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What Netflix's Bonding Reveals (Or Doesn't) About the BDSM Underworld

Netflix Bonding Realistic

Netflix’s Bonding follows a New York City student/dominatrix and her gay best friend/assistant. The show’s premise revolves around BDSM subculture, but offers little insight about the community itself. Still, Bonding has long-term potential if series creator Rightor Doyle decides to fully commit to the bit.

In Bonding, Zoe Levin stars as Tiff Chester, a graduate student who works in the BDSM subculture. She’s a guarded and seemingly bright woman, but struggles to maintain meaningful relationships. For professional assistance, Tiff enlists her long-time friend Pete (Brendan Scannell), an aspiring comedian who mostly remains aloof in various situations - at least, until he’s forced to step up and assert himself. Tiff goes by the name Mistress May, while Pete is known as Master Carter.

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Bonding has been criticized by members of the BDSM community for lacking authenticity. While that may be true, the Netflix series is less about dominatrix practices and more about the psychology of modern love. Here’s what Bonding does and doesn’t reveal about the BDSM underworld. 

Bonding Doesn’t Take Its Premise Seriously

Bondin Netflix

Given the BDSM premise and dominatrix-themed marketing campaign, Bonding’s first episode doesn’t take its primary themes that seriously. Yes, the series introduces viewers to Tiff’s underground lair, but Mistress May’s “office” isn’t prominently featured throughout Bonding season 1. In the first episode, “Old Friends, New Names,” the BDSM underworld is used as a narrative tool to highlight a business deal between Pete and Tiff. And while this moment properly establishes narrative context, Bonding ultimately fails to create a sense of atmosphere.

In Netflix’s 2018 film Cam, the protagonist’s work environment is crucial to the story, and because Cam was written by a former webcam model, Isa Mazzei, it felt very authentic and was full of interesting insider details. And in Showtime's Billions, BDSM is effectively incorporated into the Chuck Rhoades storyline, as the showrunners balance comedy with drama. Chuck has funny BDSM moments behind closed doors, but the series also emphasizes the stakes, and who may be looking to embarrass Chuck by exposing his BDSM behavior. In Bonding, Pete doesn’t even understand the “sex-dom” distinction, yet he receives a job anyways and earns 20 percent of Tiff’s profits.

Essentially, Bonding’s premise is based on trust, with Tiff even implying that audiences should come along for the ride. In this story, Tiff secretly works underground but also takes clients at... home? Bonding shows all the leather, along with screaming men who desire punishment, but the series doesn't establish what's normal beyond the torture cellar, at least in terms of how Levin's dominatrix protects her identity.

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Bonding Has a Very Narrow View of BDSM

Bonding Netflix

After Bonding’s first episode, Mistress May and Master Carter rarely appear at their underground office. While this may not be a deal-breaker for the average viewer, it’s not hard to see why the dominatrix community has one or two issues with the perceived lack of authenticity and attention to detail. Commenting on Doyle's Instagram post about the show, a dominatrix called Mistress Synful Pleasure said that Bonding casts a "bad shadow" on the professional BDSM scene and is riddled with inaccuracies:

"The inaccuracies feed the stigma of bdsm & it doesn’t really show what the life of a dominatrix is like at all. Why is she a b***h 24/7? Why is she wearing a collar with an O ring? Why does her corset not fit her right? She doesn’t screen her clients? Her lifestyle slave causes problems? Why can’t he just be great & not obsessive? She has zero sensual clients? The lack of negotiation & consent? Come on, even loosely based there should be a better representation of bdsm in here.

The show is loosely based on Doyle's own experience working with a dominatrix when he first moved to New York in 2006, but he admits that it is "highly fictionalized." A common criticism from professional dommes who have watched the show is that it lacks real insight into the world it portrays, with Goddess Sombra commenting, "I wish writers would do some more research before attempting to make BDSM a mainstream topic. Even if it’s fiction it still has an impact," and Montreal-based dominatrix Jessica Nicole Smith saying (per Indiewire), "No sex worker would write comedy like that. You want a funny comedy? Get a bunch of sex workers to write down the s**t they talk about in strip clubs." In particular, the show was criticized for failing to portray the stringent attitudes towards fully informed consent in professional BDSM, as summarized by acronyms like SSC (Safe, Sane, Consensual) and R.A.C.K. (Risk Aware Consensual Kink).

Bonding doesn’t introduce other dominatrixes, nor does the series establish an expected code of conduct. Every so often Mistress May and Master Carter go underground, and then converse with clients on the street. And because everything is so fluid, because there’s no sense of underground culture, Bonding’s underground scenes don’t feel impactful whatsoever, especially when predictable jokes receive more priority than storytelling.

As a whole, Bonding moves along briskly and has strong pacing/editing. But at least one early episode should have established the rules of the game. Audiences need to learn why this line of work is so important to Tiff, or at least what she can lose by inadvertently exposing herself to the wrong people. Rather than informing the audience about the BDSM underworld, Bonding uses the underground atmosphere to set up provocative yet lazy jokes. 

What Are The Stakes In Bonding?

Bonding Netflix

In Bonding, Tiff attempts to overcome painful memories in order to find love. As an actress, Levin beautifully and effectively conveys her character’s slow transformation. Meanwhile, Pete proves to be quite the stand-up comedian, and his dominatrix stage persona makes sense; it feels earned considering what he’s been through. There's also a touching flashback sequence that includes some rough car sex. Meanwhile, though, the BDSM underworld receives zero love whatsoever, aside from the comedy of sexual errors.

Tiff ends up stabbing a client in Bonding, this coming after she decided not to vet the man. Unsurprisingly, this underground sequence connects to an underground moment from the first episode, and it feels entirely awkward because the stakes are never established.

Bonding seems to have an identity crisis. The Netflix series begins within the BDSM underworld, then mostly leaves it behind, and then returns once again for a cheap narrative connection. What are the stakes in this community, and what are the consequences for poor decision-making? Unfortunately, Bonding isn't the kind of show to offer any real insight or answers to those questions.

 

Next: What To Expect From Bonding Season 2

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