Science Fiction Studies

#125 = Volume 42, Part 1 = March 2015


Patricia Melzer

Future Sex and Power?

Lewis Call. BDSM in American Science Fiction and Fantasy. New York: Palgrave, 2013. 225pp. $95.00 hc.

A study offering a close analysis of the representations of BDSM sexualities in science fiction and fantasy and also thematizing how marginal sexualities are expressed in these genres has been long overdue. So it was with real enthusiasm that I began reading Lewis Call’s BDSM in American Science Fiction and Fantasy. And while I am puzzled by some and worried by other aspects of the book, I appreciate the care the author has given to this project, and I believe it has the potential to ignite important discussions on the topic.

In the first chapter, Call introduces the aim of BDSM in American Science Fiction and Fantasy—to make visible the “decades-long love affair between that sexuality and that genre” (1)—and explains the theoretical underpinnings for his analysis. Call defines BDSM as “an ethical set of practices” (3) that enables a re-negotiation of power relations within sexual scenes that potentially models ethical negotiations around power in the social/political world. Call thus presents BDSM as a quasi-utopian set of principles that extends to actual ways of living in real-life BDSM communities. His historical section on BDSM should be very helpful to the uninitiated reader. Call clearly sets up his theoretical investment in ethics, where the concept of consent is the most important element that situates BDSM as a potentially utopian practice. Call points to the familiar dilemma that visibility invokes for marginalized communities: often, representations of BDSM either result in “elimination through normalization” or “rejection through pathologization” (15). Call proposes, instead, that a “third way” exists and argues “that it is possible, via fantasy and sf about BDSM, to transmit positive, sympathetic representations of kink to large and increasingly receptive audiences” (16). The author characterizes “fantasy and sf” as “deeply subversive” (16) and sees a positive relationship with forms of BDSM throughout the history of the genre. Call concludes his introduction to the topic with the observation that “today’s SF&F embraces consensual BDSM in general, and female dominant kink in particular” (25).

This optimistic belief in a progressive development (that smacks a bit of historical determinism towards kinky times) in both BDSM history and fantasy and sf literature—from hostile rejection of alternative sexualities towards an open acceptance of them—dominates the book’s approach: the chapters move chronologically from 1940s Wonder Woman comics, to 1960s and 1970s fantasy and sf by Samuel Delany and James Tiptree, Jr., to the TV series Battlestar Galactica, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Dollhouse of the 1990s and 2000s.

The analyses in the next three chapters focus heavily on the authors. Call’s exegetic doorway into each text is primarily through the author’s biographical relationship to power and sex. Call is very transparent about this approach, and I greatly enjoyed the detailed discussions of William Moulton Marston’s essentialist feminist theory of a world needing saving through female sexual domination, embodied by the glorious Wonder Woman. Call’s very linear approach to how history becomes increasingly progressive and his celebration of the seemingly unique radicalism of Marston’s sexual theory, however, does not account for some of the cyclical ways that sexuality has been conceptualized historically. Call also offers little textual analysis: he alludes to elements of the comic that seemingly confirm his reading but rarely presents them in such a way that readers can form their own judgment. This practice requires much reliance on Call’s assertions and less on the discussion of the texts themselves. Overall, the focus seems to be on understanding Marston through Wonder Woman and not to examine the meaning produced by the text and its interactions with the readers. I was also troubled by the fact that Call problematizes Marston’s feminism only in terms of gender essentialism, not in its white, middle-class, nationalistic manifestations in a war-supporting publication. This positioning of a (white) essentialist feminism that presents BDSM as positive and radical does not portray the ethics of BDSM as very complex. And it also makes the reader wonder if Call does not become complicit in the problematic naiveté of US gender essentialism’s understanding of power and history.

In the third chapter, Call discusses Samuel Delany’s work that supposedly “presented consensual BDSM as an ethically valid lifestyle” (58). While I agree with much of Call’s analysis of Delany’s writing as radical in sexual terms and find intriguing the idea of Delany exploring ethical ways of negotiating power through sexual desire, I was struck by how Call’s exclusive focus on sexual practices within BDSM communities made invisible other power discourses that are often more central in shaping power fantasies within sexual scenes. One example might be contemporary race relations, whose complexity creates experiences that move beyond the direct analogy of what Call refers to as “economic” versus “erotic play-slavery” (82). So the at-times naïve celebratory depiction of SM as subverting identity politics (65) fails to interrogate how Delany’s work also explores some of BDSM erotic’s reliance on the staging of identities. As in the previous chapter, much of the textual analysis is bound to Delany’s assumed intentions and does not explore how BDSM is important for the narratives per se.

