PBS programming was apparently a lot more adventurous in the 80s & 90s than I remember it being as a kid, even though I watched it religiously as a pretentious nerd without cable access. Or maybe it’s that local PBS affiliates in Louisiana weren’t broadcasting The Good Stuff (the gay stuff) that aired in less morally regressive areas of the country. Whatever the case, a few weeks ago I learned that PBS broadcast the radically queer video art flamethrower Tongues Untied the year of its initial release (admittedly to some national controversy in the press), and now I’m just finding out that the publicly funded network also broadcast a 30-minute Todd Haynes short about a child’s sexual awakening as a burgeoning kinkster. Made between Poison & Safe, Dottie Gets Spanked was a dispatch from the earliest, most abrasive period of Haynes’s career, when his voice was such an anomaly on the indie film scene that critics had to coin a new term for it: New Queer Cinema. And PBS was there to push that outsider-art queerness in front of a larger audience, risking morally righteous pushback from the Conservative pundits who are always on the hunt for excuses to defund the network. I think that’s beautiful, and it’s very different from the super-safe (although still incredibly helpful & informative) version of PBS I remember from my own childhood.
In Dottie Gets Spanked, a small suburban child in the 1960s becomes fetishistically obsessed with a spanking scene in an I Love Lucy type sitcom, much to the horror of his super straight parents. True to the messy multimedia style of Haynes’s early work, this simple story is told in a deliriously fractured, layered narrative that’s spread across three tiers of reality: the real world, the sitcom world, and the dream world. In the real world, the young boy is terrified of his emotionally distant father, a cold brute who mostly looms in doorways & watches football while his wife takes care of the actual parenting. The child escapes this tension by sitting inches away from the television and disappearing into the sitcom world, a black & white spoof of I Love Lucy era comedies (a fan-favorite of girls his age, which makes him out to be an outsider at school). In turn, this sitcom world informs the boy’s fantasies: surrealist De Chirico dreamscapes that become intensely erotic once a spanking episode of The Dottie Show introduces a burgeoning fetish into his nightly repertoire. It’s an uncomfortable but deeply relatable portrait of a young child discovering their first sexual impulses in a household where anything that’s not married heteros in the missionary position is considered an abomination & a personal moral failure. Because Haynes is behind the wheel, it’s implied that the young child is gay but unaware of that predilection, but the story is universal enough to hit home for anyone who’s ever discovered their queer identity or unexpected kink obsession while growing up in a conservative household.
Personally, I identified with this on a cellular level. It reminded me of recording sitcom episodes & other random television ephemera that overlapped with my own emerging kinks onto homemade VHS tapes in the 90s. It’s a shame those tapes were lost to flood waters in Hurricane Katrina; I imagine they might play with the same feverishly horny delirium that’s established in this film’s spanking dreams (or maybe the found footage video diary of a serial killer, if I’m being more honest with myself). A lot of those clips were likely pulled from PBS, appropriately enough, even though I don’t remember my local station’s programming being as boldly daring as the psychosexual overtones of Dottie Gets Spanked. But the whole point of this movie is that the content we fixate on while we’re mapping out our own erotic imaginations does not have to be direct or overt to be effective. Even when locked away from the broader spectrum of sexual play & identity in a morally buttoned-up household, we still find a way to indulge ourselves in what turns us on. That searching-for-scraps-of-kink scavenging may now be a relic of a pre-Internet world, considering how much access most children have to information outside their parents’ control, but it is perfectly captured in this playfully naughty Todd Haynes short from the 90s. Knowing that the movie’s production & distribution was at least partially publicly funded only makes its existence more perversely amusing.