Friday, 4 November 2011

Artwank!, food, sex and the female body in vintage pornography [NSFW: RAPE & ED TRIGGERS]

Posted by Goblin

So, now that any faithful Lashreaders are familiar with the intimate, er, ins and outs of my sexual psyche, it must be time to move on to in-depth analysis of porn. Poor darlings, I do feel sorry for you.

Fortunately, though, I’m not going to talk about contemporary mainstream porn (aptly described by Caitlin Moran here), because a) it’s shit[1], and b) I haven’t watched any since the fortnight and a half I spent solidly in front of the laptop researching a paper I wrote on the iconography of the female body in hardcore BDSM porn. Largely because of a). Because I’m lazy, I wanted to find Moran’s depiction of a typical mainstream heteroporn scene to sum up the aforementioned shitness, but the Internet let itself down, so I’ll settle for gesturing vaguely at bored women, huge cocks, compulsorily bleached hair, shaved pubes, fake breasts, anal/throat-fucking/multiples as standard, increasing level of generalised non-consensual violence, yadda yah. However.  It probably won’t surprise anyone to know that historical pornography has been a thing of mine for quite some time (*cough* just don’t ask me about the Restoration…), and thus the recently stumbled-upon Artwank!, a night of vintage porn (1895-1960) and cabaret compered by the fearlessly filthy and tantalisingly talented Ophelia Bitz, is one of the highlights of my personal London, along with the BL, my friends, steampunk clubs, Camden Town, Shiso (the North London sushi bar with the lifesize model of Predator. The sushi’s amazing too. You should go), the Waterloo Bridge skyline, and Rochester crowning his monkey in the NPG. Thanks to Ms Bitz and her lovely assistant the PornFerret, a not insignificant number of vintage porn reels have been brought to the avid eyes of the general public, and go somewhat to demonstrate just how much the Internet age has revolutionised porn as an industry. And not in a good way.

Right away, there are some striking differences. The men have pricks that couldn’t necessarily ride a rollercoaster unaccompanied. Women – regardless of overall build or dress size, which also varies – have *realistic* breasts, with *realistic-looking* shapes (a bit pointy, a bit uneven, a bit droopy) that move naturally, fall naturally, can be pressed and squashed without bouncing back, and don’t hover somewhere around their possessor’s shoulderblades. Even thin girls look like they were built that way rather than having starved and overexercised themselves into an externally imposed and cruelly impractical ideal. THEY HAVE BODY HAIR. The scenes also, often, have costumes and scenarios – a tea party with help from the gardener, a sewing shop, in one notable case a Cavalier visiting from the wars. Lots of religious settings, including one *extremely* novel  example of a well-trained terrier. Participants kiss. And *laugh*, ffs.

Endearingly enough, in one I’ve seen a few times now the girls actually end up fucking each other much more than the man who intervenes – he ends up masturbating on the floor without even watching them. It’s a touching rebuff to the centuries-old heteropornographic assumption that girls only do those things for some guy’s pleasure (bonus points if you recognise the quote). A lot of it’s fairly silly. But humanly, realistically silly, and people tend to look like they’re having a good time – not, I’m sure, that every participant in pornography over that period really *was* having a good time, but I’d like to think that before the creation of the behemoth that is the modern porn industry there was a proportionately greater chance that they were at least volunteers. At least nobody looks bored.

But what I actually wanted to discuss – and yes, it has taken me 600-odd words to get here, I’m so sorry – is food, and the way it’s used in these films, in the context of *contemporary* demands placed on women’s behaviour regarding food and sex. We’re encouraged to see sexual attractiveness => thinness => not eating, right? Abundant flesh, let alone the consumption of food, isn’t meant to be sexy anymore. Outside a) the mammary glands and b) the distinctly problematic niche marketing of the BBW concept, flesh is forbidden. (For all that sites like adipositivity and are trying to change our minds about such narrow definitions of ideals of beauty, and doing it rather well, too. I love abbywinters.) Food certainly doesn’t make much of an appearance in mainstream porn, everyone’s too busy performing airlocks on blank-eyed women or masturbating with wince-inducingly impractical false nails. And it often appears that a truly pornographically ideal body, with its tiny waist and hollow stomach below a fulsomely enhanced cleavage, involves not eating much anyway. (Not that either thinness or breast surgery are inherently bad, but the insistence on them in order to be considered attractive really is.) In the Artwank! films, however, food and sex are intrinsically connected as sensual pleasures. A group of nuns proceed from enjoying a meal to enjoying each other (and the serving man): food provides occasion for sex. Lingering shots of women eating - *putting things in their mouths* - are clearly meant to be arousing, both read metaphorically (there’s only so non-metaphorically you can read asparagus..) and literally, presumably because women who indulge their appetites for food *must* obviously have commensurately great appetites for cock or related multigendered appendages. (I wonder when that died out as a concept?)

