[Editor’s Note: The following article now contains an addendum which addresses certain criticisms about its content.]
Every single year the Adult Video News (AVN) Awards come around, to the apathy and/or amused giggles of mainstream entertainment outlets everywhere. The closest adult entertainment equivalent to the Oscars just don’t seem to get a lot of respect from the critical community in general, but that should come as no surprise. Pornography doesn’t get a lot of respect during the rest of the year either, and for that, we critics deserve a scolding.
A History of Shame
The history of art criticism and journalism is riddled with the shameful disregard for genres and artistic movements that didn’t fit inside the traditional model of what is “good” and what is “bad.” There was a lengthy period when movies themselves were not considered a serious art form at all. There was a more recent time when science fiction and horror movies were not considered serious genres by many critics. Although a lot of contemporary critics seem eager to distance themselves from these views, growing up – as many of us did – in an era when Star Wars and Halloween had long since legitimized those genres, we still have a long way to go.
There is no such thing as a “bad genre,” although it could probably be argued that some genres are more conducive to “high art,” an expression which can only written in quotation marks. After all, art is subjective. Whereas earlier critics found little-to-no artistic value in I Spit on Your Grave, contemporary critics have embraced the admittedly shocking rape-and-revenge film as a classic example of challenging, confrontational feminism. And let us not forget the original derision that even Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was subjected to during its original run, compared to the nearly universal praise Kubrick’s rumination about the origin and destiny of life on this planet now receives.
And yet here we are anyway, with critics jumping en masse atop the mean-spirited pile to claim, to cite a mainstream example, that a delightful cheesy erotic thriller like The Boy Next Door must be bad. (As of writing, the film has a dismal “18% Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the positive reviews – mine included – only numbering in the single digits). This in spite of the fact that Rob Cohen’s film has been entertaining the hell out of everybody, some of those critics included. Not that The Boy Next Door is pornography, per se, but there is a considerable amount of overlap between a mainstream film that luxuriates in sensuality to elicit an instinctual audience response, as opposed to a serious intellectual one, and X-rated films that do the same thing, albeit with much more directness.
That is not to say that these critics aren’t entitled to their opinion, but perhaps the overwhelming animosity is misplaced. Perhaps some art simply works on a primal level that serious art critics are unwilling to accept as “good,” perhaps because they don’t understand why it works or – equally likely, especially in the case of pornography – they are hesitant to be the first out of the gate to suggest that it deserves more serious critical analysis instead of ridicule and scorn for being arguably lewd.
The Problem With Pornographic Criticism
Part of the problem belongs with the current state of pornographic criticism, which too often tends to follow either of two formats. The first is a detailed description of the sexually explicit acts within the film itself, coupled with an assessment of how “sexy” it all is, which isn’t very thoughtful but at least acknowledges the straightforward and often straightforward goals of the genre. The second leans further towards social criticism, either attacking or defending the genre for its depiction of human sexuality and women in particular, often with a feminist slant.
That second approach sometimes presents a valid perspective, but the problem with these two forms of pornographic criticism is that they only represent polar opposites. Imagine, if you will, that criticism of action movies was divided only into two camps. Imagine if the majority of movie reviews just described in spoilery detail every single action sequence, mostly ignored the plot, and only judged them based on how big the explosions were. Now imagine it was hard to find any other critical discourse that didn’t spend most of its time arguing whether or not the very existence of action movies was warping our psyches with gratuitous violence.
There are so many missed opportunities in this dichotomy. The capacity for social commentary within each film, as opposed to the commentary implied by the film’s very existence, is largely ignored. The nuances of genre and subgenre are also undervalued. And the specific qualities that are largely unique to pornography are almost wholly absent.
The Unique Philosophy of Pornographic Immersion
Most motion pictures are intended to be immersive entertainment. You are expected to relate to characters and situations, become invested the outcome of the plot, and treat the events of the movie as a unique and respectable reality. Pornography can work this way, but there are entire pornographic subgenres that defy it entirely.
