The rise and rise of porn chic

January 2, 2004

As pornography creeps into the mainstream and sleaze style becomes the vogue, how should feminists react, asks Angela McRobbie

How should feminists respond to the pervasive, ironic normalisation of "soft-core" pornography and, alongside this, the success of "table dancing" clubs up and down the country? Over the past few years, almost unnoticed, there has been, particularly with the success of "lads'

mags" such as FHM and Loaded , a kind of fulsome rehabilitation of porn. It has come down from the top shelf and has lost all the connotations of shame, perversity and the "dirty raincoat".

No longer divorced from the heartland of advertising, branding and consumer culture, it sits quite comfortably within the mainstream of popular culture thanks also to the fashion for sleaze style and the love of irony on the part of "cool" tastemakers. The pervasiveness of the "full frontal", the "back-view shot" and "girl-on-girl action" in our increasingly frank and uncensored sexual culture means that it is now absolutely normal for TV presenters and actresses on prime-time soap operas to appear in centrefolds in these poses. Indeed, to be asked is the ultimate accolade. The same holds true for "pole dancing" - with supermodel Kate Moss (who certainly doesn't need to do it for the money) appearing in the recent White Stripes pop video "scantily clad" and writhing round a pole.

So there is a triple movement: first, the respectabilisation of pornography and sex entertainment - indeed its high status as a funky, cutting-edge, visually exciting genre; second, the irony that suggests that there has been some unsettling or scrambling of the codes of soft pornography, that it "doesn't mean what you think it means" attitude; and third, the enthusiastic coming forward of ambitious young women keen to achieve the status of being a "porn queen".

How can we account for these changes? I argue that the scrambling of the codes of pornography and the destabilisation of more traditional "points of view" are based on an assumption that the (bad) social relations on which pornography and table dancing have been based in the past have been happily transformed and that young women's seeming endorsement of porn culture now indicates willing participation and enjoyment on the basis of "personal choice". In short, now that there is much greater equality between men and women (with the hard edge of sexual injustices removed), girls are free to enjoy their sexuality in this way, if they so wish, and in so doing they simultaneously move themselves out of any kind of victim position (it's a personal choice) and they disavow any need for protection from (possibly interfering) feminist moral guardians. Indeed, there is even something of the feminist arguments of the 1980s coming to fruition, women's right to sexual pleasure, the destigmatisation of sex workers and solidarity with them and, of course, the challenge to the iniquities of the sexual double standard.

For a younger generation, this kind of feminist-informed thinking has passed into the realm of common sense. But what this allows, across popular culture, is an implied discounting of feminism as no longer relevant. The awareness that porn was once a feminist issue (with figures such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon achieving wide public visibility) and that its unpleasantness has been somehow dealt with contributes to a sense that feminism is now superseded. It is the extent to which these issues are subtly worked into the repertoire of popular pornography, typically through irony, that makes our responses so ambivalent. As a result, a new threshold of tolerance is reached, with only internet porn and anything involving children now marking the limit of unacceptability.

This reframing of the landscape of representational sexual culture poses a whole range of questions. For example, is it the case that there really is such consent among young women about the pleasures and enjoyment of ironic porn, or is it that the fear of being seen as uncool and, even worse, of taking up an old-fashioned feminist position discourages the dozens of young female journalists and writers for whom this might be an obvious area of interest? As the political philosopher Slavoj Zyi*yek has argued, the pervasiveness of irony acts to disallow ethical and political critique. One might have also thought that young black and Asian women writers would want to intervene in terms of how the incorporation of pornography into popular culture intersects with already existing and pernicious racialising imaginations.

And finally, how can we understand the powerful forces and the decision-making processes that are behind the scenes producing "sexual content"? To what extent has commercial culture directed towards a younger market managed to rebrand porn within the framework of cool and, in so doing, co-opt young women as a test simultaneously of their own "ladette" status and as a mark of their "emancipation"?

For a feminist academic such as myself, this suggests that there are dozens of PhD theses to be written on the transformation of sex culture in a post-feminist context. From the 1970s to the 1990s, there was a great deal of feminist theoretical writing on pornography and on sex working. Broadly, it fell into two camps. There were those who adopted a protectionist, censorious and legalistic perspective - they claimed to represent other "ordinary" women who were victimised, offended and even violated by pornography. Against this were those feminists who disputed this representational claim, and they themselves, including well-known lesbian theorists, argued that the realm of visual or verbal material needed to be dissociated from bodily aggression and violence, and that sexual images did not necessarily lead to increased violence against women. They also argued that erotic and sexually stimulating works and artefacts had a significant role to play in widening our understanding of gender and sexuality. In addition, women enjoyed writing and images (for example, fashion photography) that shared a good deal in common with the material more typically understood as porn.

