Images from The Girl Next Door
The opening credits of The Girl Next Door; backstage during a shoot.
Valentine discusses her reasons for becoming a porn actress, her proficiency as a porn actress and her sexual capabilities: “I’m really good at sex. I’m very confident in my sexual capabilities.”
Valentine’s wedding photo from Oklahoma, where she said she had an unhappy life compared to the present with her success as a porn star.
During an outdoor shoot for a film. Sexual activity and penetration is inferred but never explicitly shown in the frame in The Girl Next Door.
Getting ready before a shoot in The Girl Next Door.
A surgeon performs liposuction on Valentine’s buttocks and stomach, perhaps the only image of penetration in the documentary. The scene highlights the malleability of bodily boundaries.
Lines are made on Valentine’s body with a pen to indicate where the surgeon will remove fat. Here the bodily border, the skin, is transformed into an object and, thus, becomes abject.
Valentine visits the tanning salon — more work to maintain her body and maximise the self.
Valentine with boyfriend Julian.
Valentine visits the hypno-therapist to improve her self-image and motivate her to exercise. This is yet another way in which Valentine is shown in a constant state of anxiety around her ability to reach her goals.
One of many scenes in The Girl Next Door featuring Valentine nude or semi-nude and highlighting the vulnerability of the body.
Since the mid-nineties, documentary filmmakers have become increasingly interested in exploring the world of pornography. This subject matter represents one of the most marketable trends in contemporary documentary, particularly in terms of DVD distribution. These documentaries frequently have an argumentative logic as they investigate pornography's culture and production, creating a “behind the scenes” exposé of the industry and the individuals who work in it. Perhaps more than any other media form, pornography is shaped by and attracts a great deal of strong feeling. A documentary about the pornography industry, or what I term here the pornography documentary, similarly draws upon a range of emotional responses, and I argue that a number of these emotions cohere around the figure of the female porn star. Here I look in particular at three such documentaries: Sex: The Annabelle Chong Story (2000), The Girl Next Door (2000) and Inside Deep Throat (2004).
In their discussion of pornography and ethnography, Christian Hansen, Catherine Needham and Bill Nichols argue,
In other words, as viewers we desire pleasure but will never be pleased entirely (in pornography we extract pleasure but this is never the pleasure that is represented). Similarly, we desire to know but cannot fully appropriate the knowledge that is represented (the knowledge of the cultural other in the case of ethnography). Hansen, Needham and Nichols’ formulation is instructive for a number of reasons. These documentaries contain a representation of women that appeals to the viewer’s desire for knowledge about the other. And this desire is based in pre-existing spectatorial expectations shaped by the aesthetic qualities of documentary and pornography. Yet the pornography documentary emerges at an historical moment when female subjectivity and desire is itself a site of particular fascination and struggle. If these films are organized around the pleasure of knowing the other, and thus engage a narrative desire that works at the intersection of pornography and documentary, how is (heterosexual) female desire, or the female as desiring subject, positioned in the films?
In considering the larger issue of women's fantasy and film, Claire Johnston writes early in second wave feminism,
The problem of desire and female subjectivity in film has occupied scholars for some time, yet the terms of this problem have shifted greatly from the 1970s when Johnston was writing. The quest to release collective female fantasies has become complicated by the proliferation of sexual discourses in the contemporary media sphere, and many of these discourses attempt to articulate or explicate female desire. The sphere of popular culture in which pornography documentaries circulate is one that has seen mainstream representations, often fictional, explore what “female sexual agency” might mean, most notably in the much discussed examples of Sex and the City or Bridget Jones’s Diary. This sphere has emphasized female desire and pleasure, yet not necessarily on the terms second wave feminism might intend. Beyond the mainstream other examples have contributed to this revision of sexual agency, including the fiction filmmaking of Jane Campion or Catherine Breillait and the figures of Susie Bright and “post-porn Goddess” Annie Sprinkle.
My question of how female desire is evidenced in different texts stems from my broader interest in locating documentary within an economy of the emotions. For some time documentary scholars have sought to account for the spectatorial experience of pleasure and desire offered by documentary and how this sets it apart from narrative fiction film. [open endnotes in new window] I wish to add to these discussions and think through pleasure and desire not only as theoretical constructs but also as embodied emotions and social discourse. In this essay my focus is on the emotions, both agreeable and aversive, that frequently shape the meaning of female corporeality and sexuality. These emotions find a particular focus in the pornography documentary.