The final chapter on fantasy and sf literature discusses the work of James Tiptree Jr. and fiction produced by the same author, Alice Sheldon, under her other pseudonym, Raccoona Sheldon. Again, Call enters the text through the author’s biography, in particular through what he defines as the different persona that Alice Sheldon produced through her writing. While Call still offers very little in the way of textual analysis, he discusses how Sheldon, through her persona of Tiptree, explored power and sex and in particular the connection between sex and death, and his readings of Tiptree’s narratives through this lens of BDSM are truly fascinating. At this point in the book, however, it begins to wear a bit thin that Call’s only understanding of power to be through the binary of  “forms of power and violence which are ethical and necessary,” i.e. those “inherent in all erotic activity” and “unnecessary, unethical violence,” i.e. “political violence of war” and oppression, primarily through gender (92). If political and erotic power function as fundamentally separate, how do we explain how they mirror each other through sexual fantasy? Call’s insistence that these forms of power explored in Tiptree’s writing are distinct and separate overshadows how erotic power relies on political (“unethical”) power to access many sexual scenarios. The assertion that an alternative system of power exists in BDSM demands a thorough and careful analysis of real-world power and not a simple claim that BDSM will transform whatever it uses in its scenes. Generally, Call’s analysis lacks a sophisticated understanding of how race infuses power; his discussion of race in Delany is limited to the transformation of “real” slavery into “play-slavery” as empowering to black people, and in Tiptree to a man of color’s silent alliance with white women (98). In contrast, gender is assumed to always to be a part of how power functions. Call seems genuinely committed to a feminist analysis of patriarchal power and to appreciating sf’s “transgendered aliens” (118). His notion of “real-world” gender, however, is presented as deeply binary (“male and female humans”), echoing the binary of text and real world. Sf text and real-world sexual fantasy seem clearly separate in how they relate to each other: sf’s job is to represent what is happening in the “real” world, not to generate new modes of desire. In moments like these in the book, the reader wonders if despite Call’s interspersed gestures towards queerness, the book may rely too much on a sexual binary in its understanding of power that is deeply troubling in its normalizing of heterosexuality.

In the fifth chapter, Call shifts from fantasy and sf literature to what he views as the genre’s “most radical form: the extended television narrative” (25). In his discussion of Battlestar Galactica and its Cylons, Call draws on Heidegger to ground his analysis of the Cylons’ death wish as central to their claim to humanity. Here the theoretical framework functions the same way as authors’ intentions in previous chapters; any textual analysis seems only to serve as a manifestation of the theory. Call largely ignores the extensive record of cyborg studies as well as many relevant concepts from posthumanism. A posthuman critique of the Cylons’ desire to become human at all costs is absent, which is inconsistent with the celebration of posthuman bodies in the last chapter. Call seems to calculate that theoretical incongruences like these help to preserve his main message of an utopian BDSM within these texts. Overall, the attempt to track Heidegger in Battlestar as indicative of BDSM’s ethical practices around death fantasies seems a bit of a stretch—maybe a more extensive discussion of death as sexual fantasy in BDSM would have been helpful.

In his enthusiastic discussions of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel television series in chapter 6 and Dollhouse in chapter 7, Call declares television finally to have produced honest and sympathetic representations of BDSM. While the attention paid to the audience in the meaning-generating of the texts is appreciated, the author’s insistence on the literal meaning of representations (149-50) begins to become irritating. Such a belief in obvious meanings of representations simply does not concur with the current state of media studies. Call’s old-fashioned literal treatment of visual representations (his privileging of “text” over “subtext”) is reflected in his seriously problematic insistence on BDSM’s “coming-out narrative” that he projects throughout the book. The fetish—excuse the pun—of visibility has been challenged and revised in queer and feminist studies as well as critical race theory, both of which demand much more complex readings of representations of sexuality and their meanings than Call offers. In these final chapters of the book, Call’s analysis is the strongest when discussing individual characters. The lack of specific examples to back up sweeping statements is at times frustrating, however, as are the many missed opportunities to expand on key concepts. In particular, his argument in chapter 7 that posthuman bodies are inherently ethical remains unconvincing, especially since Call leaves the concept of the posthuman (and its implications for human sexualities) wholly unexamined. Overall, Call’s enthusiasm for BDSM being “mainstreamed” on television raises some skepticism about the radicalism of such a move. Direct textual representation often reduces marginal sexualities to those few “digestible” concepts—all firmly maintained in the real-world ideologies of beauty and profitable consumption—that the mainstream can handle.

