Porn chic and the politics of choice

The question of whether Helen Mirren's attitude towards nudity and the severity of non-violent rape cases raises an interesting point about the nature of gender politics and feminism. I said that whether these things demolish her credibility as a feminist is a matter of personal opinion, and I meant it; I don't personally think they do, but I know a lot of people would say different.

While the interviewer's behavior would have been considered beyond the pale even at the time, the reviewer he quotes as commenting on her "sluttish eroticism" and Mirren's general bralessness don't actually come out of nowhere. Up until 1968, the American film industry was subject to the Motion Picture Production Code, colloquially known as the Hays Code after the man in charge of the office when it was enacted, which was a collection of DOs and DON'Ts, composed largely from a Catholic (big-C religion, not little-c adjective) viewpoint. While technically compliance was voluntary, non-compliance prevented you from distributing your film in the US via the regular channels, and left you open for an obscenity prosecution if you tried to do it yourself, so even a lot of European production companies "volunteered" to adhere to it. The list was long and absurd and most of it would be considered deeply racist and sexist today -- there were blanket prohibitions against interracial relationships, for one thing. If you ever wondered why Ilsa left Rick at the end of Casablanca, or why bad guys never won in old movies even when it would have been logical for them to get away, you can blame the Hays office for it.

Starting with the advent of television, however, the movie industry began to flounder. Television was itself subject to restrictive guidelines -- and still is, in the United States, although this is decreasing in importance as it percolates through to the FCC that very few people watch broadcast TV exclusively anymore, and they can't do anything about pay services like cable and satellite -- but allowed people to consume entertainment without ever leaving their homes. Various things were tried to combat this; gimmicks like the 3-strip Technicolor process and extra-wide Cinerama pictures hit in a big way in the 1950s, as did big-budget "roadshow" pictures which were presented in extremely long cuts, including intermissions, and with much fanfare.

(Ever wonder why very old movies are never shown in letterbox on SDTV? It's because they were filmed with an aspect of 1.33:1, known formally as "Academy ratio". TVs were standardized to that shape because movies were filmed in it, not the other way around. It's widescreen that's new, and once more, the new 16:9 HDTVs have taken their cue from the cinema.)

One of the biggest gimmicks, though, became the idea that movies were edgier or more extravagant because it was possible for them to decide to throw off the Hays Code in the same way that broadcast TV stations couldn't throw off the FCC. Starting in the late 1950s, more and more filmmakers were simply ignoring the Code guidelines, or at best giving them lip-service, and adapting more controversial material like stage plays and novels, whose scripts included a lot of things that would make Hays roll over in his grave. The hippie movement of the mid- to late 1960s also saw the rise of a lot of independent filmmakers who catered to the counterculture audience, who turned out to be willing to pay some pretty big bucks to see stuff that annoyed The Man. Critics of the Beat Generation saw the opportunity to start discussing the inclusion of positive, or at least neutral, depictions of sexuality as a legitimate part of the cinematic art.

By 1968, the Hays people had simply given up. American film studios simply banded together to create the Motion Picture Rating code, which is the familiar G - PG - PG13 - R - NC17 - X system in use for American film distribution today. The MPAA code is also technically voluntary, and in fact, they themselves are not empowered to invoke any punishment for violating any part of it, or refusing to use it altogether; the fines and calls home to your parents for sneaking into R rated movies at age thirteen are entirely the result of local blue laws that use the code as a guide, and are not enforced by the MPAA in any way.

This of course meant that sorts of people who derive great enjoyment from irritating the extant power structure had to find a new way to do it. Thus began the rise of what was called "porn chic". Now that the question of whether sex was a legitimate topic for art had been settled, they started to bicker amongst themselves over whether sex was a legitimate topic for mindless entertainment. The cool people who did expensive drugs at discos began openly bragging about having seen Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door in theaters, and considering them diverting in a gauche, shocking-the-poor-plebs sort of way. It wasn't entirely terrible; the 1969 X-rated film Midnight Cowboy, an adaptation of a novel about life as a gigolo, won an Oscar, and several other now-infamous movies had their attendance boosted with an X rating (generally revised to R or NC17, a rating introduced in 1990, in releases today), including Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and the Raimi/Campbell classic The Evil Dead.

(Some of these films are more controversial today than they were when they first came out, in fact. Deep Throat in particular was talked about then strictly because it was daring to run a film with such explicit sex in mainstream theaters. The current argument over whether actress Linda Lovelace was being coerced into performing did not arise until several years after its release, when she published her third and fourth autobiographical books, alleging that her abusive husband forced her into doing the move; in contemporary interviews, she is very adamant that she took the part because she wanted to.)

For the most part, "porn chic" was just the "hipster ironicism" of its day, along with things like blaxploitation films (the quintessential example being Shaft [1971]) and blatant attempts to capitalize on unnecessary violence (Dirty Harry, also [1971], was based heavily on the serial murders of the Zodiac Killer, a case which to this day remains officially unsolved). Most of it has swung back to being unacceptable -- the 1974 Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles is cut all to hell when shown on television now, despite the fact that most of the material removed is actually intended as a scathing satire of the "ironically" racist and sexist humor of the time.

I support Helen Mirren's right to get naked on film whether she's comfortable with it or not, frankly. I also support Joanna Lumley's right to buy as many new noses and breasts as she wants, and Christina Aguilera's right to wear as much leopard print as her closet will hold. Personal freedom means that I can't stop you from doing something I don't like, and also that I can't stop you from doing something you don't like, or which might not be so great for you in the long run. If you think that displaying a body which is different from current prevailing cultural standards of beauty is a celebration of human variation, then you have no right to condemn a woman for displaying a body that happens to be widely considered attractive. In short, they are her tits, and she can do what she wants with them.

