The black screen returns: “Empowered by Porn?”
Note carefully the punctuation here. I wasn’t expecting an exclamation point, but a simple period would have sufficed. It might even have implied the same derisive message, but with a bit more irony. Like the porn it “critiques,” one thing TPoP lucks utterly is irony, at least of the intentional kind.
Can we guess the answer to the question posed? Sure, but that won’t spare us from further exposure to the producer’s opinion. I’m beginning to think nothing short of mortality could deliver us from it.
Lisa, the female fan we met first at AdultEx, comes back, as usual far more rational-sounding than the assorted ringers with which the picture is larded. She thinks it’s hypocritical for women to take porn out of a man’s life, and that neither marriage nor any other serious commitment justifies such action. It would be better if women just learned to accept porn and “roll with it and have fun with it.”
No proposition so real goes “unexamined” in these parts, so the narrator comes back, voicing over a Cosmo cover to the effect that “The pressure to be hypersexualized is increasingly present in women’s daily lives. Advice programs, talk shows and books instruct average women to spice up their sex lives with pornography.”
Hold it right there. Can anybody here tell me just what makes a woman “average?” The hypersexualizing pressure assertion, unsupported by anything other than some advertising pix and a few more magazine and book covers, is easily enough swatted down, but before getting to that, I don't want what I take to be pretty much a blunderbuss insult to women at large to pass unchallenged.
Clearly, this is a condescending slam, conscious or not, at women everywhere who, not having had the benefit of the Stop Porn Culture! slide show, are the feminine lumpen proletariat the enlightened vanguard in TPoP’s presumed audience must seek to liberate. I’m sure they should all feel ever so grateful to be accepted as merely average rather than deluded and victimized like those really tragic cases in porn.
Anyway, we’re next exposed to the “pressures” of pole-dancing classes and Carmen Electra exercise vids that these average women must face daily at whatever cost to their fragile self-esteem.
The ever-insightful Ariel Levy: “What’s interesting about porn or strippers or any other kind of sex work is it’s women whose job it is to impersonate lust or, you know, fake arousal. The idea that you’re going to get more in touch with your own authentic, innate personal sexuality by imitating a woman whose job it is to imitate sexuality, I mean you’re getting pretty far removed from the real thing.”
Pausing for a moment to ponder the sorry state of American publishing that lays out hard cash for the services a writer with such limited command of basic English syntax, I reread this passage a couple of times and decrypt it to mean that all sexuality shown in porn is essentially fake (and BTW, while porn performers do strip and some strippers do porn, the constant use of the two very different trades interchangeably does a disservice to both, and to the viewer). Therefore, none of the techniques used in either profession to produce arousal in a male audience could possibly be of any use to a woman of the real world seeking to arouse a male sexual partner.
As we all know, the use of artifice for such purposes is entirely a modern development and a by-product of cultural pornification. If you don’t count The Bible, The Kama Sutra, The 1001 Nights and a body of lore and literature stretching back to the dawn of recorded history, that is. And the sexual experiences of those men and women aroused by such artifices in their private lives have all been having inauthentic experiences throughout those thousands of years. Gee Ariel, thanks for the news, even if it is a bit dated.
Not that we’re given time to sort through this rhetorical hodge-podge. A clip from Girls Gone Wild, favorite punching-bag among raunch culture scolds, unspools to remind us of just how bad the situation has gotten for women who don’t wish to engage in drunken revelry on the beach with equally inebriated yobbos.
According to Levy, who has “walked around the beach” with the GGW posse: “Girls come running up them screaming ‘I gotta be on Girls Gone Wild. I gotta get a hat. And the just start, you know, flashing and stripping and the rest of it.”
The look on Levy’s face speaks to her opinion of such behavior far more effectively than her words, which don’t seem to suggest anything particularly repellent. Drunken young people have been known to do things far more dangerous. I’m no defender of Joe Francis, and I like GGW even less than other forms of reality TV (I’m a Dancing with the Stars fan myself).
I think the whole premise of watching people make fools of themselves for our entertainment is problematic, to use one of those words favored by self-styled “media critics,” which is the hat I’m wearing tonight. I don’t know if it’s the blatant schadenfreude that bothers me or the contemplation of the possible consequences for the participants, but I can process the appeal of physical cruelty in much less value-laden terms.
But the idea that GGW is that much more damaging to its participants than any other entertainment built on the same template because the content is sexual is dubious. The women of GGW are certainly more jovially mocked than the guys on Jackass, but fortunately the vast majority of men and women can quite handily avoid such hazards.
But we’re given plenty more of GGW just to make sure we don’t miss the point. After a quick glimpse of tits plastered with “Censored” signs and some giggles and talk of puffy nipples, we must immediately be reminded that THIS ISN’T FUNNY by the dour Ms. Levy (like we didn’t know this already).
