What felt like an anomaly 40 years ago is almost part of the norm today – but Videodrome still speaks to a singular dynamic between men and women when it comes to sexual politics, according to Erin M. Brady. A reading of the nuance of intimacy for READ ME.
There isn’t much difference between public access television programs broadcast through signals and the current state of the Internet. With just a few wayward searches, you are able to access images and videos that are more sexual in nature than you may have intended. This ease of access is problematic and consists of an issue far more complex than many want to accept. It was easy for television signals to be hijacked or intercepted, so who knows what depraved and sexual content could be shown?
As David Cronenberg once recalled in the Criterion commentary to this essay’s subject, he would pick up television signals from the United States once the local Canadian stations ceased daily programming. As a child, he feared that he would accidentally watch something he wasn’t supposed to – thus, the inspiration behind Videodrome, his 1983 studio debut, was born. Cronenberg’s subversive take on technological evolution is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and depending on who you ask, Videodrome is often considered one of his best works. While commercially unsuccessful back in its initial release, its cult following has allowed it to harness a legacy of being extremely ahead of its time. Part of this legacy has to do with the film’s sexual overtones, particularly its usage of sadomasochism and unconventional female desires to help drive the plot.
Public access television executive Max Renn (James Wood) is introduced to the sexual practice by radio host Nikki Brand (Deborah Harry). See, she’s not into your typical vanilla sex – as she shows Max, she enjoys being cut and pierced during intercourse, encouraging her hesitant partner to inflict pain on her. She takes this seriously, however, as she needs the complete trust and cooperation of her partner in order not to seriously maim her. What Cronenberg makes clear in Videodrome is that Nikki is genuinely aroused by the actions inflicted upon her. As far as we as viewers know, she was never coaxed into being attracted to sadomasochism, and compared to the off-kilter worlds Cronenberg is known for, she’s a pretty normal gal. She takes ownership of her kinks with grace and confidence, taking Max aback during their first real sexual encounter.
Sexual liberation in the world of Videodrome isn’t just hardcore BDSM, though. This is demonstrated through the character of Masha (Lynne Gorman). She’s a seemingly-prolific pornography director who warns Max of the dangers of watching the mysterious torture series called Videodrome that he stumbled across through American television signals. Her idea of the ideal sex, as shown in her series pitch to Max’s Civic TV, is a softcore orgy filled with pleasure and laughter. However, that doesn’t mean she is entirely vanilla – after all, she implies that she likes getting it on with men younger than Max. Despite her tastes and experience in the field of porno, she recognizes that Videodrome isn’t what it seems on the surface, crossing the line between BDSM and nonconsensual torture in a way that proves it dangerous.
As we see in Videodrome, as well as many other Cronenberg movies, sex is not an inherently vile thing. In fact, it’s something that has consistently been framed as freeing, as a tool to escape the monotonous conformity of the real world. Ranging from 1996’s Crash to 2022’s Crimes of the Future, sex and sexuality are tools for Cronenberg to use to talk about society’s larger issues. In the case of sadomasochism, Videodrome portrays it in a nuanced and refreshing light that completely centers female desire over male chauvinism.
Nikki doesn’t have to explain why she is aroused in the ways that she does, and she certainly isn’t blamed for her demise after she goes seeking Videodrome for herself. She is, unfortunately, a victim of circumstance and exploitation – instead of finding like-minded individuals who want to engage in the same kind of play she enjoys, she finds people wanting to manipulate that to their own sick advantage. Just because she meets the fate she does, doesn’t mean that she is on the same level as the minds behind Videodrome.
When it comes to the character of Max, however, the lines become a bit blurred. As previously mentioned, he was not familiar with the idea of sadomasochism before meeting Nikki, but once he gives it a shot, he is hooked. He becomes more reliant on Videodrome to chase that high, to make himself feel invincible in a way he never felt before. Unfortunately, that power consumes him until the influences of the show begin affecting how he views and treats women in his real life. He imagines himself slapping his assistant Bridey (Julie Khaner), and he even vividly imagines whipping Masha as she screams in pain. Videodrome’s influence caused Max to treat and view the women around him as playthings to abuse, tapping into a deep-seated part of his brain that perhaps always believed this way about his sexual desires. He doesn’t want to hurt others to appease their own desires – he wants to hurt them solely for his own gain.
