The following will be a spoiler filled review.
Bonding (or BONDiNG as it is stylised) is an American web series that premiered on Netflix on April 24, 2019. The series stars Zoe Levin, Brendan Scannell, Micah Stock, Theo Stockman, D’Arcy Carden and Eric Berryman and has been placed in the genre of dark comedy. Bonding is also the recent winner of Best Episodic Series honours at last summer’s Outfest. The official Netflix puts the description as “A New York City grad student moonlighting as a dominatrix enlists her gay BFF from high school to be her assistant”.
Fifty Shades of Inaccurate
Ever since its release, Bonding has been at the receiving end of criticism from the BDSM community. Considering the show is loosely based on Director Rightor Doyle’s real-life experiences as an assistant to a dominatrix friend, you would think it would be pretty accurate. On the contrary, the show misrepresents, appropriates and stigmatises.
Our protagonist, Tiff (Mistress May), for instance, is a highly cynical, emotionally unavailable grad student who has a history of sexual abuse, a popular and overused cliché about sex workers. This implication is “pretty sex-negative. It’s such a tired trope and encourages people to see us as trauma victims,” says Kitty Stryker, a writer, consent educator and sex worker. Mistress Synful Pleasure wrote “The inaccuracies feed the stigma of BDSM & it doesn’t really show what the life of a dominatrix is like at all. Why is she a bitch 24/7? Why is she wearing a collar with an O ring? Why does her corset not fit her right? She doesn’t screen her clients? … The lack of negotiation & consent? Come on, even loosely based there should be a better representation of BDSM in here.”
A lot of viewers are also calling out mistakes in the use of terminology. When Tiff says, for example, that she’s a “full-service fantasy provider, but not a prostitute,” some people pointed out that “full-service” is a euphemism for sex. Considering the show is centred on BDSM and kink, this just shows lazy research and the lack of professional sex workers on the team. Tiff’s immediate clarification of “not a prostitute”, sounds defensive and draws a righteous line that privileges certain kind of sex work over the other. The fact that she completed the sentence with “not that there’s anything wrong with that” reminds one of the 1993 Seinfeld episodes where the exact same phrase was used repeatedly about gay people. It’s repetition and expansion of the “Not in my backyard” analogy, in this case, ahem, “dungeon”.
Bonding’s official social media handles are being run under the handle, Mistress May. Unlike many sex workers on Twitter, Mistress May is verified. And this is not insignificant: on a website that many have argued partakes in discriminatory behaviour against those who do sex work, many sex workers are outraged that Twitter would provide a platform for a fictional sex worker from a show that they have argued promotes an inaccurate and outright harmful view of their profession.
many sex workers are outraged that Twitter would provide a platform for a fictional sex worker from a show that they have argued promotes an inaccurate and outright harmful view of their profession.
Shadowbanning, removing a social media profile from suggested accounts to follow, is widely used by large social media platforms to silence sex workers, Jessie Sage, a sex columnist for the Pittsburgh City Paper and an organiser with the advocacy group SWOP Pittsburgh, told Rolling Stone. Although Twitter has denied shadowbanning users, Sage says sex workers have reported otherwise, and it has had an impact on their livelihoods. “Many sex workers have reported that this is dramatically cutting into bookings and sales,” says Sage. So watching Twitter “[shadowban] all of our accounts, but then verifying an account for a terrible show about sex work feels like a particularly rough slap in the face.”
Within the BDSM community, consent is the fundamental principle. Tiff is shown discussing work with her clients multiple times but consent is never discussed. Professional doms make it a point to talk about consent extensively and set boundaries and safe words. In fact, there’s often more discussion about consent in dungeons than there is dirty talk. Tiff often abuses her position of power and violates clients’ consent without any thought at all, which is in direct contrast to the candidly active arrangements within the BDSM community.
Tiff often abuses her position of power and violates clients’ consent without any thought at all, which is in direct contrast to the candidly active arrangements within the BDSM community.
