Journalist • Commentator • Editor
By Jessica Seigel
Let’s say you’re swinging an 8-foot bullwhip — the kind that can reverse a stampede with a thunderous boom, yank the gun from the hand of your nemesis or vault you to freedom from a chandelier — and you unleash your first “crack!” You can feel pretty mighty in just a snap. I sure did.
But first you have to start with basics, like the “circus” crack, a single up-down swing. “Don’t manhandle — uh, err, woman-handle it,” instructor Judi Lewis Ockler calls out. I am in a workshop run by the Lady Cavaliers, a not-for-profit action theater company created to promote a stronger female image through the art of stage combat. The New York-based group performs original works about fictional and historic women warriors, from Virgil’s Amazon Queen Camilla of The Aeneid to real-life Irish pirate Grace O’Malley.
Before getting whipped up over swashbuckling theatrics, let’s first look at some history, which isn’t pretty. A weapon of authority as old as the pharaohs, the “lash” still carries religious and racial connotations. (A white sheriff ’s posse on horseback used bullwhips on a group of 600 civil rights marchers during the famed demonstration in Selma, Ala., in 1965.)
But some rebels — and women at that — have used it, too. Did you know that British suffragettes wielded whips to attack opponents and defend against assault? Members of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union founded in 1903 to ratchet up suffrage protest with “deeds not words” included much-storied Emily Wilding Davison, who was arrested for whipping a man she mistook for a leading politician. In a dramatic 1908 incident memorialized in the Illustrated London News, patrician activist Helen Ogston “successfully” interrupted a speech by anti-suffrage Liberal leader Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, fending off the slightly unhinged male stewards long enough to shout out demands for the vote. The magazine’s picture of the disturbance shows her as beautiful and self-possessed while swinging the whip over her head.
This heroic portrayal — and others like them — may have signaled changing views of the women’s movement in the early part of the 20th century. Many images showed suffrage activists as deranged, ugly, unkempt misfits. But not the fashionable suffragette with sangfroid and a whip, according to scholar Myriam Boussahba-Bravard of the University of Rouen in France.
“The image was shocking to nearly everybody, but nevertheless appealing to a number of young women,” Boussahba-Bravard writes in her article “Vision and Visibility: The Visual Rhetoric of British Suffragists and Suffragettes 1907–1914,” published in La Revue LISA.
Did a woman brandishing a whip in the early 1900s carry the loaded “spanky wanky” connotation of today? Difficult to say. On the one hand, horse and dog whips were everyday sporting accoutrements. On the other, pornographic spanking literature flourished and flagellation parlors were known in Victorian England, according to Steven Marcus’ The Other Victorians. And black-clad, high-heeled, corseted women with whips appeared in photographic erotica dating at least to the 1920s, according to Valerie Steele, director of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology and author of Fetish: Fashion, Sex & Power.
“One of the striking things about fetishistic iconographies is how consistent it is decade after decade,” she says, tracing the image over a century to today’s run-of-the mill dominatrix outfitted at the suburban mall goth shop.
In the bondage fantasy, though, the whip is largely symbolic, often looking dainty and stylishly equestrian; in other words, prissy compared to the rugged bullwhip of my workshop. Yet finesse still trumps muscle in whip cracking — the noise when the thong’s tail breaks the speed of sound. The flat thwack hitting your behind side — the original “backlash” — signals when your swing is off. “It doesn’t take a lot of energy,” advises Lewis Ockler, an actor certified by The Society of American Fight Directors. “It’s all in the wrist. It’s a cliché, but it’s true.”
When it comes to women and whips, the clichés are super-sized, despite the rise of pop culture heroines armed with myriad weaponry in films and TV shows like “Kill Bill,” “Alias,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the pioneering “Xena, Warrior Princess,” to name a few.
Women with fists, kicks, swords, guns, boomerangs and even magic ropes (Wonder Woman) no longer raise eyebrows. Women with whips do. “You pull out a whip and you crack it and everybody says ooooh I’d love to see her in leather boots,” says Lewis Ockler. Crossing into the mainstream from the fetish underground, the whip-wielding dominatrix in black leather and spiked heels has become iconic in the last decade — even kitschy — inspiring everything from haute couture (Gianni Versace’s 1992 S/M-inspired collection) to satire (Rosie O’Donnell in “Exit to Eden”).
The implications were covert when Catwoman first appeared with a whip in the 1954 Batman comic book. By 1992, the bondage imagery was blatant in director Tim Burton’s brooding “Batman Returns” (with Michelle Pfeiffer as the feline femme), which a number of critics called too kinky.
The whip will be front and center in this summer’s release of “Catwoman” starring Halle Berry. The marketing will feature Berry showing off her fancy cracking during promotional appearances, according to her grizzled whip instructor Alex Green.
“She’s very, very good,” says Green, who also taught Antonio Banderas and doubled for Anthony Hopkins in the “Zorro” movies. “The girls are the best to teach. They have a lot of class. They don’t power the whip. Teaching guys, there’s a lot of macho. They put a lot of muscle in, which isn’t necessary.”
So what’s the appeal? The whip is a phallic symbol and fetish, which is “a story masquerading as an object,” says Valerie Steele. “This fantasy of the woman as being fierce dominant-aggressive is very, very common among men.” The whip-wielding scenario allows a kind of surrogate sexual intercourse without responsibility. The idea is, “It’s not really that I want to grovel at somebody’s feet, it’s that she made me do it.”
So is Halle Berry as a bullwhip-cracking Catwoman the objectified pawn of perverted male fantasy? It depends on context, according to scholar Steele and stage combatant Lewis Ockler. Does the character use the whip to advance her career? Fight evil? Build self-esteem? Or gratuitously entertain audiences with surface sex appeal?
“If it makes the actress look strong and gives her a better role, then cool,” says Lewis Ockler. It’s not necessarily “bad for women” if men find that erotic, says Steele. “Today many young women who are wearing fiercely sexy-looking clothes feel that, metaphorically speaking, they’re ‘wielding the whip’ because they have what men want,” she says. “Like Catwoman, they’re sexually empowered and empowered in a lot of other ways.”
That’s the theoretical side. Literal whip-cracking gives another perspective. Thank goodness I didn’t know it was a phallic symbol before the workshop, though, or I might have felt embarrassed enjoying myself so much. It wasn’t size that mattered, but the noise — a crisp smack when you snap the thong just right, like when the ball hits your tennis racket’s “sweet spot” for the perfect shot. The satisfaction I felt when the energy surged through the air and my body made me want to do it again and again.
Sure, there’s plenty of sexual innuendo. Now stop snickering because I’m telling you it is thrilling to release that kind of power with just the flick of a wrist. It’s the moment that comic books illustrate so perfectly as “Snap!” “Boom!” “Pop!”
Jessica Seigel is a contributing writer for Lifetime, Countess of Culture for NPR and teaches journalism at NYU.