Is Hollywood is responsible for this? Over the years 3 popular motifs for using handcuffs in movies have been established, rendering cold steel law enforcement tools into something that brings a smile onto most faces when introduced into a film.
1) Two Individuals Forced To Act As One
In 1930 the Hays code was introduced to Hollywood–thus handcuffing films to a moral vision of America–but in England where Hitchcock made THE 39 STEPS the Hays code was not in play. Hitchcock’s film was probably the first to introduce the motif of two reluctant individuals Forced To Act As One by being handcuffed together.
In THE 39 STEPS it’s bad enough for the reluctant heroine–originally an innocent bystander and witness–that she’s been handcuffed, shot at by the police and dragged over the bleak northern countryside of England by some strange idiot, now her stockings are wet and they have to hide out at an inn overnight pretending to be honeymooners.
A somewhat sexy, somewhat comedic scene develops as they try to eat their sandwiches while she gets her stockings off so they can dry in front of the fire. After all, we wouldn’t want her to catch cold, now would we? Ridiculously risque for its time, Hitchcock underplays the scene for sex, letting the idea of the situation work its magic in the mind of movie goers.
Over time this motif was played out again and again.
handcuffed overnight = sleeping together in a bed.
THE 39 STEPS used the motif as a metaphor, I would argue, to explore how newlyweds at the time married perhaps before having sex (or even knowing each other very well) and then had to navigate the awkward moments when sex mixed with the homely aspects of domesticity. Because the idea involved a compression of time–from strangers to lovers in a day or so –the new motif was picked up by Hollywood instantly. Now when we see it we understand the code: the movie script is forcing couplehood upon two complete strangers. If they’re handcuffed together in a movie we instantly know they’ll be a couple at the end.
2) The Guy Who Gets Caught Being A Kinky Idiot
Obviously movies have –and still do exploit — the motif of a woman handcuffed and in peril. But the next phase of movie handcuff motifs to become popular involved the slightly hapless guy who was willing to go there–probably with a prostitute or some kind of dangerously sexual woman–and he winds up being discovered by his friends the next morning handcuffed and looking like an idiot.
Yet the idea of women’s sexual liberation was gradually seeping into movies throughout the 80’s until you found a shake up in this motif. The new-age intelligent guy was willing to embrace a woman’s sexual power. In fact, he wanted to be the object of that power, and wanted to be handcuffed in bed by a woman. For the first time we see sexy, sensual men playing out a scenario where a trusted woman partner takes control in the bedroom and everyone is happy.
Movies moved back and forth from the “I’ll do anything because I’m such a gullible sex crazed idiot” to the “Yeah, sexy lady, take control. I trust you, I want you to do whatever you want with me.”
And if men wanted women to do it, well, that must mean that handcuffs were a non-threatening sexual activity and it was okay for anyone who wanted to do it. This gave birth to:
3) The Character Who’s Not Supposed To Be Kinky But Actually IS
Even Buffy’s mom in the notorious ‘Band Candy’ episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer turns out to have taken a pair of handcuffs off a cop–presumably to use on Buffy’s mentor Giles when no one’s looking.
There are two new and recent variations of handcuffs played out in movies — I’m wondering how these motifs will affect the shape of things to come.
In Bounty Hunter–a mostly boring film–the premise driving the whole adventure is that Jennifer Anniston winds up handcuffed by her sexy ex, Gerard Butler, who’s a bounty hunter. Shenanigans ensue. Anniston’s character shows her resourceful pluck in a scene where even though she’s the one in handcuffs she takes the dominant position in bed and works her wiles on the ex to gain control of the situation.
The rest of the film is dreadful, but the idea of dynamic cunning in a female character is excellent. Usually we see unexpected just-can’t-pin-her-down stuff deployed in movies by bad girl characters. These characters come to no good in the end because they’re proven to be morally bankrupt. It’s nice to see a prototypical ‘good girl’ like Anniston getting to show some wily empowerment.
Spring Breakers. This film has been very controversial. The movie explores the ways in which we set sweet young edgy things loose in our sex-oriented, sexually liberated society and then cringe (or get turned on) as we watch them navigate these waters. We are bracing ourselves for how–or when–it’s all going to go terribly, terribly wrong.
The director deliberately cast the film with real life sweet-young-thing starlets to underscore the way in which–these days–sweet can flip to edgy in a split second. The film uses a style that simultaneously shows their self-exploitment AND exploits their youth and desirability. It’s like a horror film for parents.
So thanks to Hollywood, I think handcuffs used for sex have a much lower embarrassment factor than they once had. A few years back we were helping some friends get through a very disorganized move, packing up their stuff even as we were moving it out of their rental. At one point our guy friend was like “Don’t go anywhere NEAR that top dresser drawer!” DH and I looked at each other. Vibrators? Dildos? Whips? Meanwhile our woman friend was like, “Oh, whatever. I’ll take care of it.” DH and I looked at each other, mouthing ‘handcuffs.’ A few moments later she came back with a black plastic trash bag clutched in one hand with something that rattled inside.
DH winked at me, I giggled. This was totally unlike the level of our reaction when we discovering DH’s buddy is into wife-swapping. (But that’s a story for another day. ;> )