Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Carolyn Bronstein and Whitney Strub's "Porno Chic and the Sex Wars"

Whitney Strub, an associate professor in the history department at Rutgers University-Newark, co-directs the Queer Newark Oral History Project.

Strub applied the Page 99 test to the new collection Porno Chic and the Sex Wars: American Sexual Representation in the 1970s, which he co-edited with Carolyn Bronstein, and reported the following:
Porno Chic and the Sex Wars expands our historical memory of sexual expression in the 1970s beyond the familiar canon of Deep Throat, Hustler, and Boys in the Sand. The essays examine everything from the magazines Female Impersonator News and Viva (Bob Guccione’s ill-fated “Penthouse for women”), to the films of gay icon Peter Berlin and a hardcore adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The collected essays argue that pornography resided at the heart of mainstream American culture, playing a central role in the decade’s social debates over gender and sexuality.

Page 99 perfectly exemplifies what Carolyn and I were trying to do in this book. First, it comes from an essay by a scholar we both admire tremendously, Jennifer C. Nash, whose first book, The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography, is a brilliant reinterpretation of racialized erotics in porn; indeed, part of the appeal of editing a book like this is the opportunity to reach out to people you’ve read and respected, and we were thrilled to amass something of an academic dream team here. Further, we wanted to expand the frameworks through which we think about porn historically, and Nash does that really effectively in her piece, “Desiring Desiree.” In it, she examines Desiree West, the first black female porn star, and asks both what she meant to her fans, and also what her work meant to her; one important contribution Nash makes is tracking West down and talking with her. You’d think that would be an obvious method, but it’s surprisingly absent from scholarly work on pornography (though look to The Rialto Report for phenomenal oral histories with industry participants from this era), which makes West’s voice all the more important.

So, what does Nash learn? Well, for one thing, the way historians think about porn films as discrete units doesn’t correspond to West’s own memory; for her, many of these films were one day’s labor, done forty years ago. She remembers people, but not necessarily titles.

Nash’s work pushes against flat interpretations that would subsume all sexualized representation of black women under a reductive lens of racist degradation (though as a feminist scholar, she is always attuned to both sexism and racism—both of which can operative in a text without wholly determining its meaning). On Page 99, she makes an interesting point about the interracial friendships between black and white women in heterosexual hardcore films of the 1970s, as antecedents to such macho interracial buddy action films as 48 Hrs. or Rush Hour. West’s scenes with white women often sever their camaraderie from the “insistence on interracial friendship predicated on shared phallic power” of the action movies. Yet, as she shows using an example from an untitled scene in the DVD collection Double D Soul Sister, subversion isn’t equal to liberation: while a sexual dalliance with a white man found floating naked in a pool brings together black and white bodies, generally these scenes offer possibilities for black erotic subjectivity even as their primary function is to “enable and facilitate white women’s sexual pleasure.”

It’s this kind of nuanced analysis, which is neither broadly “antiporn” nor blithely uncritical of the racial and gender hierarchies always at play in cultural representation, that we hope marks Porno Chic and the Sex Wars.
Visit Whit Strub’s blog, and read more about Porno Chic and the Sex Wars at the University of Massachusetts Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue