Friday, February 8, 2002

Torture TV (referring to the audience, of course)

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #175, February 8, 2002)

The latest proof that America’s television networks are both desperate and clueless comes in the form of two new shows, Fox’s “The Chamber” and ABC’s “The Chair.” Some point to these shows as evidence of the continuing mainstreaming of BDSM. I say they appropriate BDSM imagery and misrepresent it, and I can only hope that by the time you read this both these shows will have been yanked from their respective networks’ schedules.

I must confess that I watch very little television these days. Somewhere in the mid-1990s so much of television became so stupid that I just couldn’t stomach it anymore. So I was somewhat hesitant when Lavender editor Tim Lee invited me to watch “The Chamber,” but when he listed the various traditional BDSM-community practices that were being put on display in Prime Time (fireplay, electrical play, and psychological torture, to name but a few), I thought I would at least have to see if he was telling the truth.

The two shows are similar in many ways—so similar that “The Chair” is suing “The Chamber” for stealing their idea. (“The Chamber” has filed a countersuit.) They are extreme versions of one of the oldest television programming concepts, the quiz show. But both shows up the ante by strapping the contestants into a chair and putting them in extremely stressful situations while the emcee asks the questions. Contestants are penalized if they get too excited (as measured by a stress-monitoring device to which they’ve been attached).

On “The Chair” a stressful situation is having a live alligator, lowered from the ceiling in a harness, dangling inches from your face. But that’s wimpy compared to “The Chamber,” where the chair containing the contestant is drawn into a see-through torture chamber which subjects the contestant to increasing degrees of extreme heat or extreme cold, flamethrowers or high-pressure water jets, earthquake simulations, muscle spasms induced by electric shocks and reduced oxygen levels—all while being asked, for example, where former president Bill Clinton is building his Presidential Library. (The shivering contestant’s guess: “Washington, DC?” Wrong—the correct answer is Little Rock, Ark. But how clearly would you be thinking if there was frost forming in your hair?)

Is this the next wave of BDSM? Will leather contests start incorporating torture events as part of the proceedings? Instead of fantasy presentations, will we have flog-a-thons while we ask the contestants leather trivia questions? THWACK! “Who was International Mr. Leather in 1988?!” THUD! “Coral hankie, right pocket! What does it mean?!” On second thought, maybe this should be incorporated into the interviews with the judges.

No, I don’t think this is the next wave of BDSM. I think these shows exist because it’s no longer acceptable to entertain ourselves by throwing Christians to the lions or by having gladiators fight to the death, and this is as close as we can come. It’s interesting to note that the rest of the world has been seeing stuff like this on their televisions for years (the idea for “The Chair” originated in New Zealand). The American networks used to have broadcasting “standards and practices” that prevented them from lowering themselves to this level, but evidently those days are long gone.

I can’t sound my familiar protest that “This isn’t BDSM because it’s not safe/sane/consensual.” These shows go to great lengths to be safe (when was the last time you saw a heart monitor in a dungeon?), although one female contestant allegedly burned herself getting out of the chamber on “The Chamber.” There are doctors supervising the proceedings, and supposedly in the name of safety they stop the action if the person becomes too stressed—although that’s equivalent to failing, wimping out, losing the game. It could be argued that the action on these shows is consensual, although the lure of Winning Fabulous Prizes might cloud some people’s judgment. I wouldn’t call it sane, but very little on network TV these days is sane.

I can and do protest, however, that this is sending a bogus message to viewers. BDSM is not about seeing how much you can endure to impress other people, and it’s certainly not about seeing how much you can endure in order to Win Fabulous Prizes. And just as I don’t want non-leather types gawking at the perverts in a leather bar, I don’t really want people getting their vicarious thrills watching other people get tortured. Blood lust is not what the scene is supposed to be about.

As I watched “The Chamber” it dawned on me that the contestants aren’t the only people being tortured here. I felt tortured just watching it. I did, however, find myself being drawn into the spirit of things: in the name of art and intellect and research and impressing my readers, how much of this torture can I stand?

I must confess that I wimped out—I couldn’t make it through the whole show. In this instance, the safeword was the “off” button on the TV remote.

Valentine’s Gala Rodeo Fundraiser at The Saloon

It’s been awhile since there’s been a gay rodeo in Minnesota, but the North Star Gay Rodeo Association (NSGRA) plans to present one in 2003. They’ll be holding a Valentine’s Gala Fundraiser on Sunday, Feb. 17, 6-9:30PM at The Saloon. There will be food, drink specials, country/western music, door prizes, a raffle, a membership table, and plenty of good-looking cowboys and cowgirls. $5 at the door.

Upcoming Leather Events (for Calendar section)

Atons Leather/Levi Dinner
Saturday evening, Feb. 9; Rock Bottom Brewery, 800 LaSalle Plaza (corner of 9th and Hennepin), call for directions
Presented by the Atons, open to all. Cocktails at 7 PM, dinner at 7:30 PM. Call the Atons HotLine for reservations or more information.

Vagabondage/Erotogenic v.3
Wednesday, Feb. 13, First Avenue VIP Room
The House of Vagabondage transforms the VIP room of First Avenue into a dungeon for their third installment of the “Erotogenic” club night combining art, music and erotica, bondage and discipline, fantasy and role playing, gay, trans and hetero. Musical artists are Dolores Dewberry, Starfive, DJ Noise, DJ So Supreme, Monkeybox & CXR. Proper attire is strongly encouraged: leather, rubber, vinyl, cyber, uniforms, gothic, club wear or basic black. Tickets are available at all First Avenue ticket outlets, or at the First Avenue website,

Valentine’s Gala Rodeo Fundraiser
Sunday evening, Feb. 17, 6-9:30 PM, The Saloon
Come help the North Star Gay Rodeo Association raise funds to present a rodeo in 2003. Food, drink specials, country/western music, door prizes, a raffle, a membership table, and plenty of good-looking cowboys and cowgirls. $5 at the door.

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