Friday, June 3, 2011

A Exercise in the Grotesque: Girlvert: A Porno Memoir by Oriana Small aka. Ashley Blue

Wow, it's been a while, but I'm back! And, thanks to FanGirlTastic, I was able to not only do my very first book review, but also my very first phone interview with the author, Oriana Small, otherwise known as Ashley Blue, gonzo porn star pervert extraordinaire. I must admit, I was a little apprehensive at first -- all I knew of Small before reading the book was her infamous "choke out" scene for Khan Tusion, her trademark of shoving her hand down her throat, and some dubious racial remarks on a Howard Stern show. That and some terrifyingly rough porn. I was reassured on watching the Stern show that the dubious racial remarks turned out to be out-of-context banter where she gave as good as she got on the sarcastic joke department, and...well, I didn't watch the Khan Tusion scene. Reading about it was distressing enough, and as I told Small, I felt like watching it would be contributing to something bad. She concurred with a simple, "Yeah, it was very creepy." I must admit, I also had my doubts about the book -- eve the best of us fall victim to stereotyping. Having thumbed through a few porn memoirs before, with their familiar tales of childhood problems, glitz and glamour, some degree of downfall, and a speedy retreat to legitimacy, I was expecting more of the same but with extra saliva. Well, this is not like other porn memoirs. The glamour of Jenna Jameson and Traci Lords only fleetingly appears within the pages of Girlvert, and then only to be followed by absurd tragedy, tears and tantrums, and a whole host of drug- and sex-fueled grotesqueries. In fact, Girlvert is grotesque, in the truest literary sense.

When I describe Girlvert as an exercise in "the grotesque," I am referring to the more traditional artistic grotesque features of caricature, the bizarre, and characters who elicit both empathy and disgust. When I articulated this reading of her book, Small enthusiastically embraced such a perception. In particular, the word "grimy" which continually came up for me when explaining the tone to my partner, seemed to strike Small as especially apt, who laughingly declared, "If you can feel the grime, then mission accomplished!" The "glamour" that Small found within the pages of Lords and Jameson's books, she tells me, did not appeal to her because "glamour" does not characterize her life. Rather, the seedy and gritty aspects of Jameson and Lords' books are what Small found appealing about them, and is what she centered in on while writing her memoir. She tells me she wants to "set a new standard, that you don't have to pretend it's all like fuckin' red carpets and stuff in porn. I want there to be a new standard of honesty, and be able to laugh at it too." The purpose of her book, she explains in a determined tone, is to be "a cult classic. I really hope that my book can be like a John Waters movie. Like, something really important, but in a different category -- it's weird, it's cool, and it's different. This is my cult classic."


Small demonstrates an interesting awareness of gender throughout her experiences, offering fascinating logic behind her porn career. Expecting to simply do a couple of scenes to get tickets for Coachella, Small checks every box on the "yes" list when applying to the modeling agency, reasoning that she may as well get all the money possible in a short space of time, but also because she "wanted to be as hardcore as I could be for personal reasons....I had to keep going the distance sexually for myself, too. I had to soar" (27). Small approaches sex and porn as a way of pushing her own boundaries, but the way Small explains it sounds way less cliche. Indeed, Small seems to fetishize transgressing boundaries. "Porn was attractive because I knew it was bad" (33), Small notes, "I wanted to try it simply because it would be a personal barrier I could tear down. Porno gave me plenty of opportunities to deconstruct myself and society with no emotional strings attached" (46). Of course, the amount of cocaine Small ingests on a regular basis, often not sleeping the night before a shoot, goes some way to dulling the subversive edge of it all, but not entirely. I think part of this has to do with Small's unrelenting honesty and a seeming desire to disgust. This isn't one of those memoirs that occasionally mentions drugs, and leaves you with the feeling that a lot is going unspoken. Quite the opposite, in fact -- barely a page goes by where Small isn't explaining what drugs she was taking, how much, and what she did on them. For this reason, there's little to no self-pity, and when bad things happen, you feel empathy and understanding for her situation.