I seek to locate the pornography documentary within a terrain that encompasses genre concerns and histories of signification, as well as feminist approaches to representation and sexual politics. More specifically, my discussion focuses in on the figure of the female porn star and how she is produced at the intersection of popular feminism, narratives of female agency, and historically-shaped genre conventions that seek to organize desire. In this sense, my discussion is limited to the problem of how female agency and desire is produced in the pornography documentary text through genre conventions and popular discourse. Questions that pertain to the female viewer and her desiring relation to pornography and the female porn star are significant yet beyond this essay's scope.
Pornography and non-fiction histories
Early cinematic preoccupations indicate an important convergence of the pre-history of both documentary cinema and moving image pornography. Considering these helps elucidate formations pertaining to the female body. Theorizations of early cinema and other, even earlier forms of visual culture in the latter decades of the nineteenth century suggest that these pre-histories are constituted through a single apparatus of vision that ordered the relations between pleasure, the body and cinematic technology. Considering this convergence, Tom Gunning draws on the writings of Sergei Eisenstein to describe early cinema as a “cinema of attractions,” that is, a mode of visuality that emphasized a fascination with display, rather than a storytelling function that would later govern classical cinema. Early cinema's actuality films included travel film, topicals (short films depicting current events), re-enactments, and scenes of everyday life. And these films emphasized the pleasures of vision and the illusion of life represented on the screen in a way that pre-figures the documentary proper. Yet, in a manner that sits uncomfortably with Grierson’s documentary project of social betterment, actuality films and a cinema of the attractions adhered to, for Gunning, a metapsychology emerging from a “lust of the eye.” Gunning identifies an aesthetic of attractions that encompasses the pleasure in looking at novelty, aggressive sensations that imply the threat of injury (such as a speeding train), and a sexualized fascination with the body that is evident in films that present female nudity, revealing clothing, and other moments of gendered bodily display (4).
Sensations, movement, or presentation of the body were thus central to early cinema's apparatus and to the changing culture out of which that cinema emerged. A “lust of the eye” indicates a sensibility from that time which was concerned with affective and corporeal possibilities derived from thrilling, pleasurable experiences. Documentary’s connection to science and the status of its “truth telling” qualities were thus not established first in the Griersonian era, which most popularly characterizes documentary, but across a longer history of modern science, including the development of photographic technology within that history.
Also, ethnography, in the form of travel films which record indigenous peoples at home and abroad, has perpetuated this discourse of science with its focus on the body of the other. Yet, more important for a consideration of documentary and pornography, the pleasure in and desire for indexical evidence about the world and the body’s place in it became sexualized and specifically focused on the female body as early as the 1880s. At that time, an important precursor to Gunning’s gendered bodily display can be found in Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic series’ that created an illusion of motion by way of the “zoopraxiscope,” a cinematic device that was a precursor to film.
Muybridge’s photographs, for Linda Williams, capture not only the visual spectacle and “truth” of moving bodies through new forms of visual apparatus, but the photographic series also function as a social apparatus that positions women as the objects of vision rather than its subjects. The photographs reproduce women’s bodies by utilizing existing understandings of how the body is disciplined in a gendered way. As Williams identifies how Muybridge posed the human figures, she finds women fetishized in the images through self-conscious gestures (such as a running woman grasping her breast or raising a hand to the mouth) and through the use of props (such as a newspaper, a smoking cigarette or fully made up bed that the woman lies down on). These gestures differ greatly from the male models’ engagement in sports and heightened physical movement (Hardcore 39-40). My point here is not so much to challenge the status of women’s bodies as objects in these early photos, but to notice the way these images, produced putatively to satisfy questions of science and measurement, betray an aestheticization of and fantasy about the sexualized body. These photos mark woman's signification through her associations with erotic meaning and thus by her difference and her lack.
This kind of imagery is important in the development of cinema because, as Williams theorizes:
Inevitably these pre-cinematic projections became both an investigation of the nature of motion and a forum for the voyeuristic and pornographic reception of female sexuality for a largely male audience. Muybridge’s work exists at the crossroads of two trajectories:
These looking relations are established, in Muybridge’s work, through the pleasure that comes from investigating the naked female and male body. As such, these photos echo one of the preoccupations of moving image pornography.
