JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Images from Inside Deep Throat

A teenage Lovelace poses for the camera. Such images provide a visual component to the presentation of her life story.

Photographs depict Lovelace and Chuck Traynor, her manager and husband. Her association with Traynor is tied to her entry into the pornography industry.

Director Gerard Damiano discusses the production of Deep Throat and describes Lovelace as needing “someone to tell her what to do.”

Due to her death in 2002, Lovelace’s story is presented through archived images and scenes from Deep Throat such as this one.

The focal point of Deep Throat is reproduced in the documentary. This is one of the few scenes that explicitly depicts the transgression of bodily boundaries.

As an anti-pornography advocate, Lovelace testifies at the Meese commission in 1986. This change in attitude contributes to the indeterminacy of Lovelace as a freely-choosing, desiring subject across the course of her life.

Lovelace discusses her decision to pose for Playboy at 51, again articulating a different view of the industry.

Images from Sex: The Annabelle Chong Story

Chong is shown on campus at the University of Southern California, sequences that provide an important contrast to her work in the pornography industry and further the expression of Chong as feminist subject.

Brief scenes from Chong’s porn films feature in the documentary to illustrate her sex work and prominence in the industry.

Chong is interviewed in Britain on The Girlie Show, one of many scenes in which she discusses her motivations for working in the industry and articulates herself as a desiring subject.

One of many mannered interviews in the documentary in which Chong appears to be feigning her performance.

Chong appears on the Jerry Springer Show and offers an awkward and uncomfortable performance, again highlighting the self as an inauthentic documentary presence.

An excerpt from The World’s Biggest Gang Bang and facial expressions that seem ambivalent as pain or ecstasy, thus engaging the viewer’s desire to know the truth about the porn star’s professed pleasure.

Chong visits her mother in Singapore and is shown as the dutiful daughter of conservative parents — one of many different dimensions to her character.

 

Such a strategic address is bound up with the modes of distribution the documentaries enjoy. Independently produced one-off documentaries are featured on the film festival circuit, but are largely distributed commercially for individual sale. They can be found in video stores in “special interest” or documentary sections. Such pornography documentaries include the following types:

  1. narratives about personalities in the industry: The Secret Lives of Adult Stars (2004), Thinking XXX (2004), Hard Trip (2003), Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy (2001), Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, The Girl Next Door;
  2. documentation of film productions: Debbie Does Dallas Uncovered (2005), Exposed: The Making of a Legend (2004), Inside Deep Throat;
  3. documentaries examining the culture and/or industry in a broader fashion: Rated X: A Journey Through Porn (1999), Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation (2000), Skin for Sale (La Piel Vendida) (2004).

While almost all of these films feature nudity, none could be categorized as X-rated hardcore pornography. Significantly, these documentaries offer epistephilic satisfaction while also presenting a discursive narrative focus on sex and eroticized bodies. The films thus have the legitimacy offered by generic documentary expectations. The films also often gain legitimacy through more mainstream avenues of reception such as arthouse cinemas and television.

The relation between these documentaries and television is important and deserves further discussion. If documentary has become cemented as a primarily televisual form, albeit one that has enjoyed heightened periods of cinematic exhibition, the pornography documentary has, within this, secured its own television niche. Over the last decade broadcast and subscription television has found an audience for this kind of programming in markets such as Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, and the films run either in the form of one-off documentaries, short-run seasons, or series continuing across a number of seasons. For example, in the United States, cable channel HBO has produced the Real Sex (2001- ) series as a “magazine” style half-hour slot. Another U.S. example is the Cathouse (2002- ) series, set in the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, a legal brothel in Nevada. In Australia the pornography documentary finds a free-to-air television release on SBS television[5][open endnotes in new window], where, in recent years, the time slot after 10 p.m. on Friday nights has featured local and international documentaries concerned with explicit sexual content. As a mix of these two examples, the United Kingdom has featured documentary series and one-off programming on much free-to-air television, most notably on Channels 4 and 5. A number of HBO series have made their way onto British television. This programming has been described as “docuporn,” with the programming, particularly in the late night schedule, more focused on the potential for arousal than on documentary's epistephilic function.[6] Within this abundance of programming there are many approaches to the industry and the representation of women.

