Fun with Sexualized Punishment in Comics

I have seen a number of articles online lately about the depiction of assorted kinks in comics, especially Golden Age comics. Part of the academic interest lately is I suppose part of the larger mainstreaming of kink culture and its siblings, queer and LGBT theory. That’s all fine with me. I am a little dismayed, however, by a couple of trends:

1) a tendency for writers, when discussing the Golden Age and Silver Age comics, to make a meal out of stuff like Wonder Woman’s lasso (used for bondage, of course) or Superman spanking a (usually female) super-villain. Yes, obviously there is a sexual undercurrent to such depictions, but they are also products of their time. We don’t need to assume that the Silver Age writer or artist had some dark agenda by depicting a spanking; they could have just been depicting a punishment that would have made sense to a 12-year-old kid in the 1950s. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, guys.

2) these days of course, spanking is not a normal punishment outside of the kinky community (and even there it is not necessarily a punishment). I cringe at the ham-fisted attempts on television and in comics to depict a character – usually a villain – that seems to have, for lack of a better word, a “superkink”. The latest example is in the solicitation for Keith Giffen’s Superman #9, in which Big Blue battles “Masochist”, a female supervillain who apparently becomes stronger the more she is struck, like a berserker or Sebastian Shaw from the X-Men. She wears a t-shirt that says – sigh – “Hurt Me.”

As someone pointed out on Twitter this morning, Masochist sounds like a riff on the villain mentioned in Watchmen who got dropped down an elevator shaft because he kept pestering the “heroes” to hurt him. I don’t even want to contemplate what ridiculous psychological hogwash Giffen has prepared as a backstory. These two-dimensional depictions are a sign of trying too hard at best and titillation at worst. There have been some interesting takes on it, by the likes of Alan Moore and Rick Veitch, but more often than not it seems to be a way for unimaginative writers to exploit something they don’t understand.

Being kinky and getting off on receiving or administering pain (or restraint, or whatever) is not unlike being gay; it is a biological and neurological luck of the draw. It is nothing to be scared of or wonder at; it is simply the normal state of affairs for a significant percentage of the population. Perhaps someday we’ll see a truly realistic depiction of such things, in a story where it makes sense to do so.