As Catherine Russell observes, the activities Muybridge’s models perform are largely those that would have been associated with the working classes (72). Furthermore, the models themselves, particularly the women, would have been working class individuals of the time. Awareness of class, then, contributes another dimension to the dialectic between the upper class, educated audience for these projections and the photos' emphasis on the models' physicality, which algins the models with the natural world rather than “culture.” The mastery over difference through fetishization, noted by Williams, takes on added weight and complexity in the case of working class women. As I will discuss later, this classed aspect becomes an important feature in understanding contemporary pornography.
Such a confluence of technological, social and imaginative developments that mark the pre-history of moving image pornography and documentary film demonstrates how both genres were mobilized by an apparatus of vision that was facilitated by pleasure in knowledge, here underpinning science and its instrument, photography. This desire for knowledge coalesced around the body — whether through the thrills, sensation and display of the cinema of attractions, the body of the other in ethnography, or the body in motion of the zoopraxiscope. This historical signification of the body impacts on later cinematic discourses of non-fiction and pornography by establishing the female body as an object of desire in ways that are tied to the function of both display and non-fiction spectacle. The effects that follow from co-mingling these two related systems of vision and desire find an important point of documentary articulation, later, in the figure of the female porn star. Representations in the pornography documentary offer to the viewer the female porn star both as an object of pleasure and as an object of knowledge. In the case of the latter, the narrative particularly scrutinizes the question of female sexual agency.
Beyond Not a Love Story: sex, documentary, and the contemporary public sphere
In Not a Love Story (1981) by Canadian filmmaker, Bonnie Klein, feminist commentators, writers, and men and women who worked in the sex industry were interviewed regarding the pornography industry's malignant and misogynist nature. In response, may feminist scholars have been drawn to question the film’s reductive anti-pornography stance. The film was much discussed, since it raised many critical issues about documentary representation of pornography, especially in relation to women. As such, the film and the criticism it engendered offer an important point of reference for considering how feminist-derived narratives of female sexual subjectivity have become popularized. It is not my aim here to retrace the critical work around this film, but rather to indicate more broadly how the film exemplifies the pornography debate's emotionalism. I use it as an example in order to highlight the problem of organizing in a definitive way the classification and reception of visual texts about pornography.
In considering the film's emotionialism, Susanna Paasonen finds Not a Love Story, based in the radical feminist principles of the 1970s, as “saturated with expressions of feeling” (47). The film gives voice to a range of emotions, from the discomfort of a male actor in the face of having to perform scenes of physical domination, through to the anger and sorrow of feminist activists, or the boredom of those who discuss their work doing live sex shows. Paasonen theorizes, more broadly, the Anglo-American anti-pornography movement and its consistent anchoring in a rhetoric of hurt, anger, and fear as “a discourse of negative affect” (47). She indicates the significance of affective encounters in the critical reception of pornography. She also emphasizes that the way pornography circulates, both critically and popularly, through desire or fascination also needs to be understood. Paasonen points to a lack of a broader understanding of pornography and affect:
A closer examination of not only affect and pornography, but also documentary, further demonstrates the paradoxical play of the emotions. Paula Rabinowitz extends an analysis of the film's appeal to the emotions when she writes that Not A Love Story is
Rabinowitz is referring to the multiple affective registers that inform the film’s capacity to be simultaneously compelling, saddening, and appalling. She echoes B. Ruby Rich’s suggestion that the
Such differing, or ambivalent, readings may occur across a single viewer or distinguish boundaries between collectives of viewers. Such a variation in potential readings presents a very specific issue for the pornography documentary's aesthetic organization. The recent proliferation of documentaries about pornography has, to varying degrees, assimilated such fascination, or titillation, overtly into the text and into marketing and distribution material. They address a viewer who desires both knowledge about pornography (documentary) and pornographic representation (pornography).
This kind of cinematic address frequently has two narrative paths and goals. It seeks to inform and educate viewers about the porn industry's sensational or problematic and exploitative nature. But it also offers a pleasurable viewing experience in which a sexual spectacle is always immanent but almost never fully realized. The ambivalence that arises here is largely due to pornography’s status as a mode of non-fiction: it purports truthfully to present sexual activity and sexualized bodies. However, in spite of the extra-textual address of their marketing, these documentaries are narratively organized within the genre of documentary in ways that ultimately forgo sexual arousal for epistephilia, a desire for and pleasure in knowledge.