May 24, 2011

Hard Core {featured book}

Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible" (1999; first ed. 1989) by Linda Williams, professor of film at the University of California, Berkeley, provides a film historical analysis of the porn genre from the early stag films of the late nineteenth century through the classical features of the seventies and the video porn of the eighties. In the illustrated epilogue added to the 1999 edition, Williams addresses the most recent historical trends in porn and porn studies, in particular the need for a method with which to discuss the visceral viewing of porn; "the rawer, less sublimated, responses of viewers to moving-image pornography" (289).

In response to the "we know it when we see it" argument with respect to what porn is, Williams' filmic study represents a landmark in porn studies, which has primarily approached porn from cultural, sociological, psychological, technological, and polemical perspectives. Moreover, while opposing the "hard/soft distinction to label men's sexuality as pornographic and women's as erotic" (6), Williams argues that:
The very notion of erotica as "good," clean, nonexplicit representations of sexual pleasure in opposition to dirty, explicit pornographic ones is false. The erotic and the pornographic interact in hard core. The one emphasizes desire, the other satisfaction. Depending on who is looking, both can appear dirty, perverse, or too explicit. (277)
While Williams' book is hardcore academic, it is accessible to a wide audience. Her film readings are lively and engaging. Unpacking the iconography of porn as it evolved from its focus on "meat" to "money," including a smorgasbord of diverse sex numbers that drive the film forward much like musical numbers do in musicals, but in porn climaxing with the "money shot," Williams also discusses what porn reveals about gender roles and the cultural context.

As Williams points out, just as tragedies strive to induce tears, and horrors goosebumps, the intention of porn is to stir a physical reaction. But as she also argues, porn is more than masturbatory material; it is also a discourse about sex. And as she further argues with reference to Michel Foucault's analysis of sexual discourses in The History of Sexuality, sex has historically been defined and discussed from men's point of view: "for women, one constant of the history of sexuality has been a failure to imagine their pleasures outside a dominant male economy" (4).

In her final chapter, Williams considers the potential of a "re-visioning" of porn from a female perspective, analyzing the early films of Candida Royalle who founded her Femme Productions line of erotic films in 1984. As Williams shows, Royalle's films succeed in re-visioning porn as they develop women as the subjects of desire and not as the object, featuring sexual pleasure on women's terms.

Williams ends in her conclusion with a speculation on what feminist porn might be like:
Perhaps the true measure of the feminist re-vision of pornography would be if it were to produce a pornographic "speculation" about the still relatively unproblematized pleasures of men. When hard core begins to probe the nature and quality of male pleasure with the same scrutiny that it devotes to female pleasure, when erection, penetration, and ejaculation are no longer primary, self-evident measures of male pleasure, then a realm of female pornotopia may be at hand. (276)


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