Particularly memorable, and unsettling, is an early shoot with "Victor," where Small is effectively tricked into anal sex unrelated to filming -- rape with a camera. As Small puts it, "The camera made it safe, so I thought....I submitted completely to whatever Victor wanted. I was afraid not to" (48). The experience leaves Small asking herself, "I hadn't slept all night and I was high, but did I ask for this? I didn't know what normal behavior was anymore" (49). Following the incident, Small assumes that she "signed over my rights as a human being deserving respect as soon as I decided to be a porno girl" (50), and is aware that even if she did tell people what happened, they wouldn't take her seriously. Noting her awareness that she was simply part of a cycle of naive girls being abused by this "very evil sexual predator" (50) with no realistic legal recourse, I posed the idea of some sort of resource for girls new to the business so they could avoid such situations and know what is appropriate and inappropriate on a shoot. Small disagreed that there was such a need, explaining, "I chose to take risks, and that's ok too. I think there's a safe route -- I chose to not do that, like day one. So, I don't think it would be entirely helpful if there was some group trying to guide people, because I don't think it's necessary. It's ok for people to make their own mistakes." This kind of gender analysis, followed by a laissez-faire attitude, is characteristic of the book as a whole. When explaining the Khan Tusion scene, Small appears to offer some reflection on the gendered dynamics of this notorious and disturbing moment in her life, but again she never pursues this line of thinking to the point of social and institutional critique.

While Small expresses some well-deserved hostility toward specific creeps and misogynists, ultimately the only person she blames for her choices -- if she in fact regrets these choices enough to blame anyone -- is herself. Every time the narrative appears to be moving toward locating a source of her woes, whether it be the string of paternal and abusive lovers, or the complex relationship with her mother, Small is sure to shift the focus back on to herself and the fact that she is aware of her own agency and responsibilities as an adult. Following a prolonged background history of Small's relationship with her mother, Small expresses her awareness that she has become like her mother in many respects and that while "my mom definitely contributed to my drug addiction," "only her good characteristics influenced me -- gave me the balls, so to speak -- to get into porn. She showed me D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Anais Nin when I was a kid, and my sexual life, for pleasure and for work, has been my own poetry....Her FUCK YOU, DON'T TELL ME WHAT TO DO attitude built me to be bold enough to start doing porn, and I thank her for that" (222). In fact, this positive attitude toward her life and career is what lingers in the mind after reading the book, in spite of what seems like an unrelenting stream of horrors. Small never lets the bad get in the way of asserting that she values her experiences and is proud of her life.


As the book progresses further into Small's gradual but consistent downward spiral, thanks predominantly to cocaine, alcohol, and manipulative male influence (as well as Small's craving for validation from these same sources), but also the unrelentingly graphic and repulsive imagery, it becomes harder to read in spite of a strong vein of dark humor. My need to take breaks from the book, mostly instigated by scenarios where Small is no longer pursuing the sexual mission she started out with but is merely trying to pay the rent, is frankly high praise, and Small took it as such, exclaiming, "That makes me so happy! That's a huge compliment!" The various scenes that prompt Small to consider herself "just a piece of warm flesh for them to pummel with their cocks. I knew the role. I was good at this" (264) are distressing, certainly, but as with most of Small's reflections, the acid with which such statements are shot through render them more (or less, depending on your perspective) than simply a porn star being degraded on set. Indeed, following one such scenario Small states, "The sex wasn't what dehumanized me. It actually made me more of a human being while simultaneously connecting me deeply to an animal world. The dehumanizing happened outside of the scene, at home by the ones I loved" (265). Such an analysis would comfortably find a home in any sex radical feminist textbook.