The breadth of documentary films and television series about pornography is suggestive of the status of sexualized representations in the contemporary public sphere. The current moment stands in contrast to sensibilities in 1981 when Not A Love Story was released —a time colored by polemicized feminist debates around anti-pornography and anti-censorship. Also influential then was a highly visible mainstreaming of pornography with the moment of “porno chic” and the theatrical release of narrative feature-length films such as Deep Throat (1972) and The Devil in Miss Jones (1973). These films heightened public debate among activists and scholars. In this environment Not A Love Story emerged out of and contributed to an intensely affectively charged domain in way that is quite different from the entertainment (rather than activist) emphasis of many contemporary pornography documentaries.

The current pornography-documentary trend successfully appeals to a constituency of viewers not because it makes an illicit margin visible to the mainstream, but because it furthers an already enlivened sexualization of public life. Williams describes this shift in public discourse to encompass sexuality more explicitly (she writes about it in a comprehensive way, so I quote her at length):

"Discussions and representations of sex that were once deemed obscene, in the literal sense of being off (ob) the public scene, have today insistently appeared in the new public/private realms of internet and home video. The term that I have coined to describe this paradoxical state of affairs is on/scenity: the gesture by which a culture brings on to its public arena the very organs, acts, bodies, and pleasures that have heretofore been designated ob/scene and kept literally off-scene. . . . On/scene is a way of signalling not just that pornographies are proliferating but that once off (ob) scene sexual scenarios have been brought into the public sphere." (“Porn Studies,” 3)

This on/scenity is fostered, for Williams, not only through changing media technologies such as home video and later the Internet, but also by way of the public staging of incidents such as the Clinton/Lewinsky affair and the Starr report that followed. In a British context, Brian McNair argues that the sexualization of the public sphere, and within it the media, has led to a democratization and diversification of sexual discourse. As my discussion of the eroticization of the female body in historical non-fiction forms of representation suggests, the sexualization of media forms is not a new phenomenon. Yet the contemporary climate, as McNair and Williams’ accounts make clear, represents a shift in the ideologies that inform the representation of sexualized imagery. This is a shift that occurs through a number of different registers.

One of these registers is the figuration of female sexuality based on a narrative of freedom, self-maximization, choice and individualism. Such a concept of subjectivity makes reference to not only neo-liberal values but also the gains of second wave feminism. This view is what many scholars identify as a post-feminist[7] dynamic that effectively references the gains of feminism but, in Angela McRobbie’s words, also presents an “active, sustained, and repetitive repudiation or repression of feminism” (257). It is a mode of femininity that appropriates choice and self-empowerment in ways unthinkable without histories of feminist politics, and yet its advocates often cast feminism as outmoded and no longer necessary. This popular movement into “post-feminism” minimizes the complexities of power relations and gender inequalities because it focuses on individual aspirations and appropriating social capital through maximizing sexual capital. This expression of a post-feminist sensibility often occurs through self-sexualization and self-commodification of the female body, sometimes with an ironic and knowing tone. Social sensibilities, especially where young women are concerned, often do not protest sexual objectification but rather play with the gaze in ways that embrace or enact sexism as a form of sexual agency. For many scholars, it is on these terms that female pleasure and sexuality are now frequently “on/scene” in popular cultural forms such as narrative fiction film, print media, advertising and television.

Prominent examples of this can be found in the romantic comedy genre with films such as Bridget Jones’s Diary, which, as McRobbie describes it, offers the contradiction of the independent single woman in her thirties engaging an ethos of self-actualization in order to attain the fantasy of a traditional wedding and marriage.  Also in a British context, “girl power” films, such as Bend it Like Beckham  (2002), as Justine Ashby observes,

“[s]omehow managed to link being sexy with being ballsy, to celebrate female camaraderie while privileging individualism. In short, the very logic of 'girl power' confounded any real attempt to politicize it” (129).