The show is premised on a toxic seeming relationship between the two leads where Pete agrees to work for Tiff because he needs the money. There’s a moment when he comes close to quitting but Tiff tempts him with cash. In the next episode, Tiff signs up Pete for pee play with a client without asking or telling him before. “BDSM without the consent and the care and the sexual component of it is just abuse,” Mistress Couple, head mistress of La Domaine Esemar, tells Rolling Stone. “And I think Mistress May is very abusive not only to her clients but also to Pete and especially to herself…she compromises her boundaries a lot of the time.”
This is not the only time Pete’s consent is ignored as when his hypermasculine, straight, frat boy roommate knows about his new job, he asks Pete for a sexual favour in exchange for one month’s rent. This is clear exploitation of a person who is struggling financially. This could have been the moment where the show delves into the kind of expectations placed on sex workers in their personal lives, but not only was the act normalised, it was played for laughs. The entire scene plays out like a comedy with the roomie’s girlfriend barging in and punching Pete for having his finger up her boyfriend’s ass. Not cool. Like The Guardian puts it, “The sex in Bonding is explicit, non-gratuitous, usually written for laughs and played straight.”
While it has a great cast (D’Arcy Carden from The Good Place and Micah Stock from Escape at Dannemora), all the characters in the show seem touch and go. This might solely be because of the shortness of the series and that’s fair but the writer has relied on stereotypes to construct a plot so predictable that you see each character arc in the first episode itself. Tiff often comes off as a one-dimensional character, a control freak who bosses people around in and outside of work. Pete is an aspiring stand-up comedian with no confidence to actually get on stage. The viewer then knows that the character growth has to come with Tiff having a heart to heart and Pete performing a stand-up set successfully. No surprises there.
It is the director’s or Pete’s perspective as an outsider to the community that the camera then privileges and he is the one the viewer most relates to, like a vanilla person who gains confidence in the dungeon. This is unfair to the female dominatrix whose story is being told, pass on the camera, Rightor. “We ended up in these wild locations like sex dungeons,” Rightor told Queerty of filming in NYC. “It brought a lot of levity to the set because it was so insane… And the funny thing is, if you walk into any room, one is a school room, one is a sort of Indochina palace… The whole place smelled like Clorox.” This statement itself fetishes BDSM related work, it is described as “wild or insane or exotic”, it is otherised in a subtle cinematic manner.
To be fair, there are a couple of scenes (however few and far between) that stayed with me. In the first episode itself when Pete is interacting with one of Tiff’s clients for the first time: “You tell your friends about this?” Pete asks a client who likes to be bound and peed on. “Yeah,” says the client, equally surprised. “I’m not hurting anybody.” This scene becomes important for me because it normalises different fetishes and kinks to an extent. Another scene where Tiff defends her work by saying, “it’s about liberation from shame,” Her argument is that men are the victims of the “crippling societal prison” of toxic masculinity, desperate to hand over the reins of control to someone else and give up the power they’re expected to wield in every other facet of their lives.” This is quite obviously an oversimplification but it works well.
I like to describe Bonding as a one night stand; not a memorable one but at least you can go back to sleep after. (As I grow older, I realise that sleep is indeed one of the greatest pleasures of humankind). With only seven episodes of around fifteen minutes each, the total run time adds up to less than two hours. That’s shorter than most Bollywood films. This then becomes the biggest motivation to watch the show; it’s too short to be truly horrible. But it’s also too short to be truly good. The writing is decent, the plot flows predictably, and the climax is well, underwhelming. (pun intended).
As a writer from Mashable puts it, “Bonding is the ideal transitional show.” If you’re looking for a palate cleanser between something like Sex Education and Breaking Bad, go for it! Piece of advice, you will like it a lot more if you look at it as a coming of age/high school sort of thing rather than a story about S&M like it has been marketed.
Featured Image Source: Binged