David Hyde Pierce
On not getting what we want
TW for masochism, sexual violence, and BDSM
Two years ago, while discussing a decade's worth of bad relationships, my therapist suddenly cocked an eyebrow and pointed at me."Your picker's broken,” she declared (this was a fairly dramatic therapist).
She meant that my ability to discern between what is good for me and what is bad for me—particularly regarding romantic and sexual partners—is compromised. I had to agree.
"I'm sexually attracted to abusers," I admitted, and we both laughed like I was telling a joke. I knew by then that recognizing the absurdity of getting turned on by my own rape—which at that point was the only thing that turned me on at all—was better than denying the sadness it made me feel.
“So the next question we have to ask ourselves,” my therapist said, “is how do you fix your picker?”
My twenties were spent straddling the line between indulging in my self-destructive impulses and merely mitigating them. I fucked and dated people who were dangerous, or at best not good for me, and I avoided fucking and dating people who I could actually trust to play my stupid, predictable game, who I knew wouldn’t push me further than I could go. It was an imbalanced balancing act, and it didn’t go great. At the dawn of my thirties, burned out and bitter, I felt as confused by what I wanted from sex and love as I had when I came out a decade before.
As a result, my sexual MO shifted. I went from being a top-heavy switch (with the exception of a totally batshit eight-month, long-distance, 24/7 ageplay relationship in which I almost exclusively bottomed), which was how I’d fucked ever since I met my first girlfriend, to being a stone top. I stopped letting my partners see me naked below the waist. I started to avoid human touch because I had begun having panic attacks, even when I was touched in non-sexual contexts, even when I knew that the people who were touching me were safe.
But that’s the thing—I didn’t know they were safe, which I guess is the inverse of my wet-for-maniacs problem: Because pleasure didn’t register, neither did safety (or was it the other way around?).
I’ve known that I can't trust pleasure for a long time. At 31, "pleasure" describes that which I pursue, not that which I enjoy. Which isn’t to say that I don’t take a distinctive kind of pleasure in my masochism practice, because it is a practice, not to mention a lifestyle. I’ve written a lot about my fascination with masochism because I hold it very dear, though it’s a dearness sandbagged by compulsion: I can give you a lot of reasons why I like what pain does for me, but I can give you many, many more reasons why I need what pain does for me, starting with the fact that I am Bad and deserve it.
Someday I’ll write a book about all of that, but for now, suffice it to say that masochism is important to me. It is, in a sense, everything to me, because it is the framework in which I conduct my relationships, as fundamental as identity; for me, masochist ranks with trans and human and brother. Masochism is how I understand intimacy, affection, excitement, joy, fear, and power. It’s more than sexual, yet deeply erotic. It makes sense to me, and like all true perversions, it is not optional. I’m wired this way, at least for now.
This means that when life gets harder, so do the beatings. My Saturn return was a real shitshow, to the tune of leaving an abuser, beginning medical transition, enduring a botched surgery, and moving across the country. At a time when being close to anyone else had begun to feel impossible, masochism was the only way I could bear the intimacy that I so desperately wanted.
Things have been on the upswing for me lately (testosterone is making me so fucking hot, how couldn’t they be?), but it’s still easier for me to get my ass beaten like a Cooper twink than it is to let my dearest friends hold me when I need comforting. It’s easier to lie down for the scalpel than it is to imagine taking a shower with my girlfriend without also wearing a bathing suit. (David in 2007 would not believe that today, in the year 2020, we’re a never-nude, but here we are.) It is easier to constrict than it is to open.
I’m grateful to what pain does and teaches, but I would like balance, real balance. I don’t want masochism to be my stopgap, a crutch for touch. I want pain and I also want hugs, and I don’t think that should be unrealistic. If I can’t use pleasure to guide me toward the things that fulfill me, that bring me joy, comfort, edification, and growth, rather than merely deaden suffering, then what the fuck is the point?
"You need to recalibrate," my therapist said.
As anyone who's ever done a food elimination diet knows, recalibration means starting at zero, or almost zero. It means depriving yourself entirely, cleansing the system, then rebuilding your means of measurement and evaluation from nothing by adding a little bit of food at a time. Self-destruction being inextricable from my romantic and sexual desires, my body eliminated sexual risk with other people from my diet for me, forcing me back into virginity without any interference from my executive function. Good job, Body. Body knew it was safer that way, and easier, too.
