BDSM crops up in a variety of places, but it’s often the butt of a joke, an aesthetic indicator of evilness, or presented as purely the result of a traumatic past. Bonding, however, shows it as part of a journey of friendship and self discovery (with plenty of humour!) Season 1 had a lot of issues, but when paired with season 2, the whole of Bonding is well worth a watch.
The episodes are short and follow a young pro dominatrix and her gay best friend. In season 1 you see them playing at BDSM, looking to me very much as new players on the kink scene sometimes position themselves as professionals, and this reflects the creators’ obviously superficial understanding of the world they clearly love the idea of, but haven’t really lived in (or at least not deeply, apparently it was based on real life experiences of the creator who worked as a bodyguard for a friend who did Domme work, and that outsider perspective and youthfulness would make sense of the atmosphere in the series).
Season 1 was enjoyable TV, but roundly criticised by the community. Experienced players will recognise issues in technique (that ropework was a dangerous mess), major problems with consent throughout, and mistakes made with the semiotics, such as the so-called Domme wearing a submissive collar (though that doesn’t make it inherently bad, the lack of fluency in the symbolic language does suggest a novice rather than the pro she was originally meant to be…). The kink in it supports the emotional journey reasonably well as set dressing, however, and it is treated with obvious fondness and curiousity, and the whole series is fun, presenting the potential for play, healing, exploration, and variety in the dungeon.
From the start of Season 2, however, the characters are revealed in context of the reality of the wider community. The shift between the two series felt very much to me like that step from a newbie getting excited about the concept of BDSM, to actually engaging with living it. Or from a curious beginner who thinks they know it all, to a dedicated novice practitioner ready to learn from the depth of knowledge and experience within the community. It was clear that the show creators made the effort to listen to the people for whom this matters, and they hired a BDSM consultant to help fix the issues which were highlighted. The actress playing the Domme went to events and workshops herself after finding out that there is more to dominance than a pretty corset and a bossy voice, and it shows. By season 2 she can actually tie a single column tie!
The original best friends each embody different approaches to the scene, and the new characters speak with the voice of the BDSM community, gently but firmly speaking of the beauty, trust, care, and relationships which are central to BDSM.
We see hints at what is possible when we move from a fascination with the fashion, to an engagement with the raw, beautiful, depth of possibilities within the lifestyle.
There are things that were conspicuous in their absence: female submissives, male Dominants with a healthy relationship to kink, sapphic or bisexual relationships, the risks and pleasures of sadomasochism, actual play parties, genuine switches, non monogamous relationships, the BDSM world outside of a professional context (for most people this isn’t a job, it’s a part of their private, personal, relationships)…
But. Those are stories which can still be told, and need to be approached sensitively to be done right. I’m glad Bonding didn’t include them poorly, and female submission, for example, is commonly portrayed and easily misunderstood. Trying to shoehorn a lesbian love story, say, into the tale of a hetero-baby-dominatrix & her flippant-gay-comedian-bff would have done no one any favours. (But a glimpse of it in the background would have been lovely!)
I’d recommend this series in the future, with the caveat that it is a spotlight on a particular journey, leaning on the “kink-as-trauma-response/therapy” trope, through a particular part of the pro BDSM scene, and that season 1 represents a newbie mentality well… But season 2 starts to share the depth of what is possible. Together they give plenty of food for thought.
If you watch it, know that it is a comedy first, dealing with taboo subjects, and that the everyday reality of BDSM is often less flashy than that which makes good TV. But Netflix’s Bonding is a glimpse into a corner of a world which has great, gorgeous, wondrous, depths.
Read the creator, Rightor Doyle, talking about his response to the criticisms of S1 in Variety, and steps they took to fix Bonding.
And an interview with actress Zoe Levin on AV club about the experience of listening to the pro Domme community.
And mashable has a thorough look at the good, the bad, and the unusual aspects of Bonding. (caution, spoilers!)