Images from mainstream film and television

Sex and the City: women within the sexual economy and a form of femininity that casts sex as “fun.”

Sex and the City: sex as “classy” and stylish rather than corporeal or grotesque.

Bridget Jonesís Diary is one example of mainstream female sexual agency.

Bridget Jones and the apparent contradiction of an independent single woman adhering to the fantasy of traditional romance.

A non-Hollywood exploration of female sexuality in Catherine Breillaitís Romance.


In the case of Asian women, a racialized designation often locates them as either overtly-sexualized or submissive. This coding then marks the possibility for Chong to be cast not only as sexual object, but also as a trope of racialized Asian femininity. Yet, in some respects, the awkwardness and instability of Chong’s performance minimizes the full impact of this stereotyping. There are a number of dimensions to Chong’s character, which become evident at different moments in the documentary. In some instances Chong is rendered as a victim exploited by the sex industry and also as the survivor of a gang rape, an event recounted on a visit to London as she revisits the scene of the attack. In another moment, she is shown as the dutiful daughter of conservative parents, who in the course of the film's production first become aware of her sex work. Racialized stereotyping is unsettled as Chong's performance confuses any straightforward imposition of classificatory terms. Moreover, the self-narration sustained throughout much of the film reinforces seeing Chong as a subject of feminist critique and also as hypersexual. In this respect, Celine Parrenas Shimizu goes even further and describes Chong as a new subject of feminism — an Asian female sexual pervert. For Parrenas Shimizu, in The World’s Biggest Gang Bang Chong appropriates

“technologies of the camera and the contest for perversity in porn in order to diagnose conventional understanding of female sexuality as bound and limited” (178-9).

The Girl Next Door offers a very compelling character portrait of Valentine, but one that exists more as an unselfconscious presentation of the self, seemingly reproducing the everyday. Valentine's performance offers up her image as financially successful and accomplished as an award winning-actor. However, her personal relationships and her compulsion for different technologies of body management, such as dieting and plastic surgery, cast her in a constant state of anxiety around her ability to maximize her self. In Inside Deep Throat Lovelace makes different statements at different times in the course of her life that also function more persuasively as virtual performance; yet collectively, as noted above, the cumulative statements refuse any clear account of her subjective status. Instead what she says offers a representation of the subject in process, oscillating dramatically between conceptions of her identity through sexual freedom and through describing her sex work as coerced and the result of abuse.

However, while the women themselves make take very seriously the question of asserting female desire, the documentary text is oriented towards engaging the viewer’s desire to know the truth about the porn star’s participation in the metastructure of consent. Such spectatorial concerns, then, may focus on the authenticity of the performances and the stars' value as objects of knowledge rather than as subjects in the narrative. The performance of the women in the films becomes a point of pleasurable scrutiny for viewers as it is the locus of the defining question asked of the women, “Is their professed pleasure an authentic pleasure”?

Stella Bruzzi has considered the importance of performance in documentary reception and concludes:

“Performance — the enactment of the documentary specifically for the cameras  — will always be at the heart of the non-fiction film” (155).

The documentary value of these women as presented in the films lies in their position as objects of scrutiny; the realization of their subjective aspirations and pleasure are secondary. While all documentary performances are inherently unstable as forms of expression, there is an ambivalence to these figures that present them as a particular site of anxious pleasure for the viewer.

The women's address to the camera about the intimate details of their sexual experience combines with the ambivalences I have described to encourage that the viewer seek out the most “truthful” aspects of their performances. But this is a truth that can never be determined. The testimonies offered by the women can only be read as an indication of the viewer’s incomplete knowledge and the undecidability of the “realness” of this intimacy. Significantly, any potential that exists in these performances to emphasize female pleasure is deferred. Rather, the ambivalence of the women's performances is privileged, thus heightening their value as objects of documentary investigation. This eclipsing of the women's subjectivity is further inscribed in the relation set up between spectator and text through the framing of the body in pornography documentary.

Subjectivity and the body:
disgust, agency and abjection

Representations of the female porn star inevitably draw upon the significance of the body as a powerful site of meaning. As I have noted, non-fiction film’s promise of a pleasurable experience of actuality has, since early cinema, regularly centred on the spectacle of the female body. This expectation has persisted in the pornography documentary as it continues to organize a relation between viewer and text in which viewers anticipate that the body will function as an object of pleasure. However, these documentaries frame the body in ways that are less straightforward than silent cinema's simple display of clothed or naked bodies. In its endeavour to render subjectivity, documentary narrative has constantly been troubled by the body’s status as sexual and cinematic object. However, body always plays a crucial role in the constitution of subjectivity. In turn, the meaning and valuation of the body is itself produced through the terms of the social. In this respect, the body profoundly influences the location of Chong, Valentine and Lovelace within an economy of desire. As I have argued, viewers' expectations that the body will function as the primary object of pleasure are thwarted as desire is redirected onto the subjective performance as a locus of investigation. Moreover, spectatorial desire is also thwarted by the pornography documentary's attempt to represent female subjectivity and the body of pornography, creating boundary confusion associated with disgust responses and further complicating the work of the emotions in these films.