There are still more televisual examples that foreground modes of sexual agency while retreating from feminist precepts. These include examples in the realm of the reality TV, such as Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll and the Next Top Model format. Seeking to utilize their appearance as markers of status and their currency within the sexual economy as a way to fulfil their desires, the women in these shows derail the terms of feminism’s collective empowerment.  

If, as Feona Attwood writes, this sexualization of culture has also inaugurated a fragmentation of moral consensus around sex and proliferated discourses of permissiveness (80), this social uncertainty has been assuaged by a new morality of individualism and an ideal of self-maximization. Such a re-valuation supports pornography’s shift into the a mainstream imaginary since much of the popular critique, moral disdain, and gendered scepticism surrounding the pornographic genre is overshadowed (to some degree) by an unconditional validation of men and women as equally drawn desiring sexual subjects. Hence, the social world in which the new pornography documentaries circulate is one in which reading formations are now conditioned by the greater visibility of sexual discourse. Society also accepts a narrative of female subjectivity that asserts sexual desire and autonomy, albeit often without recourse to recognizing gendered sexual hierarchies. I now turn to explore how this narrative of female sexuality can be understood with regard to the pornography documentary, particularly considering the systems of vision and desire that inform these films. 

Documentary and the female subject

Gough Lewis’ Sex: The Annabelle Chong Story, Christine Fugate’s The Girl Next Door and Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s Inside Deep Throat are three documentaries that attend to the experiences of women working in the pornography industry. Produced within a contemporary media sphere that has seen the popular refiguring of female desire, the films present biographical documentary narratives of the female self that have the potential to foreground this self as desiring subject. Each of these films is in wide circulation on DVD and each also has had significant exposure on the international film festival circuit. Sex: The Annabel Chong Story and Inside Deep Throat have enjoyed short run theatrical release in an art-house cinema context, while The Girl Next Door was produced for and first shown on PBS in the United States. Each of these films structures its narrative around exploring some aspect of the industry and in so doing seeks to make visible knowledge and information that is not evident in pornographic films themselves. Sex: The Annabel Chong Story and The Girl Next Door investigate the perspectives and experiences of well-known women who act in moving-image pornography; Annabel Chong in the former and Stacy Valentine in the latter. Inside Deep Throat differs in that it examines the context out of which the 1972 film was made, the controversy surrounding the film, and its popular legacy. The original star, Linda Lovelace (Linda Boreman), is one of a number of figures associated with Inside Deep Throat that this documentary features.

Made over the course of two years, The Girl Next Door follows Valentine at the height of her career. The film includes many interviews with Valentine, and the observational camera also documents her appearances on set; her relationship with fellow actor, Julian, and her family and friends; and her excursions to the tanning salon, a plastic surgeon, and a hypnotherapist. The opening credits are seen over scenes of Valentine, other actors, and crew preparing for a shoot. Following this and addressing the camera Valentine states: 

“I never really had anything that I was really good at. I’d envy those people that played basketball all through high school and all through college. They had something they were really good at and I just never had that. I’m really good at sex …. I’m very confident in my sexual capabilities.”

This begins Valentine’s consistent self-narration, which throughout the film focuses on her desire for fame, markers of success in the industry, and personal success in relationships. In an early scene after reflecting on her experiences with an abusive husband in her hometown of Oklahoma, she states:

“I have the future to look forward to and it's very bright.”

She also observes that in the pornography “business women are the money makers.”  In contrast with Valentine’s explaining success as an outcome of labor, Annabel Chong uses different discourses to support her formulation of herself as desiring subject.

Featuring interviews with Chong (Grace Quek), friends, family and producers and actors in the industry, Sex: The Annabel Chong Story explores Chong’s life as a student at the University of Southern California and her work in the pornography industry. In particular, the narrative revolves around the making of a film, The World’s Biggest Gang Bang (1995), in which she has intercourse with 251 men in a single session, setting a world record. In a way that differs from Valentine’s positioning, Chong is from what she defines as a “middle class” Singaporean Chinese family, is an accomplished student, and employs a language of feminist critique to narrate her own perspectives of her work. In an interview on a British television show, “The Girlie Show,” which is featured in the documentary, Chong states her motivation in participating in this event:

 “I wanted to shake people up from their complacency and all the stereotypes with [sic.] women being passive sexual objects…. On a personal level I just wanted to explore my own sexuality.”

