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The Porn Films of Summer

lovelace posterthe canyons posterdon jon poster

Sex never fails as a way to sell movie tickets, but three films hitting theaters at the end of this summer all revolve around the same central issue: porn.

Lovelace, The Canyons, and Don Jon are all Hollywood takes on porn, all debuting nationwide this August and September. This is like the porn version of 1998's great Deep Impact vs. Armageddon debacle.

These aren't the first mainstream films about the porn industry, of course (there's Boogie Nights, Humpday, Orgazmo, and Wonderland, just to name a few, plus many documentaries) but releasing three porn films in two months is curious. One reason for the sudden appearance of porn-centric cinema is, clearly, the ease with which a film about porn can feature numerous highly marketable boobs. But perhaps this uptick is also an effect of porn becoming increasingly more mainstream. As 43 percent of all internet users admit to looking at porn, it makes sense that movie studios would see this as a safe time to distribute porn-centric films without acquiring any stigma.  Since there are millions of Americans watching porn in the comfort of their homes, maybe there's a ready-made audience for porn stories and growing interest in analyzing the porn industry.

It's no surprise, but all three of these films focus on the perilous, objectifying, and exploitive aspects of mainstream porn. There's no narratives around feminist porn or ways in which porn can be empowering for the creators. In the end, porn is a simple, vulgar villain. 

The Lovelace biopic follows the life of the actress Linda Lovelace, coerced by an abusive boyfriend into starring in porn, most infamously, Deep Throat. As Bitch reviewer Monica Castillo detailed, the film has some good elements, but is heavy on graphic violence and mostly leaves out the decades of her life in which Lovelace was an activist on domestic violence and anti-porn issues, leaving viewers with the impression that Lovelace is little more than a victim.  

As for The Canyons, film critic Wesley Morris has the best-ever review of the movie over at Grantland. He sums up all you need to know about The Canyons with this line: "This is all highly watchable, but so are fires, car crashes, and humping dogs."

By almost all accounts, the film is a hit-and-miss production. As Manohla Dargis put it, the director "tries to get at something real under all the hard, glossy surfaces, but ends up caught in the divide between the movie that he seems to have wanted to make and the one he did." Instead of prompting the audience to dig deep into the emotions that drive our darker sexual desires, we're left thinking about the rather shoddy acting. 

Don Jon is different. Of the three, it does the most to honestly explore sexuality in an original way. Instead of looking at the industry through characters that are porn creators, title character Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a voracious porn consumer. As Bitch reviewer Kerensa Cadenas wrote, the film shows how Don Jon has trouble connecting with people—he uses porn as a way to experience the world and his own sexuality and enjoys watching porn even more than having real-life sex. It challenges some gender roles and points out the problems with expecting men to embody a specific type of masculinity, but it ultimately also paints porn as unhealthy. From Cadenas's review:

The film establishes itself as pretty anti-porn but doesn't widen the porn discussion to anything that isn't seen as mainstream porn. Don Jon keeps itself very much rooted in the types of clips (and they show a lot of clips) that could be used as examples in a "pornification of American culture" think piece. But there's no discussion of porn that exists outside of that, like feminist, woman-made, sex-positive porn. Jon's classmate, Esther, catches Jon watching porn on his phone in class and gives him a seventies-era Danish erotic film—but it strangely disappears from the film, never mentioned again. The film ends leaving the audience with the assumption that there isn't necessarily room for porn within a healthy sexuality. 

I wonder if the appearance of three porn-centric films so close together is just a fad, or if Hollywood will start treating porn as an area of sexuality worth seriously investigating. There are many, many films that delve into and examine sex, but it's rare to read or see any media that gets over the sensational aspect of porn and specifically illuminates what porn says about our culture, our relationships, and ourselves. These three films aim for that and succeed in some ways, but maybe now that millions of Americans are clearly watching porn on a regular basis, it's time for a new porn paradigm, where we accept porn as a regular—and potentially positive—part of everyday life and discuss it from there. 

Writer Emily Witt did this in What Do You Desire?, a recent essay for literary magazine n+1 that ruminates on love and sex while Witt goes behind the scenes at San Francisco porn empire Kink.com. The essay is long and great, but here is an excerpt that resonates for me while thinking about these three films:

I watched how my friends became anxious when the subject of porn came up. Some people enjoyed watching it as part of a daily routine. Some felt enslaved by their desire for it. Others saw their real-world sexual experiences reduced to a corny mimicry of porn, and wished they could somehow return to a time when porn was less ubiquitous, or was just soft-focus tan people having relatively unadventurous sex by a swimming pool. Since more men watch porn than women, the occasional imbalance of knowledge caused distress all around and was perceived at times as an imbalance of power. Porn made people jealous, it hurt feelings, it made them worry about whether their partners were attracted to them, or to the kind of people they watched in porn, who might have a different color hair, skin color, or bra size. Because porn loves the taboo, it was also sometimes racist and misogynist.

It's tempting to think that life before internet porn was less complicated. There are sexual acts in porn that it would not occur to many people to attempt. We have more expectations now about what kind of sex to have, and how many people should be involved, and what to say, and what our bodies should look like, than we might have at a time when less imagery of sex was available to us. But if the panoply of opportunity depicted in porn seems exaggerated, the possibilities are no less vast outside the internet. The only sexual expectation left to conform to is that love will guide us toward the life we want to live.

This is a deeper look at porn—how it can be as much as part of a healthy sexuality as it can be an exploitive media that reinforces our fears about ourselves.  There is plenty of fodder for a thoughtful film about what the porn industry means, a movie that actually does get beneath the "hard, glossy surface," but I'm not holding my breath waiting for Hollywood to produce a porn think-piece any time soon. 

