Sunday, September 27, 2009

Belinda Smaill: Documentary investigations and the female porn star

Documentary investigations and the female porn star
by Belinda Smaill
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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] 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.

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