My subject today is certain people who have an unhealthy fixation on spanking.
There are two kinds of irrational response to spanking. One is excessive enthusiasm. This is often labeled ‘fetish’, which makes it easy to sideline and despise; in consequence, people are made to feel ashamed of their own pleasures, and so become furtive and end up at significant risk of embarrassment or even blackmail. But that is not my theme.
No, I want to talk about the opposite irrational response, the negative one. It is less often given its label, and that omission allows it to be normalized, treated as part of the mainstream. It is not, or should not be. The label is ‘phobia’.
Spanking phobia manifests itself in five related kinds of behavior, of which the first and least extreme is overreaction. We can begin to illustrate it with a handful of incidents during showings of Secretary at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, witnessed by the playwright Erin Cressida Wilson, who wrote the screenplay:
‘I noticed a few middle-age women storming out during the spanking scene, and during one screening another middle-age woman screamed out “Enough!”’
This is not a normal or reasonable or socially acceptable response to seeing something in a film that you happen to find distasteful. At a public screening, or indeed a live performance, it’s good manners to sit and watch, or close your eyes and ears if you prefer, or even, if you must, make your way quietly to the exit door. But at Sundance, the loud way in which the middle-aged women stormed out or screamed their intervention were the opposite of good manners: they were intrusive and disruptive for everyone else who was trying to watch the film (irrespective of whether or not those people enjoyed the spanking scene and, if they did, for what reason); so the noisy women in question were assuming that their strongly negative reaction to what they had seen was more important than either the film itself or anything the rest of the audience might be thinking or feeling. We shall return to this phenomenon later.
There is a polite alternative to this loutishness, which is no less a form of overreaction. A not inconsiderable number of women have said, after seeing performances of Kiss Me Kate, that the spanking scene made them feel physically sick – and they meant it literally, not metaphorically.
It amounts to the same phenomenon as happened with Secretary at Sundance, only with the phobic reaction turned inward on their own bodies rather than antisocially imposed on those around them.
I feel sorry for these women, not just because I don’t like to think of anyone in an audience suffering actual bodily discomfort because of something in a play, but also, more broadly, because to be unable to handle aspects of life that you don’t much like is a debilitating weakness. What I don’t mean to imply, of course, is that everyone should be obliged to like spanking scenes. Many people just don’t, and that’s their prerogative. I only regret that anyone’s dislike should be so immoderate and irrational that the afflicted individuals distress themselves or inconvenience others. And if that is a form of learned behavior, the result of someone teaching them to hate, despise and fear such scenes (among other things), then it is an induced disability, which amounts to a form of abuse.
What about media that are encountered in a less social context, such as books? Surely people can react or overreact as they like if they’re only doing so inside their own homes and their own heads?
Let’s take a spanking scene in a novel, and to keep the stakes high, I’ve not chosen some ephemeral piece of pulp triviality, but the first novel by a Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel laureate, Saul Bellow: Dangling Man (1944), about the frustrations and ennui of its first-person narrator, Joseph, an unemployed Jewish would-be intellectual awaiting the draft as America goes into the Second World War.
The other relevant character is his teenage niece, Etta, with whom he gets into an argument about the use of the family phonograph. She winds up being rude to him and he winds up spanking her:
‘I pulled her over my knee, trapping both her legs in mine. I could hear the others running upstairs as the first blows descended and I hurried my task, determined that she should be punished in spite of everything, in spite of the consequences, no, more severely because of the consequences.’
This is a complex spanking scene that articulates different points of view on the central incident. Joseph justifies himself to Etta, saying that he spanked her ‘because you had a spanking coming’, whereas Etta reacts very negatively, calling Joseph a bastard. Her family intervene to put a stop to it, and Dolly, the mother, tells him, ‘Nobody has ever laid a hand on Etta for any reason whatsoever.’ Bellow also acknowledges that it has potential sexual undertones over and above the declared objective of punishment, by making Joseph notice Etta’s physicality as he spanks her:
‘She no longer fought against me but, with her long hair reaching nearly to the floor and her round, nubile thighs bare, lay in my lap.’
And tellingly, the first thing Dolly says to Etta when she comes in to find her across her uncle’s knee, is to get up and ‘straighten your skirt’.
So there are a lot of dimensions evident here as the spanking becomes a subject of contention between the different characters. Most of them seem to have been invisible to a blogger in 2011 whose attention was so caught by the latently erotic aspect, combined with the evident nonconsensuality of the spanking, that he described it, bluntly and uncomplicatedly, as a ‘near-rape’.
