Race and Pornography
Race and Pornography
The Dilemma of the (Un)Desirable
Abstract and Keywords
Antipornography feminists have long argued against pornography on the basis of its racist representations of women of color. More recently, however, other academics and pornographers have advanced arguments to rehabilitate (especially non-mainstream) pornographic representations of race as sites of resistance and pleasure. This chapter presents and criticizes three such arguments. On the one hand, pornography has the potential to expand and transform the standards of what is beautiful, desirable, and pleasurable to include those in the bottom ranks of racialized and gendered hierarchies. However, pornography makes use of race always at the risk of reinforcing patriarchal and racist standards of desire. These risks and rewards represent the double-edged sword of pornography’s critical role in the shaping of sexuality. The chapter concludes that we cannot in a principled way condemn or militate against pornography merely on the basis of its racial/ist representations.
Race and pornography have a long history, albeit one that has received little attention in analytic philosophy. Cogent analyses of racism in pornography, including some by the most prominent black feminists of our time, have served as important arrows in the antipornography feminists’ quiver. Alice Walker, for instance, published a short story entitled “Porn” (1981) portraying the devastating effects of black men’s consumption of pornography on black women. Patricia Hill Collins (2000) used the case of the “Hottentot Venus” to trace black women’s historical and ongoing treatment as pornographic objects exploited for simultaneous sexual and economic gain. Audre Lorde positioned the erotic and the pornographic as diametrically opposed, condemning the latter as “sensation without feeling” (1984, 54). Similar arguments have been revived by contemporary antipornography feminists (cf. Dines 2010). Recently, however, other scholars have complicated this condemnation of racial representations in pornography, arguing for greater recognition of the ways in which women of color in pornography exert agency in contesting and manipulating the use of their racial identities, and of the racialized pleasures available to women of color themselves as performers and viewers. This goes hand in hand with the ascendance of pornography produced by feminists, people of color, queer, disabled, and other marginalized groups—a development that cannot be ignored by theorists and critics of pornography. However, the proliferation of mainstream pornography on (p.178) the Internet and its absorption into ordinary contemporary life and culture merit continued critical scrutiny. In this chapter, I present and criticize three main arguments advanced by academics and pornographers who have worked to rehabilitate pornographic representations of race, and I argue that none can fully succeed in allaying the concerns raised by antipornography feminists. However, I contend, the (perhaps surprising) upshot of their arguments is that we cannot in a principled way regulate or militate against pornography merely on the basis of its racial/ist representations.
9.2. Racial Stereotypes: Resistance, Capitalization, and Recapitulation
Feminist scholars of pornography such as Celine Parreñas Shimizu (2007) and Mireille Miller-Young (2014) who engage closely with pornographic texts and performers have made important interventions in the literature by bringing to light how women of color exercise agency and resistance even when they work under exploitative conditions and when their performances may be used in oppressive ways. Their work functions as a corrective to the ways in which “black women appear … as evidence of agency’s absence” in other analyses of pornography (Nash 2014, 21), under the assumption that racist representations are so damaging that the women of color in them can only be understood as victims. Both theorists recognize that Asian American, black, and other women of color are inescapably linked with hypersexualized racial stereotypes, but they reveal the ways in which these stereotypes can be resisted or can even function as potential resources that women of color are sometimes able to exploit for their own ends.
One way that women of color exhibit agency is in their choices and self-understandings of the roles they are offered. Jeannie Pepper, one of the earliest and most famous black porn stars, explains in an interview with Miller-Young how she turned down the role of a maid, as well as a scene involving Ku Klux Klan members, but accepted a role in the same film as “voodoo woman” because its elaborate costuming and makeup made her feel glamorous. Another performer, Sasha Brabuster, asserts, “I choose movies that put me in a positive light that will market me in all positive ways” and deliberately chooses not to perform in hip-hop porn in favor of “Big Beautiful Women” and “Busty” genres (Miller-Young 2014, 165). Other women negotiate their choice (p.179) of roles differently, viewing them not so much as opportunities to preserve their integrity but as instrumental means to their long-term ends.1 Porn performer Sinnamon Love declares: “I’m not afraid to be in, you know, Black Street Hookers. Whatever, I don’t care. The title is a title is a title. But because that is all that there is, and this is what I want to do. That’s a choice I have to make. It funds my other projects. It allows me to continue.” Outside of performing in porn, Love has appeared on talk shows and academic panels and participated in activist work around issues of rape, HIV/AIDS, and sexual health (Miller-Young 2014, 147). More generally, Miller-Young found that many of the performers she interviewed self-consciously seek industry fame in order to establish self-ownership of their sexual labor, direct their own work, or move into mainstream entertainment. Vanessa Blue, a success story of just this sort, explains: “I’m an owner. I run my own business, I run several websites. I shoot. I do everything, top to bottom. And I want to do it because I want other girls to see that they can do it too” (Miller-Young 2014, 203). Blue states explicitly that, despite the fact that her “fans will not want to hear this,” her work as a performer “was a means to an end, and the end was to direct” (Miller-Young 2014, 270).
