I’m taking a film criticism class this quarter, and for my mid-term I ended up watching what is possibly the best film-handling of BDSM I’ve ever seen.
Dottie Gets Spanked explores the development of kinky feelings in a young boy in an insightful and sensitive manner. It’s a short film by Todd Haynes. First aired on PBS, Dottie Gets Spanked is available on Amazon Instant Video for like 2 bucks. I heartily recommend it. Spoilers and discussion below.
The film is set in a perfectly cliché 1960’s suburban home. The Gale family consists of a doting mother, a gruff father, and the young son, Steven. It’s only 30 minutes, and it doesn’t waste time with extended scene setting. Tight camera work and focused shots serve to put the audience in the shoes of Steven, a quiet, gentle six-year old boy who is obsessed with an I-Love-Lucy/Carol-Burnett type show “The Dottie Show.”
In the first scene, Steven is drawing and watching The Dottie Show while his mother and a friend have a discussion across the room. His attention changes to the adults when the friend mentions how her daughter has been receiving “so many spankings.” Steven stops drawing and cautiously turns his attention to the discussion. His mother says that she and her husband don’t believe in hitting.
It’s such a small thing, but the film really highlights how we pick things up as children. Steven is interested in spanking, he’s seen it on The Dottie Show as a sort of punchline, but he also knows instinctively not to show too much interest in the subject.
Throughout the film Steven is shamed/ostracised in various, usually subtle ways for his interest in a “girly” show and for being less demonstrably masculine than other young boys. He sits alone at recess, his father barely looks at him, and expresses disapproval at Steven’s interest in The Dottie Show. In one scene a little girl runs up to him at a busstop and says, “My sister says you’re a feminino!” and then laughs and runs away.
No one gets any sign of Steven’s obsession with spanking until his father catches him drawing a picture of Dottie getting spanked from the show. His father doesn’t say anything, just gives him a hard look and tells him it’s time for dinner. That moment is particularly brilliant on the film’s part. It felt very true to life, that the possibility of kinkiness in a child is not even considered out loud, never talked about, not addressed for what it is. Steven’s parents later tell him that they want him to try watching something other than The Dottie Show, something that he can watch with his father. What bothers them is his obsession with feminine entertainment, and that he is so quiet and and shy. The concept of healthy kinkiness is not even considered–there is something queer, something too feminine about Steven. Steven’s interest in transgressive sexuality cannot be acknowledged nor discussed openly. Nor would the culture of the suburban mainstream be prepared to reconcile a masculine identity and a sexual interest that is deemed feminine.
Steven’s dreams are shown twice in the film. In the first, he dreams of a child (possibly the neighbor-girl) being spanked, interspersed with shots from the show of Dottie getting spanked. In the second, longer, dream sequence Steven himself is subjected to a spanking from “The Strongest Man in the Kingdom,” a circus strongman, who then changes to Dottie wearing a false mustache. Taken together, the sequences serve to highlight the way in which Steven has absorbed the feminine coding of spanking from the culture around him. His brain does mental gymnastics to put him in a position to receive a spanking from the object of his obsession.
In the end Steven awakes in the night, takes the picture he had drawn of Dottie getting spanked, and buries it in the backyard, symbolizing that while he is trying to bury his desire, he knows that he will come back to it eventually. It is remarkable that Dottie Gets Spanked deals with the idea of kink as both an orientation, and as something that can be traced to childhood, not as a result of trauma, but a “normal” part of development of identity. For a short film released in 1993, it’s a remarkably heartbreaking and honest look a how much childhood influences sexuality, a conversation that is controversial to this day.
I also like that Steven, a boy, develops a masochistic longing, but he only sees women being spanked. It so perfectly represents the way that male masochism/submission is pushed out of the limelight, how lonely it is for young men to have these desires before they know that there is a world of BDSM where male submission can be a thing. (Maybe not the most respected thing, but at least it exists, has a name, and includes other people who share that interest.)