In her essay “Fucking Like a Housewife,” Jamie Hood wrote that fantasy “is at its heart a survivalist lie.” I’ve started to re-examine my own fantasies (too obvious and humiliating to recount here. I’m not special—use your imagination), looking at them not as things to someday attain, but as visions of what I should simply, categorically, not be allowed to have.
Not surprisingly, I’ve managed to fetishize this new fun new thing where I don’t get what I want. Not getting what you want is hot! Of course, my interest in body worship, chastity, tease and denial, and cucking have since blossomed. Like being stone, one of the fetish’s many powers is that it precludes conventional sexual intercourse, sweeping it off the table and down into the abyss.
In my phone, I have two notes, one on top of the other, a dialectical sandwich:
the fetish is the subtext surfacing
sometimes a foot is just a foot
When you make it a point to avoid other people for a year or two, you might spend a lot more time watching TV than you otherwise would have.
Since all 11 seasons of Frasier were available on Netflix until this January, when the streaming service made the frankly transphobic decision to remove them, I've watched them, in sequential order, all the way through four or five times. In the same way that some people cycle through The Office or Friends or GBBO, taking pleasure in the mind-numbing familiarity and maudlin nostalgia, I take pleasure, and no small amount of comfort, in the lives of brothers Frasier and Niles Crane, two wealthy, white, straight, male Seattlites who just want to find love (and to be nominated Corkmaster at their Freemason-esque wine club).
There are so many reasons to love Frasier. It is well-written and very funny. It managed to bridge the millennium gracefully, transitioning from peak nineties sitcom into television’s Golden Age without a hitch, providing juicy, cozy reference points spanning more than a decade (one of my favorite things about sitcoms from this era is the gradual the introduction of digital technology and its attendant anxieties; Frasier’s is, of course, about manners and when it’s appropriate to answer your cellular phone in public). It mostly avoids the pitfalls plaguing otherwise successful long-running series, like abortive final seasons (Roseanne) or awkward character reconfiguration, like the Diane/Rebecca shifts in Cheers, the fivehead from which Freudian Frasier sprang, fully formed.
(Actually, I think Frasier is a Jungian. Anyway.)
I love the PNW, I love smarm, I love so-called highbrow humor, I love to see how the other half lives, I love Kelsey Grammer’s obvious genius (if not his behavior as a human), I love the show’s supporting characters, and I desperately want to fuck Frasier and Niles’ father, showstealer Marty Crane, played by the late, great John Mahoney, who my friend and fellow Frasier aficionado, Dahlia, has convinced me was privately gay during his life.
But what I really love about Frasier is that it is a show about people who, despite having everything, do not get what they want. This creates endless amusing scenarios in which you can enjoy seeing Frasier and his bumbling little family Not Get What They Want without ever having to face real privation, because in the world of Frasier, no one worries about money, unless the money in question is a five-figure bonus for being such a successful psychiatrist/radio talk show host. No one worries about violence, unless it’s the violence of being socially snubbed for hiring the wrong private chef. It’s indulgence with no consequences, the deeply shallow pleasure that the sitcom, at its best, was created to deploy.
While Frasier is centered around Frasier himself, his brother, Niles, played by the inimitable David Hyde Pierce, is given considerable screen time for his own struggle to attain happiness—that is, sustained existential pleasure.
And what would give Niles pleasure? On the surface, not much. When his character is introduced, Niles is a mincing germaphobe, the selfish, catty, uptight husband of elusive rich bitch Maris. As DHP aptly fleshes him out, we learn more about his passions (Mongolian throat singing), his interests (gourmet dining), and his hobbies (squash in white tennis shorts, chased with a refreshing glass of the Crane Boy elixir, sherry). The eventual husband of the batty Mancunian clairvoyant, Daphne, the employee Niles once worshipped from afar (the slumming is part of the appeal; Daphne calls Niles “Dr. Crane” for something like 7 years, until they start dating, despite the fact that she cohabitates with his brother and touches his sexy father’s groin every day, because she is a live-in maid as well as a physical therapist, if you can imagine. [I cannot. The writers of Frasier can.]), Niles is his big brother tuned up a step, the Russian doll nested inside him, tighter, daintier, less suited for daylight, and thus even more prone to unhappiness than his unhappy elder sibling.
