bus – perhaps there is even some blindness to her privilege operating here.
The next scene brings us back to the porn set where Victoria’s real life contempt is performed for the camera as she insults Lexa and spits in Lexa’s face. “You chose this,” Victoria says as her anger builds, “you chose to demean yourself and be used like this. You’re disgusting.” In addition to blurring the boundary between real life and performance, this scene may also be read as blurring Victoria’s contempt for Lexa with an unconscious contempt for herself. Contempt for her eagerness in adopting patriarchal violence and the fact that she enjoys it, enjoys the crumbs of power she gains from this. Perhaps there is even contempt for her decision to work in pornography, or at least, on a set where she is clearly not being treated equitably by her male coworkers.
We then see Victoria icing her hands after the work day, looking sad. Outside the structured world of the porn set is where the power dynamic between Victoria and Lexa flips. Lexa, now answering to her legal name Alex (note the switch to a male name), takes control by delivering another performance of female weakness and distress: she pretends she’s lost her car keys in order to convince Victoria to drive her home. It becomes clear that in spite of Lexa’s sweet demeanor, she is also calculating. She’s leveraging negative stereotypes of women to manipulate her world in her favour and to gain pleasure. On the set, Lexa performs for money, and in real life, Alex performs to get laid.
Alex invites Victoria into her home where she begins some serious topping from the bottom, goading Victoria into hitting her and breaking down Victoria’s defenses. First, she playfully mocks Victoria’s fear of hurting her and then rightfully accuses Victoria of enjoying hurting her earlier, of exercising violence against her to gain the respect of their male colleagues. It becomes clear that far from being the hapless victim, Alex is the only character who understands her intentions and desires and the gendered power dynamics at play in this story. As the coup d’etat, Alex goes as far as to take Victoria’s hand by the wrist, making Victoria slap her. The comic ends with an overwhelmed Victoria succumbing, without actively consenting, to Lexa’s desires.
Personally, although I think BDSM is a rich and excellently executed comic – I would certainly recommend reading it – I have mixed feelings about it. While I liked the subtlety and richness of its female characters, I also found them wanting.
With Victoria, I’m tired of representations of weak female doms. To be fair, Victoria doesn’t identify as a dominant and explicitly states she doesn’t want to hurt Lexa. And it’s not the responsibility of BDSM to represent dominant women in a certain way or at all. But I would LOVE to see more diverse and realistic representations of dominant women. There is a powerful association in our society with femininity and submission so representations of dominant female characters are few and far as it were. When dominant women are represented as truly dominant, it’s often done with narrow stereotypes that reflect our stunted, patriarchal ideas and anxieties about women in power (e.g., the corporate bitch, the femme fatale, etc.)
Lexa is definitely not a doormat which is great because there are enough associations out there about service and weakness. Lexa’s sweet and compliant, but she knows what she wants and will do what she needs to get it. However, the blurring of her service-orientation with being taken advantage of in the workplace (which undermines Victoria’s right to be treated equally and professionally, as well as that of all the other women on that porn set), rubbed me the wrong way. There is a major difference between erotic power exchange/sadomasochism and workplace exploitation/harassment. The way BDSM compares the two doesn’t sit well with me. Moreover, I think it is fair to say that she manipulates Victoria into doing something Victoria doesn’t want to do (just because someone enjoys an act doesn’t mean they want to do it) which would not be kosher in a BDSM context. Although all of this does make for a more interesting story.
Anyways, these are my own personal biases at play and I do not mean to imply there is something wrong or offensive about BDSM‘s female characters. I do not support the idea that representations of women should always serve political purposes; artists should have the freedom to create ambiguous or problematic characters. Having said that, I am cautious when it comes to how female sex workers and BDSM practitioners are represented as they are both groups that are frequently used today for the titillation and entertainment of non-practitioners – while their voices, stories and lives in reality are still shunned and marginalized. Maybe if the comic wasn’t titled BDSM, I wouldn’t have such mixed feelings about it.