Compelling in these films is how the characters elucidate an intimate enunciation of self through a wilful transgression of bodily boundaries. In Sex: The Annabel Chong Story and The Girl Next Door, Chong and Valentine talk about the different sexual acts they perform and their proficiency in this regard. In visual terms, because of censorship regulations, while scenes of intercourse are shown, actual penetration is never included in the frame. In the case of Chong, scenes from The World’s Biggest Gang Bang are shown progressively throughout the documentary. Excerpts from a number of her other films are also shown. Fewer explicit sex scenes are shown in The Girl Next Door, but Valentine is also shown on-set with a camera crew filming her in the course of production. In contrast, Inside Deep Throat does feature scenes of sexual penetration. Sequences from Deep Throat are sporadically cut into the documentary narrative. Two of the scenes show Lovelace engaging in fellatio, the practice associated with her stardom and around which the fictional premise of Deep Throat is based. These excerpts function intertextually as the pornographic and visual centre of the documentary, much in the way that they do in the narrative of Deep Throat.

The question of how documentary evidence of penetration is offered to the viewer is significant because viewers' disgust responses primarily function to protect and maintain their boundaries of self. Disgust is an emotion, but one that bears a decisive relation to an object:

 “Disgust is a feeling about something and in response to something, not just raw unattached feeling” (W. I. Miller, 8).

Miller echoes Freud’s description of disgust as a response formation that revolves around the body. According to Freud, the orifices that mark the boundary between outside and inside are saturated with potential to elicit disgust. For Julia Kristeva the ambiguous status of the boundary threshold of the body, as it is recognized as abject, has the potential to obliterate subjectivity; in this moment one also recognizes oneself as a corporeal object (5). Boundary thresholds also include bodily fluids and excretions, and these, for Miller, also entail “the danger of defilement” (8). We all have a culturally, psychically and historically embedded understanding of the body that accounts as much for our impulses towards our own bodies as those of others.

While objects are not inherently disgusting, meaning can be organized in particular ways to produce disgust. Highly contaminating, association alone is enough to render a previously pristine object disgusting. Thus, the threat of defilement through association or contact can organize a disgust response. The bodily thresholds represented in these films that demonstrate this capacity are the mouth, vagina, and also anus. Both Chong and Valentine make reference to the activity and their experience of double penetration. While the films give no visual representation of this, in Sex: The Annabel Chong Story Chong discusses her first experience of anal sex in voiceover as a less explicit sequence from one of her films is shown, suggesting that this is a feature of her on screen sex work. For Miller, while all orifices are vulnerable areas for emissions and contaminations, the anus is the essence of lowness and untouchability. Of course, the vagina, as a site of fear, hatred and disgust, also has a well-documented history and in discourse is often framed through a trope of untouchability, but in a way that is highly gendered and corresponds to ideologically entrenched, misogynist narratives.

The Girl Next Door contains another important acknowledgement of the malleability of bodily boundaries. The film features an explicit presentation of Valentine undergoing liposuction as part of a cosmetic surgery procedure. This scene shows the incision in her stomach and the suction instrument as it probes inside her torso. In a later sequence collagen is injected into Valentine’s lips. The camera also presents images of Valentine in the surgeon’s office as he draws on her body to record the regions that will be effected by implants and removals. In this example, because the bodily border, the skin, is transformed into an object, it too becomes abject. Moreover, in each of the three films the camera consistently centres the mise-en-scene on the naked, or semi-naked female body. Such narrativized, heavily emotionally laden images function effectively not as a sexualizing representation, but as a reminder of the vulnerability of the border or the contact zone that is open to aversive or unclean associations.

My aim here is not to propose that sex or sexualized female subjectivity is inherently disgusting. Rather, documentary's conjoint non-fiction figuring of the body and subjectivity produces an emphasis on the permeability of boundaries that brings about recognition of the body’s abjection. In the documentary about pornography, the reactions of disgust that comprise abjection are featured in a way that is not always the case in pornographic representation. The pornography documentary works in a way that pornography seldom does, because pornography is less concerned with the articulation of subjectivity. The potential pleasure of knowing the other, even by way of unverifiable performance, as a coherent subject is central to the narrative desire engendered in this mode of documentary. Yet, this subjectivity, once posed, becomes overtaken by references to the boundary sites that once polluted or transgressed, threaten the very basis of subjectivity. Thus, the films' reception entail a movement from subjectivity to the threatening recognition of corporeal object. As Kristeva puts it, abjection confounds desire:

“It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced. Apprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects” (1).