Rape is a very serious crime, but it is not the same as lesser forms of criminal sexual assault, just as murder is not the same as causing actual bodily harm. In turn, sexual assault is not the same as flirting or making a pass, which are not (or should not be) criminal. We must have a strong and sophisticated sense of the appropriate category for any given piece of human behavior, rather than trying to push it all together as the worst it can possibly be. Nonconsensual spanking is sometimes, not always, a form of sexual assault, when a sexual motive is primary, whereas Joseph’s spanking of Etta is not centrally intended as any form of sexual contact, nor perceived as such by any of the participants or observers. It is nowhere near rape, and to call it that is foolishly to trivialize rape. I do not think that is what the blogger intended – and this means we have reached the point where overreaction phases into the next level of irrationality, which is misperception.
This is where it is useful to come back to Kiss Me Kate, which offers by far the most widespread circulation of a dramatic spanking scenario in modern times. I have written elsewhere about why attempts to apologise for, elide or outright censor the spanking scene are artistically and intellectually misguided. What I want to focus on here is the psychological process that lies behind those attempts, paramount among which is the 2019 Broadway revival with its ineptly sanitized book by Amanda Green from which the spanking is completely removed.
The problem with that production emerges most directly in ‘How Do You Solve a Problem Like Kate?’, an unsigned essay in the show’s education pack, that addresses and primly seeks to justify the adaptation. The most revealing paragraph reads as follows:
‘It is the show’s apparent approval of Fred’s more troublesome actions – and furtherance of the idea that women should be subservient to men – that, for many, puts Kiss Me Kate on questionable moral footing. So why revive a musical that seems to espouse outdated and potentially dangerous views of gender roles?’
What makes this argument problematic, or indeed ‘troublesome’, is that its opening statement is completely false: the show does not simply approve the spanking or many of Fred’s other actions. It is part of the inherent nature of drama to embody different perspectives on events, with elements of right and wrong on both sides; and anyway, the whole point of this kind of ‘battle of the sexes’ story is that neither side wins outright, or ever can. So the stated reason why the book needed adaptation (or rather censorship) was a fundamental misinterpretation leading to a more simplistic, one-sided approach to the scenario.
In the ordinary way of things, that would leave us having to decide whether the people responsible genuinely but mistakenly believed that to be a true reading of the original or whether, on the other hand, they mendaciously advanced that argument to justify actions born more of prejudice than enlightenment; whether, in fact, they are fools or liars. But there is a third possibility in that second type of phobic behavior I mentioned: misperception.
What I mean is that it is possible for an ordinarily astute person suffering from a phobia to fixate on the feared object in a way that magnifies its importance, thereby changing the overall emphasis so that they end up with a distorted perception of reality. That is why, as we recently saw, many modern reviewers of The Wychford Poisoning Case grossly overstated the amount of spanking in the novel: it’s the thing they found most distasteful, and the fixation meant they imagined there to be a whole lot more of it than there really is. It is also why some people misunderstand Kiss Me Kate as giving unqualified approval to the spanking of Lilli. Thinking that doesn’t make them stupid across the board: it just means they can’t see straight when spanking comes into view. But it’s not the whole problem when it comes to Kiss Me Kate.
One online reviewer of the 2019 production commented:
‘Book writers Sam and Bella Spewack have improved the show by eliminating most of the sexism that made this such a distasteful musical for many of us. Best of all in this regard, they axed the hateful spanking scene.’
The reviewer, Retta Blaney, claims to be, and for all I know may actually be, ‘an award-winning journalist’; but if she is, she should know better. We needn’t pause long over the inadequately informed statement of who did the censorship (other than to goggle at the irony of Bella Spewack being held responsible for making a cut that in fact she expressly disallowed until her dying day more than a quarter of a century before the production in question). No, what I find interesting is the word ‘hateful’: Retta Blaney and others hate the spanking scene, so it would be accurately described as ‘hated’ (by some), but the alternative choice of adjective takes us to the third shade of phobia, projection.
Phobic people often do this when talking about spanking scenes: it’s not altogether uncommon to find undistinguished academic treatises on Kiss Me Kate (and occasionally other relevant plays) referring to ‘a truly disturbing scene’, when what they really mean is ‘a scene that greatly disturbs me’. Some cultural theorists call this ‘reifying’ a subjective emotional response, transforming it into an inherent quality of the thing itself. I call it a species of solipsism, an inability to differentiate between what you think or feel about a thing and what that thing objectively is. It’s the equivalent of a spanko saying that a pretty girl ‘needs’ or ‘deserves’ to be spanked, when what they actually mean is that they would like to spank her (for their own gratification). If that’s reprehensible (and, outside fantasy, it is), then so is its phobic counterpart.