That said, there is much here for feminist men and women to disconcertedly meditate over, and Small's attitude toward life can loosely be described as libertarian. When queried about this, Small sounded like she had never really thought about her political position too much in terms of labels, but quickly embraced my suggestion that she has libertarian leanings. And yet, the dismissive and compassionless, not to mention anti-feminist, attitude I associate with libertarianism is subverted in Small's asides that demonstrate an awareness of gender. She explains in response to my misgivings about libertarianism, she never really felt exploited as a woman in porn. "The girls get treated differently," Small admits, "but we get to work it in a way that is unique and I definitely took advantage of that when I could." In the book, she briefly threatens to fall victim to the allure of masculine sexual power. When discussing her starring role in the JM series Girlvert, Small explains that she had concerns about playing the titular character who forces girls to have anal sex, noting, "I was afraid to be in charge and get rough on the talent. The power was more intimidating than playing the victim" (291). And yet, soon enough, Small is fully investing herself in the series and gaining personal empowerment at the same time: "I was no longer breaking down and crying during my scenes. Instead, I made other girls break down....The series brought me the praise and power I craved from everyone" (294). Such an inversion of power relations is unsettling in its perpetuation of gendered abuse, and this is one of the few moments in the book where I felt uncomfortable with the lack of reflection. Significantly, these are also the films that Small is most proud of, for their creativity, her own artistic input, and the way they subverted the porn formula and inserted something new, weird, and exciting into the industry. As Small states proudly, "I will never be able to show them to my sister, but I still see them as some of my greatest achievements. I feel lucky to have been part of such a unique project. Yes, these are triple-X-rated videos, but they are more than that. Those who are open-minded will get it. They are performance art" (296). It was an experience that, Small tells me, was "total freedom -- completely reckless and disgusting, and making a complete mockery." For me, Small's attitude toward porn as art is the most invigorating and exciting aspect of the book and the area where she most brightly shines as a thinker.


Also in the hard-to-read area is the constant passive acceptance of boyfriend Tyler's abusive and manipulative behavior, which will likely have some readers wanting to grab Small and tell her to wake up, or at least critique her experiences. But in a subtle way, she does critique herself. It becomes increasingly clear as the book progresses that, with hindsight, Small understands these relationships as damaging, and recognizes the power imbalances involved with both intimate partners and industry producers. When boyfriend Tyler is attempting to push Small's boundaries to get something he wants, even something as petty as working with one of his porn idols, or further his own career, there is the constant refrain of Small's resistance, and Tyler's manipulative chorus of "'Ori, do you love me? Well, then...?'" (92). Even more unsettling is Tyler's method later in the book where it is becoming more of a struggle to persuade Small to participate in extracurricular fucking, and he resorts to accusations of Small only wanting to fuck on camera for money, never for enjoyment like they used to -- the "hooker mentality" as he puts it. Small reflects, "It always hurt my feelings when he said things like this. I wasn't really sure what I liked more, sex at home or sex in the movies. Tyler always knew where to hit me when I was feeling vulnerable. Only hookers like it more in pornos, I thought. If I like getting paid for sex more, it means I am just a prostitute" (115). Such careful meditations on the nature of sex work, even within such an abusive context, are intelligent and insightful, demonstrating Small's thoughtful consideration of what could easily have been written out as repetitive arguments and verbal abuse.

I do have a couple of nitpicky criticisms, particularly regarding the dialogue. Non-colloquial dialogue in "realistic" texts is a pet peeve of mine. It can be distracting to read dialogue that simply does not reflect how real people talk -- I'm referring to the awkward separating out of contractions and lack of inflections that render "fuckin'" "fucking." Small's prose has a certain raw style and flow to it that is interrupted by the occasionally jarring, somewhat robotic dialogue, which is a shame, but an incredibly small criticism of what is a very impressive book. Similarly, the fact that Small concludes the book in a little too tidy a fashion can be forgiven, as these minor complaints inherent to so many autobiographies are soon forgotten under the grimy hue of the book's overall impact. It's a grotesquely humorous, tragic, and disturbing book written in a blunt yet poetic style, seemingly urging you to turn away, and yet you can't. While I had to take breaks, as if periodically waking from a nightmare, I returned to the book in prolonged, intense bouts, gripped by the narrative, a curled grimace on my face throughout. This piece of literary performance art is something Small should be proud of.

As for the future, Small tells me she is unsure of her long-term plans other than she and her husband Dave's lifetime project -- a coffee table book called Old Whore. She does know that her performing career is coming to an end (though not until she's eligible for the Hall of Fame), and she plans to start work on a podcast very soon. She also asserts that "inside of my person, my soul, I'm a sculptor," adding with a laugh, "I just don't know how to sculpt yet." She is currently busy recording an audiobook of Girlvert, and the paperback is available now.


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