Who Is Harmed -- and Who Is Not -- by Pornography
On the other hand, the men in the film seem unafflicted by their exposure to the industry, not even when they’re working in it. In fact Kelly, who turns out to be Danielle’s 30-year-old manager and ex, is the model of self-confidence and coolness. He drives a badass old school car, has a tattoo, and at Matt’s high school, he quickly manages to attract a flock of girls. Even the local bank teller is wooed by his charm. He’s pragmatic about his dabbles in the industry, remarking repeatedly that “That’s what this is: my fucking business” (52). Hugo, Kelly’s nemesis, is equally basking in confidence, and in wealth, too. The teenage boys also remain unharmed by their introduction to pornography. When a real opportunity to have sex with a porn actress presents itself to Eli, or even when he simply talks to girls, he is a shy and courteous teenager.
In the end, it’s only Danielle who suffered, and who needed the help of a boyfriend to find true happiness. She is portrayed as unable to voice her own opinion, and instead waits until Matt can do that for her: “No offense, I really don’t think Danielle wants to be here right now”, Matt tells Kelly at the Adult Film Convention in Las Vegas, where she is posing as star Athena (51). Danielle holds a very essentialistic view of her understanding, and let’s her profession define her completely. “This is what I am. I don’t belong [in a normal neighborhood]” she tells Matt (49). The film is thus clearly divided between male pleasure and female misery, while the reality is by no means as clear cut.
Meet Monica Velour
Meet Monica Velour offers a more balanced portrayal of sex workers. Kim Cattrall, whose publicity tours for the film mainly centered around her weight gain for the role, takes on the part of Linda Romanoli, a porn star from the ‘80s known professionally as Monica Velour. Tobe, an awkward 17-year-old misfit who just graduated high school and is expected to take over his family’s hotdog truck, has plastered all of his walls with posters of the once famous miss Velour and other posters of “hookers”. He even shows his nine-year-old neighbor parts of the campy Velour-videos, and is genuinely taken by her class and beauty, even though she is a porn star.
This is a stark contrast to the graduation party he attends, where unashamed sex, alcohol abuse and voyeurism give contemporary high schoolers a decidedly unclassy air. “People who jerk off to porn, they’re just creepy,” a girl remarks as she is watching another girl do exactly that. The guys in the room all nod sheepishly, but the irony of course is that the spectaclist society makes them all feed off images of pleasure: whether it’s an actual movie or the girl across the street “forgetting” to close her curtains, for the viewer/voyeur, it’s impossible to look away. Sex is everywhere, of course, and a natural fact of life, which is why Tobe sends the girl a note saying that he “Totally respects her for masturbating, everyone’s doing it.”
So far, the film has thus established pornography (or at least, public self-pleasuring) as a respectable and natural pastime. In fact, his devotion to Monica Velour renders Tobe a rarity in a world where genuine affection has been replaced by lust and casual sexual contact. Director Keith Bearden seems to have purposely chosen the vehicle of porn to form a potent critique of love in general, as it’s only Tobe’s love for Monica that is positive and lasting in the film. Cast in this light, pornography can be seen as fantasy that functions as a sort of ‘social cement’, if you will, in a time of profound isolation—as Kiplin says, it “provides opportunities” and gets at the “discontent that exists at the core of routinized lives,” and it offers a way of surpassing conformity without actually rendering oneself unfit for social participation as a whole (xii). “Why can’t you like things that other people like?” Tobe is asked.
Monica Velour is simply one factor in Tobe’s plate of unusual cultural choices, one way of distinguishing himself from the thousands of other teenagers. When Tobe reads that Monica will be making a rare appearance in Indiana, he drives all the way from Washington to see her. But she suffers ridiculed from his peers. “Damn, looks like someone ordered off the senior menu,” and “Grandma’s got the pants on under there.” But the romanticized portrayal of Tobe’s affection sustains itself even after this point, after he has seen the 50-something Monica of today; he is unfazed by standards of beauty or age, and remains in awe of the actress he has admired for so many years.
He defends her, and that is when we see Monica transform into Linda, the washed-out mother who is in a vile custody battle and resents her own occupation: “It’s not often that a guy stands up for me. There’s certain a girl just don’t wanna here no matter how old she is. You’re only as good as what’s in your bra and panties” (29), she remarks cynically. Not used to the compliments he showers upon he, she also suspects ulterior motives when Tobe tells her: “You’re a dream. Like you popped out of the movie to sit on the couch with me. I used to watch your movies and think how great it would be to meet you and talk to you and hang out with you, but it was always just a dream. Now my dream is real.” Instead of appreciating his remarks she snaps “You get a lot of ass talking like that?” (33).
