New York

Club 90

Franklin Furnace

Much of the argument against visual pornography centers on the presumption that it panders to the onlooker’s desire to objectify, to “possess” or “know” the object of vision, a form of ravishment which casts the woman, who has no way of parrying the look or of presenting her own desires, in the role of victim. This demanding gaze is not of course restricted to pornography, being intrinsic to our relation to photographic representation whatever the subject, but when the look aims specifically for sexual gratification, it exposes the Western ambivalence to the separation of sex from a socially preferred attachment to love relationships. What, however, is the story from the other side of the camera? What are the attitudes and feelings of the women who place themselves, presumably willingly, in this position of apparent victim?

“Deep Inside Porn Stars,” one of the performances presented by Carnival Knowledge, was billed as “a semi-fictionalized re-creation of the on-going support group meetings between seven celebrated sex stars.” The scene was the living room of duenna Gloria; the narrative was a kind of Canterbury Tales of the skinflick performers’ domestic and professional experiences, liberally spiced with bawdy talk, during which each of the characters took turns in addressing the audience with a slide presentation of her “life” and aspirations. One performer, “Susie,” by contrast gave a demonstration of an erotic dance routine aimed deliberately at the male members of the audience.

The play was fraught with ambivalences which reflected those of society’s attitudes to the commodification of sex and its protagonists, and which infused the women’s own senses of identity. Emphasis was placed on the porn star as a professional worker who enjoys the glamor, attention, money, and travel; who takes the acting seriously—“ . . . the hotter I was, the hotter it would be for the audience . . . ”; and whose private needs include nothing more exotic than “love” and a healthy relationship. Already there was an oscillation of uncertainties: the projection of the “good” girl over that of the “bad” girl was combined with an assertion of the pleasure of exhibitionism, which shifted the site of potential exploitation from the woman as object to the viewer, with his desire for sexual arousal. One star, commenting on her marriage, expressed wonder and delight that such a straight guy would want “a girl like [her],” a slippage that, despite the bravura, revealed an entrapment in the language of public morality.

The woman as spectacle: all the stars initially presented themselves in glitzy, revealing costumes—the body displayed and packaged as merchandise. In this they not only conformed to audience expectation but, intentionally or not, exposed the discrepancy between the idealized photographic image of the body and its reality. One star, “Kelly,” specifically took up this issue through a demonstration of the transformation of the face by makeup, the mask by which, along with other signs of the constructed image, the woman’s self projects an idea of itself to the world. The tragicomic Annie Sprinkle, however, came closest to expressing the struggle to establish an identity, a sexuality, not overburdened by the strictures of those stereotypic roles demanded by society. In her presentation, “Ellen” was the conventional girl whose college education was being financed by “Annie,” the porn star. Both were equally objectified by their narrator—two personas presented by yet a third, who confessed that she sometimes did not know who she was. Annie Sprinkle’s tale represented the central dilemma of the play itself. “Deep Inside . . . ” could reveal no “truth” except that it was one masquerade hiding but another, whose cast of victims of uncertain sociosexual identities included us all.

Jean Fisher