If abjection moves to the forefront of the viewer’s relation with his/her object of narrative desire, the female porn star, this can be aligned with what Nichols describes as the “magnitude” of the text (1996). The term "magnitude" describes an effect a documentary text has that is less aligned with the discourses of sobriety and the historical world than a subjective intensity that privileges how the text is experienced. In this way the logic or formal structure that might shape the biographical narratives and articulations of the self in the pornography documentary are minimized in the face of how much meaning is carried by the body.

Laura U. Marks’s notion of the documentary fetish provides a way to think through the affective dimensions of this experience more fully. Wresting the term back from its monopolization by psychoanalysis, she notes that the fetish is anything defined by its relation to a powerful object:

“All fetishes are translations into a material object of some sort of affect; the fetish described by psychoanalysis is only one of these” (Fetishes and Fossils, 225).

Documentary film, as a material object or set of objects, has a fetishlike quality manifest through its relation to the real. The documentary has a materiality based on the fetish that transfers the intensity of the object of representation. It transfers the impression

“of the fleetingness of the senses to a recording medium, both its intensity and its evanescence, requires that the fetishlike quality of the audiovisual image be acknowledged” (Marks, 231).

There is then a tactile, inferred relation between the text and what it represents. This accounts for the historical layers of meaning that leave a trace on the object represented, such as the gendered body, and which may be activated by the viewer. In this sense, that which is not explicitly stated, or represented in the filmic language of audio-visual signification, bears weight through the manner in which is transferred.

The pornography documentary offers an unique example of this function of documentary materiality. A logic of form and narrative, and even indexicality, is surpassed by the experience of the female body and its potential for abjection. Although many scenes of bodily penetration, orifices and fluids are invisible in the documentaries in that they are not visually featured in the frame, they have great magnitude or emotional intensity that is transferred to the viewer's experience of the text. The scenes that present Chong’s ten-hour sex event are highly affecting because they act as a conduit for what the viewer knows and senses but only partially sees. The experience enabled by the pornography documentary again impacts upon the placement of female desire. Not only does the body's tactility eclipse the female subjects' self-narrativization. But also if the body is deemed abject, what is considered disgusting must be expelled or disavowed in order for a stable speaking position to be established. As Elizabeth Grosz observes, for Kristeva,

“‘proper’ sociality and subjectivity are based on the expulsion or exclusion of the improper, the unclean, and the disorderly elements of its corporeal existence that must be separated from its ‘clean and proper’ self” (86).

These documentaries incorporate constant statements about and visual suggestions of transgressing bodily boundaries. The way the films dwell in the contact zone of the ambiguous and “unclean” serves to destabilize women as speaking and desiring subjects within the economy of desire that characterizes pornography documentaries. Subjectivity’s anchoring in the body translates into a troubling encounter with documentary form and with viewers' disgust reactions to corporeality, rather than articulating a fully realized notion of female sexual pleasure.

Problem of sexual capital

Recognizing "bad feeling" about the body impacts on the female porn star’s place in popular cultural narratives about sexual capital — within post-feminist narratives — that helped give rise to the popularity of the pornography documentary. The revised permissive, active sexuality that offers a new post-feminist image for women is also one that comes hand-in-hand with struggles over exclusive taste formations. As Attwood points out, gender, class, race and sexuality come together in a key confluence in today's sexualization of culture. For Attwood, examples such as Sex and the City rely upon a form of femininity that casts sex as “fun,” but such a narrative elaborates "fun" sexuality in a way that can only be figured within a bourgeois culture of taste and discerning consumption. The discourse becomes one in which promiscuous sexuality must be figured as “classy.”

At stake here is the mode of sexuality rather than economic capital.

“Available constructions of a female sexuality in which activity and power are expressed in terms of ‘low’ characteristics  — for example, in pornography and other forms of obscene or bawdy culture — are firmly eschewed here” (Attwood, 85).

Moreover, bourgeois sexuality is defined against that which is associated with the low. Although the classy pursuit of sex for pleasure may offer a new figuration of womanhood, this oppositional construction of the bourgeois body as against the low has a longer historical lineage. As Mikhail Bakhtin has theorized, the rejection of that which is low and the suppression of the corporeal or the grotesque body were integral in the formulation of the “classical body” of the emerging bourgeoisie of the sixteenth century. The body, since this time, has borne the social coding of class so that the gross materiality of the lower aspects of the body are transposed onto the lower social classes. In this political distancing, those “civilized” qualities difficult to attain, such as refinement, taste, etiquette and the regulation of bodily instincts and behavior, become the standards of the bourgeois subject.