The Cavalier home from the wars requests a picnic, which is brought to him by a Buxom Serving Wench ™, who proceeds to offer herself as dessert. Lest we miss the metaphor, in this particular film each little section is titled, introduced by the name of a foodstuff. My French isn’t up to much, especially when breathless with hysterical laughter, but as I recall the bit where the Cavalier runs his fingers through the BSW’s luxuriant pubic area and sniffs them appreciatively is some kind of seafood, and anal is ‘in the pot of mustard’. I will never look at mustard in the same way again, I can tell you. Interestingly enough, in this piece women actually *become* food – having exhausted the culinary possibilities of his picnic and the BSW, the happy couple are joined by another similar pairing, the gentleman bearing his lady friend on a silver platter. Of course, there’s something inherently problematic about this direct symbolic transformation of female into food, consumable item, but given that the lady in question proceeds to take an active and occasionally initiatory part in proceedings and they all look happy to be there, smiling and laughing and having a gay old time (often literally), it bothers me much less than (for example) gangbanging a woman whose consent may be assumed but is never openly given.

Mind you, while we’re talking about femininity and consumption, there’s yet another notable difference between these films and contemporary mainstream pornography. THERE ARE NO CUMSHOTS, at least in the senses of a) close-ups of women’s faces being drenched in cum or even b) screaming and patently fake girl-climaxes. (Not, btw, that I have problems with either the depiction of female orgasm, or with filmed bukkake if that's your thing and all persons involved freely consent, but i do have *huge* problems with these things being codified as essential to filmic depictions of heterosex, and of anybody having to fake anything. Especially given porn's function as sex education for today's teenagers. But I digress). This is partly because the Artwankers dub their own soundtrack over the top (I will no longer be able to hear ‘Football’s coming home’ without thinking of footballers in the shower…) but it’s not hard to spot a closeup of a woman’s [s]creaming face, and there just aren’t any. (And not all the oral is deep-throat, either.) Nobody has to ecstatically lick themselves clean to receive what looks like the only nutrition they ever get. Which seems healthy, somehow. Nothing seems compulsory in the same way: on this evidence, there's no standardised structure either for participants' bodies or for particular acts or combinations, and that's terribly liberating.

Fundamentally, in these old movies, both sex and food are shown as, well *fun*. Physically pleasurable. And interconnected in ways fucking revolutionary for contemporary pornography. Not to mention that one’s perceived acceptability for one is not contingent on the suppression of one’s need for the other. Nobody has to starve themselves to be seen as attractive enough to be the object of attentions that themselves appear at best dull and at worst abusive. Robert Jensen says pornography’s what the end of the world looks like: well, fair enough, maybe, a lot of contemporary porn certainly makes me wish the world that produced it would end. As does the vast majority of contemporary media related to women and food consumption. But once upon a time, it seems, porn was actually just about people having sex, people who also ate and laughed and had imperfect bodies. Food and sex were physical pleasures; whilst their filmic portrayal was undoubtedly socially transgressive, God help us, they look *fun* What the hell happened to that? Is it because both are so much more freely available these days? Does abundance breed ennui or contempt? I’m not even sure. But please, Lashreaders, give me your ideas. And come to Artwank! It’s ace. And there’s this really cool bit with some nuns…

[1] (I advise anyone wanting greater insight into Why Lots of Porn is Shit to read Moran’s chapter on porn and essay anthology Everyday Pornography, but preferably not in that order lest the despair induced by Jensen overwhelms you.) [back]

1 comment:

  1. I love Caitlin's explanation. People like Gail Dines who think porn is intrinsically derogatory and should be completely boycotted confuse me. How can two consenting adults enjoying each others' bodies be intrinsically anti-feminist?

    I remember this vintage erotic photography website we found in undergrad, and the thing that surprised me the most about the female nudes were the fact that they had labia. That's right, their bodies were shown in their full natural glory. Why these need to be airbrushed out in modern porn I'll never understand.

    I totally agree with what you say about how it should be about people just having fun, which is maybe why they say that amateur porn is on the rise?