The part with which I may or may not take issue once I've seen more material is her general treatment of why she finds it uncomfortable. Based strictly on the 1975 interview I posted -- where I am fairly sure she's either so nervous she's depersonalized or has taken some kind of downer -- she seems to consider it a flaw within herself that she can't just 'get over' being vaguely uncomfortable when she's the only one naked on set. Given some of her quoted statements about the sexual assaults in her past -- which may or may not be accurate and/or taken out of context -- she also gives off the air of someone who sees herself as having gotten into something she was too naïve to find her way out of at the time, and consequently having to just suffer through what happened as a punishment for her mistake. That's somewhat alarming to me, and doesn't really suggest she'd have much sympathy for someone else who was caught in the same predicament. I abhor victim blaming, particularly when it comes to any messy social transgressions; I got enough of it when I was bullied in school to want to smash it wherever it comes up.

Comments

  1. Hi Ari, first time commenting here, I really enjoy your blog and writing, I sent you an email saying as much just a few moments ago.

    That said, I agree with you that "...they are her tits, and she can do what she wants with them...", and I have no problem with any woman who makes the choice to show her naked body on film, in fact, as a man, I wont lie, I rather enjoy it =).

    My question is, how many of those women in the porn industry now and in the past do you think were forced to do it, abused, victimized, drugged or taken advantage of because of addiction and the need to support habits. I have read that in the modeling industry there is a lot of drugs and alcohol given to the models to keep them in line and easily controlled.

    Have you ever seen that, being that you have done some modeling, I am of course talking more about at the highest levels, Kate Moss for example.

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    1. I could not even begin to tell you how many porn actresses are unhappy with their jobs. Probably more than there should be, and a lot less than you're thinking. It's not as if porn is the only career one could possibly regret going into -- how many ad executives do you think drink their days away in order to stop themselves thinking about how they'd rather be doing something else? I can say that a lot of the ones doing online porn are doing it very much by choice, and many of them are self-employed, running their own camshows when and how they please.

      I have never personally run into anyone who seemed to be handing out drugs to keep models happy, nor have I run into any models who were obvious addicts. I have a feeling that when this happens -- as it undoubtedly does; models are not immune to drug problems either -- it's less in the pimp-like vein you're thinking and more in the general sense of being in the upper echelons of the entertainment industry involves a lot of money and a lot of public pressure, and in order to keep one you have to find a way to deal with or ignore the other. Sometimes the way you ignore it is drugs, and you can't keep buying those without the money. Kate Moss may well have developed the same coke problem if she were an investment banker -- it's just that nobody frames those addictions as "forced to work for drugs!" even though it's equally true.

      I've never personally been offered drugs or alcohol at any casting or job I've done. It's standard for the photographers or PR companies running things to have (sealed) water bottles around for the models, and at a lot of mass-castings, particularly with Asian or Asian-American organizations in Chinatown, they sort of reflexively offer to feed you. American crews will sometimes offer coffee, with or without snacks or pastries. Models, like writers, are mostly struggling, and -- also like a lot of writers -- can be rather flaky when it comes to physically showing up at events. "Complementary lunch" just about doubles the attendance.

      What I have occasionally gotten a whiff of is economic servitude. It is in fact true that there are a lot of beautiful Russian/former Soviet girls in modeling, and that for a lot of them, their work visa and therefore their residency requires them to stay signed on with the agency who imported them, regardless of the quality of the jobs they're sent to. Even American girls get caught in it -- some agencies offer to "cover" room and board for new girls, charge them ridiculous prices to live in what amounts to a dormitory, and the girl subsequently either has to keep re-upping her contract in the hopes of someday paying off their debt, or quit still owing a lot of (legally-collectible) money. I'm listed in a couple of industry databases, but I refuse to sign any exclusive contracts with any agency for exactly this reason.

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  2. Thank you for the well thought out answer, Ari. I was also sort of thinking in terms of sex/human trafficking as a means of getting girls in to the very lucrative porn industry against their will. I also have noticed in my research that a lot of the online porn sites, like you speak of above, seem to be filled with girls from Russia, Romania and other Eastern European countries and I have often wondered how many of them are being forced against their will to do that sort of thing. My understanding is that sex trafficking is a very big deal and happening a lot and all over, but there are still people who deny that it exists and even those who know it exists refuse to believe that it happens right here in the USA and think instead that it is only a problem that happens in Europe, especially the places I mentioned above.

    What is your opinion of sex and human trafficking. I know it is sort of off topic so it is ok if you dont want to go there, it is just an area that I have spent a lot of time researching after having run in to a couple of girls who claimed they were victims and wanted me to represent them in a lawsuit.

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    1. It probably happens. I'm not in a position to know much of anything about it. I've never been a sex worker, and while there are models who work as escorts -- and escorts who claim to be "models" in an effort to bluff legality -- I don't know that I've ever met any. I don't particularly trust any kind of news exposé on the topic; anything that involves sex tends to be sensationalized to the point where the truth of the matter, whatever it is, is completely obscured.

      I imagine you would get better information from Google, or if you feel the need to ask someone, try a topical columnist like Dan Savage. I'm a genius, not an all-knowing oracle.

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