Take, for example, the so-called “gonzo” genre, which typically eschews plot entirely in favor of acknowledging the artificiality of the pornographic medium. Before the sex scene commences, Gonzo films often open with interviews with the performers themselves, developing an intimate relationship between the audience and the actor, as opposed to a character they are portraying. The purpose of the gonzo genre is to embrace the voyeuristic quality of pornographic storytelling, annihilating the fourth wall throughout the motion picture and engaging the viewer only in the act of watching the performer, as opposed any sort of conventional narrative.
There isn’t much of a mainstream equivalent to the gonzo subgenre of pornography, except perhaps the Jackass movies, which depict a visceral stunt and highlight the stuntpersons about to perform them and their immediate aftermath. But you never see a mainstream blockbuster in which Vin Diesel appears on screen, as Vin Diesel, and says “I’m about to get in a car chase with a tank.” There are few examples of motion pictures in which the fourth wall is completely absent and yet still attempts to elicit a natural, emotional, significant response from the viewer, except of course in documentaries and the news. But gonzo pornography functions differently, inviting you to become a voyeur above all.
In point of fact, there is no “right” way to watch an adult movie. Even films with a story still allow for the audience to appreciate them artificially, as an active observer instead of a passive one. A film like Brad Armstrong’s AVN Award-nominated Aftermath, which does strive to tell a dramatic story between – and directly through – its scenes of physical intimacy, can be appreciated much the same way an audience member would a mainstream movie, by empathizing with its characters and becoming invested in the plot. But at the same time, many viewers are still going to be aware that the sexual nature of the film is intended to have an erotic effect, and they can enjoy the film equally as a direct stimulus to the parts of the brain and body that are often ignored by mainstream cinema.
Where Did Sex Go in the ‘Mainstream’?
Make no mistake: sexual acts are fundamentally devalued by most movies, particularly the ones in wide release. When one considers how significant sexuality is to the daily lives of most human beings – from the way they think to the way they act to their overall life goals – it’s remarkable how few scenes of sexuality wind up in movies about the human experience, especially considering how many of those movies include storylines about romance. Sex has an enormous impact on the way people interact together.
So why do so many movies and television series feature characters who discuss their sexual activities, hangups and anecdotes instead of actually showing those scenes? Film is a visual medium after all, and any film professor will be eager to remind their impressionable students to “show, not tell” their stories whenever possible.
Depictions of sexuality in mainstream cinema seem are seemingly unpopular nowadays, in part because of the Motion Picture Association of America, which assigns ratings to each film based on their content. PG-13 seems to be the sweet spot for most filmmakers, permitting a certain degree of mature content without preventing younger audiences from seeing the film (and spending quite a bit of money to do so in the process). Although this trend could be due for a shift if The Boy Next Door makes money, and if 50 Shades of Grey is the blockbuster that many expect it to be.
The Artistic Impact of Home Video and The Internet
But the proliferation of home video, and in particular the internet, has had an enormous part to play as well. Before the invention of home video formats, the only way to see a pornographic motion picture was on film, usually at a movie theater, surrounded by many other people. Home video allowed audiences to view pornography in the privacy of their own home, free of the potential embarrassment or shame that might come from being discovered entering adult movie theater by “polite” society. With the advent of pornography on the internet, even the social danger of venturing outside to rent those videos was nullified. Sex is now back in the privacy of our homes, and is now so readily available that portraying sexuality in the mainstream could be arguably viewed as less “necessary” than ever.
With that proliferation and ease of access also comes one of the most important reasons why pornography deserves more, and more rational and thoughtful, consideration by the mainstream. Although the popularity of a work of art does not necessarily equate to its artistic value, popularity does mean that audiences are being exposed to that work of art, or that particular medium, in large numbers. Exposure to ideas and influential imagery without critical analysis can be dangerous; just look at the any propaganda film. Pornography is so popular and so widely consumed that analysis is absolutely necessary. Not mere binary analysis about whether it is “good” or “bad,” from a stylistic or sociological point of view, but nuanced analysis that acknowledges, at the very least, that this work is striking a powerful chord with audiences and which attempts to explain the specific means by which this art form is having that effect.
Of course, that conversation could be reduced to something as simplistic as “watching people have sex is sexy,” but if that’s all there was to it, there would be no difference between various pornographic films. And there is an enormous difference.