If only Niles would relax! From his snide jokes to his clueless snobbery, this OCD little prig vacillates between the poles of his miserable first marriage and wedded bliss with his soulmate, Daphne. We watch him struggle to recalibrate his desires, which for years led him ever back to manipulative Maris, the unseen queen of Niles’ cold ivory tower.
Niles’ hidden, obscured, shameful desire for Daphne and the potential she poses evokes the gay tension that makes the show itself a fabulous microcosm of the (homo)sexual politics of turn-of-the-century American television. Here we have Frasier and Niles, fancy boys juxtaposed with their butch ex-cop father, and often other manly men besides, resisting the logical conclusion of their congenital effeminacy. They’re the nerds that knew growing up that they would one day rule the world, Seattle’s proto-Silicon Valley titans enduring wedgies for the geekiness that would one day convert to power, that they would have their vengeance on the peasants who once tormented them. The Crane Boys are not gay—they just act like it!
Sometimes Frasier’s writers play with this gay tension intentionally. There are a few episodes, especially in later seasons, that even make light of their limpwristedness. In an especially memorable one, Frasier pretends to be gay to court the favors of an esteemed homosexual opera director, played by Patrick Stewart. At the end of the day, as they say, homosexuals remain the butt of the joke, but what else is new. In order for the audience to accept the effeteness, the foppishness, the port-sipping, opera-season-ticket-holding, sports-eschewing, women-fearing, violence-rebuking Crane brothers, Frasier and Niles must vociferously condemn homosexuals and other gender freaks (like every other TV showe ever, there is the obligatory transmisgynist episode, one of the few I always skip). There must be a line between the Cranes and the real unwanteds, and in Frasier, it’s always toed.
At a spry 60, DHP and his career are by no means over with, but he’s talked a fair amount about his discomfort with being pigeonholed as the fancy boy character that brought him to prominence.
“David Hyde Pierce sounds so snooty,” he said about his efforts to get the Screen Actors Guild to restore his name to David Pierce; “Hyde” had been added to avoid confusion with another actor. “Why don’t we just call me Sir David Hyde Pierce and drive a stake through the heart of any chance I have to escape being forever stereotyped as this character?”
Regardless of his own wishes—and considerable range. I mean, Wet Hot American Summer, come on!—DHP hasn’t avoided taking on a certain reputation, one further solidified by his coming out in 2007, three years after Frasier ended.
The warp and woof of this gay tension shifts considerably with the show, as it did across television in the late 90s and early 2000s, when the appearance of homosexuals on TV slowly became about something other than strict humiliation. While most of Frasier’s gay content is absurd and even offensive now, back then it was more or less progressive: There are one or two episodes where wealthy white gay men are afforded lines, the suggestion of personalities, and an endless tolerance for the straights’ bad behavior.
Straight people have perfected the art of implicating us in their hatred. Even after it became “okay” to be gay on TV, they continued to ask permission from themselves to demean us, with a few of our tokens as their smokescreens, absolving themselves with jokes about cleanliness and going to the gym.
Niles—and to a lesser extent, Frasier himself—is one of the last male sitcom characters who could be queer without the taint of queerness. He of the fruit-punch voice, a man elegant and exact in both movement and elocution; a phrenologist would have a field day with that brow; he, sharp as a broken wine stem, but capable of pivoting to a delightful, endearing softness at the drop of a serviette.
Like his brother, Niles is deeply in touch with sensory pleasure—the food, the drink, the Hugo Boss—right from the pilot. The trimmings are mostly affect, but Frasier’s writers take care to demonstrate to us that the Crane brothers’ hedonism is, at its core, genuine. It takes him a while, but Niles eventually figures out how to have his quiche and eat it too, how to integrate the pleasures of the flesh with everything else good in this world. He does this by finally claiming Daphne, his heterosexual soulmate. The recalibration, which demands an affirmation of the straightness at Niles’ core, is successful.
As it turns out, what is good for him is good for everyone else. Talk about a fantasy.
David tweets at @k8bushofficial.