However, women of color can also demonstrate resistance in the very performance of hypersexualized racial stereotypes. Even as they are ostensibly enacting stereotypes, women of color are sometimes able to express strength and control in ways that disrupt their sexual objectification. Parreñas Shimizu, for instance, describes a scene from a gonzo film on sex tourism in Southeast Asia as follows: “[T]he girl in question dances for [the white male filmmaker’s] gaze by looking boldly, directly, and unflinchingly at the camera. It is an intense physical experience to watch her gaze. For me, her gaze rejects his commodification, as if she wants not only to witness but reject his eclipse of her person” (2007, 204). Parreñas Shimizu (2007, 207) finds further evidence of the performer’s “authorship in adjusting her visual self-presentation” in the way she sticks out her tongue at the camera, and uses it to fix her hair and examine her reflection, all the while ignoring the voiceover and actions of the filmmaker during sex (2007, 222). As Parreñas Shimizu points out in a discussion of Miss Saigon (which is not pornography but involves scenes of sex tourism that critics liken to “soft porn”), each performance requires (p.180) actresses to actively make choices. Actress J. Elaine Marcos describes her execution of a choreographed crotch grab: “I do it vigorously because I am saying to myself, in a sense, ‘I got balls! I want to show everyone else up!’ ” (Parreñas Shimizu 2007, 47). Marcos further contextualizes the move within her personal interpretation of the characters’ emotional lives, ascribing to them the self-empowering narrative that “it is a bad life but a party too” (Parreñas Shimizu 2007, 47).
In a far less benign example, Miller-Young analyzes a scene—the one Pepper refused to be in—in which a black woman has sex with two men dressed in the white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. Yet even in this “obsessive, fetishistic replaying of a racial trauma,” Miller-Young finds that the performer’s acting is “full of vocalizations, expressions of pleasure, and gestures that affirm she is in control of the scene” (2014, 128–129). She writes: “In confidently asserting that she ‘ain’t afraid of no ghosts,’ [the performer] denies their power … and undermines the official construction of the fantasy as one of coerced sex” (2014, 128). Because performers must always exercise imagination, discretion, and skill in order to “occupy their roles and fill them with specific choices” (Parreñas Shimizu 2007, 47), they are able to author and execute interpretations of their characters that counter straightforwardly stereotypical narratives. Indeed, performers’ own interpretations of their work extend to quite radical forms of feminist contestation. Annabel Chong, for instance, who started performing as an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, both proposed and starred in the film The World’s Biggest Gangbang. Chong identifies as a feminist who sees her work as empowering women to embrace their own nonnormative sexual perversities, and who, when “asked why she has sex with so many men … answers ‘why not’ matter-of-factly” (Parreñas Shimizu 2007, 179).
Parreñas Shimizu’s discussion of Chong’s work in particular, however, exposes the limitations of these strategies of resistance, three of which I will emphasize here. First, the likelihood that women of color’s resistance will actually lead to improved outcomes is small. As Parreñas Shimizu points out, the central premise of the documentary Sex: The Annabel Chong Story is the irresolvable ambiguity between interpreting Chong as a feminist pioneer or an exploited victim. The film exposes not only her personal history of having survived a gang rape, but also the vast economic disparities between Chong and the wealthy producers of her film, underscored by the fact that she was never even paid for her work—work that her director boasts was the “best-selling video in porn history” (Parreñas Shimizu 2007, 178–179). This ambiguity is reflected in Chong’s own (p.181) performance, which Parreñas Shimizu interprets as Chong’s being deliberately unreliable, such that her “facial expression of pain cannot serve as factual evidence of her oppression when the facial expression of pleasure looks similar” (2007, 178). Parreñas Shimizu concludes from this that we are never in a position to speak for Chong and other women, but only to “speak nearby,” and that we must therefore be mindful of their fundamental “unknowability as subjects and the unreliability of representation as a process” (2007, 187).2 I take this to mean that, however frustrating it may be to scholars (especially philosophers), the unknowability of actual women of color’s choices and experiences sets a hard outer limit on what we can say with certainty about the moral status of their work. However (as Parreñas Shimizu acknowledges), the unknowability and unreliability entail equally that women of color’s resistance to racial stereotypes is likely to go unrecognized. This is particularly so for the overwhelmingly more typical viewers of pornography: viewers who are not scholars treating pornography as text, are not reading against the grain, and have no special concern for—and indeed may be invested in not—detecting women’s agency in their performances. We therefore still have great reasons to be concerned about the racial meanings taken up by the uncritical (often white, male, etc.) viewer. Moreover, even critical viewers disagree about the success of such resistance. Ariane Cruz (2010), for instance, interprets the remark about ghosts in the Ku Klux Klan scene as an instance of the film’s persistent portrayal of black women as ignorant and unintelligent, and her fictional pleasure in the encounter as reinforcing the stereotype that black women cannot be raped because they are always sexually willing.