“There was this one 19-year-old girl who had stripped in the back of a bar and simulated masturbation and I said ‘So what’s in it for you? Why did you do this?’ And she looked at me, totally baffled and she said ‘the only way I could see someone not doing this is if they were considering a career in politics.’ And that was an idea that I heard a lot from young women down there. It was just like obviously you would do this. This is just what women do, what ‘hot’ women do.”
That, ladies and gentleman, is a mighty big inductive leap. The woman in question – the one of age to shoulder a rifle in Iraq – sees no significant risk in exposing herself unless she were planning on a career. Whatever I may think if that logic, it’s hers and hers alone. How we get from that to a generalization that this woman, and by implication others, believe this to be “what women” or even “hot women” do is less supported than the flasher’s tits. She speaks for herself and Levy speaks for, at the very least “a lot of young women down there,” at the beach. There might be someone out there who could risk hypothesizing about these women’s motives with some objectivity, but that someone probably wouldn’t have written a book titled “Female Chauvinist Pigs”.
Back to MTV and Damone Richardson, expressing his surprise that women come to him when he DJs wanting him to play hip-hop with dirty lyrics. Worse, he’d even see women on the dance floor dancing to it.
“To me, it would almost be like white supremacist hip hop, saying, like, you know, ‘those drug using niggers in the city...’ but I would dance to it because the music was catchy. I don’t understand why more women don’t take offense to this stuff.”
Maybe it’s because they’ve been culturally conditioned to accept it as normal. Or maybe it’s because the music is catchy. There are legitimate questions to be raised about gangsta rap, but as a white person, I wouldn’t feel qualified to raise them. No such inhibitions plague the producers of TPoP, who happen to be white also. Still, I’d cut Richardson some slack I wouldn’t cut them. For one thing, he’s not talking about porn, a subject with which I can claim some familiarity. Last time I checked, that was the subject of this movie, though plenty of other media crit certainly seeps in through the cracks.
Meanwhile, out at the leafy campuses of the Ivy League, students have gotten into the porn business themselves, making “dorm porn”, at least according to cultural commentator Tyra Banks, who would never exaggerate any kind of excess for ratings purposes. Sure enough, the narrator validates Tyra’s claims with examples of student-run erotic magazines, many featuring (gasp) students themselves as nude models, and not just any students, but those from Harvard and U. Chicago.
Viewing the rather tasteful and creative photo spreads and covers of these periodicals is a welcome deliverance from the land of “Swirlies” at this point, though the filmmakers clearly don’t agree.
Looking at these images, ranging from lyric to outrageous, I’m inappropriately reminded of Dorothy Parker’s quip to the effect that “If all co-eds from Smith College were laid end-to-end … it wouldn’t surprise me.” THAT’S NOT FUNNY!
Certainly not to the narrator, who drags us back from our brief moment of erotic reverie to the grim, Dickensian reality of life at universities where tuitions run upwards of $40,000 a term. We’re reminded that many of these student publications make no secret of their profit motives. Hey, desperate people do desperate thing. Isn’t that what we’ve been told so far?
Oh, I forget, even women who don’t need money are still prostituted by a pornified culture. These clever folks have an answer for everything, don’t they?
We’re introduced to “Boink” founder Alicia Keys by way of a Tyra interview, which rarely bodes well. Alicia points out that ”Boink” does run serious articles on contraception and STDs, but admits: “It’s here for entertainment. It’s here to masturbate to. It’s here to titillate. It’s supposed to arouse you. And there’s nothing wrong with that.” Mercifully, we’re spared Tyra’s rejoinders.
We do learn that reality TV has come calling, and that a six-figure book deal may be in the offing for the devilish boinksters. We’re not entirely sure who is exploiting whom in this deal, but somebody’s always getting exploited in this movie, of that you can be sure.
College Student and political activist Elizabeth-Wrigley-Field sorts it out thus: “When people don’t actually feel like they could challenge sexism directly and change the terms on which we’re evaluated, than the reaction is “if you can’t beat sexism, you can join it.” So much for those troublesome Third-Wavers out there. They’ve just joined up with sexism because they don’t think they can beat it.
That they still identify as feminists might put a dent in this interpretation, but we’re not going to have to deal with such paradoxes just now. As far as Wrigley-Field is concerned, the way such women think is “actually a huge mistake. It’s just giving up on the idea of changing the way women are thought to be.” Oddly, many sex-positive feminists consider themselves to be doing just that, but they’re just plain wrong. Like all women who don’t agree with the producers, they simply don’t know their own minds.
