Meet Joe Francis

[8 August 2006]

By Rob Horning

I’ll join the chorus and say that this LA Times story about Girls Gone Wild impresario Joe Francis is definitely worth reading. The word scumbag was invented for guys like Francis, and the story’s full of astoundingly disturbing moments, including several wherein the reporter herself seems in physical danger.

Aside from being a pretty compelling exposé, it also offers a few theses about what has allowed the Girls Gone Wild talent pool to emerge.

Francis has aimed his cameras at a generation whose notions of privacy and sexuality are different from any other. Nursed on MySpace profiles and reality television, many young people today are comfortable with being perpetually photographed and having those images posted on the Internet for anyone to see. The boundaries that once contained sexuality have also fallen away. Whether it’s 13-year-olds watching a Britney Spears video, 16-year-olds getting their pubic hair waxed to emulate porn stars or 17-year-olds viewing videos of celebrities performing the most intimate acts, youth culture is soaked in sexuality.

The author, Claire Hoffman, draws conclusions similar to what I’ve argued in the past, regarding attention-seeking as currency and media exposure as a proxy for social recognition in a culture that has discredited more humble, local sources:

This is so much bigger than Francis. In a culture where cheap and portable video technology lets everyone play at stardom, and where America’s voyeuristic appetite for reality television seems insatiable, teenagers, like the ones in this club, see cameras as validation. “Most guys want to have sex with me and maybe I could meet one new guy, but if I get filmed everyone could see me,” Bultema says. “If you do this, you might get noticed by somebody—to be an actress or a model.”
I ask her why she wants to get noticed. “You want people to say, ‘Hey, I saw you.’ Everybody wants to be famous in some way. Getting famous will get me anything I want. If I walk into somebody’s house and said, ‘Give me this,’ I could have it.”

This desperation to be noticed seems to override what earlier generations would regard as the ABCs of self-protection. But protection may have a different meaning to them.
Have teenagers seized control of the way sexuality is marketed as a form of protection from our culture’s overwhelmingly sexualized commerce? A wrinkle on the logic of “you can’t fire me, I quit” that holds that a self-exploiter can’t ever really be taken advantage of? That’s what Francis himself seems to think.

But the women are changing, Francis tells me, and that makes him sad. In the beginning, when “Girls Gone Wild” cameramen first popped up in clubs, the women who revealed themselves seemed innocent—surprised, even, by their own spontaneity. Now that the brand is so pervasive, the women who participate increasingly appear to be calculating exhibitionists, hoping that an appearance on a video might catapult them to Paris Hilton-like fame.

This ties in to so-called pro-sex or third-wave feminism, that finds empowerment in women’s direct appropriation of commercialized sexuality; women exercise a new freedom of choice in a realm once strictly controlled and delineated by a variety of punishments - shame, social ostracism and worse (still is, of course, in many non-Western cultures). The sphere of sexual behavior is no different than any other sphere, and feminism should expect women to be assertive, active, there—perhaps especially there—since this is a realm where women are often held to be naturally passive.

“I call Vicki Mayer, a sociologist and Tulane University assistant professor, for guidance. Mayer teaches a class on the nudity rituals that take place on New Orleans’ infamous Bourbon Street. She has studied and written about “Girls Gone Wild,” and she contends that it’s simplistic to say that Mantra takes advantage of women. “For some women this is liberating, for some women this is something they do on a goof or for a lark to show friends they can, for some it’s a way of flirting with the cameramen,” Mayer says.”

About the Girls Gone Wild videos, Mayer adds that “As much as it would be easy to see this as a simple relationship of men treating women a certain way, there are mutual relations of exploitation. I kind of feel like both sides could be seen as exploited.” It strikes me that pre-emptive self-sexualization likely often results in this, not liberation and an elevation of human possibility for both genders and all the gender positions in between, but a reduction of possibility into reciprocal exploitation. Mayer points out that who wins in this sex war is not one gender or the other but the media company providing the stage for the struggle—which translates into strip-club owners, porn distributors, sleazy style gurus like Dov Charney, and frat-friendly figures like Francis himself.

The story is certainly loaded against anyone’s taking away a lesson of female empowerment from the existence of Girls Gone Wild; the girls who perform for the videos seem uniformly shallow and vulnerable. We also get an extremely disturbing account of one girl’s experience in the Girls Gone Wild trailer; far from seizing “agency,” she doesn’t dictate the scene at all; instead the story suggests she is raped while drunk and rewarded with several pairs of booty shorts.

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