Second, while it is undoubtedly true that women of color exercise agency in their work as porn performers, that agency remains severely constrained. One of Miller-Young’s interview subjects, Lola Lane, describes how her attempts to emulate glamorous porn stars by investing in her own “glittery and fancy” tailor-made costumes were undermined by an industry in which she was regularly consigned to “ghetto porn” roles where she was made to undertake degrading roles. Lane narrates one of these occasions: “And the director, he said, ‘You are not coming [across] ghetto enough,’ and I said well, ‘I’m not ghetto!’ And [he said], ‘You’re an actress, so act,’ and I said ‘Okay’ ” (Miller-Young 2014, 234). Other interview subjects recounted experiences in which their work was (p.182) appropriated without their consent, for example when a performer’s belly pendant was digitally altered to show a Ku Klux Klan symbol, or when scenes were later titled with racist and misogynistic comments (Miller-Young 2014, 248).
A third limitation is that differently positioned women are differentially able (or unable) to make use of the strategies in question, reflecting still-dominant hierarchies of racial valorization and devaluation. I find it striking, for instance, that Parreñas Shimizu’s central exemplars of porn performers who successfully exerted agency both decided eventually to quit the industry.3 Annabel Chong announced her retirement by declaring that “Annabel is dead” and revealing that she had been “surreptitiously going to computer boot camp to pick up some skills” for a career in web development and design. It is difficult to imagine that other women of color who do not similarly benefit from the “model minority” myth attaching to Asian American women, or who did not come from the same educational and class backgrounds, would be able to orchestrate exits as smooth as Chong’s. Moreover, roles that are turned down by the likes of Jeannie Pepper and Sasha Brabuster often get taken up by newer performers with less leverage and greater need, in ways that undermine the collective bargaining power of black women as a whole (Miller-Young 2014, 238). And even though Miller-Young ultimately concludes her discussion of women of color’s aspirations for fame in the industry by valorizing their role in maintaining black women’s sense of self-understanding and possibility, her conclusion seems rather pale in comparison to the analysis that immediately precedes it:
Because of the massive and cyclic disposability of performers in the adult industry, the reality is that the promise of fame is elusive, if not altogether an illusion that serves to make workers hyperexploitable … The very thing that these performers hope and strive for undermines their dreams and makes their desires impossible to fully achieve. (Miller-Young 2014, 224)
In short, while it is important not to overlook the agency and resistance of actual women of color against an industry trading in hypersexualized racial stereotypes, the fuller and more ambiguous pictures of these women’s lives remain far from unproblematic.
Another argument advanced by feminist pornographers and porn theorists is that pornography plays a crucial role in what Joan Morgan calls the “politics of pleasure”—that is, the project of recovering the history of black women’s pleasure. Morgan says in a 2013 interview:
I believe that pleasure has always existed, it had to have existed, even in the Middle Passage or we simply could not have survived as a people. What I think though is that those stories get sacrificed to the agendas of racism, sexism or misogyny. Intellectually, my job as a feminist and a scholar is to unearth and reframe those stories so that there actually is some attention to pleasure. (Morgan 2013, 2)
Within this framework, pornography—both alternative and mainstream—can be viewed as having important value in virtue of the pleasures it affords to women of color, both as performers and consumers. Unlike my earlier examples of performances “against the grain” that challenge the straightforward stereotypical meanings of their assigned racialized roles, Jennifer Nash (2014) provides a reading of a scene from the “Golden Age” of pornography in Anthony Spinelli’s 1978 film Sexworld that goes “with the grain” in order to emphasize black women’s own pleasure in performing a racialized sexual identity. In the film, guests at a sex resort are promised that their deepest sexual fantasies will be identified and fulfilled. When Roger, a white man, opens his door to find Jill, a black woman, he initially mistakes her for cleaning staff. Upon realizing that she has been paired with him by the resort, Roger reacts with revulsion; however, Jill is able to persuade him—in part by emphasizing her racial difference and by adopting an exaggeratedly stereotypical racial manner of speaking—to have what turns out to be a highly enjoyable sexual encounter for both. For evidence of this pleasure, Nash points among other things to the fact that Jill is portrayed throughout as a paying guest at the exclusive resort, there for the purpose of achieving her own sexual satisfaction. She writes:
While Roger’s money shot and his pleas for another evening at the resort become emblematic of his pleasures, Jill’s suggestive smile reveals her own pleasures—which include exposing Roger to the imagined distinctiveness of the black female body and performing black female hyperlibidinousness for her own pleasure. Indeed, her knowing glance at the camera (much like (p.184) her cocked eyebrow4 during their sexual encounter) indicates Jill’s active and pleasurable participation in the racialized sexual scene. (Nash 2014, 97)
Nash thus argues that the conscious performance of racialized stereotypes—of racial sexual difference—is a source of pleasure to both. She also makes the bolder claim that racial stereotypes are in some sense necessary for Jill’s own pleasure-seeking because they provide her with an “essential lexicon of desire” for “naming and claiming pleasures” without which she might not be able to access them (Nash 2014, 105–106). Jill, for instance, responds to Roger’s query, “What are you supposed to do for me?,” with exaggerated black vernacular5: “Me, I provides entertainment, sir.” When he subsequently commands her, “You’re supposed to have such rhythm, do a little dance!” (Nash 2014, 91), she responds in rhyme with a list of the beautiful and sexually appealing traits of her racialized body: “These thighs, don’t these thighs make your peter rise? And this ass, ain’t this a class ass?” (Nash 2014, 94).
