[14 September 2011]
It’s a $13 billion industry, banking more than Microsoft and Google combined. As The Smoking Jacket.com illustrated in an infographic, any given second, 30,000 people are watching pornography online and every 30 minutes an adult film is produced in the US. It’s facts such as these that indicate that the stakes involved in the American porn industry have long surpassed the traditional moral debates about pornography’s effect on America’s youth or the sexual objectification of women.
Men in porn films are living the dream and beam with self-confidence, women in porn films are repressed and suffering from low self-esteem. At least, that’s what most media portrayals of pornography (especially the anti-porno ones) would like us to believe. Not that they discuss the men: narratives of sex on film are almost exclusively centered on the role of the woman, and the long-lasting negative effects that employment in the industry supposedly has on them.
Two of the most popular films that focus on the lives of ex porn stars are 2004’s The Girl Next Door and this year’s Meet Monica Velour, and both fall victim to some of the main tropes surrounding pornography. They demonstrate that mainstream representation of pornography, even in a society where sex proliferates in all segments, is still surprisingly one-sided and inconsistent with counter-narratives offered by industry insiders themselves.
The Pornification of Society
Before it’s possible to understand why the mainstream treatment of pornography is still generally negative, let’s look at the state of things in society as a whole: as Linda Kipnis observed in her critically acclaimed book, Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America, the explicitness of culture as a whole makes “the distinctions between the pornographic and the nonpornographic harder to maintain, if they were ever tenable at all” (viii). In other words, there are similarities between the mainstream and the subculture that should be of interest to cultural critics, as they reveal an underlying preoccupation with fantasies of class, gender, race, sexuality, etc, and escapism of all these markers.
In their astonishingly unscholarly- written book The Porning of America, Elizabethtown-professor Carmine Sarracino and Albany State University-professor Kevin M. Scott echo Kipnis’s sentiment, and advance that “it’s not so much that porn has become mainstream, but that the mainstream has become porned” (xii). They assert that one’s first exposure to porn is on average at 11 years old, but the existence of a thong-selection for preteens at stores such as Abercrombie & Fitch and dolls such as the Bratz who “look remarkably like prostitutes” ensure that most children are conditioned into a sexualized society long before that (vii). That is where the real problem lies: such products of culture are only one of the many, and least frequent, introductions many receive into the hypersexual environment of their culture. Sarracino and Scott are proponents of pornography, so long as it’s kept in its confined space, and credit Madonna with mainstreaming sex and what they call “slutwear:” especially after her photographic exposé, Sex (92).
Indeed, sex is everywhere in a range of mainstream cultural products, and certain types are even more bankable than others. Homosexuality, especially girl-on-girl, has made at least some sort of appearance in most major television shows (Desperate Housewives, Glee, Pretty Little Liars, House, 90210, Modern Family, The O.C., Grey’s Anatomy, numerous soap operas). Often this leads to accusations of easy profit-seeking, even critically acclaimed films such as Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan have been accused of featuring a lesbian scene with the intent to attract a male audience that might not otherwise go to see this film.
Now that sex, the act, can be seen everywhere outside of one’s private bedroom, so to speak, actors that had previously been exclusively working in porn are crossing over into mainstream media; Sasha Grey, who started filming when she was just 18 and is an ardent spokeswoman for the positive influences of pornography on young women, has starred in AMC’ Entourage and films such as The Girlfriend Experience. Jenna Jameson and Rilo Kiley have also been widely featured, albeit in more risqué films such as Zombie Strippers and Piranha.
Questions of power and control unavoidably tie into this. If Camille Paglia can hail Madonna as “finally a real feminist” in The New York Times because ‘Miss M” can appropriate sexual acts and images in order to subvert objectification and a submissive role—and this is why critics Sarracino and Scott call Madonna a “postfeminist”— then Jenna Jameson deserves this ‘title’, too. Jameson currently presides over a business empire worth millions, and has made clear her subsequent feeling of independence and autonomy. Sasha Grey also made a conscious choice to enter the business, and remains firmly in control of her own career. Jameson and Grey thus are light years away from earlier generations of adult starts, such as Deep Throat’s Linda Lovelace, who often expressed deep regret later and felt they were victims of coercion rather than agents of their careers.
The Girl Next Door
The Girl Next Door, directed by Luke Greenfield, is the epitome of (male) fantasy about the adult industry on the one hand, and a reinforcement of the stereotype of the industry’s exploitative stance towards women as objects, on the other. Roger Ebert famously bashed the movie as “a nasty piece of business, involving a romance between a teenage porn actress and a high school senior.” (“The Girl Next Door”, Chicago Sun-Times, 9 April 2004.) In fact, the relationship is completely legal, as both are of legal age for consensual adults (he is 18; she is 19).
Matthew (Emile Hirsch) is a high school senior who dreams of becoming the next JFK. He’s successful at school, but his function of student body president doesn’t exactly make him one of the popular crowd, and he’s envious of his classmates who are able to choose the beach over classes without fear of repercussion. His two best friends Klitz (Paul Dano), a groovy looking nerd, and Eli, a porn-obsessed aspiring film director, complete “the tripod”, an updated version of the three musketeers-bromance.
When Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert) moves in next door, Matt has found his way to a more exciting life. Eli is the direct expression of unrealistic expectations about sex, and he watches porn every minute of his free time. His ideas of what it means to be a man are clearly shaped by his one-sided source of information. When Matt calls him to tell about the girl next door, he responds in a rather crude way:
Eli: “So did you bang her? That’s what a man does, okay.”
Matt: “She’s so unbelievably beautiful, who is this girl?”
Eli: “How’s the rack? How’s the rack?”
Matt: “Relax man.”
Eli: “I’m not gonna relax, you be a man and go over there.”
When Matthew and his friends find out that Danielle is a porn actress, Ebert writes that “The movie seems to think, along with Matthew’s friends, that this information is in her favor.” Of course Eli’s hailing of Danielle as a dream come true is expressive of a dominant teenage male fantasy, but there’s no particular reason why these young me should have responded in a more negative way. After all, as Kipnis so poignantly put it, “Who’s to say whether performing sexual labor is a worse or more dehumanizing job than manual labor or service-industry labor or working on an assembly line or waitressing, other than the person doing it? And let’s not get too romantic about how much choice the labor market allows anyone, or how great working conditions are across the board” (xi).
Instead of an exploited victim, Danielle could simply have been doing the math by deciding that pornography was the most lucrative career choice available to her. There’s nothing inherently negative about working in the porn industry.
The final proof that Ebert’s review was colored by his own moral appraisal of the subject became clear when he wrote that “To act in porn as a teenager is not a decision freely taken by most teenage girls, and not a life to envy.” But real life examples as mentioned before have proven otherwise. There’s nothing to point to that calls for such a generalization, yet it’s exactly the line of argument that the film takes, and its portrayal of pornography is not at all as unequivocally glamorous as some reviews made it out to be. Danielle hints at her uneasiness with her own past when Matt confronts her, and says “you think it’s easy?” before choking up and ending the conversation. The viewer is left with the feeling that some sort of abuse must have pushed her into the industry, or at least that going in to that line of work wasn’t a matter of free will.
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.