Attention Unwanted (and Otherwise)

Introducing Sofia Vergara.

She’s one of the stars of the long-running sitcom Modern Family (2009-20), playing Gloria Pritchett, the Latina wife of the much older paterfamilias Jay (Ed O’Neill). In the episode entitled ‘Spanks for the Memories’ (shown on April 6, 2018), she is the recipient of what can only be described as an erotic failure.

No, not quite like that…

She and Jay are having what he calls ‘a romantic dry spell’. At the start of the episode, he overhears her on the telephone with her friend Rebecca: ‘It’s a disaster in the bedroom. I don’t know what to do. It’s like he can’t remember where things go. Eventually I get so frustrated that I take care of it myself.’ Pause for the other side of the conversation, then: ‘Spanking? Yeah, I guess we could try that. Actually, now that you mention it, Javier and I tried it a long time ago. It was a game-changer.’ Javier, incidentally, is her first husband.

In bed later, she and Jay have a conversation about Rebecca:

GLORIA: Her husband never really gave her what she needed.
JAY: Did she tell him?
GLORIA: No, but sometimes it’s more exciting to be with someone that already knows what you want without you telling them.

And so saying, she turns to put out the light, raising her round rear end high in the air.

‘Got it,’ says Jay, and lands three rapid smacks on the upturned bottom.

It turns out that this isn’t at all what she wants: the bedroom she was talking about was their young son’s, the disaster was his untidiness, and spanking… well, let’s not bother to go there.

An overheard conversation also leads to a spanking mishap in ‘Buried Pleasures’, an episode of the office relationships series Ally McBeal (1997-2002); but though the misunderstanding is far less fundamental, the consequences are rather more serious, not least because the central characters are lawyers who are currently thinking a lot about workplace sexual harassment. So maybe it isn’t an entirely good idea for John Cage (Peter MacNichol), one of the senior partners, to be in bed with Nelle Porter (Portia de Rossi) in the first place.

The episode was shown on November 1, 1999, and billed as the most erotic Ally so far, which won it an extra-large first-transmission audience in the US and later got it banned in Singapore (though that was possibly more to do with a lesbian kissing sequence than the spanking).

The cross-purpose gets started in a women’s discussion about sex, when Ling (Lucy Liu) asks Nelle what her ‘dirtiest little secret’ is. ‘Sometimes I fantasize about getting spanked,’ replies Nelle. Key information that follows is: ‘I would never do it, and trust me, I have no desire to be either victimized or dominated by men.’ She was simply titillated by reading a book entitled Spank the Maid. But: ‘I can’t deny it: it’s a fantasy, to have a man spank me, thwap, thwap, thwap, right on my white little bottom until it turns pink.’

John hears just the tail end of this: the bit about Nelle’s pinkened tail end. It doesn’t drive him wild with misplaced spanko enthusiasm; on the contrary, he is a sexually unadventurous man who is disturbed by the idea that Nelle might derive pleasure from pain. But when he talks it over with his fellow senior partner Richard Fish (Greg Germann), he is advised to be assertive:

‘I think you need to sit down with Nelle and, you know, spank her. Just take her right over your knee.’

A bit of research (if surfing spanking sites on the web can be called research) provides them with the familiar 30% statistic: the number of adult women who enjoy fantasizing about being spanked. And Fish has another nugget of useful online information:

‘Many women brush their hair in bed, leave the brush on the nightstand in the secret hope their partner will take it to them. The surprise factor adds to the pleasure.’

And John knows for a fact that Nelle does indeed brush her hair in bed. She’s doing it the very next time he’s there with her.

So he seizes his chance to give her what he thinks she wants, in a rather pusillanimous way. First he inveigles her into lying across his lap on the pretext of examining a gift he has for her, he says, on his side of the bed.

Once she’s in position, he picks up the brush, lifts the tail of her pajama jacket and spanks her.

Cue horrified screams from her and cartoonish sounds of stultified surprise from him. She threatens to call the police, tells him to get out and rubs her bottom, all her angry contempt going into the words, ‘You sicko!’

When she got the script and read the scene for the first time, Portia de Rossi was taken aback. But she seems to have come round to it, no doubt in part because it was always the intention for her bare bottom to be out of frame. When it came to rehearsals, the problems were, on the contrary, with Peter MacNichol: like many another gentlemanly actor back in the golden age of spanking scenes, he was reluctant to spank her too hard for fear of hurting her. And indeed, it must be said that Miss de Rossi is not over-endowed with natural padding in the lower dorsal regions:

But she protested the lack of vigor in his performance: ‘I can’t feel anything, I can’t react to it.’