Laura Kipnis poses this historical opposition as important for understanding of some modes of pornography, for example, images seen on the pages of Hustler. She writes,

“The transcoding between the body and the social sets up the mechanisms through which the body is a privileged political trope of lower social classes, and through which bodily grossness operates as a critique of dominant ideology. The power of grossness is predicated on its opposition from and to high discourses” (emphasis in original 376).

Subjecthood in high culture is therefore constituted through the vulgar material body's exclusion and disavowal. On these terms, the female porn actor cannot properly recuperate sexual capital because she is over-identified with the lower stratum of both the social and the corporeal. This occurs regardless of the women's actual class background.

The women in Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, Inside Deep Throat, and The Girl Next Door present differing manifestations of the porn star's experience, but all speak to female (hetero)sexual pleasure in ways that cannot find a central place in the films’ structuring fantasies. The women are caught in the non-fiction ordering of desire and value by the very terms on which subjectivity seeks to enter representation, the ambivalence of the documentary performance on the one hand and the body on the other. Adding to this is the women’s failure to acquire cultural capital in ways that would locate them alongside the ascending and enterprising new woman. Yet, in another respect the films, through failing in the stakes of this ideological impetus, reveal the way post-feminism can only offer exclusive, uncomplicated resolutions to the problem of female desire. The documentaries indicate something more profound in the displaced femininity that falls outside the borders of easily assimilable sexuality. Further, if abjection is caused by disturbing established systems and orders, the films reference the difficulty of the body, its materiality, and the textual complexity of representing and accessing the actuality of female desire within the scope of what remains a masculine erotic imaginary in popular culture.

Post-feminism’s seemingly uncomplicated popular characterization of femininity and sexuality covers over subjectivity's ambivalences. Offering an alternative to this kind of presentation is the example of porn star and performance artist, Annie Sprinkle. In addition to featuring in many porn films in the 1970s and early 1980s, Sprinkle has produced a number of one-woman performances and published a handful of books. Much of Sprinkle’s contemporary work is strongly biographical and she has featured in a small number of documentaries. These include Annie Sprinkle's Herstory of Porn (1998), directed by Sprinkle, and Sacred Sex (Cynthia Connop, 1992). These representations offer a significant contrast to the three films discussed here.

While they similarly work to offer the female porn star as an object of pleasure and as an object of knowledge, Sprinkle’s performances differ from those already discussed as they are more explicitly engaged in the activity of denaturalizing femininity and the question of agency. If she seeks to maximize the self, she often does so through art practice rather than capitalizing her potential within a sexual economy. Belonging to a different epoch (that of second wave feminism), Sprinkle’s rhetorical and physical gestures are able to achieve what Chong’s can only hint at; she denaturalizes gender and highlights the instability of speaking positions. In her documentary appearances Sprinkle describes how she takes on roles, such as the “porno bimbo character,” thus emphasising perfomativity as a documentary convention and more broadly as a feature of subjectivity. While her subjectivity is equally troubled by materiality, she rejects a “classy” sexuality. Rather, through the use of humour and investigation of alternative sexual discourses, Sprinkle overtly contests the dominant order. Nevertheless, as a “post-porn goddess,” although she may contribute to a proliferation of sexual discourses in the public sphere, her work remains less influential than representations that adhere to the reclamation of sexual objectification as agency.

For McNair,

"There have been significant and positive changes in the way the media represent sex, sexuality and gender. The ‘relentless parade of insults,’ the ‘invisibility and demeaning stereotypes’ to which women and gays have traditionally been subjected has been replaced … by an altogether more complex and satisfying representational diversity." (Striptease, 205) 

This is certainly the case to some degree, but the new representational practices McNair refers to cannot be wholly isolated from the entrenched conditions that have structured desire in the past. Erotic representations are well established in long standing regimes of pleasure that pertain to how they are activated, especially within particular vehicles of vision and knowledge such as pornography and documentary. Aligning itself with these regimes, subjecthood coheres within the affect worlds of the social imaginary. While a more complex representational diversity may exist (and the figure of Sprinkle demonstrates this), a dominant ordering of sexuality prevails. I have argued that the emotions of pleasure and desire formulate a multiform popular arena in which the pornography documentary enters into a dialogue with the viewer. Despite a proliferating sexual landscape that would seem to offer greater capacity for the elevation of female sexuality, the emotions that organize a reading of the female other also make this a conditional and difficult undertaking for the pornography documentary.

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