As Nash points out, Jill relies on racial stereotypes to affirm her blackness, the very property Roger initially rejects: in particular, the beauty and allure of blackness that despite himself he cannot help but be struck by. Along similar lines, Miller-Young describes Sahara’s performance in the Ku Klux Klan scene as an “agentive sexual performance that presents the possibility of black women’s own fantasies of racial-sexual domination” (2014, 129). The idea here is that Black women and their capacities for pleasure are not detachable from their specific socio-historical contexts, so some of the pleasures available to and longed for by black women are precisely those that depend on racializing structures and meanings.6 While Nash readily acknowledges that pleasure often functions as a tool by which the oppressed are made to identify with their own oppression, and hence disavows any attempt to claim that these pleasures are automatically transgressive or good pleasures to have, she insists upon recognizing their existence, if only as an illustration of how race “maintains its hold on all of our individual and collective imaginations” (Nash 2014, 106). In analyzing these “race-pleasures,” she aims to challenge the notion that (p.185) only a false consciousness or pathology of the oppressed could generate such pleasure, clearing space for the possibility that there could be other “pleasures in blackness” that—although inextricable from long histories of domination and pain—are genuine pleasures (Nash 2014, 86).
Nash’s excavation of these pleasures in the performance of pornography is usefully paired with Parreñas Shimizu’s, who identifies them in the viewing of pornography. Parreñas Shimizu describes her own contradictory experiences as an Asian American woman: seduced and enthralled by personally viewing images of herself as sexually alluring, but affronted and threatened when hypersexuality is projected onto her from the outside. Parreñas Shimizu recognizes this same ambivalence during a performance of Miss Saigon in which she is scolded by another Filipina woman for laughing and disrupting the show. The latter clearly identifies with the romantic plotline, despite the problematic meanings it generates for Asian American women (e.g., their relegation to positions of inferiority relative to white women). Parreñas Shimizu realizes that in so doing, the woman is not automatically a passive receiver of her own stereotyping; rather, the woman is taking an active stance in claiming a certain kind of pleasure from racial identification. Moreover, there is no single viewpoint of “the Asian American woman” that can be assumed to speak for all Asian American women. Parreñas Shimizu thus seeks to validate the pleasures that Asian American women may experience in their hypersexualization, dissolving the shame and guilt felt by those with pleasurable responses. In uncovering and legitimizing these race-pleasures, Nash and Parreñas Shimizu reject conceptions of pornography and pleasure that take the enjoyment of viewing hypersexualized racial images to be the exclusive property of the white male gaze. Such analyses of women’s pleasures, I believe, grow increasingly important as the viewership of pornography increasingly does include of women of color.
These explorations of female pleasure in racialized sexuality are particularly important when juxtaposed with a “respectability politics” that continues to exert a potent effect on the lives of black and other women of color. Because women of color are hypersexualized as “naturally” promiscuous and as having excessive or deviant sexualities, they must expend extra effort in order to appear “respectable”—to conform to traditional normative expectations of women’s sexuality. The deeply problematic implications of respectability politics have been sharply criticized by the black feminist tradition that Joan Morgan dubs “hip hop feminism” (Durham, Cooper, and Morris 2013). These negative repercussions are obvious in the case of pornography. First, women who engage in pornography and (p.186) sex work are stigmatized and rejected, not just by dominant racialized groups but also within their own racial community, in ways that reinforce existing class divides. Second, in part due to the fear of such devaluation from without and within, women of color do not have the freedom to fully explore their own sexual selves. These pressures of respectability politics are compounded by the ubiquitousness of hypersexualized controlling images of the jezebel, the (ghetto) “ho,” the lotus blossom, Dragon Lady, and so on (Miller-Young 2014, 170). In a highly racially segregated society wherein most people have little to no intimate interracial contact in actual life, representations of women of color—especially sexual representations—become particularly crucial. As has often been noted in other contexts (e.g. underrepresentation in academia), women of color face what Miller-Young (2014, 170) calls a “constant burden of representation” in which they must always contend with the fact that their individual actions will be construed as representative of their entire racialized group—that is, as potentially vindicating racist stereotypes. This can produce a form of epistemic violence that Kristie Dotson (2011) calls “testimonial smothering,” in which a person must keep certain parts of her testimony silent from incompetent hearers who will inevitably interpret them in damaging and stereotypical ways. As Jeannie Pepper puts it, “You are not supposed to talk about liking sex because you are already assumed to be a whore” (Miller-Young 2014, 1).