Misperception and projection are a dangerous combination, because they reinforce one another in a kind of toxic feedback loop: the more important the spanking is misperceived to be, the more extreme the emotional reaction, which then gets projected back onto the spanking, which then seems even more egregious than it was before… and so on, round and round the never-ending circuit of anxiety.
So far much of the behavior I’ve been describing, though harmful (and often self-harmful), is merely neurotic. But to show how it can ratchet right up to the delusional, let’s look at ‘Trends in Consumer Spanking’, a newspaper essay by the then 29-year-old journalist Arion Berger published in the January 20, 1994, edition of LA Weekly. The objective is to take down the advertising industry for its ‘sneaky misogyny’, and one particular target for opprobrium is Hanes, the company which supplies many American women with one everyday necessity of civilized life:
She was gunning in particular for the 1992 Hanes television campaign, and maybe it’s best to start by looking at the commercial itself:
As Arion Berger describes it, this
‘features shots of the product on young ladies’ pert behinds, about to be hidden from our eyes by ascending jeans and descending shifts. On the soundtrack, a female voice sings, “Boy oh boy are you gonna get it… / Wait’ll we get our Hanes on you.”’
For her, this makes the ad a ‘spanking fantasy’. For me, that makes her quite barmy, but let’s allow her to state her case at greater length, even if the length in question turns out to be enough rope to hang herself. (I’m sorry if anyone is dim or wrongheaded enough to need telling that I use that phrase, of course, in its commonplace, entirely figurative sense, and not to advocate violence against her.)
She finds the ad
‘particularly distasteful for its unmistakable pedophilia and its cheery, duplicitous, nobody-here-but-us-liberated-women tone. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what word the brand name puns (badly), or to hear the veiled threat in the arresting first line of the song, or to note the jarring repetition of the word “boy”. Worse, the commercial celebrates infantilism by passing it off as maturity. What kind of female wears clean, sober, brief-style underwear in innocent pastel shades? The respectable businesswoman, of course, and the Catholic-school girl, icon of the eminently spankable. The ad is, to use an old-fashioned term, demeaning.’
That analysis isn’t just overthinking it; it’s reading a whole lot of things into the ad that no sane person would see unless they were already thinking about spanking in the first place. And that is, as I said, an unhealthy fixation, born of phobia and incubated by that lethal conjunction of misperception and projection.
For those caught in this psychological trap, a potential escape route lies in the fourth kind of phobic behavior, which we’ll illustrate with reference to a middle-aged Canadian woman who posted on social media in 2018 about a newspaper clipping she found when clearing out her basement. It included a photograph of herself, in her younger days, being spanked. That shouldn’t ring any alarm bells once you take on board that she is a talented soprano, and that the press article in question was publicizing a production of Kiss Me Kate starring her as Lilli Vanessi, which (incidentally) she lists on her website as one of her favorite roles. But the photograph horrified her, and she remarked:
‘I am sure no paper would dare to publish such a photo these days.’
I find that regrettable, not primarily for the self-interested reason you might think, but fundamentally because it represents a reduction of human choice. Yes, personally I would prefer every production of Kiss Me Kate to be advertised with a picture of the spanking scene, but ultimately, as a decent human being, I would like everyone to have the option, and to do whatever they feel most comfortable with.
That’s not what the once spanked, now toxic ex-Lilli wants. She doesn’t care about people feeling comfortable with their choices, because she doesn’t want there to be any choice at all. As with Retta Blaney, her casual vocabulary is revealing: modern newspaper editors wouldn’t dare print a spanking photograph, she says. In other words, they might want to, but they would feel too fearful and intimidated to actually do it: what phobic people don’t like, nobody gets to see. Toxic Lilli has moved on to the fourth phase of phobia: pushback.
It may be just a fairly mild revenge fantasy to imagine newspaper editors pusillanimously quaking over the terrible consequences of printing a spanking photograph from Kiss Me Kate, but it can and does extend beyond make-believe and social media chatter. The basic psychological process is the sublimation of debilitating fear into active, angry outrage that generates aggression against the phobic object and, by extension, those responsible for it. That’s what drove those splenetic middle-aged walkouts at Sundance. It’s true that they were protesting a film that had already been made, which is arguably pointless, and indeed they were spectacularly ineffectual in the short term: far from condemning Secretary, the festival jurors awarded it a special prize for originality. But this sort of assertive action does also change the climate in the longer term, and creates an atmosphere in which creative and media people are less likely to dare.