As much as I enjoyed the reading of familiar texts through the lens of BDSM sexualities, and as much as I generally appreciate the foregrounding of alternative sexualities in fantasy and sf texts, I was hoping throughout the book that Call would begin to “show, not tell”—i.e., that he would offer more textual analysis. Too often, his assertions both about BDSM’s rich potential as an alternative model of power and the ways in which it is represented are not substantiated by examples, especially in the chapters on sf literature and in the chapter on Battlestar Galactica. Call at times seem to push his pro-BDSM position a bit too strongly. To point out ambiguities, complications, and dark elements (the dystopian risks) within BDSM’s power scenarios would have made a more convincing case for the utopian potential of BDSM’s negotiations of consensual power relations. Instead, the term “ethical” becomes the book’s own fetish, and the literal analogies among representations, authorial identity, and real-life BDSM communities appear resistant to the various “subtexts” that might complicate them. The most troubling aspect of this situation is that Call’s insistence on a literal reading of fantasy and sf as being reflective of real-life BDSM communities seems to echo how he views these communities themselves: as unambiguously utopian. It is naïve to think that those communities are always safer for everyone than others, as if that sexual realm remains untroubled by patterns of abuse/alienation/co-dependencies/addictions, etc. (which, interestingly, \sect plain Buffy often explores, but which Call does not acknowledge). Following Foucault’s take on power that is frequently evoked in the book, can BDSM be free from its real-world workings as it reimagines its reconfigurations? These ambiguities are not given any space, including the problematic incorporations of symbols of power into BDSM scenarios, what Kriss Ravetto refers to as a fascist aesthetics. Call dismisses fascism’s eroticism as “unethical, non-consensual” without investigating its iconic role within sexual fantasy. Also lacking is a discussion of how the posthuman, in its more frightening manifestations, questions humanism’s reliance on consciousness and self.

Call’s analysis of BDSM in fantasy and sf as offering alternative models of power negotiations falls short mainly because of his assumption about how power works, or rather how he assumes erotic power works. Call prioritizes gender as the main component within power relations; race plays a marginal role in his scenarios (and mostly in relation to slavery/play-slavery), and class does not take the stage at all. Many of his points about how power is reimagined in sexual fantasy ring true, but a much more frank and extensive exploration of how BDSM’s power might be haunted by the exploitative manifestations of race and class in particular is needed here. This shortcoming is echoed in Call’s continual reliance on binaries: consensual/non-consensual; ethical/non-ethical power; political/erotic (BDSM); feminine/masculine; man/woman. There is no room for grey or for boundary-crossing. For that matter, for all its hat-tipping to queer theory, BDSM in American Science Fiction and Fantasy is not interested in transgender theory in fantasy and sf or how the binary power of the gender system might be reworked in queer BDSM. Finally, a telling lacuna that reflects the limits of Call’s scholarly approach: the book provides very few endnotes. Referencing and/or discussion in notes could have alleviated many of what appear to be theoretical shortcuts and one-dimensional readings. It would have allowed for additional perspectives on the readings without disrupting Call’s main arguments. The book’s analyses might have been more convincing if the author had utilized the “subtext” of scholarly notes more generously.

Call assumes a (clearly caring) dominant position in his presentation and demands the reader’s submission to his particular analysis of the texts. While this may be a valid strategy for an author to take, a more careful consideration of the reader’s desire to explore the contradictions and nuanced workings of BDSM within these texts—instead of a forceful insistence on these texts’ “progressive” treatment of it—would have made for a more complex and ultimately more satisfying read.

Ravetto, Kriss. The Unmaking of Fascist Aesthetics. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001.

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