Videodrome, and Cronenberg by extension, understand that the core guide of pleasurable heterosexual sex is feminine. They posit that the most important thing about sex is to service the needs and desires of the female participant, no matter what she is requesting. It is up to the male participant to give pleasure to the female, not the other way around. After all, it is Nikki that encourages a hesitant Max to pierce her ears while having sex. He does just that, and at this specific moment, no boundaries are broken.
Unfortunately, this trust is all too often broken in heterosexual BDSM relationships, and it’s something that ends up seeping into Videodrome. If Nikki asks Max to cut her shoulder while they have intercourse, that doesn’t give him permission to beat or physically attack her. If Masha solely wants to create softcore vanilla porn, Max shouldn’t pressure her into making something more hardcore for the sake of Civic TV. It doesn’t matter whether or not he is influenced by the powers of Videodrome, as those same influences are a part of his subconscious coming to life, ruining both him and the women around him in the process.
It’s possible to argue that the film stops just short of directly condemning Max by putting all the blame on Videodrome. However, that line of thinking ignores the deeper implications of what Videodrome actually is. The ease with which the consensual and nuanced desires elicited through sadomasochism can be turned into full-on abuse is something that has been instilled through violent patriarchal forces.
Videodrome as a concept represents one important societal transition about sex: it is about the sole pleasure of the male partner rather than the female partner. The male is not degraded in the original concept of sex, as they typically also find pleasure when the female does. However, when the focus is shifted to just pleasuring the male, a disconnect forms that can easily slide into abuse. The concept of patriarchy encourages men to manipulate their female partners into servicing them, not the other way around, with the manipulation of sexual pleasure being the most vulnerable type of submission.
However, Videodrome posits that sex does not have to abide by these heteronormative and patriarchal ideas. In fact, it’s more pleasurable for both partners if it doesn’t. The film’s female characters represent all types of sex that couples can partake in, and they are ultimately the only ones in control. Nikki represents the pleasures that can be found in sadomasochism, Masha signifies the eroticism of vanilla sex, and Bridey represents neutrality and flexibility in sexual freedom. The characters that lose control at the whims of the cursed television show bearing the film’s title are the men, especially Max. Cronenberg is urging his audience to look at the world of BDSM and kink through the lens of individual arousal and societal abuses. Sadomasochism as a means of sexual pleasure is not inherently abusive as it is built on consent and trust, but patriarchal social systems have allowed abusers to use it as a scapegoat.
That asks an important question: if such an innocent and ultimately consensual exchange can be manipulated into becoming abusive, should we still be able to engage in it? That’s a complicated discussion that various different groups, such as sex-negative radical feminists and kink-positive queer individuals, are still working towards today, sometimes on social media to very divisive results. Videodrome does not give a definitive answer to this predicament, even if it does have a pretty clear angle that it wants to pursue. We will likely have to debate about the intersections of BDSM and abuse until the end of time, as it is simply too individual and nuanced of an issue to develop one solid answer. There are abuse survivors who condemn BDSM practices for their perceived similarities to their own trauma. There are survivors who partake in BDSM practices for therapeutic purposes, and there are survivors who simply refrain from sexual practices altogether. With something this broad and widely interpreted, there can’t possibly be one singular answer.
That being said, what Videodrome does posit is that, until that answer is universally accepted, the central focus of heterosexual sex should be the woman and her desires. Sexual freedom is something that women have often been denied through so many different means, and by refocusing sex as a pleasurable service for women, we can achieve that.
This is the ultimate message that Videodrome wants to promote. Nikki Brand is a victim not because she is aroused by cuts or piercings, but because she fell into the hands of those who only view women like her as torture fodder. Max Renn was manipulated into committing acts of violence and even murder, but Videodrome brought out aspects of his repressed self that wanted to abuse rather than arouse. With Videodrome, Cronenberg gave perhaps the most nuanced look at sexual pleasure and patriarchy in mainstream 1980s film, resulting in something both revolutionary and oddly feminist in how it correlates sexual misinterpretation to a larger chauvinistic culture of male domination. Long live the new flesh.