Both Chong and Valentine articulate themselves as desiring subjects and as motivated by the pleasure they take in sex. Both voice a certain aspirational individualism, Valentine through discourses of labor and Chong through a language of gendered power relations, in which the self can be worked on and maximized through personal choice within a sexual economy.

In comparison with these two examples, Lovelace is not central to the narrative of Inside Deep Throat. As the star of the original film, her life is explored alongside that of co-star, Harry Reems and director, Gerard Damiano. Due to her death in 2002, Lovelace’s story is represented through interviews with those who worked on the film and also through interviews with her sister, friend and daughter. Lovelace herself appears by way of archived interviews, appearances on talk shows, in photographs and through sequences of Deep Throat reproduced in the documentary. This portrayal, which spans the life of star from her involvement in the film to her death, oscillates between casting Lovelace as a freely choosing, desiring agent, and one at the mercy of the sex industry. The archival sequences that feature Lovelace speaking to camera seem to render her as self-propelling. Yet others commenting on her life and actions describe her as less than fully aware of the consequences of her actions and, as Damiano states, needing “someone to tell her what to do.”

One aspect emphasized in Inside Deep Throat's narrative is Lovelace’s well-known transition from porn star to anti-pornography activist. Amongst the footage featuring Lovelace is a sequence of her testimony to the Meese Commission in the 1980s, in which she supported the investigation’s agenda to document the harmful effects of pornography. In her testimony Lovelace described her participation in Deep Throat as resulting from coercion by her husband of the time, Chuck Traynor. Significantly, after Lovelace left the industry Traynor went on to marry and manage her main competitor, Marilyn Chambers, whom Linda Williams describes as “one of the most prolific and durable of the post-seventies ‘porn-queens’” (Hard-Core, 156). Chambers began her career in Behind the Green Door (1972) and continued working for much longer than Lovelace, starring in many films but divorcing Traynor in 1985. In a sequence late in Inside Deep Throat Lovelace is shown speaking about her decision to return to the industry and do a photographic spread for Playboy magazine at the age of 51, at a time when she is struggling to make a living. Inside Deep Throat signifies the indeterminacy of Lovelace as a freely-choosing, desiring subject across the course of her life and the documentary's production.

Each of the three films has sequences in which women express their subjective desire to maximize their social aspirations through utilizing sexual capital. Their pleasure in and desire for sex is also expressed. In this regard, the films' representation of self draws upon the conditions of possibility afforded by popular post-feminist narratives. Yet, in another respect, the ambivalence so evident in the representation of Lovelace also plagues the other two films, as the documentary performances enacted by the women cannot provide a clear placement of female pleasure. These performances in front of the camera effect unstable positions within the films' textual economy of desire.

As Nichols notes, the documentary form engenders a wish for the depiction of social actors who are adept at “virtual performance,” which

“presents the logic of actual performance without signs of conscious awareness that this presentation is an act” (122).

This documentary performance relies upon a system of meanings deriving from vocal tone, gesture and posture that signify authenticity. Thus in Sex: The Annabelle Chong Story, Chong demonstrates compelling expressive qualities that construct her as a forceful center for the narrative. Her mannered performance in interviews and in direct address to the camera contributing to her stage presence. Chong's presentation of self is rendered in ways that throw its authenticity into question; it frequently appears as an actual performance. When she professes to enjoy her work in front of the camera, the uneasiness of her embodied presentation works to signify it as a performance. Moreover, in the scenes featured from The World’s Biggest Gang Bang, Chong’s performance during that event, particularly as it is signified in her facial expressions, is ambivalent and could easily be understood as pain rather than ecstasy. Furthermore, in ways that differ from their interpreting Valentine and Lovelace, the audience's reading of Chong’s performance must consider the intensely racialized framing of women of colour who work in the pornography industry.

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