Sunday, November 18, 2012

"Are You Afraid of Me?": Joy (1977)

Hi folks! Recently, I've been interested in pornography's attitude toward female sexual agency and desire. Yeah, a pretty massive topic, I know. But, more specifically, I've been interested in how pornography (the texts, the filmmakers, the consumers) reveals its conflicted attitude toward female sexual agency in its many films that focus on a female sexual journey of some kind. These films range from The Devil in Miss Jones, to Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle, to Tori Black is Pretty Filthy, to today's focus, Joy (1977). Joy is an unusual film in terms of its plot, yet it also illuminates generic patterns in pornography (film and literature), and hence is a neat little example of what I have found to be true of much pornographic film and literature: desire for active female sexuality at the same time as conflict/dis-ease regarding the nature and extent of this desire.

The popularity of female sexual protagonists in pornography suggests there is great pleasure to be had in seeing a woman transgress the sexual social norms of her gender; sexual journeys in heterosexual pornography are most typically run through the body of a woman because such sexual adventure is more transgressive for a woman. In this way, pornography’s obsessive attention to pushing female sexual limits and the female epiphany via sexual violence or exploitation can be viewed and understood in more complicated terms than simply “men get off watching women being raped.” In Joy (1977), originally titled The Female Rapists, a young woman named Joy (Sharon Mitchell) refuses to have sex with her boyfriend, who then breaks up with her. She is later raped in her home, but has an epiphany midway through her sexual assault, demanding, “I want more!” 

She then goes about New York City on a rape spree, which causes a series of copycat rapes perpetrated by women, and Joy is eventually arrested but set free. The film is a unique example of the rape-themed pornographic sexual journey, yet representative of the genre in its conflicted attitude toward female sexual agency. This attitude is conveyed through three key moments in the film: 1) Joy’s initial rape and subsequent rape of her ex-boyfriend, 2) the police chief’s discovery of his wife’s adultery and subsequent crackdown on the female rapists, and 3) the final police action against Joy, where she is raped into submission by order of the angry and hypocritical Lt. Handcock (Jake Teague), arrested, and eventually released thanks to the sexual favours she performs on him.

In the initial scene, when Joy asks for “more” from her rapist, he leaves in bewildered fear, and Joy immediately departs and breaks into her ex-boyfriend Ricky’s apartment, where he is showering, and rapes him. This first sequence is significant in that the male aggressors are sexually turned off by Joy’s sexual aggression, and her ex-boyfriend Ricky is essentially in the same victim role as Joy: his private space is invaded while he is vulnerable and flaccid. His initial reaction is shock and disapproval. Joy has already stripped naked, and pulls the shower curtain back, prompting Ricky to cover his soft penis. “Joy! What are you doing here?” Ricky says, startled. There is a pause, in which Ricky looks at Joy carefully, shifts into indignation and disapproval, and points his finger at her: “You’re naked!”
"You're naked!"

The fellatio scene that follows tracks Ricky’s transition from disapproval of Joy’s unfeminine desire for sex to bewildered ecstasy and climax. His disapproval, in spite of his earlier cajoling of Joy, exposes the double standard held to women in terms of their sexual activity. Earlier, Ricky had tried to pressure Joy into sex, noting his primary concern is that he is “the laughing stock of the whole basketball team,” and yet in this scenario he is put off by Joy’s brazen sexual assertiveness. Not only does Ricky want Joy to be sexually desirous on his terms (in other words, in traditionally gendered terms), but also his desire for sex is entwined with his desire to please his homosocial community of the basketball team. In this way, this opening sequence demonstrates a tension on the part of male pornographic producer and consumer regarding the transgression of gender norms. This tension is further exposed when, after Ricky has ejaculated and his penis gone limp, Joy looks up at Ricky disappointed, asking, “what happened, it’s gone away!” “I need more, Ricky,” Joy explains hurriedly, “Right now. I – I can’t wait.” Joy’s disappointment is rooted in a naiveté regarding the male penis. Specifically, the penis’s inability to live up to the perpetually hard pornographic penis. Joy must have multiple penises in place of an individual penis that cannot fulfill pornographic expectations. Joy demands of men what men are traditionally supposed to demand of the pornographic woman.

Joy’s rape victims express pleasure and relief, yet nevertheless report the crime to police. This confusing plot move, and resulting contradictory impulses to celebrate the female rape spree but also investigate it as a crime, reveals an uneasiness regarding Joy and her copycat rapists. While men are indeed relieved, and violent crime rates go down, there is concern connected to the fact that women now roam the streets like zombies, and people are copulating all over the sidewalks and on peoples’ lawns.

A major turning point occurs in the film when Lt. Handcock comes home to discover his wife having sex with Phil the plumber on the kitchen table. Staring in horror, he mutters, “Oh Joy, you’re gonna get yours.” Women putting out is all well and good – up until this point, Handcock had been criticizing the rape victims for not getting Joy’s number – but when it comes to wives cheating on their husbands a line must be drawn. The female rapist spree is a positive experience until the shake-up of traditional gender roles and sexual activity becomes too transgressive. In other words, when the women start to stray from institutionalized, patriarchal, heteronormative couplings, something needs to be done. As a side note, I realized the significance of this scene – in fact, this line of dialogue – when I missed it the first time I watched the film, and came away with quite a different idea of who we as viewers were supposed to identify with. The second time I watched the film, I heard this low-spoken line of dialogue quite clearly, and instantly understood that we are meant to identify with Joy and regard Lt. Handcock as a hypocritical, sexist, and spiteful old man.

The solution to the “problems” caused by Joy, confusingly, is to rape Joy. How can the woman who wants “more, more, more” be raped? The film’s answer to this perplexing question is to invoke race. The police chief selects the black police officer, who dutifully exposes his “weapon” for the police chief to inspect and promises, “I’ll put that cunt in her place.” In a disturbing scene, he rapes Joy in a rage, calling her “Freak!...Fucking slut!,” and then arrests her. Joy avoids being charged, however, as, she seduces the hypocritical police chief while at gunpoint, asking him provocatively, “Are you afraid of me?” 
"Are you afraid of me?"
It is a question that could be asked of all the men in regard to all the women of pornography; perhaps all women in general. The film ends with Joy, banished from NYC, standing uncertainly in an airport, gazing at two sailors. Her facial expression transforms from uncertain to determined, and her pursuit of these sailors (and the other men in the bathroom) provides a sense of Joy’s intention to pursue her desires unabashed. Yet the narrative is not entirely coherent. Joy as a character is pushed and pulled in different directions throughout the film, the film unable to settle on a coherent desire between on-screen female sexuality and off-screen male visual desire. For me, this final scene was a sort of triumph for Joy; a “fuck you” to the man/men who tried to hold her down. Yet, it is still a form of defiance quite palatable to those men involved, and thus does not quite eradicate the sense that Joy has been unable to truly exercise sexual agency outside of gender norms.

All in all, if it were not immediately obvious, I found this film to be fascinating, unique, and beautifully shot. Highly recommended.


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