Pornography, then, is a way for some women to free themselves from a “sexual smothering” and throw off the twin weights of respectability politics and the burden of representation. This is voiced by Sinnamon Love, who ventured into BDSM and fetish work for the more glamorous opportunities that were denied to her in the hip-hop, ghetto, and gonzo genres traditionally populated by black women. Confronted with the accusation that being submissively tied up was “setting black people back 200 years,” Love defends her work by claiming that it “is about sexual pleasure, and her performance helps uncover black people’s forbidden desires to be freer to explore sex without the constant burden of representation” (Miller-Young 2014, 170). As Asian American actress Sandra Oh demands (in a nonpornographic context): “If you’re going to have to be the whore to the left, are you going to be the whore to the left with a good fuckin’ story? And if you are, then you tell that story the way you want to do it” (Parreñas Shimizu 2007, 45). In other words, women of color are damned if they do and damned if they don’t—either they perpetuate hypersexualized stereotypes or cut off a source of sexual pleasures—and there is no easy way out of the double-bind. Thus, some choose to perform in, view, and enjoy (p.187) racialized pornography that affords them a chance more fully to develop their sexual agency.
As in the last section, however, I am not convinced that such arguments from women’s pleasures can assuage deep-seated concerns about the potentially “deformed” nature of these desires and pleasures. Miller-Young, for example, is far more skeptical about the scene from Sexworld (described earlier): she claims that “Jill’s own desires remain invisible” and wonders whether it is genuinely possible to create a “world of fantasy free of limits” when “racism is inevitably sutured to the modern unconscious” (2014, 96). Her reading of the scene is as an enactment of the myth that white men “do not willingly cross racial borders” but do so only when black women tempt and demand it of them, and she questions whether the actress playing Jill was truly “down with the joke,” as was claimed by the white actor playing Roger (Miller-Young 2014, 101). These murkier possibilities can never be entirely dispelled. Thus, I claim, the negative feelings that accompany some women’s enjoyment of their own hypersexualization may be warranted insofar as these pleasures depend on implicit notions of racial difference that inevitably serve to perpetuate racial oppression. Let me emphasize that I am in no sense blaming women for experiencing such pleasures, nor am I questioning their commitment to feminist and antiracist politics. Even in the absence of false consciousness, these may not be morally good pleasures. And even if they are—though I hesitate to put too utilitarian a gloss on this—it is likely that these race-pleasures are few and far between, while the continued damage of hypersexualized racial stereotypes in pornography is much more pervasive and assured.
9.4. Making the “Undesirable” Desirable
Perhaps the most promising argument for pornographic racial representations is the claim that such representations have a special political role to play in destabilizing narrow, stigmatizing, and otherwise oppressive standards of beauty and attractiveness (cf. Maes, Chapter 10 in this volume). Anne Eaton (Chapter 12 in this volume), for instance, argues that antipornography feminists have failed to recognize that their arguments against pornography actually constitute a double-edged sword. They argue that pornography is responsible for the eroticization of violence, dominance, and inequality—that is, for the affective, emotional, motivational, and embodied attraction to violence, domination, and inequality experienced by (p.188) people quite apart from their cognitive beliefs and explicitly endorsed attitudes toward others. Because of its particular vivacity and capacity to evoke erotic responses, pornography powerfully shapes what Eaton calls “erotic taste”—that is, the preferences for certain physical traits, personality, manner, and comportment, and so forth that render others sexually attractive to a given individual. What makes pornography particularly pernicious, then, is that it trains people’s erotic tastes and not just their beliefs. In line with much of contemporary social psychology, Eaton argues that mere doxastic commitment to feminist, antiracist, and other anti-oppressive politics is ultimately insufficient for overcoming oppression; instead, what is required is that people’s erotic tastes are shaped through Aristotelian habituation so as to fall in line with—rather than undermine—their egalitarian commitments. But this, Eaton points out, means that pornography may actually play a necessary role in retraining people’s erotic tastes. If pornography causes the eroticization of violence, dominance, and inequality, then pornography—at least feminist and alternative pornography—is also our best hope for the eroticization of consent, mutual respect, and equality.