It is this latter position that remains most useful today, although it is in need of updating to take into account how the new freedom can work against a renewed sexual politics of porn. If we agree that there has been an increasing slippage between everyday life and forms of popular culture, with a constant flow between the two, and if, on this basis, we temporarily suspend the distinction between images and activities, then we cannot be oblivious to the exuberant presence and energetic participation of young women in public modes of self-presentation that are sexually spectacular.

Last summer, as I walked towards my local Tube station, a girl went past me wearing a tight T-shirt with the words "Pay To Touch" across her breasts.

Across from me on the Tube, another girl sat in a very short cropped top, tight Lycra trousers that barely skimmed the pubic bone, and in the space between breast and crotch she showed an enormous bare pregnant belly resplendent with a glittering belly piercing. Of course, we are used to provocative slogans on T-shirts such as that sported by the 15-year-old singer Charlotte Church ("Crack Whore") that attracted tabloid attention, and likewise the Porn Star fashion label provides similar logos for its range of accessories. But if we add to these observed examples the scenes in the based-on-fact film Thirteen where two 13-year-olds (of course, in very low-cut low-rider jeans) practise their porn queen dance routine and then try a "sex romp" with a neighbour who takes fright and throws them out of his house, what emerges is something much more marked - a forceful coming forward of girls in a zone of sexual excitement and also sexual danger.

If "everything starts with Madonna", is it reasonable to inquire as to which directions the female pornographic imagination is now moving? Kylie Minogue's latest single, Slow , repeats all the erotic, groaning, whispering features of the kind of music (such as Donna Summer's Love to Love You Baby ) associated with sex entertainment and lap-dancing clubs. Her most dedicated fans remain gay men and pre-teen girls. It is they who turn up in thousands for her live performances. Beyonce recently appeared on Top of the Pops with a triumphant show of bum-shaking, outstripping any of Madonna's attempts as sex queen of pop. Christina Aguilera's single Dirrty carries on the love-of-porn theme, also apparent in her tacky leather and studs outfits with the word "Nasty" emblazoned across her bottom. Then, of course, there was the two girls and one woman "action" when Madonna "snogged" both Britney Spears and Aguilera as part of their performance at the MTV awards. And finally the pop video for Spears' single, which shows her as "girl" and Madonna as "woman", each desiring the other, and both involved in a kind of lustful dance around a bed frame. The video ends with Spears poised awaiting Madonna's kiss, with Madonna disappearing into thin air just before it happens. It was a fantasy after all.

This boldness and outrageousness on the part of young women incorporates a number of strands. There are playful references to pornography and prostitution that suggest fascination with sex and danger, but also there is a kind of destigmatising gesture. There are even playful references to feminism (as in the "Pay to Touch" T-shirt, where clearly the message is "don't dare touch"). There is a great deal of sexual bravado and bodily self-confidence. No girl with less than perfect breasts would risk drawing attention to herself in this way. It is literally "asking for it", and there is an element of parody and irony. One might even suggest that, as much in everyday life as on stage, there is delight in performativity, in the crafting of a sexual self that has to be understood as staged and enacted.

Following gender theorist Judith Butler, we could argue that what coexists here is a production of sexual identity that draws attention to its own construction and, in so doing, shows it to be fluid, unstable, changeable and thus open to redefinition. Butler would surely argue that this capacity and activity is, however, also normatively required, with girls now called on by consumer culture to display these characteristics of freedom as post-feminist subjects. But the conditions of their success require them to reject the kind of feminism that argued for freedom and emancipation in the first place. In short, consumer culture usurps and displaces the idea that young women might be in need of politics to help them navigate the complex field of sexuality.

Younger feminist theorists might consider exploring this terrain more fully. Do we not still need to protect pre-teen girls from the pressures of hypersexualisation and excessive attention to body image? Surely the answer must be "yes". Do we not need to at least bring back into discussion the uninvited consequences of "being up for it"? Can a non-censorious revitalised feminism find any place alongside the girls bold enough to join their boyfriends and male colleagues in the lounges of Spearmint Rhinos?

Angela McRobbie is professor of communications at Goldsmiths College, London.

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