Which brings us all the way around to Joanna Angel, whose full-on crucifixion is this film’s second most repulsive moment. You’ll have a hard time believing there could be something as foul, but TPoP is never to be underestimated when it comes to new ways of stripping sex workers of their personhood (no, that’s not what we do, that’s what they do).
We see Joanna arriving at a party, where she’s greeted by smiling autograph-seekers. But don’t be confused about the source of her fame. She maybe Rutgers grad with a degree in lit, but the important thing about her is that she’s the founder “Burning Angel” the Web site where she fuses punk rock with pornography.
Cut to her interview at AdultEx, where she tells the interviewer she’s learned a lot about herself and become a more powerful person through porn. Hah! They’ll show her, and us.
Cut to a darkened room where a cigarette-puffing guy reminiscent of Cancer Man in “X-Files” watches Joanna on TV, giving quite an impressive acting performance as she explains in a whiny voice that her daddy treated her like a little whore when she was five, then breaks into giggles. This material is so outrageously over the top, anyone who wasn’t hopelessly literal-minded would see it for the premeditated camp that it is, but everything about this “documentary” is to be taken literally and at face value, other than comments made by those who don’t share its ever-more-apparent biases.
In her interview, Joanna goes on to make the rather obvious observation that porn can’t really objectify women because you can’t turn a person into an object. It’s hard to refute that contention on scientific grounds, but that doesn’t keep the movie from trying. A quick shot of a female performer being slapped and having her mouth taped gives us little doubt about how that objectification thing works.
But Joanna soldiers on, insisting that showing a woman being choked and hit and spit on and called a dirty slut can still be feminist as long as everybody there is in control of what they’re doing.” But the images of Joanna being fish-hooked, spanked, bent over a table and having her hair pulled are unlikely to persuade those who don’t know, or care, what Joanna thinks about her own experiences, that she’s not an abused victim. That’s the image of her with which we’re left.
This whole documentary crew followed her around for days, told her lies, interviewed her for hours and served her up to us as self-deluded and pathetic. Not that they exploited her for their own purposes in any way, of course. These noble social reformers would never stoop to such tactics.
Right, and if you believe that, well, wait for the conclusion (not too much more of this to go, thankfully) lying just the other side of the title card reading: “Harder and Harder”,,,
Who do we find behind that final door? Me, of course, insisting that there’s all kinds of porn: “Now there’s everything for everybody who likes any kind of erotic depiction (a bit of hyperbole, as I failed to leave out depictions involving minors or quadrapeds)”. We get a bit of Dita Von Teese playing with another girl in Andrew Blake’s “Pin-Ups 2” while I point out that Blake and Candida Royale make “lovely, lushly mounted, high-fashion looking pictures.” All we see of Royale’s entire, vast body of work is her company’s animated logo.
And that, ladies and gentleman, is ALL the feature porn you’re getting in TPoP, because feature porn, we will soon learn, is obsolete, despite bringing in something over half the revenues in porn video, surpassing all other genres combined, and generates mega-hits like “Pirates” that sell millions of copies. And though the growing momentum in porn these days is back toward bigger, higher-quality productions with the sex dialed back a bit, such things really aren’t representative of “current trends in mainstream pornography that is industrially produced in the U. S.”
“It’s very easy,” I go on to say “for outsiders, particularly those who have a hostile agenda toward porn to seize on ugly porn or mean porn or porn where the purpose seems to be to inflict some kind of abusive sexuality on one or another party involved.”
I didn’t expect that statement to go unchallenged when I made it and I was not wrong. What the narrator calls “a team of scholars” from New York University (where Sun teaches, by a coincidence in this film where coincidences don’t exist, as we recall) a U.Mass. and U. Rhode Island “examine” the content of popular pornographic videos.
Dr. Ana Bridges, who previously presented the results of her “content analysis” at a feminist anti-pornography conference with Wosnitzer, informs us that: “Defenders of pornography often state that critics hold up the worst examples, most degrading, most violent pornography and talk about why this is harmful, but that in fact pornography is very diverse. Our research team was interested in what people are actually viewing.”
And how did they go about finding out? “We randomly selected videos from a list of best-renting videos. In that way, we were not responsible for choosing which videos to content analyze. Rather, the viewers are choosing which videos to watch and we are sampling from their choice.”
The operative words here are “random” and “sampling.” As the research used charts from AVN, it’s hardly surprising that they found so many hard gonzo titles. Features are more expensive to make, thus less common. However, they routinely occupy a majority of the top ten renting and selling titles. Gonzos are cheaper and more plentiful, so if you go by numbers of titles on the list, they will be represented out of all proportion to what the majority of viewers “actually watch.”
This is called junk social science. Start from a conclusion and ignore all evidence that contradicts it. Though the narrator insists that the team studied over 200 scenes from “the most popular videos released in 2005,” they don’t show us a single frame from anything made by Vivid, Wicked, Adam&Eve or Digital Plaground, all feature companies that rented and sold hundreds of thousands of videos that year.
