An opulently dressed man in Greek-inspired clothing and greaves leans backwards onto a ledge as a similarly-dressed woman holds him by the waist and grips his hair.
Here’s a complex picture whose layered meanings become more complex as one learns its context. Suggested independently by both Science Me Harder and Svollga, the image is a photograph from a 1932 stage production of The Warrior’s Husband (one year before it became a Hollywood screenplay) showing Katharine Hepburn in the role of Antiope, an Amazon royal, and Colin Keith-Johnston in the role of Theseus, leader of the Greek army. It’s a gorgeous picture for all the reasons Science Me Harder enumerates:
[T]his picture always strikes me as beautiful because of the way the woman holds the man’s hair and supports him with her other arm, and especially the way the man seems to be standing so still and willing to be held with his eyes closed.
Svollga shared similar sentiments:
I was very attracted to this image, both because it’s beautiful (the lines! the poses! the dynamics!) and because to me, it speaks clearly of power exchange and female domination. The historical context only adds more layers to the feeling. (Not to mention that it hits a lot of my kinks, from gender role-reversal to hair-gripping.)
It looks like a reversal of roles for the bodice-ripper cover. Usually, it’s a man holding a woman around a waist, leaning her back, even gripping her hair. Here, the woman (and a very feminine one) does it all to a (big and strong) man—and he seems to like it. They are both very sensual and relaxed in this picture. It looks like a foreplay where people are either well-acquainted or just very comfortable with each other, and they are actually playing while being quite serious about it.
While I share Svollga’s enthrallment with this picture, overt role-reversal was intentionally comedic in the 1930s. The “historical context” is quite different than what one might hope. According to the 1933 screenplay’s description, The Warrior’s Husband is not a tale of female domination, but rather voluntary female subordination:
The Warrior’s Husband is a satire of the male and female roles in society set in 800 B.C. starring Elissa Landi as Antiope, an Amazonian beauty and sister to the queen of Pontus. Queen Hippolyta (Marjorie Rambeau) rules Pontus with masculine authority; in fact, it is the women of Pontus who do all the laboring, fighting, and governing. Hippolyta’s husband Sapiens (Ernest Truex) is truly a sissy of the first order, and is not unlike most of Pontus’ male inhabitants. When the Greek army under Theseus (DM) invades in pursuit of the queen’s “magic girdle,” the appearance of real men on the scene is strange and unnerving to the women of Pontus. Struck by Antiope’s beauty Theseus woos her and, reluctantly at first, she falls in love with him. Realizing the value of male leadership, the Amazons willingly allow the men to assume control.
Lacking context, we can easily project our fantasies onto this image but when we factor in the story’s plot we see that gender roles were not actually reversed. Even before the story’s culmination in the patriarchy we’re familiar with, “masculine authority” was used to rule Pontus and its “sissy” male inhabitants were not “real men.” Reversing anatomy does not in fact reverse gender role because gender is not the same as sex; in Pontus, women functioned as men only so long as “real men” were not present, while men functioned as women until they were replaced by abusive psychopaths wielding weapons who suffer from what Kathleen Barry calls “blinding macho” socialization.
In this way, The Warrior’s Husband is a useful parable explaining the contemporary BDSM community’s shared delusion. Although the community’s sycophants like to tout their “diversity,” most organized elements of “The Scene” essentially recreate Pontus by equating performances of masculinity with domination and performances of femininity with submission. In The Scene, things are only cursorily more complex since dominance is privileged while submission is devalued regardless of one’s genitalia.
While there is certainly space for gender role-reversal within BDSM, by ignorantly supplanting the overculture’s (man/woman) gender binary with their own (dominant/submissive) power binary, BDSM’ers sabotage the possibility for creative expression within their scenes and undercut whatever credibility they wish to claim on the matter.
Katharine Hepburn as Amazon warrior princess Antiope & Colin Keith-Johnston as Theseus in stage production of The Warrior’s Husband (1932) (via corbis)