Analogously, if certain oppressed and marginalized groups have been deemed aesthetically and sexually unappealing, then pornography depicting members of such groups as erotically desirable performs an especially important function in destigmatizing and normalizing such bodies in the way required for genuine social equality. A number of self-identified feminist pornographers and consumers of feminist pornography describe their projects in just these terms. Clinical psychotherapist Keiko Lane (2013), for instance, describes an Asian American transgender patient who was struggling with feelings of shame, despair, and doubt about transitioning. After watching pornography featuring Asian American transgender performers, he expressed astonishment and pleasure at the fact that “someone like [him]” could be found sexually attractive (Lane 2013, 176). In a society where multiply marginalized subjects hardly find themselves represented at all, let alone in a positive light (and where Asian men in particular hold relatively low erotic capital), pornography provides transformative, positive representations of sexuality that may otherwise be difficult to access. Similarly, Loree Erickson (2013) experiences the performance of pornography—her depiction of herself as a sexual, desiring, and pleasure-seeking person—as a powerful antidote to the shame she might otherwise feel as a disabled woman. Being represented sexually is for her especially significant in light of prevailing stereotypes that desexualize people with disabilities, depicting them as unable or unworthy of reproductive, romantic, and recreational sex.
(p.189) Returning to the Sexworld scene, this appears to be an instance in which pornography is put to the use of transforming racialized standards of sexual attractiveness. A black woman who is initially deemed sexually undesirable is subsequently found to be highly desirable, to the point where Roger is seen at the end of the film trying to bribe the bus driver into allowing him to return to Sexworld for another encounter with her. It is particularly worth pointing out here that when Roger initially rejects Jill as a sexual partner, he attempts—rather unsuccessfully—to claim that his distaste for her is not grounded in racist attitudes, but mere personal preference. The film’s refusal to accept Roger’s denial of racism, demonstrated through Jill’s explicit challenge for Roger to “prove his spigot ain’t no bigot” (Nash 2014, 90), is thus an endorsement of Eaton’s point that overcoming oppression requires eliminating not only explicitly endorsed oppressive beliefs and attitudes, but also oppressive erotic tastes. As these examples demonstrate, pornography as a creative medium of representation has the potential to depict otherwise stigmatized, desexualized, and “undesirable” individuals as desirable—through bodily and erotic interventions that transcend intellectual argumentation. This potential has already been harnessed in productive ways by black women pornographers who have “challenged structural inequalities, altered the material conditions of labor, constructed new sites of distribution and spectatorship, and inspired new audiences while inventing novel images of black female sexuality” in what Cruz (2014, 225) describes simultaneously as a “new” pornography (in dual senses: it is both recent and interventionist) but also as a continuation of black women’s long tradition of resistance against negative representation.
Nevertheless, I think it would be too hasty to conclude that pornography representing women of color as sexually desirable is always a good thing, even in pornography that is not overtly misogynist or racist. My concerns derive from the way that systems of racial oppression subsume and rely on patterns of erotic taste in order to preserve mechanisms of racial domination. In particular, I contend, these patterns tend to generate a dilemma in which pornographic representations of racial difference constantly risk reinforcing patriarchal, racist, and otherwise oppressive standards of desire along the twin poles of fetishization and tokenization.
The fetishization of racial difference is the natural upshot of a racist ideology in which whiteness is normalized and valorized over all other races. Consider, for example, what is popularly called “yellow fever,” a strong preference for (usually East and Southeast) Asian American women. (p.190) Despite the fact that white people are far more likely to date within than outside their race, there is no comparable term for “white fever.” Choosing to date only nonwhites is a kind of deviation. Being labeled or experiencing oneself as deviant, however, is generally very unpleasant. Hence adopting the moniker of “yellow fever,” “jungle fever,” and so forth furnishes a ready-made identity that legitimizes racialized sexual preference.7 Of course, identities can be devised and fashioned by individuals, but they must be recognized by others in the surrounding community. What I suggest, then, is that pornography—in particular, the unprecedentedly “made-to-order” and widely available nature of Internet pornography—plays a central role in licensing the self-identification with and public recognition of racialized sexual preferences like yellow fever. And just as consumers develop particular brand loyalties with which they self-identify, I propose, consumers of certain kinds of pornography begin to self-identify as having certain (increasingly exclusive) sexual preferences.
Pornography as a market industry presents a menu of options, a premade set of categories, that provides a vocabulary for conceptualizing and making sense of one’s sexual life. (Indeed, in our culture it is for many people the only resource available for the exploration and formation of sexual identity.) Moreover, pornography as an industry has financial incentives to encourage its consumers to develop specific erotic tastes that will translate into discernible and exploitable patterns of consumption. The more categories of pornography there are, the more profit there is to be generated by enticing consumers to sample something new and different. Cruz writes: “[T]he specific designations within porn—racial, fetish, sexual preferences—are all about as [porn performer and director Diana] Devoe8 notes, ‘selling a fantasy,’ and the need to categorize (in order to market and sell) these specific fantasies” (2010, 160). This sort of market pressure is one reason (among others) that women of color in pornography are almost inevitably prone to being portrayed in terms of their racial difference—in other words, in a fetishizing manner. As Gail Dines (p.191) writes: “In all-white porn, no one ever refers to the man’s penis as ‘a white cock’ or the woman’s vagina as ‘white pussy,’ but introduce a person of color, and suddenly all players have a racialized sexuality” (2010, 123). This fetishization of racial difference promotes the hypersexualized objectification of women of color.