The Many Nuances of Pornography
Arguably hundreds of subgenres of pornography could be catalogued, each with specific conventions. The differences between the power dynamics of the characters having sex, the differences in sexual positions performed, the differences between the locations of the scenes, the age of the characters, the elements of pride or shame those characters experience before, during and after those sexual acts all have different effects on audience members. And no one seems to be talking about the way in which the myriad of creative decisions that go into making every single piece of pornography function, why they specifically function, and why sometimes they even fail.
Pornographic films may frequently tell their stories with less depth and nuance than other motion pictures, but that is not a flaw in the overall genre. It is a stylistic decision that has to be made, because every pornographic style has a particular, wholly intended effect on its target audience for each film and/or scene. In general, that highly specific level of artistic control and insight isn’t being discussed by critics. Sure, it’s “hot,” but how does the filmmakers achieve that result? And yes, these films espouse various attitudes towards sex and sexuality, but those attitudes are not uniform. They are often very specific to certain filmmakers, and certain subgenres. They are vast in number and often distinctively different, frequently even at odds with one another, like the output of any other medium or prominent genre.
There Must Be Something We Can Do
These creative decisions deserve more attention from the intelligent minds in criticism. The AVN Awards are as good a time to demand this call to arms as any. Pornography is a popular, widespread artistic genre – whatever you may or may not think of it – and it warrants more thoughtful consideration than whether or not it works as a product, or whether or not it is empowering us or destroying our values.
Let us all demand a little more out of the mainstream attention pornography receives, and the approach that critics, pundits and other media personalities bring to discussing its qualities. Let us ask “why” it works – not just whether or not it does, or and whether or not it should – and let’s stick up for the filmmakers who put a lot of hard work and effort into making those creative decisions in the first place.
Good luck to all of you artists nominated for the AVN Awards. You deserve your moment in the spotlight, at least in part because the rest of the media isn’t giving you the proper attention. Yet.
Yes, that’s me, getting beat up by Spider-Man in the pornographic film Superman vs. Spider-Man XXX. The image seemed appropriate.
We have received some very positive responses to the above article from people within and without the industry, who appreciated our effort to encourage more meaningful discourse about pornography. But with meaningful discourse comes criticism, and some of it is indeed warranted, so we wanted to address those particular concerns here, in plain view.
The intent of the above article was primarily to discuss the general failings of mainstream media and film critics to respect, cover, or even openly talk about, pornographic films as an art form. There are some publications who have been making strides, including UpRoxx.com, which deserve credit for their efforts, but which did not receive that credit above. For that we apologize.
In addressing the general state of criticism which does focus on pornography, some important aspects of the conversation either went unaddressed, or were not addressed in enough detail. As has been pointed out by noted porn critic Don Houston in the comments below, many of the issues that were raised about the general patterns of porn criticism were developed over time, naturally, and have practical applications for consumers and publishers. This is a fair observation that deserved greater emphasis in the original posting.
The principle counterargument to made to this point is one that applies to mainstream film criticism as well, which is that the practical application of said criticism – which often amounts to consumer reporting and/or advocacy – may be viable and even vital, but is also only one small part of what art criticism can achieve. The intent of this article is not to deny the validity of current pornographic criticism but to argue that we can do better as an industry, particularly in the so-called “mainstream,” to elevate the discourse above and beyond the current standards, and to improve opinions about the art form as a whole in order to promote not only sex positivity but also a broader range of standards from which art criticism could benefit across the board.
It has also been pointed out, mostly on Twitter, that the above article generalizes trends in pornographic criticism without noting that there are indeed exceptions to those swatches of the spectrum. This was not the intention, and attempts were made to allow that those exceptions exist, but clearly we could have done better. If nothing else, it would have been fair to cite examples. Readers seeking pornographic critics who are approaching the medium from different perspectives are encouraged to seek out Chauntelle Tibbals, PhD, and Gram Ponante. [Please note that these websites are comparatively NSFW.]
To all who have supported this article and its intentions, we thank you. To all who are holding us to a high standard, we thank you as well. Improving the discourse is a responsibility we all share, and we appreciate every single person who takes that responsibility seriously enough to contribute to the conversation and attempt to make a difference.