Related Reading: The Virtues of Watching Feminist Porn with Strangers, Oh Joy Sex Toy's review of Crash Pad's feminist porn.


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Comments

7 comments have been made. Post a comment.

I wasn't aware The Canyons

I wasn't aware The Canyons was a film about porn. Sure, it has an actor in the lead role who's primarily known for his adult films, but I think that's the extent of it.

Pornographic acceptance costs a bitch.

It is just always hard to believe that a mag like Bitch promotes pornography of any kind. I'm personally disappointed any time I see a reference to "better porn" or "porn good for women". The new feminism sucks- look what it's been doing for women these days....absolutely nothing. The world is retrograding around you. The best thing you could do is take lessons from the 1st and 2nd waves, promoting THOSE ideals. This is why I will never buy a subscription to BITCH mag. No such thing a "feminist porn". You should be focusing on how it destroys any kind of family one could ever hope to have.

Your comment won't stop porn

In reality, there ARE women like myself who enjoy watching pornography who are feminists that are sick and tired of apologizing for being feminists because we happen to enjoy watching porn every so often. It was people like YOU who discouraged me, and many other feminist porn fans, from coming out of the "feminist porn fan closets" because of all those bullshit anti-pornography crusades of the 1980s (Yes, I am that "old"). Then, I very thankfully discovered the writings of Susie Bright and Tristan Taormino, two of the many AWESOME feminists I have ever read, who have a long history of affiliating themselves with porn, and writing about how porn and erotica are actually, surprisingly, good for feminism, not to mention empowering the sexual lives of many human beings. Then I started reading Bitch because they wrote about porn, too, without being judgmental "blowhards" telling people that they should not watch it at all, but make it part of pop culture conversations. So refreshing! Did you also know that longtime porn star Nina Hartley is a faminist? Yes, shocking, but true (do a search).

Now, just because I am a porn fan does not mean I enjoy watching it all. I personally won't watch anything graphically violent or deliberately misogynist, let alone anything with cheesy, kindergarten-level dialogue that insults my intelligence. I am also a bit tired of "shaved" bodies. I admit I am very selective in my viewing choices, as most mature, consenting, discriminating legal adult viewers of porn are.

The point of the matter is that I am very thankful that Bitch continues writing about porn without saying that it should be banned, is outright bad for feminism and society, and that it should not be watched at all. That said, it definitely needs to be part of conversations. I know Bitch's longtime stance of defending porn (I have been reading the magazine since 1999) is making people like YOU and other anti-porn activists such as Catherine MacKinnon, Gail Dines, and Robert Jensen uncomfortable. But the reality is that when some people want to ban or outlaw something, it makes those who love that something about to be banned or outlawed love it and demand it even more. Outlawing and banning pornography out-right will NOT solve feminism's persistent problems which, today, do not really have anything to do with porn at this time. It is more about basic civil liberties and the reality is that women have to live and breathe every day of their lives. The "war on women" is not bullshit at all, but a crisis that must take priority above other matters, and is also about the state of popular culture entirely, which is why this critical project must continue existing.

If YOU don't want to subscribe to Bitch at all, it is your own choice. However, I will see to it that someone else subscribes to it instead of YOU, it's a gift I want to keep on giving for many years to come.

Quick correction

I meant to say that porn star Nina Hartley is a feminist, not a faminist (yikes!). Still shocking, but true (still do a search) Oops!

Great post

Great post, but I have to admit, i laughed and I find it very ridiculous for Cadenas to suggest that Don Jon should (or could) have featured feminist pro-woman porn. LOL sorry, but straight macho dudes like the title character don't watch feminist, pro-woman, woman-made porn. Just no. LOL

But really though, sometimes porn can be damaging to relationships. There's nothing wrong or shameful in admitting that sometimes porn doesn't help a relationship. When it becomes an addiction, that's a problem. Yes, porn can be fine in a relationship, and improve relationships, and be a great catalyst for sexuality... but that's not what Don Jon is about.

enexyra

Prosferoume agores – pwlhseis – antallages kosmhmatwn,
polytimwn lithwn, rologiwn, xryses lyres, enexyra akoma
kai erga texnhs. Epishs kanoume kai dwrean ektimhseis. Se
ena aneto kai asfalh xwro boreite na erthete na syzhthsoume
anthrwpina kai na lysoume tyxon peristasiako sas oikonomiko
provlhma.

Agorazoume kosmhmata, metaxeirismena rologia kai nomismata, h
ta vazoume enexyro kai sas dinoume xrhmata amesws. Me tous
kalyterous orous prosferoume agores – pwlhseis – antallages
kosmhmatwn, polytimwn lithwn, rologiwn, xryses lyres, enexyra
akoma kai erga texnhs. Epishs kanoume kai dwrean ektimhseis.

Sthn agora paliwn kosmhmatwn exoume megalh empeiria kai gnwseis
giati eimaste palioi texnites. Eimaste ena apo ta
enexyrodaneisthria poy leitourgoyn me kratikh adeia kai
boreite na mas exete apolyth empistosynh. H exemytheia einai
gia mas xrysos kai o skopos mas einai h oso to dynaton
kalyterh kai symferousa eksyphrethsh sas. Dynatoi gia na sas
eksyphretoyme, eilikrinhs gia na sas prostateyoume.
Enexyra Athina

Don Jon Is one of my favorite Movie!

Everyone loves what you guys tend to be up too. This kind of clever work and reporting!Keep up the terrific works guys LOL. :)
Don Jon Is one of my favorite Movie! You cant say it porn haha.

Rash Ed,
Clipping Path
Clipping Path India