It was agreed that he would have to be seen to spank her a lot harder, but that she would still have to simulate Nelle’s reactions, because they chose to armor-plate her with a prosthetic bottom that would fit over her own – providing another good reason to keep the target area below ‘see level’ in the finished program.

Emboldened by the knowledge that nothing he did could possibly hurt her, MacNichol spanked away with a will through several takes, until finally, with an almighty whack, the prosthetic split in two and flew across the studio. ‘He broke my bottom,’ said Portia afterwards.

Ally McBeal was a series noted for its especial appeal to women viewers; but early in 2000, a journalist tried to argue that, on the contrary, it was aimed at men and designed to cater primarily to their tastes and interests. Part of the basis for that counterintuitive view were the articles of faith that no women ever fantasize about being spanked and all women, without exception, absolutely detest and despise spanking scenes; therefore what else could Ally McBeal be but a male fantasy?

As an antidote to that kind of stupidity, let’s take a series created by, written by and starring a woman, Julia Davis: Nighty Night (2004-5), a black comedy halfway between sitcom and sketch show, about the manipulative sociopath Jill Tyrell. She pursues the rich but utterly dorkish Glenn Bulb (a broad and unsubtle performance from Mark Gatiss), and in the episode first shown on 20 September, 2005, she tries to get him into sexual roleplay, making the promising choice of ‘strict teacher and naughty schoolgirl’.

Cut to detention… Jill is now dressed as a schoolgirl, and getting Glenn into his untrendy ‘geography teacher’ outfit. She hands him the cane and tells him, ‘You’re a teacher, you’ve got to be strict.’ He promptly tries to give her… a geography lesson. ‘I’m in detention because I’ve been really naughty,’ she prompts him; but the lesson continues, so she tries again. ‘I’ve been really naughty and I need to be punished.’ And to emphasize the point, she turns her back on him and bends over.

When he still doesn’t get it, she bashes him, explaining that that kind of violence is routine in schools nowadays. Provoked, he gives her a whack across the bottom as she runs away,

and in response she knocks him cold.

Despite obvious differences, these are all basically variants on the same scenario: comic situations arising from a misunderstanding over what it is the women want, with the men presented as more or less well-intentioned and willing to please, but inept and clueless as to exactly what it is that will please.

There’s a slightly more complex take on it, with a broader mismatch between what each participant understands and expects, in a 2005 episode of the sitcom Joey, a Friends spin-off about Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc), an aspiring actor in Los Angeles. In ‘Joey and the Valentine’s Date’ (shown on February 10), he’s interviewed by columnist Judy Wilson (Dina Waters),

who has a squeaky voice and acts ditzy, but is said to be smarter than she seems. His publicist has told him to charm her in the hope of getting a good write-up, so he asks her out to dinner tomorrow evening, completely forgetting that today is February 13. She duly gets the wrong idea, and he spends the rest of the episode trying hopelessly to escape from a situation accelerating inexorably towards a serious relationship involving rings. And to make matters worse, he has to keep it up for two days, until the magazine goes to press.

Back home the day after the date, he tries sitting as far as he can away from her, but ‘Kitty needs some attention’. He drops into the conversation a question about how the article is going, only to be told that she hasn’t finished it. ‘I’ve been a bad little kitty,’ she says, and moves into a certain position.

The offer couldn’t be more blatant,

and he seriously considers the possibility:

But of course he can’t, because he’d be spanking her on false pretenses, so instead he presses his question about the article. The answer is not what he wants to hear: what she thinks of as their developing relationship means she hasn’t had time to work on it, so she has been granted a month’s extension. But at least she gets up, disentangling him from the compromising position, presumably having realized that there isn’t going to be any sexy ‘spank the kitty’ roleplay.

(And, for those who are interested, he extricates himself after discovering that her family are strict Lutherans, by pretending to be an equally committed adherent of the Jewish faith.)

All of these comedies are firmly rooted in the ‘new normal‘: they start from the primary modern understanding of spanking as a form of ‘parasexual’ activity, rather than of punishment. So long as the representation of actual intercourse remains taboo, spanking (and other kinds of kink and foreplay) can serve as a handy substitute in scenarios dealing with the characters’ sex lives. As such, these are not just ‘stupid men stories’ about how the women don’t get what they want, or get what they don’t want. More fundamentally, the humor arises from the fact that the characters are not in accord, and so touches on one of the most central, and most serious, issues that complicates spanking in our contemporary times: today you mustn’t spank a girl without her consent. But we’ll see how different it once was in the next installment of this series.

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