It would be specious to take the relative absence of spanking scenes in modern times as a secure sign of the impact of this kind of behavior: after all, movies and plays that include such scenes have always been a tiny fraction of the total number of movies and plays produced in any given year. Likewise, the relative rarity nowadays of spanking publicity imagery for Kiss Me Kate (and others) is less of a smoking gun when you remember that there are plenty of other things that can also be used to promote the show: spanking is only paramount in the minds of two minorities, the enthusiastic and the phobic. But you can be sure something’s afoot when a movie deals with a subject that really must include some spanking, and then pointedly avoids it. And that’s where we come to the lady who’s horizontal here:
Anyone with a passing knowledge of 1950s American sleaze culture will know that a sizeable proportion of Bettie Page’s work for Irving Klaw consisted of spanking photographs, albeit often not nearly so well posed as that one. It’s one of the things she’s famous for, and is reproduced in a whole lot of modern ‘tribute acts’ and a whole genre of retro pin–up photos. A Bettie biopic would grievously misrepresent her oeuvre if she were never shown over another model’s lap in chunky panties, reacting with wide-eyed, open-mouthed dismay at her predicament. So what do we get in the 2005 biopic The Notorious Bettie Page, with Gretchen Mol in the title role?
Answer: not the least scintilla of a spanking! And that has to be a sign that the people making the movie, or the studio executives approving the final cut, just didn’t dare.
This doesn’t only operate through the raw form of what we should really call by its correct name, bullying. We are encouraged to stand up to bullies, and not to give in to tantrums. But it gets harder when the fifth shade of phobia kicks in: rationalization.
Let’s hear some more from Toxic Lilli:
‘The normalized violence that women are subjected to has a long history and it has been perpetuated in media and entertainment. When we look at plays, operas, musicals, movies of the past it was often depicted in such a cavalier manner, but it had far-reaching effects in normalizing yet another generation to this behavior.
‘It’s about time things start to change. It’s about time that just because it’s “normal” doesn’t make it right.’
But if no modern newspaper would dare publicize Kiss Me Kate with a spanking photo, then haven’t things already changed? Does publicity material really concentrate on ‘normal’, everyday actions, or is it more concerned with the out-of-the-ordinary things that are distinctive to the show being promoted? Are people so stupid, or infantile, as to suppose that fictional events in a movie or a stage play are straightforwardly ‘rightful’ actions that are recommended in our own real lives?
Of course, it’s futile to pick away like this at the gross contradictions and flaws in the reasoning, the false assumptions and lazy generalizations, because this isn’t fundamentally a rational argument at all: it’s an unreasoning emotional response to spanking that has dressed itself up in an ethical disguise. This allows it to capitalize (or prey) on most people’s basic decency, their preference to treat others kindly and not become complicit in anything that might be defined as misogyny. And the same thing equips it with a mode of self-enforcement: anyone who disagrees or does differently stands at risk of shrill moral condemnation. And so it is that a lot of people don’t dare.
That’s why it’s important to call this out for the irrational phobia it is, not try to engage with it as if it were a reasonable point of view that might be developed or altered through discussion and debate. Argument is being used here not to reach a conclusion and decide upon a proper course of action, but to put into effect a conclusion and course of action that have already been determined by the phobic response: rationalization, not reasoning, operating as an instrument of cultural coercion. It is shocking and distasteful that our culture has somehow normalized censorship, made it almost an instinct. But what’s even more shocking and distasteful is that this expresses, and empowers, impulses that arise not from altruism or social responsibility or genuine moral conviction, but from a minor mental disorder.
Put your fears away, people, and learn to tolerate the diversity and complexity of the world you share.
Picture Contexts/Credits: The ‘women’s studies’ lesson about spanking originally illustrated a syndicated 1940 newspaper story about the ‘Spanked Wives Club’ of Sioux City, Iowa (which was probably a hoax). The ‘pushback’ picture in which Mrs Smith has ‘grounds for a suit’ against her spanking husband is from a 1945 episode of the long-running Abbie an’ Slats newspaper strip drawn by Raeburn Van Buren (1891-1987). The other illustrations are of either obvious or unknown origin.