I feel I should clarify something at this stage: I have a lot of significant concerns about pornographic mediums, and do not believe that all "pornography" - which is a very vague term in general, but I suppose I mean XXX hardcore - is inherently "good" or "bad" in terms of representations of women and female sexuality (male sexuality is another issue, and one I'm also focused on). I will say this: nowhere else in film am I able to watch movies with such rich, diverse, and progressive characterization of/for women as hardcore pornography. I routinely scour the video shelves of my local Blockbuster for something with a dynamic and interesting female protagonist, and usually I come away with something either starring a man, with a rather interesting female sub-character, or a movie intended for adolescent girls that I want to see out of curiosity (Aquamarine being a recent example). The other movies are of the The Reader ilk, which I will also watch and respect, but often get unfairly categorized as "chick flick" or something for middle-aged people. Horror films are a special breed, and of course I love them - the Final Girl, in fact, could be likened to the heroine of the porn flick.
Anyway, my point is, in a culture that generally leaves women in all their complexity by the wayside, with multiple voices unheard in the mainstream, there is this billion dollar industry that provides some of the most challenging and dynamic roles for women that I have seen. But...of course this requires a pay-off (I'm not a "liberal feminist") - such dynamic characterization also seems to require sexualization, which is of course telling of our culture as a whole, and disconcerting in terms of how things are "progressing," what we think of as "empowering," and how we think new media representations of female sexuality are shaping individual experience. I take the stand that in a world of shit, you have to take what you can get, and if I want a dynamic female protagonist that I can identify with, then I'm likely to find it in horror, sci-fi, or...most of all, porn. And, really, is there much more wrong with that than turning to mainstream Hollywood? (Which, by the way, I find far more offensive to my feminist principles...).
Well! With all that said, I want to address an interesting topic in hardcore features - that of the narrative that deals with prostitution. I recently watched Model Behavior (2009), starring Stormy Daniels, written and directed by Randy Spears. Then, soon after, I was treated to Amanda By Night (Dir. Gary Graver aka. Robert McCallum, 1981), which I had been wanting to watch for a long time, and I was not disappointed. Both films feature a "madam" (Stormy and Veronica Hart respectively) who respects herself, takes care of her girls, but recognizes the dangers and inevitable problems her chosen career might entail. Both films are about the lead character dealing with a man who wants to kill her, as well as hurt and /or kill the women who work for her. In Amanda, the working women start showing up dead after a job Amanda arranged results on the murder of her worker, and Amanda must work with a cop to try and figure out who is behind the killings before she gets killed herself, but also so she can honor her friendship with the murdered women. In Model Behavior, an ex-boyfriend is out of jail and planning on killing Stormy's character, and violently attacks and maims one of her girls as a message.
The differences are interesting: while both Amanda By Night and Model Behavior portray their heroines as being in control of their sexuality, and unapologetic for their career choices, Amanda is depicted as wanting to get out of the industry, while in Model Behavior it's never an issue as to whether or not Stormy will quit - the problem resides solely in the man who is terrorizing her and her girls. In addition, similar to the generational developments in horror, Amanda is "saved" by the cop/eventual lover, while Stormy a) doesn't need to be saved from her career, but rather from one particular man, and b) eventually does the dirty work herself. Granted, she gets some help from the mob, but she certainly does her part (just look at the dvd cover).
These differences might suggest that I'm saying times have changed, things have progressed, and Model Behavior is more progressive or "feminist" than Amanda By Night, but I think that would be an oversimplification of these movies. For me, they're both valuable in their own right, and give a voice to sex work in a way that is more positive than what the mainstream media routinely churns out. That doesn't mean that they candy-coat prostitution - and bear in mind, neither film are dealing with street walkers, but rather high-class call girl services (an important class-based distinction). I found moments in each film that impressed me, and further condensed what I already suspected: pornography works on a level not solely based on arousal of heterosexual men, and actively engages in politics, particularly to do with gender and sexuality. I think Amanda's "outburst" is worth quoting in full to demonstrate how radical this film was (and is) in terms of voicing feminist concerns.
Amanda has just been informed by the well-meaning cop (soon to be her lover) that one of her workers, Gwen, has been found dead, presumed to be the result of an overdose. The cop believes it is a homicide, related to the earlier death of Bev. The cop tells Amanda that Gwen was found with semen inside her, and Bev's number next to her - which he apparently finds suspicious. At this point, Amanda becomes more angry than upset, and stands up, slamming her glass on the table:
"So hookers know hookers like cops knows cops, so what? You know, some of 'em even like each other! Did you know that? You know, some of 'em even have families who love 'em! Oh, maybe not approve of 'em, but who actually love 'em! Can you believe that?!"
"It's all right Amanda..."
"No! I once read somewhere, yeah, I think it even made the Guinness Book of Records, that they once found a hooker, oh I forget where, who actually thought she was a real person! A human being! Can you fucking believe that? Oh - no, no, you're too smart to be fooled by someone like that, 'cos you know, it's nothing but their fucking delusion. You're too smart to believe that shit...and so am I."
The last line is said in a sad and rather pensive tone, as she sits back down, making me wonder what exactly is intended by this very emotional scene. I enjoy this complexity, though, and the idea that she just might believe in the case she is passionately refusing, against her better judgment.
These films leave me with multiple questions, which is what I like, particularly regarding a common binary that I find myself (as a "sex-positive" feminist, or however you might characterize me) wanting to perpetuate: that sex workers are "happy hookers" or that they are miserable, exploited objects of patriarchal consumer culture. I don't believe either is generally true, and I don't think that either of the films buy into this notion, which is refreshing. The fact that these films feature sex workers playing sex workers (of a different trade - and this is a critical distinction) only brings more depth to the films, and I highly recommend both of them.