Lesbian relationships in film often carry the burden of limited storytelling which focuses on coming out stories, pregnancy, affairs, and/or death. Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy has none of these traits. Rather it is a universal story about love and the ways in which we can be undone by it, exploring the emotional violence that can be carried by a relationship. Most importantly, unlike another film that shall not be named, The Duke of Burgundy highlights this as a failure of communication, not as an evil of kink itself.
It’s no secret I have a great soft spot in my heart for The Duke of Burgundy – it’s a amazing film about people that features a queer couple who’s issues are not rooted in their queerness. As part of their Violent Women Week I’ve got a guest piece over at BitchFlicks looking at the emotional violence inflicted in the film. It has spoilers so I recommend you watch the film first, but you can check it out here.
People can sometimes find it weird that I see a lot of the negotiations in the film as cruel – after all no one said they didn’t want to do anything. The truth is that good partners try to look out for signs of upset – people are often socialised to subordinate their own personal feelings for those of others, and there are a whole host of reasons why someone may not be comfortable enough with a partner to articulate them. A simple example would be to think of all the things you’ve done that you would rather not for the benefit of your family; in my case it would be wearing a dress to my graduation. Not all of these are wrong or a sign of abuse, but they might make someone uncomfortable or always feel off, and the more intimate the situation the more we must look out for this. When we play by the rules that everything must be explicitly stated (otherwise it doesn’t count as a no) then we risk straying into territory where we can wilfully ignore what we sense in others in order to ensure we get our own way. Instead of checking for a happy yes, we just look for a clear no.
Yes people should be able to speak up, but in this world that is hard. We have a responsibility to make sure that the level of trust to speak is actually there in the first place.