Bondage: Cliche or Dramatic Device?

This scene from "Ghost In The Invisible Bikini" reinvigorates the cliched scene of "damsel tied to a log in a sawmill" by having plumes of sawdust erupt from between her legs periodically, symbolizing orgasm as she writhes and moans with her legs tied apart.

copyright 2005 by Pat Powers

I recently corresponded with someone who said that bondage is a cliche. I don't think bondage is a cliche. Bondage is a dramatic device that can be used well or badly. The idea of a bad guy capturing the good guy's girl and keeping her on ice is a very effective tool for increasing the drama inherent in the movie or TV show. How it's done determines whether it's a cliche or not. Tying a gal to the railroad tracks has been done so thoroughly that it's a cliche, so is tying a woman to a log in a sawmill. Tying a woman to a bomb is a more modern cliche, but it's been done often enough, and repetitively enough, that it has become one.

Even cliches can be reinvigorated with sufficient ingenuity. The Avengers' use of a miniature locomotive as the source of Diana Riggs' doom when she was tied to miniature railroad tracks put the scene in a humorous, campy light that went right with the tone of the series and made it work. The scene in "Ghost in the Invisible Bikini" in which the shower of sawdust erupting between the damsel's legs symbolizes orgasms reinvigorated the gal-tied-to-the-log-in-the-sawmill cliche.

There are plenty of non-cliched ways of handling bondage scenes. Jamie Lee Curtis' duct tape chair bondage in "Single White Female" could have been cliched, but the way Bridget Fonda uses the warped sexual psychology of her captor to keep from being killed saved it. I'd argue that the Enterprise "Shadows of P'Jem" scene used bondage in an unusual way, to point up the inhuman calm of the Vulcan woman at the same time she and the captain are writhing against one another while tied tightly together. Roxanne Hart, tied to a chair but with her tight cleave gag secured to the back of the chair so that her head is forced back and her neck is exposed, was a powerful DiD image in "Last Innocent Man." There's plenty of original bondage out there because directors are well aware that bondage has plenty of potential for cliched treatment, so they work at being original in some way.

The chair tie with duct tape gag is becoming the new cliche of bondage imagery. Well, not exactly a cliche in the sense that the others are. The railroad tracks peril and the sawmill peril were both the results of directors successfully working to create dramatic scenes, and when they first came out they were exciting and original cinema. They only became cliches through repetition by other, less original directors, repetition which occurred because they were such powerful scenes in the first place.

Most of the time, the chair tie just means the director and/or writer is being lazy. There are a lot of reasons for using a chair tie, but pumping up the drama isn't one of them. The chair tie is the least dramatic tie imaginable. The woman is generally bound with her wrists tied to the chair arms. Sometimes her ankles are bound as well, sometimes the wrists are the only thing secured. And the damsel, if gagged at all, is gagged with a piece of duct tape.

The problem the director solves with this technique isn't dramatic, it's logistical. He's got to tie an actress for the scene, what's the pose that she can maintain with the least discomfort, preferably one she can stay in between takes so she won't have to be untied if they're short breaks?

The chair tie is the answer. Sitting in a chair is quite comfortable. (Being tied in a comfy spreadeagle -- i.e., the legs are not spread far apart -- is probably more comfortable, but chairs show up in all sorts of places, beds tend to be confined to bedrooms.)

Could Sarah Michelle Gellar BE any more comfy? Could she look any LESS distressed? Imagine her in a hogtie. More dramatic or less dramatic? 'Nuff said.

But all that comfort and convenience costs quite a bit in terms of drama. Most of the time a woman tied in a chair doesn't look all that different from a woman just sitting in a chair, especially if no gag is involved. She does not look vulnerable. Hell, she looks comfortable, because she is. Unless the bondage securing the damsel to the chair is extensive, as in "Single White Female" or the Xena Warrior Princess scene featuring Callisto bound to a chair by heavy leather straps at the forehead, neck, waist, arms, wrists and ankles, it's not dramatic at all.

The chair tie typically takes the dramatic punch of the scene down quite a bit. Imagine the visual difference between a damsel in a comfy chair tie and one in a tight hogtie or a wrist-ankle tie and you'll get the point immediately. The fact is, film is a visual medium, and bondage that looks comfortable is a lot less dramatic than bondage that looks uncomfortable.

Of course, posing an actress in a hogtie and a wrist-ankle tie is more of a logistical problem than a comfy chair-tie, but so what? If it's a major problem, get a stuntwoman to do the bondage scene. If the bondage scene is important enough to be in the film or TV show at all, it's important enough to do it right.