On the surface, Submission — Showtime’s new late-night show all about getting BDSM right — is exactly what you expect it to be: an after-dark erotic drama about one woman’s journey from a lackluster relationship (complete with a pig of a boyfriend who couldn’t give less of a care about the main character’s sexual gratification) to an exciting new world of domination that she’d never, ever thought she’d be into. But for people tuning in expecting to see another rehash of Fifty Shades of Grey, the show will be a surprise. Its creator, writer, and director — award-winning pornographic filmmaker Jacky St. James — wants this show to be nothing like what E.L. James could have dreamed up.
That’s because St. James has done her research, can’t stand the fact that Fifty Shades passed off an abusive relationship as an honest interpretation of the BDSM lifestyle, and is working hard to make it clear to the audience that while bondage, domination, submission, and discipline are activities that anyone can enjoy (not just millionaires who fall for mousy college graduates) there’s a right way and a wrong way to engage in these erotic arts. And she’s hoping that those who watch will come away with a much more nuanced understanding of what the BDSM world is really like.
It’s a tall order: the show’s on an extremely tight budget, runs for only six episodes, and gets off to a little bit of a disjointed start. But it’s also got a storyline that isn’t all about sex, actors that can do more than just writhe about while shouting “yes, yes, more!” and, St. James promises, more twists and turns than one would expect of a 30-minute series with a required three sex scenes per episode.
“I wanted to really showcase the idea that there is no normal when it comes to sex,” St. James Told us. “Everything is normal. I really wanted to normalize something like BDSM, which people often stigmatize and judge without really knowing much about it. I wanted to humanize it. I think when people think BDSM, they have these very disgusting, grotesque notions of what it is. It could be either beating the hell out of somebody, which is not really the way it is, or they’re using Fifty Shades as a template, which is also really grotesque.”
St. James doesn’t want you to think that non-BDSM sex is bad or that everyone has to get into it, she just wants to make it clear that as far as sexual proclivities are concerned, it’s okay to try something new as long as it’s consensual and mutually beneficial for both people involved. The problem, she points out, is that the main character’s relationship at the beginning of the show — one in which she’s miserable sexually — has become so socially acceptable, that people don’t really venture out of their comfort zones. It’s not that a bad sex life should end a relationship, St. James says, it’s that she hopes that people who watch the show and recognize a little bit of themselves in the main character’s predicament might consider branching out. And that’s why she wants to make BDSM less scary for those who are watching.
“I think it’s less about the sex and more about the mental connection, she says. “I think when you have somebody you trust and you feel safe with, you can say, ‘You know what? This is really not doing it for me and I need this.” Or “Can we explore this?” I think that’s the goal. I think if you have that, you can make your sex life better. A lot of it also comes down to chemistry, but if you’re with somebody you can be open with, if you trust somebody, you should feel safe enough to say what you’re thinking.”
St. James isn’t just talking about other people’s experiences. In fact, contrary to popular belief about professionals in the adult entertainment industry, she knows what it’s like not to be able to communicate with a partner. In fact, the main character’s ex, the one who accuses her of not being able to have an orgasm due to her own problems, is based on one of her own former boyfriends.
“He was one of the most barbaric, insensitive, sexually-clueless people I’d ever met,” St. James told us. “I tapped into what I thought he would say. I wanted to have a character that’s really selfish, because I think that that’s where bad sex often begins, is with people that are extremely self-centered and insensitive.”
This level of complexity isn’t something you always see in late-night, but St. James says she’s trying to change the perception of shows that come on after most people go to sleep. While it’s impossible not to notice that Submission has tinges of Red Shoe Diaries to it, St. James also wants to further the message that sex is a journey not a destination, and that sexual discovery can happen at any stage of one’s life. “I think people tend to forget that sex can be good whether you come or not,” she says. “I think it’s important to drill that home that sex doesn’t always have to be the finish-line. It can be the actual foreplay and the enjoyment in that, that aspect of it.”
That foreplay is what she’s looking to cultivate with this show. Lest you think it’s all sex, however, St. James points out something interesting about her take on sex-based shows in the mainstream: “I think it’s important that when you’re doing sexual content,” she says “that you’re not just doing it for the sake of the sex. That you’re doing it to either teach people or show people something that maybe they hadn’t thought about. I always think it’s important whenever you’re doing anything, that there’s a reason why you’re doing it. For me, it’s the reason is, I always want to depict sexuality in a positive light and depict multiple facets of sexuality.”
That’s somewhat evident in the first episode. While it’s clear that sex has to be the driving force behind a show that’s chockfull of sexual content, St. James doesn’t want it to be the only reason people are tuning in. Titillation is important, but her goal is to make the show intriguing enough that viewers will put down the remote and watch the entire thing instead of fast-forwarding to the sex scenes. As the season goes on, St. James says, she thinks that viewers may look at the sex as an important extension of the plot, but hopes that they’re just as intrigued by the twists and turns that the main characters’ relationships take. And not only that, she’s betting on the fact that unlike Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, who were crude caricatures, that even those people who haven’t ever thought they might be into BDSM might find it relatable and not quite as scary as the whips and chains in the Fifty Shades series made it seem.
According to Ashlynn Yennie who plays the main character (you may remember her from The Human Ceintipede), the show’s changed at least one person’s perception of what it means to be in a dom/sub relationship: Her own. She didn’t know much about BDSM when she auditioned for the part and even felt like it might have been too much for her at the beginning. But that’s all changed, not least because the production provided her with a safe view of what it’s like to engage in sex that’s still considered taboo by much of the mainstream.
“For sure,” she says when asked about whether her outlook’s been changed. “I didn’t know that much about it going into it. I think people that aren’t in that BDSM world might have an idea what it is and the type of people that do BDSM. Fifty Shades of Grey was not a correct portrayal of the type of sex that people practice. It made it seem like it was for people that were messed up or dark and it’s not at all.”
This point is driven home by Yennie’s character, Ashley, who starts off the series not exactly prudish, but certainly without any indication that she might have “unusual tastes” when it comes to her bedroom habits. And like Ashley, Yennie says the show was a journey of self-discovery for her. “The people that are very into BDSM are just people who enjoy a different part of life,” she says. “It’s definitely opened up a different part of me, for sure. There were actually things that I actually liked that I was expecting not to.”
Will that attitude reach those watching at home? Both St. James and Yennie are hopeful it will. And while St. James’ ideas for the show are both admirable and lofty, it’s hard to say whether they’ll come to fruition by the end of the season. Will Submission truly change the way we look at late-night? Likely not on its own. But it’s definitely worth a watch, if only for the fact that it’s trying to subvert the stigma of sex on TV.
Submission airs on Showtime, Thursday nights at 11 p.m. ET.