Sunday, January 07, 2007

Pornography: Film and Culture

Editor: Peter Lehman
Publisher: Rutgers University Press
ISBN: 0-8135-3871-8

Pornography: Film and Culture, is a compilation of thirteen essays (fourteen if one includes the editor’s introductory essay) in which British and American scholars examine pornography as social phenomenon, social critique, historical commentary and as film and literary genres. The essays are divided into two sections. The first of these, Historical Context, provides six classic essays that were published in several journals from 1980 – 1999. The second section, Current Directions, provides seven essays written specifically for inclusion in this volume.

Historical Context
The first two essays, both of which first appeared in 1980, place pornography in the social, economic and ideological climate of Great Britain as it stood at that time. These essays, which offer a dialog between two opposed views, provide a solid foundation for all of the essays that follow throughout the rest of the book. These are followed by an insightful examination of the structural parallels between feature-length pornographic films and the classic Broadway/Hollywood musical, and a critical response regarding the shortcomings of this analysis. The fifth essay examines pornography from the perspective of class analysis and discusses how pornography has been allocated the role of “white trash” relative to other film genres. The section’s final essay discusses pornography as historical, social, political and cultural commentary and as a means by which individuals define their sexual identities in accordance with or opposition to its representations.

Current Directions
The first essay in this section examines a body of pornographic literary and video texts found in Penthouse Letters. This examination is followed by a study of the transition from pornography transmitted via film technology to a video-based form, a shift that significantly affected the economics, production and distribution of pornography. Formal, technological and economic transitions of the past two centuries have been accompanied by legal challenges, which are discussed in the next essay. This legal discussion precedes an analysis of the role of comedy in pornography in which the author argues that, given pornography’s intensely personal subject matter, comedy must be, and frequently is, handled with great care. The next essay discusses the prevalence of racism, particularly with regard to Asians, in pornography. This discussion is followed by an examination of Internet pornography, which, the author contends, reinforces “white privilege” to the detriment of other groups, which are either excluded entirely (Native Americans) or denigrated by the perpetuation of longstanding, harmful stereotypes (African Americans and Asians). The book’s final essay discusses the problems that have arisen because most research on pornography does not attend to the perspectives of the millions of people who consume it. The author contends that inclusion of consumers’ perspectives would dispel, or at least counterbalance, many of the myths and misunderstandings that dominate public discussions of pornography.

Given this book’s subtitle, it is not surprising that it focuses primarily on pornography as a film genre and pays scant attention to pornographic art and literature, both of which have far longer histories than pornographic films. Given the astonishing amount of pornography that has been available historically on film and is available currently via videotapes, DVDs and the Internet, this is certainly a legitimate and fruitful area for an inquiry into pornography’s aesthetics, forms and social functions.

This is an outstanding collection of essays. The five female and eight male authors who contributed to this volume hold a range of positions regarding the aesthetic, social and personal values of pornography. Notwithstanding their individual proclivities, they all agree that pornography is a cultural phenomenon that should be examined with professional care and integrity. As they demonstrate through these essays, for better or worse, pornography plays at least four significant social roles. First, it provides insight into social and cultural attitudes regarding sexual norms at particular moments in time. Second, it serves as a powerful vehicle for promoting or excluding particular sexual practices. Third, it provides insight into race and class issues that pervade all aspects of socialization. And fourth, it provides a norm by which many individuals define and measure their sexual identities.

Readers interested in film history will benefit from reading this book, as it provides a good grounding in the development of a frequently overlooked film genre. Additionally, readers interested in sexuality studies will find much useful material here, as will readers interested in critical race, class and gender studies. On the other hand, readers offended by sexually explicit material, or material that may not align with their convictions regarding pornography’s role in society, will likely want to steer clear of it.

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