Linda turns out to be strapped for cash, and only started working again because “I gotta make a living somehow.” She also remarks that her “ex made me burn all my movie junk” (36), even though he met her while he was a regular at a strip club where she worked. In short, men love to profit from women of easy virtue, but it doesn’t take long before the urge to completely possess and control kicks in, and with this the need to erase the woman’s ‘promiscuous past.’ The trope of “controlling man/exploited girl” has informed the movie industry for years, and unfortunately this is what Meet Monica Velour hinges its entire plot upon.
Linda is profoundly discontent with the way her life has turned out, especially because of the stigma that still rests on her because of her former profession. Tobe tells her: “But you have made a difference. You made people happy, excited. Young goofy looking guys like me, old guys, even couples. There’s probably thousands of babies born from Jiggly Bottoms alone” (60). And this is where Tobe is so right. Pornography fulfills a social role, and not a minor one, either. It offers a release for men and women whose sexual fantasies go beyond their real-life experiences, in frequency or in type. And it’s not just sexual, but also offers fantasies that touch upon many other facets of life, such as control, social standing, assertiveness, race, and gender. This is perhaps the main contribution of this film: it accepts pornography for what it is, without denouncing it as a genre. It’s just too bad that it implicitly undoes this effect by portraying Linda/Monica as a victim of this very industry.
Linda’s monologue towards the end shows that the director has not fully understood the role of the viewer, either. Linda screams at Tobe: “You know, you’re just like all the rest. You spend your whole life looking for some wild jungle sex machine, and when you find one all you want to do is turn her into a fucking June Cleaver. I don’t need another guy trying to run my life. Some stupid movies I did 30 years ago. That’s fantasy. This is reality. That’s something you know nothing about. And the reality is that me, and every other woman in the world, we have minds of our own. So unless you want to buy some Arab slave girl or a thing you buy with a bicycle pump, you better learn to fucking deal with it.” (70).
But neither Tobe nor viewer is looking for a slave girl. To do so would assume that pornography only satisfies sexual desire, and that viewers are unable to acknowledge that the actresses are real women. But viewers are not stupid and indiscriminate: this why there are so many subgenres in pornography too, all placing emphasis on different aspects and perspectives towards sex. What works for one person, doesn’t necessarily work for another. Viewers are also capable of distinguishing between fantasy and reality, an observation supported by the presumption that most already have healthy sex lives and use pornography as an addition, rather than a replacement, to their current situation. Thus the two worlds, reality and fantasy, are not separate at all: there is a place for pornography in real life, too.
The final hypocrisy, and last moral comment of the director comes when police officers take Tobe home after the hotel room bust. The cop tells Linda to keep a close eye on Tobe, as “pornography is an evil thing” (80). When he’s back in the care with his partner, he remarks “Man, I loved her in Frankenbooty” (80). But this message of hypocrisy in Meet Monica Velour, a message that concerns a society that revolves around sex yet condemns pornography on the surface, is rendered undone by the fact that Linda too profiles herself as a victim of the industry, a victim of men and bad decisions. In the end, just as with The Girl Next Door, she needs a man to rescue her from her miserable existence.
It is unrealistic to think that pornography will ever be put to a halt, but with films like this, people will certainly find renewed incentive to try. Both Danielle and Monica are happier in their life outside the industry because they have escaped oppression and exploitation—the consequences of their past only escaped them once they moved to entirely different states. What these films, and many popular portrayals of pornography, fail to see in their focus on repression, is that pornography is most of all a for of expression—an expression like any other cultural form, geared towards our pleasures and desires, stimulating our fantasies.
It’s time to trust individuals like Sasha Grey and Jenna Jameson when they stress that the pornographic industry has problems, yes, but it can also provide a satisfactory occupation that by no means excludes self-respect and business-saviness (no pun intended). Viewers, actors and actresses, are active agents in the continuation of pornography. It will be interesting to see how the two Linda Lovelace biopics that are in the works tackle the topic. Lovelace felt exploited by both the porn industry and the anti-pornography movement, both which used her as an example of the horrors of porn but never offered her any financial aid when she was struggling to make ends meet.
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More