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If you’re anything like me, you often find yourself imagining what it would be like to be a great actress. Not on the big screen, just in your daily life. Perfectly composed even as you stew at a rude comment from a stranger. Always a witty retort when someone cuts in line at the supermarket. Endlessly comfortable and easy-going when it comes to trying new stuff in bed.

In reality, it can be hard to live up to such great expectations. Sometimes, you think it will be fun to foreplay as a damsel-in-distress and wind up cringing at your own bad British accent.

Perhaps, that’s the appeal of a play within a play. And no, I’m not talking about a basic frame story or a character breaking the fourth wall by looking directly into the camera. In the romantic/erotic media I’ve been consuming lately, the characters of the production that’s intended to gratify the audience are also characters in a production intended to gratify themselves. 

Not exactly sure what I mean by that? Let’s dig into a few examples across movies, sketch comedy, and prose.

Trouble in Austenland

In Austenland, a 2013 rom-com flick produced by Twilight author Stephanie Meyer, a young woman obsessed with Jane Austen depletes her life savings to participate in a fully immersive Regency Era experience. (Recall that this is a pre-Bridgerton film.) While it’s unsurprising that Austenland turns out to be a bit of a bummer, I appreciate that the film doesn’t end up going for an easy out with Austenland being a cheap Willy Wonka-esque spectacle. 

In many ways, Austenland is the best version of what the heroine, Jane, could have received: a lush setting, multiple men clamoring for her favor, etc. One of the early letdowns is that Jane realizes that her travel agent purchased the lowest tier of the Austenland experience and as such, she will be treated like the lowest rung of the fabricated social ladder. But this is also main character energy for that era of Regency literature. An attractive, kind-hearted but impoverished young woman gradually working her way into the good graces of her “betters.” 

I’m telling you, this girl is getting the five star treatment even when she’s getting the two-star treatment.

Jane’s central problem with Austenland, beyond the paid-to-play favoritism and lecherous husband of the program director (which also felt intentionally Regency), is the blurred lines when it comes to the manufactured romances. Part of the Austenland experience is that the guests (who all seem to be women) are promised a romantic storyline with one of the actors. Jane finds heartbreak in feeling real feelings for men who she can never be sure are being real with her. It is, after all, their job to flirt and make the women feel like romance novel heroines.

Without devolving further into the plot of Austenland, I have to say it was an immensely pleasurable watch. Because of my particular erotic interest in class conflict, I found the part where she wasn’t allowed in the carriage with the other ladies and was assigned a drab, brown dress to be sort of hot, but the whole premise and execution also filled me with a non-sexual joy. There’s something liberating about watching characters struggling to fit into their desired fantasy worlds. A strange, voyeuristic pleasure.

Jane is the ultimate Austen fan, and yet she still can’t fashion herself into a true Austen heroine, despite being classically beautiful and well-mannered. One foot always remains in the real world. Even if, to us, that world is also a fake world.

SNL’s Horniest Bank Robbery

Next up, we have a recent SNL skit featuring a horny couple (Josh Brolin, Heidi Gardner) who unintentionally thwart a bank robbery because the bank robbers are too distracted by the couple’s unwanted advances. It becomes very clear over the course of the skit, that the couple is electrified by the thought of experiencing a forced-sex hostage situation in real life. 

I felt surprisingly uncomfortable watching that skit even though it’s a comedic depiction of sexual roleplay. So, it should have been right up my alley. I think I was reacting to a kernel of ridicule toward those who would be aroused by that type of thing. 

On the other hand, perhaps the ridicule was ultimately directed toward taking those fantasies out of the context of the bedroom. The real life version of a sexualized hostage scenario would be dangerous and traumatizing, so why not cut the other way and make it ridiculous.

Not as much voyeuristic pleasure in cringe comedy but it got me thinking about the perception of non-consensual roleplay to the layman. So that’s something.

Women-In-Fake-Prison Erotica

And then finally, on my strange list of farces, we come to an erotica that I read on Kindle Unlimited called The Wentworth Institute For Troubled Young Ladies: Book 12 Charity's Women in Prison Experience by Jay D. Strapper. The premise is that a billionaire purchases a custom-built, fully immersive, 6 million dollar fantasy experience for his girlfriend. The twist is that it’s the girlfriend who pre-selects a Women-In-Prison scenario and goes through a detailed interview and planning process to make sure it’s exactly what she wants and within her limits. 

Of course, we must suspend our disbelief as she is “arrested” and placed into a very similar experience to what she just requested from this company without even a suspicion of it not being real. However, in her defense, this is an incredibly elaborate ruse with a private island, a roster of actors and an organized, secret BDSM society.

I read A LOT of women-in-prison content, more than I’d like to admit, so going into this one, I was curious if the premise that the whole thing was fake right from the beginning would make it less or more arousing. 

It’s a common trope in sexy stories, especially when non-consent is involved, that the “kidnapper” is often revealed to be the woman’s husband. And in the end, you learn that they planned it out together or something. Sometimes it’s already established or hinted that the female protagonist had requested it, but rarely is she so involved in the planning. I’m fairly neutral on that kind of a big reveal. It’s a bit overdone and can feel cheap, but of course, I understand the authors’ impulses to add that measure of consent to their fiction.

Despite numerous typos, this particular fake prison erotica was much more arousing than usual. To the point, I found myself asking, why did this elaborate scheming make it so much hotter?

Narratively, it allowed the story to establish how in tune the desires of the protagonist were with what was happening to her - in a very natural way.

You have plenty of secretly kinky heroines in other stories telling us how much they like getting whipped in an inner monologue. However, the larger frame of an elaborate fantasy experience allowed the character’s flow of consciousness to focus more on her negative emotions, the fear, the humiliation, the desperation, all without repeatedly taking us out of her head with a justification meant to assuage the reader. In a sense, this story did all its fictional consent work upfront.

Give yourself permission

I seem to have discovered a fascination with fictional scenarios that contain roleplay scenarios. They reflect, each in their own way, a facet or component about the difficulties of being part of a fantasy. They show people trying and failing or succeeding imperfectly, and there’s something about it that feels more human - even if that too is just part of the show. 

If even our fictional characters can’t always get it right, maybe we can take some pressure off ourselves and try to have some fun. Our real attempts will measure up to more than our perfect fantasies.

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