The montage that follows shows us only gonzo titles ranging from “No Swallowing Allowed” to “Teen Fuckholes.” I seriously doubt that “Teen Fuck holes” posed much competition to “Pirates,” bit when you’re cherry-picking data you have to overlook a few exceptions here and there, no matter how large.
Not surprisingly, considering how loosely they define “aggressive sex acts,” the team found that 89.9% of what they watched contained such acts. 48% contained “verbal aggression, mostly name-calling and insults.” Just what constitutes name-calling and insults is a highly subjective matter depending on the context. Sure, there are clearly porn vids where the terms used are meant to be offensive. In a different context, the same words might be construed as complimentary. As we’re not told how these terms we’re defined, all we have is a meaningless statistic based on someone’s opinion of what constitutes an insult.
Intent and tone are not considered.
But wait, let’s move on to the real thing, physical aggression. They found that in 82.2% of what they watched, 94.4% of these acts were directed at women. We’re shown some (literally) nakedly non-compliant footage of a man yelling at a woman and dragging her across a room by a handful of hair, then some spanking. The narrator does note that the women in these scenes “frequently expressed enjoyment of this behavior.”
To make sure we understand what behavior is meant, we’re shown more spanking, a bit of choking. Counted as “acts of violence” across the board. Spanking and gagging during oral sex were found to be the most common acts of aggression. We’re shown numerous shots of oral sex with gagging, all completely non-compliant as we’ve come to expect. This is very hard hardcore and we see it all, yet nary a record is proffered to establish, as lawful pornographers must, that all participants were adults over the age of 18 acting of their own free will.
Spanking and skull fucking to the gag-point are not everyone’s preference, but they are common acts in private as well as on video and were before video was invented. As acts of aggression go, they would have to be classed as pretty minor compared to anything you might see in a mainstream network crime show.
Nevertheless, Hatman pops up to talk about the terrible problem gonzo producers have figuring out “how many dicks can you stick in a girl at one time. If you’ve been following along, you’ll expect an answer to that question with numbing predictability. Hatman suggests that four is about the limit – one in her mouth, two in her ass, one in her pussy.
Have no doubt that Gail Dines will return next to remind us that there are “limits to what you can show and the way you can show it because there are limits to what the human body can endure. So what pornographers have to do is think of new and different things to keep the audience going.”
Clearly, we’re dealing with a progressive addiction here, right? That’s the model the producers are eager to sell us.
As an example, Bridges comes back to tell us all about ATM footage, in which performers suck cocks that have recently fucked them anally. Her team found ATMs in 42% of the scenes they saw. Yep, it’s pretty common in gonzo porn, though not allowed in features at all. I keep forgetting that features don’t exist.
And lest the troubling gaps in the research distract us, Dines, scarcely able to contain her revulsion, talks about the guys in the films make jokes about the girls having to eat shit. Girls make those jokes in these films also.
Well, if shock value is the value you want to cultivate, that’s pretty effective use of propaganda tactics. That similar behavior, once again, is not limited to porn and was not invented by porn, and that couples freely engage in it on their own time just don’t count as facts. The idea here is to make people queasy and I have no doubt this detailed discussion of a particular fact will have just that effect on many. So who cares of those who perform the acts consented to them or even enjoyed them? The actual experience of the individuals involved is irrelevant. We never get to hear any of them talk about those experiences, so we have no way of knowing how they are seen subjectively. Subjectivity gets little respect anywhere in TPoP, unless uttered in the form of rad-fem rhetoric, where interpretation rules all things.
The closest we come is a predictably self-loathing soliloquy from conflicted porn director Jimmy D., who feels ever so sad for the girl he shot doing the ATM, whom he was certain didn’t want to do it. If he had those misgivings, he might have stopped the scene and asked her if she wanted not to, but he kept on rolling and collected his check, so he must not have felt all that guilt-ridden at the time we see him filming it. Graphic retching noises leave us to draw the conclusions nicely set up for us.
Mr. Anonymous fan returns in silhouette to testify that most women wouldn’t be interested in performing ATMs “because they probably think it’s kind of digusting.” Again, no woman who does this is asked about it, though we’ve expended about five minutes on it, concluding with another gem from Jenson:
“All these acts at the base are about male domination and female submission, men’s ability to do whatever they want to women and women accepting it and not only accepting it, seeing it as part of their nature.”
Individual nature, nature as women, nature as women who make gonzo porn? Since we never hear from any, naturally we’re to assume that he means all women as far as the “ideology of porn” is concerned.
I will save the very worst for the very last, and then offer up a closing summation. It will be worth waiting for, I promise.