Pygmalion and Galatea, Jean-Léon Gérôme, c.1890
To start at the very beginning, in the Greek mythology, Pygmalion was a sculptor who fell in love with a statue of his own making. Agalmatophilia is a sexual attraction to a statue, doll, mannequin or a similar figurative object. There is a dollification fetish, there is the real doll, but I’m not really getting into that. While encompassing objectification and domination, the pygmalion fetish is centered around the creation of the object of desire and the power of the creator. From My Fair Lady to The Stepford Wives to Weird Science to Dollhouse, men (and it is usually men, this talk is focused on a heteronormative perspective) in film and television have strived to build the woman of their dreams from scratch. This talk will explore the kinky undertones in this much used trope and look it how it is translated in BDSM as domination as a form of creation and even art.
I started this paper thinking of examples of this in the fictional world and in art, but then I came across the book How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and his Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate, by Wendy Moore (2013). Thomas Day was a wealthy 18th century British writer who after a couple of failed attempts to find a wife, decided to create his own from scratch. Day wanted a partner who would be able to engage with him in discussions of politics, philosophy and literature and who would be as physically as tough as he was. He wanted the female equivalent of himself. She should have a classic feminine beauty, wear plain and simple clothes, no make-up jewelry or ribbons. She should be innocent and virginal and have the humble tastes of a peasant girl. She should happily suppress her own instincts and subvert her own desires. She was to be stoic, patient, subservient and completely deferential to her husband (to some degree this was the social norm, but he took it to an extreme). He would teach her to be his equal in intelligence, but train her to never question him. She would like what he liked and hate what he hated. She should happily suppress her own instincts, subvert her own desires be completely subservient to his wishes at all times. He theorized that if he could control a woman’s education from the beginning, perhaps he could make the woman of his dreams instead of trying to find her. If the perfect wife for him didn’t exist he would have to create her.
In August of 1769, with his friend John Bicknell, he adopted 12 year old Ann Kingston from a foundling hospital in London under the pretense that the girl chosen would be raised and trained to be a proper domestic servant in his household and perhaps grow up to become a governess or a ladies maid, an opportunity for upward mobility that she would never otherwise maintain. He re-named her Sebrina and took her to France where he could conduct this experiment in isolation. She saw him as a paternal benefactor and herself as an apprentice / daughter. She had no idea that he was raising her to be his wife and she was in her 20s before he confessed her scheme to her.
Despite his wealth he insisted on living as frugally as possible with no domestic servants so Sebrina had to do all of the housework as part of her training. As a kind of endurance test to toughen her up, he would drip hot wax on her bare arms and shoulders ordering her not to cry or move. He would stick pins into her commanding that she remain silent and still. He would make her wade in freezing cold water to toughen her up. To reinforce a resistance to fear, he would instruct her to stand perfectly still, walk some distance away, aim a pistol at the bottom of her skirts and fire. She was expected to react with perfect calmness. She didn’t. To cut to the chase, it didn’t work out. After mostly being raised in boarding schools away from Day, Sebrina grew up to be an intelligent, confident, charming and popular young woman away from his influence and went on to marry a man of her choosing. Day eventually found a woman who came close enough to his ideal, as is.
My Fair Lady
I don’t know if George Bernard Shaw had any knowledge of Thomas Day when he wrote Pygmalion in 1913. This story has been translated into a film in 1938 starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller and the more famous musical My Fair Lady starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. The upper class linguistics expert Henry Higgins, places a bet with his colleague Col. Pickering: the challenge, to transform the poor Eliza Doolittle from a uncouth Cockney flower girl into a genteel lady who speaks proper English. With this comes the opportunity to perhaps work in a flower shop, like a proper lady instead of selling leftover bouquet scraps in the street. It’s the most elaborate dumpster dive in popular culture. He found her in the gutter, cleaned her up and gave her a new paint job and a new life. Human upcycling.
More so than her gender, Eliza’s class dehumanizes her: her pride in being able to pay for lessons herself is inconsequential, her social and family life is dismissed, even her clothes are deemed unnecessary. There is no consideration for her as an autonomous being at all. When she calls him out on his inhumanity, which she does often, she’s accused of ingratitude. While it may be her life on the line, the challenge is for Higgins. The bet is not whether or not Eliza could do it, but whether or not Higgins could turn her into someone who could do it. The work his, not hers. If she fails the failure is his. When she succeeds the accomplishment is his not hers. But even in his callousness, his coldness she is a willing participant in the process. She came to him. He dropped the idea in her lap, that speaking better English could improve her station, but she picked it up. Whatever her choices are they are her choices.
