copyright 2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 51, spring 2009

Documentary investigations
and the female porn star

by Belinda Smaill

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,

“Both pornography and ethnography promise something they cannot deliver: the ultimate pleasure of knowing the Other. On this promise of cultural or sexual knowledge they depend, but they are also condemned to do nothing more than make it available for representation” (225).

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,

“In order to counter objectification in the cinema, our collective fantasies must be released: women’s cinema must embody the working through of desire: such an objective demands the use of the entertainment film” (31).

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.[1] [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[2] 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.[3]

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:

“By denying the woman-in-movement any existence apart from these marks of difference, Muybridge himself could be said to have begun the cinematic tradition of fetishization that exerts mastery over difference” (Hardcore, 42).

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:

  1. a lineage of modern science that assimilates the camera as an inscription device and thus a truth-telling instrument; this is a perception that goes on to structure the later social importance of documentary film and
  2. the establishment of cinema’s gendered looking relations that rely on the function of voyeurism and fetishization (articulated much later by Laura Mulvey).

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.[4] 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:

“While there has been a renewed interest in studies of pornography, the seemingly evident connections of affect and pornography have not been addressed in much detail” (47).

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

"[o]ne of the most popular and highest grossing documentaries ever produced by the Canadian Film Board; however, audiences in a nation with restrictions on the public display of pornography are not necessarily seeing a tale of mourning and outrage; many are watching for the crotch shots that are meant to horrify, not titillate." (2)

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

“antiporn film is an acceptable replacement for porn itself … , the question is whether this outcry becomes itself a handmaiden to titillation, whether this alleged look of horror is not perhaps a most sophisticated form of voyeurism” (58).

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.

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], 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.

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.


[1] See, for example, Cowie and Renov.

[2] As Gunning describes, until approximately 1906 actuality films outnumbered fictional films. It is this era of film culture that is central to his analysis.

[3] Muybridge’s well-known images of horses and other animals offered evidence of the nature of movement in ways that appealed to desire for new scientific knowledge and his projections were shown in lecture halls to interested audiences of the time. This focus on zoology soon came also to focus on the mechanic so the human body naked or semi-naked pictorial accounts of men, women and children performing short tasks and activities.

[4] See Kaplan, Rich or Williams.

[5] SBS Television (Special Broadcasting Service) is Australia’s smaller, second public service broadcaster with a charter that stipulates that SBS must work to meet the needs of culturally diverse viewing nation.

[6] See Arthurs or Boyle for more discussion of “docuporn”.

[7] See McRobbie, Walkerdine et al., Attwood, Gill and Whelelan.

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