On the flip side, however, other problems emerge when racial difference is trivialized as no more than superficial phenotypic difference. A common defense of yellow fever—and racialized sexual preferences more generally—is that they are merely “personal” or “aesthetic” preferences. This defense neglects the effects of such preferences on Asian American women themselves, who more often than not testify to the offensive, “deal-breaking,” and even traumatizing experiences they are subject to from men with yellow fever (Zheng 2016).9 It also ignores the fact that racial difference is organized according to strict hierarchies of valuation. Miller-Young’s interviews with black women porn performers, for instance, expose a “systemic color hierarchy” in which dark-skinned black women are excluded from job opportunities in favor of light-skinned black women, and black women are paid substantially less—sometimes half as much—as white women (2014, 246). On this tokenizing view of racial difference, race has value only insofar as it adds a bit—but not too much—of variety and exoticism to the normative white female body. Says bell hooks: “Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (hooks 1992, 21). However, that “spice” must not be too overpowering. This is evidenced in the way that Jennifer Jackson, Playboy’s first black “Playmate of the Month” after 12 years of production, was presented with a conspicuous lack of racial identity or mention of her historic status, thus rendering her race utterly “neutralized” and revealing how Playboy was “deeply invested in the invention of Jackson’s sameness” (Cruz 2010, 33).
This is the dilemma of the (un)desirable: women of color whose bodies deviate too far from narrow standards of idealized white beauty are utterly devalued, while those who conform closely enough are still subject to standards with respect to which they are inherently disadvantaged. As Sinnamon Love puts it: “African American women on screen were put into one of two categories: assimilated to appear as close to white as possible (‘they are almost one of us’) or completely ghettoized to reflect debased images of Black culture (it doesn’t matter because ‘they are only (p.192) one of them’)” (2013, 99). Erotic representations of women of color, then, either fetishize racial difference in debasing ways or else trivialize it in ways that reinforce rather than transform dominant standards of sexual attractiveness.10
9.5. If You Can’t Beat Them …
I hope to have shown in my previous arguments that if there exists a fine line between resistance and recapitulation, transgressive and regressive pleasures, fetishization and tokenization, it must be almost impossibly difficult to walk. At the same time, excluding women of color from pornography would be an even more serious problem, since it would stigmatize such women as not sexually desirable. In short, I contend, when it comes to race and pornography, the larger dilemma is that there is no way to win.11 Where does this leave us with respect to the question of race and pornography? Faced with this dilemma, there are no easy answers. My own conclusion is that the arguments I have considered show that we cannot in a principled way argue against pornography per se on the grounds of its racism, and that we would do better to focus our criticism on the specific uses of pornographic tokens in specific works.
The first point in favor of this conclusion is a simple one, made long ago by advocates of feminist and alternative pornography: pornography is not a monolithic entity. The morally relevant features of different pornographic works differ so greatly that it is inherently misleading to talk of ‘pornography’ rather than ‘pornographies’ in the context of ethical critique. Indeed, my examples in the previous section show that feminist and alternative pornographies have now achieved enough success that we can no longer ignore their achievements.
My second point relies on close readings of actual pornographic texts and conversations with women of color who perform in, view, and enjoy pornography: pornography affords multiple and conflicting interpretations. There is no single, objective way to walk what Nash (2014, 109) calls the “tightrope that threatens to entrench precisely what it aspires to uproot,” because different viewers draw that line in different places. This is because of the individual agency involved in the process of “accommodation” that is necessarily involved in the act of (pornographic) viewership, which (p.193) Jennifer Wicke describes as “the shuffling and collating and transcription of images or words so that they have effectivity within one’s own fantasy universe—an act of accommodation, as it were … [that] will often entail wholesale elimination of elements of the representation, or changing salient features within it” (2004, 181). Interpretation and accommodation are ineradicable features of engaging with pornographic representation, and they produce multiple and conflicting grounds for ethical evaluation even among critical scholars of pornography like those I have presented here.
What follows from these two points is that, just as it has not been possible to find a clear and principled line of demarcation between erotica and pornography, it is not possible to cleanly separate “good” and “bad” pornography (cf. van Brabandt, Chapter 11 in this volume). For even bad pornography can be “queered” in ways that provide pleasure to the accommodating viewer. For example, Jane Ward, a self-described “feminist dyke and a professor of women’s studies,” describes her enjoyment of a college reality porn series in which male students engage in feminizing and homoerotic rituals in order to gain entry into fraternities:
It turns out that I don’t have only an intellectual interest in these scenarios; I think they’re hot. I am impressed by the imagination required to manufacture them, the complex rules that structure them, and the performative and ritualistic way that straight men touch one another’s bodies or order others to do so. (Ward 2013, 136)
I hasten to add that it does not follow from this that there are no grounds for criticizing particular pornographic works, or that “whatever gets you off, gets you off.” But it does mean that different people may engage in the same work in more or less ethical ways, and we should be prepared for inevitable disagreement with reasonable others. As the editors of The Feminist Porn Book write in their introduction: “Because [feminist porn] is born out of a feminism that is not one thing but a living, breathing, moving creation, it is necessarily contested—an argument, a polemic, and a debate” (Taormino et al. 2013, 18; emphasis mine). We may ground specific critiques in arguments that certain roles, narratives, and tropes have a high likelihood of being taken up unethically. But we must remain aware of the possibility that for any given act, scene, or trope—even those involving racist stereotypes or historical racial traumas—fantasy may be executed more or less well or badly, in ways that facilitate or hinder this kind of ethical accommodation. Rather than argue for or against pornography, then, we would do better to engage more closely with actual pornographic texts and their (p.194) producers in order to understand the risks and rewards involved in particular pornographic elements and works, as well as the conditions under which different viewers may differentially experience those risks and rewards.
