Write-up of Onscenity’s “Bodies” Conference (III)

After a brief lunch, we moved on to the third sesh looking at “freakery”, porn stardom and female perversion.

New strategies of enfreakment: C4’s the undateables

The afternoon kicked off with Niall Richardson, Lecturer in Film at the Uni of Sussex who began by citing David Hevey’s view that “ freak” is a cultural construct based on representation.

C4 made use of different modes of enfreakment: the exotic/erotic in which it is the unusual that is represented: and the aggrandized, which is based very much around Victorian ideals of pity. There has been a cultural shift, with represedntation of the freak body no longer viewed as quite so transgressive. The freak body is no longer viewed quite so much as the “defining other” – a sponge for contemporary social anxiety. (at present, focus is around fatness).

Freakery is about difference – and (self-)recognition. It forces us to reconsider our view of what is “normal” The premise behind “The undateables” is inclusivity: the title intended to be ironic, though that is always risky.

It is intended as unsettling: also plays to a modern trope that no-one should be single. There are difficulties within the program…again through its use of irony: raising in places what could be read either as a simple commentary on modern social mores; or alternatively a poking of fun at the “undateable” individual.

Further, the show tends to encourage laughing, giggling, without actually identifying the nature of any impairment involved in respect of specific individuals.. In other words, Is the comedy in gaucheness – or disability? This comes through in several of the individual stories, suggesting the possibility that we are returning to a view of freaks as “fools and court jesters”

More than just meat: the body of the porn star

Clarissa Smith, Reader in Sexual cultures at the Uni of Sunderland, looked at the body of the porn star and the types of performances being demanded of individuals in this line of work.

For many observers, porn stars are regarded as interchangeable, characterised only physically or, in political discourse, victim. The individual supposedly lacks agency, with little focus on their individual (sexual) style. The focus is on Eva Angelina: interviewed publically, Eva claims to have had an interest in appearing in porn from an early age. (The “born to be a porn star” phenomenon).

The idea of porn as art is in sharp contrast to many critiques that view porn as simply a record of doing sex: a document without narrative. Alongside this is the view that porn stars “can’t act” – but this equates acting to speaking and discounts the power of performance.

Within “proper” cinema, actors have been widely regarded as inanimate objects (the new star studies are beginning to change this): the representation of characters is created around actors, rather than resulting from their own agency or talent – and this view is seen as doubly applicable for porn. An instance of this is Ron Jeremy, the “flabby everyman”, viewed mostly as a figure to be looked at – just a cock – rather than for what he does on screen.

Clarissa argues again that there is an expressivity to Ron Jeremy’s body that goes beyond this simplistic vision. Problematic here is the feminist analysis that sees female porn stars as standing in for ALL women: yet this is contradicted by performance of individual actresses such as Eva who do bring individuality, personality to her roles. In Eva’s case, a willingness to “go beyond”.

A better way to understand the rationale for porn work is perhaps to draw a comparison to a sports performance.

Safewording!: cultural disavowal of the female “pervert” and the re-assuring function of “Fifty shades of grey”

Lisa Downing, Professor of French Discourses of sexuality starts by drawing attention to two radically opposed views of Fifty Shades.

Katie Roiphe posits the romanticisation of female submission at the point when male dominance is far shakier than ever before.

Many sex positivist feminists have attacked Roiphe for attempting to define what women should want. Rad fems (Smash website) have viewed fifty shades, however, as identical with domestic violence. Justification of bdsm is a form of orgasm politics.

This, according to Lisa is an over-simplification on both sides, with each party going too far in their attempts to entrench their positions. Rhetorical absolutism has over-taken sensible debate about the underlying issues. Margot Weiss balances the issue and expresses suspicion of polarised and polarising positions: both rad fem and neo-liberal.

Instead, Downing calls for “sex critical” positions in respect of sex and sexuality…critical of the norms that they uphold and the way that they silence and eradicate any groups that do not fit neatly into categories of normative sexuality.

Heteronormative institutions and practices are harmful in the sense that they lure individuals into the idea that because their activity is normative, there can be no harm. We are in danger, via sex positivism, of losing our critical faculties.

Moving on: Fifty Shades performs sleight of hand, appearing to provide transgressive content within a re-assuringly safe old-fashioned format. It also contributes to an entrenchment of thoughtless dichotomies: bdsm (dangerous) vs. normal heterosex (safe).

Despite being flawed, Fifty shades is worth reading from a sex critical perspective, as it offers insights into the way in which society is dividing into safe vs. dangerous practice, with the former loaded with a great deal of implicit approval. The idea of a naïve woman being initiated into bdsm by a more experienced older man is a common trope of this form of sexual literature. Fifty shades represents the female subject as adapting her sexuality to match the demands of her perverse lover, while desiring just a little more affection.

Popular critiques of this book fail to acknowledge that what is written about is not what people do – nor that the likely audience for this work is not necessarily from the bdsm community.

While Alex Dymock argues that “abject” female masochism can be a resistant sort of femininity, the female character of fifty shades does not do this. There is a role for rigorous feminist critique of Fifty Shades – and by heading off into forced dichotomies between sex positive and rad fem,this element is missed.

A message running through the central discourse of Fifty Shades is that non-normative sexuality can be the result of damage: without caliming that this is NEVER the case, it is erroneous to suggest it always is. Meanwhile, the female character at the heart of Fifty Shades in fact seems to have no sexually of her own.

Downing argues that one of the core elements at the heart of the book is that there are significant parallels between marriage and a bdsm contract. Highlighted is the fact that the bdsm contract is unenforceable, and can be broken at any time – whereas the state contract (marriage) is harder to break.

In practice, the real (domestic) violence in the relationship described lies at the heart of the policing of Anastasia’s body and behaviour that Christian engages in *outside* the bedroom, in his marriage, rather than in bdsm.

Kinkphobic readings of the work may fail to acknowledge how greater harm may follow from following cultural imperatives around marriage than from the sexuality involved.

Ideas “safeguarded” in Fifty shades are the heteronormative nature of sexuality, that bdsm practice results from childhood trauma and that the antidote to perversion is the love of a good woman, the conversion-cure of marriage and reproduction.

Far from being the transgressive work it is billed as, a careful, critical reading of Fifty Shades may permit the reader to question BOTH practices highlighted in the book: marriage and bdsm.

jane xx


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