The female dominant (domme, dominatrix, domina, mistress, etc.) may appear to be a more defendable BDSM stereotype than that of the female submissive. On the surface, fem-doms invert negative stereotypes about female sexuality and the “female” personality. They are women who take control, who behave aggressively, who know what they want and demand it with force if necessary. In other words, they take on characteristics traditionally seen as “male.” But while they may be accused of letting feminism down less often than their submissive sisters, dommes have it just as rough when it comes to the media.
For one, the shock value of the female dominant rests on deeply conservative ideas of gender binary—that men are This Way, women are That Way, and anyone daring to embody characteristics deemed as belonging to another gender is immediately a transgresser. As long as dommes are seen as not traditionally feminine, we know they’re still being judged by rigid gender standards. And if we see dommes as more positive role models than fem subs, then we are effectively denigrating every “traditionally feminine” quality, as well as subs themselves. In other words, if we respect dommes because they act “more like men,” we can hardly claim they’re flying a good flag for us ladies.
Whenever I think of dominants on TV, in movies or in books, I picture an older, severe-looking woman dressed in restrictive clothing, wielding a whip. She’s usually white, slim, and cisgendered. A foreign accent designed to emphasize her erotic “otherness” might be thrown in—think Milla Jovovic’s PVC-encased baddie Katinka in Zoolander, or Frau Farbissina, the authoritarian leather-clad villain in the Austin Powers films. Yes, these are comedies, so the characters are naturally going to be played for laughs, but it’s interesting that the idea of a sexually powerful woman is seen as so amusing in the first place. Does the threat a domme poses to patriarchal structures mean she must be neutralized with a laugh track?
It’s not as if dommes escape the narrow dictates of what constitutes “sexy”—the clothing associated with them is deliberately restrictive and exaggerates “feminine” sexual characteristics, ensuring women can act manly but still appear female and sexy. I’m sure there are plenty of dommes who genuinely love corsets, spike heels, and PVC—as well as those who wear it as part of their profession—but I’d wager there are also fem-doms who are just as happy brandishing a flogger in jeans and a t-shirt, especially butch, LGBT, or genderqueer women. Yet I’m struggling to think of an example of a domme in pop culture represented this way.
On the occasion we see non-white dommes, racial stereotypes often rear their ugly heads—think Lucy Liu in Charlie’s Angels, clad in black leather, terrifying a classroom full of male office drones by savagely smacking a pointer on the desk and grabbing one man by his hair. In Margot Weiss’s BDSM study Techniques of Pleasure, Midori, an established Asian BDSM educator, admits that the prevalent stereotypes of Asian women as either “delicate flowers or dragon ladies” are hard to break. One of Midori’s more interesting solutions is to be “particularly sadistic while wearing a traditional kimono, thus mixing the ‘delicate flower’ image with hard-core sadism.” Now, that might be a good way to disrupt the Asian stereotyping we’re so often served by the Western media, but it also would be pretty groundbreaking to see women of different ethnicities appearing in the media divested of obvious ethnic symbols altogether.
And it is possible to do. In the second book of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire, protagonist Lisbeth Salander’s sometimes play partner Mimmi Wu initially is described like a typical “dragon lady” dominatrix (the police discover “patent leather, corsets, and fetishist whips” in her apartment). However, when Mimmi and Lisbeth actually have a dom/sub play session together in Chapter 7, Larsson only mentions that both women are wearing t-shirts, keeping BDSM costuming stereotypes firmly at bay. Mimmi Wu’s race is entirely absent from Larsson’s description of her as a dominant sexual partner, and the scene focuses instead on fun and lust, not clothing styles and bodily appearances. Perhaps it’s our loss that Stieg Larsson didn’t live long enough to write some more sex scenes, especially BDSM ones.
So what do y’all think—do female dominants have it any easier in the media, or are they merely subject to different but equally bothersome expectations? What examples of dommes in pop culture would you like to see more, or less of?