I have argued that potential benefits of racial representations in pornography are always accompanied by serious risks. Engaging with hypersexualized stereotypes, even for the purpose of resistance, often further entrenches those stereotypes. Trying to exploit the exploiters can deepen one’s own exploitation. Race-pleasures might be unavoidably morally bad pleasures. And even though representations of race in pornography have the potential to transform conventional standards of desirability, they always run the risk of either fetishizing or trivializing racial difference. At this point, one might object that, given all these risks and rewards, the risks seem to outweigh the rewards. If race-pleasures are always accompanied by race-trauma, and if our feminist and antiracist interpretations always require (extensive) accommodation, then why bother? To conclude, let me attempt a simple reply: it asks too much of us—particularly the most marginalized, like the women of color in the porn industry whose views I have drawn upon in this chapter—to give up pleasures in a world where far too little (sexual) pleasure is available. In a world so thoroughly and deeply structured by white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalist exploitation, ableism, and other oppressions, morally pure pleasures are hard to come by. To illustrate, consider an analogy with an example from another context: legislation that prohibits families receiving government assistance from using the funds toward massage and nail salons, video arcades and movie theaters, swimming pools and theme parks, or that prohibits using food stamps to purchase shellfish (State of Kansas Legislature 2015, 9; State of Wisconsin Legislature 2015, 3). The clear message, implicitly assumed by many even when not codified by law, is that these families do not deserve pleasure and enjoyment until they have set their own (financial) houses in order, as it were. However, the bill utterly ignores the multiplicity of ways in which these families struggle to do so given significant structural constraints (e.g., high unemployment in a depressed labor market) as well as the ways in which such a bill contributes to the cycle of poverty (e.g., by depriving children of the enjoyable, playful, and loving upbringing that they need to become healthy, well-adjusted, and productive adults). Similarly, I contend, if we must wait until the patriarchy is (p.195) dismantled for morally pure sexual pleasures, then we will be allowed no pleasures at all. Moreover, we will not be engaged in the sort of experimentation and play—which, to be sure, may initially lead to more mistakes than successes—that will ultimately lead to the transformative pornography that feminists have so longed for. While we can certainly critique particular elements and works of pornography, pornographies as market industries and forms of cultural production will continue to play an important role in facilitating the development and cultivation of the active sexual selves that we wish to be, and which we must be, if we are to fully devote ourselves to the ongoing feminist project.
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(1.) In fact, Pepper’s stated reasons for refusing to accept the Ku Klux Klan scene included not only moral objections drawn from her background as a black woman from the South, but also pragmatic concerns about the impact of such a role on her future career prospects.
(3.) Her other example is Asia Carrera, a member of Mensa, National Merit finalist, and recipient of a full scholarship to Rutgers University, who self-directed a number of films depicting stories from her own life. Carrera continues to run a profitable blog and website selling her products.
(4.) Nash interprets the cocked eyebrow as follows: “The raised eyebrow places Jill and the spectator in conversation—it is the moment when she makes visible to the spectator that her deployment of the trope of the subservient black woman is deliberate. In fact, in willingly performing the role for Roger, Jill inhabits it herself; the cocked eyebrow shows her engagement with racialized stereotypes is a conscious performance” (2014, 93).
(7.) Note that even when the connotations of the term are largely negative, as in the case of yellow fever, public contestation over its use—for example by those who seek to justify the preference or reclaim the term—still serves to further establish the existence of such racialized sexual preferences in the public imaginary, in ways that can ease the psyches of those who self-identify that way.
(8.) Devoe astutely exposes the contradictions within the industry’s ideology and practice as she asks: “[W]hy is there an interracial designation in adult at all if we are all just having sex and we are all pink on the inside? Why is there interracial? Why is there Black? Why is there Asian? There’s these categories because it is about attraction. It is about selling a fantasy” (Cruz 2010, 160).
(10.) Cf. Cruz’s analysis of black women caught in the “ever-shifting representation between ‘nappy headed ho’ and girl next door’ ” (2010, 42).
(11.) I am indebted to Nils-Hennes Stear for discussion of this point.