Friday, 27 September 2013

Bringing Out the Gimp: Fashioning the SM Imaginary


Gary Needham has just written an article for a special pornography issue of Fashion Theory (due 2014) that examines the cultural power associated with the gimp and the gimp mask in both popular culture and art. The gimp is a clothed or costumed SM body, frequently a submissive that often wears a leather or rubber costume that covers and effectuates the entire body including the face. The gimp is also a representation of SM that circulates throughout fashion and film and other forms of popular culture. Since the gimp’s first outing and naming in the ‘bringing out the gimp’ scene from the film Pulp Fiction (1994) it has become the byword for the head-to-toe leather SM look that has been appropriated by a popular culture as way of sensationalising and exploiting the relationship between clothing, fetishism, and transgression. As a counterpoint to the popular or mainstream image of SM the article also explores how the artists perceived to be transgressive and controversial, Catherine Opie and Robert Mapplethorpe, have represented the gimp, not as an index of horror or transgressive style rather as an affirmative image of their own SM communities that, while still intended to shock, is an defiant attempt to rescue or reclaim the gimp from its negative associations. 

One of the main points drawn out in the article is the apparent cultural power associated with the gimp as something obscene and horrific that constructs what Gayle Rubin calls ‘the leather menace’. The gimp is character and a representation that retains disturbing and provocative qualities as a ‘symbolic exercise of social risk’ (McClintock 2003: 237) generating a range of controversial and pornographic meanings both on/scene (as literally seen) and ‘obscene’ across film, art, fashion, and popular culture. The article’s is concerned with some of those meanings, the textual and sexual politics of the gimp as a representation of SM for example, in Pulp Fiction the gimp allows racism and gay SM to almost be one and the same thing; Pulp Fiction’s gimp is a costumed embodiment of gay SM horror!  SM imagery in popular culture attempts to capture ‘menace’ and ‘risk’ and yet simultaneously contain that risk by misrepresenting the axis of power, rendering conventionally masochistic clothing designed for submissive binding and sensory deprivation in to the attire of sadistic monsters, serial killers, and torturers. Gimps in popular culture are often the stuff of nightmares. As a counter-point to this popular fantasy the article goes on to investigate the ‘real’ gimps that appear in Robert Mapplethorpe photographic chronicle of his SM community in the 1970s in addition to more recent artists like Catherine Opie (both of whom have images of their work reproduced in the article by permission from the Guggenheim collection and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation). Opie appears in her own Self-Portrait/Pervert  (1994) sitting in front of chintzy brocade wallpaper wearing a gimp mask, lettering freshly cut in to her bleeding skin which reads ‘pervert’, and pierced along each arm with forty-six evenly spaced temporary needles. Why would Opie make an image that is so difficult to look at? Why would anyone do that to their body? Why would a self-portrait deny access to the artist’s face? Is it a response to Pulp Fiction SM phobia? These are important questions Self-Portrait/Pervert provokes and hopefully that the article answers.

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