The Stepford Wives
In the more sinister and more overtly erotically charged The Stepford Wives, Joanna Eberhart, is intelligent confident New Yorker with a successful career, who moves with her family to the disturbingly homogeneous idyllic Connecticut suburb of Stepford. She begins to suspect that there is something not quite right about the absurdly retrograde submissive housewives in the community. The wives are servile, beautiful, worshipful of their husbands and completely vacuous. It is revealed that the members of the local men’s association have taken their once human wives, with all of their human complexities and emotions and turned them into robots. Her attempts to expose and stop the Men’s Association ultimately fails and she too becomes a Stepford Wife against her will.
Now the term “Stepford wife,” usually references a submissive and docile wife. It’s also used in reference to an accomplished professional woman, who had subordinated her career to her husband’s interests.
The real version of the Stepford Wife is the Bimboificaion fetish. It usually involves a woman with intelligence, autonomy, character and a profession who is turned into a brainless, hyper-sexual toy who only purpose is to please men. There are often references to the relief of not having all the stress and anxiety of a job and being free from the pressure of goals and responsibilities. Many sexually submissive people in BDSM talk about the relief of not having to think, to make decisions or choices. To be a “toy” or a “tool” for a while with a singular purpose and focus can be a calming, cathartic and liberating experience.
But the desire isn’t simply for the bimbo it’s about the process of making a bimbo. To quote Dennis Reynolds It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia “We don’t want wild girls, we want real girls going wild. It’s important to see the transition. You want to watch the process.”
Dollhouse (2009) created by Joss Whedon and starring Eliza (her real name) Dushku probably shows the most explicit representation of the person as a blank canvas. It revolves around an underground establishment which programs individuals (women and men) with temporary personalities and skills for their wealthy clients. The Actives (as they are called) voluntarily give up their lives, their memories and identities to be hired out for all sorts of purposes, not necessarily sexual. It’s basically bespoke prostitution. The Actives are blank slates to be transformed and used over and over again and each time the experience is wiped clean from their memory, returning them to a state of tabula rasa. When they are not in use, the “blank” dolls are kept in a state of zen-like bliss in an never ending spa retreat until a new “program” is inserted. Afterwards, their temporary identity is wiped clean and they are kept in a state of stasis, doing yoga, swimming and getting massages, until they are ready to be used again.
In all of these examples, the benefits for the dominant (the creator) seem clear: the power in having exactly what one wants whenever one wants it. To be the Master Builder, The Architect, The God Creator, The Maker. Whether it’s a coffee table, a painting, or a person, there is power and pleasure in bringing something into existence that was not there before and having the power to change it at will. But for the submissive, the erotic charge is being that object, the adoration in being a precious object, the satisfaction and singular purpose of being a tool, and attention and focus in being an instrument, a vessel, a blank canvas.
Love, Lust or Run
How many TV shows are there focused on “the makeover”? In these shows the prize is receiving the makeover, a gift of transformation under the manipulation of the benevolent stylist, the fashion dominatrix. We love watching the transformation, we want to see the process from freak to professional, from dowdy to glamorous. The change in appearance comes with a promise of personal improvement and a better life. After the humiliating dissection and dismissal of their previous personal aesthetic, they are stripped bare and subjected to the ministrations of so-called experts to transform them into something deemed more socially acceptable or desirable. Then we get to experience the climatic first look in the mirror, watching the Cinderella see a totally different person in the reflection, the more dramatic the change the better. Like little girls playing with real life Barbies, the thrill comes from being agent of that change. It’s also an incredibly intimate bonding experience between the stylist (dominant) and the subject (submissive) to literally and figuratively be stripped down and made anew. Like art, the submissive becomes a representation of the maker and an expression of themselves. They are represented through the submissive. To be a work of art can be empowering for the artwork and revealing for the artist.
In her performance, Rhythm 0, 1974 Abramović placed 72 objects on a table and a sign informing them that people were allowed to use any of those objects on her in any way that they chose. Some of objects that could give pleasure, others could inflict pain: among them were a rose, a feather, honey, a whip, olive oil, scissors, a scalpel, a gun and a single bullet. For six hours the she allowed the audience members to manipulate her body with these objects. While just standing still, in the alternative reality space of the “art gallery”, she became the agent through which the (mostly male) audience could express themselves, exposing aggressive and sometimes cruel tendencies normally suppressed. While the performance was hers and the audience remained anonymous, the participants in the role of the maker revealed more about themselves in the choices of the objects they chose and how the decided to use.
BDSM is a creative act.
La maîtresse (1973)
I don’t meant this in a dismissive way. I mean theater in the way that it can become a transformative experience, in that it allows people to absorb and fully experience an alternate reality or the time frame established by the players. It is an artistic endeavor. Participants aren’t really slaves, they don’t really own people.
There are costumes or uniforms, delimited spaces, there are riutals, protocals, gestures, name changes, coded language… they act as gateways from the “vanilla” world into the BDSM space crafted by the participants allowing the dom to paint the landscape of their own chosen reality and the sub to be the pigment that brings it to life.