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On/scenity: She knows it when she sees it
Film studies professor Linda Williams discusses the democratization of pornography

| 30 September 2004


Linda Williams (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Linda Williams, a professor of rhetoric and film studies and, for the last five years, director of Berkeley’s Program in Film Studies, is drawn to film genres that some might characterize as lowbrow — among them melodrama and pornography. She has been regarded as something of an authority on the latter subject since 1989, when she published Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible,” the first book to detail and analyze the history and forms of moving-image pornography.

Williams, who has characterized pornography as “a most maligned and scapegoated genre in need of critical inquiry,” was surprised when the post-publication fallout she expected from her academic colleagues and anti-pornography feminists never materialized. Instead, she began receiving invitations to speak about pornography not only on college campuses but in forums as varied as community groups, bookstores, and art museums.

In 1994, several years after the publication of Hard Core, Williams taught her first pornography course to upper-division undergraduates at UC Irvine. As one of the few American scholars studying moving-image pornography, Williams, though aware of the risks in bringing the controversial subject matter into the academy, wanted to, as she puts it, “integrate my scholarship and teaching.” She also hoped to counter the then-prevailing attitudes of anti-pornography feminism with those of what was starting to be called anti-censorship feminism.


That inaugural class was a survey of the history of moving-image pornography. In the introduction to Porn Studies, her recent anthology of scholarship in this developing area, Williams writes that the class covered a range of examples, from “early, underground stag films for all-male audiences to the quasi-legitimate couples films of the seventies to the proliferating varieties of gay male, lesbian, bisexual, straight, sadomasochistic, fetishist pornographies available now that low-budget video shooting and home VCR viewing predominate.”

The class viewed one or two feature-length films each week during the 10-week quarter. After each screening, Williams would point students to readings from various sources, including her own Hard Core, an anthology of essays (Dirty Looks) by anti-censorship feminists, the first volume of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, and essays by both Freud and Marx. The function of this syllabus was to find ways to discuss power and pleasure while critically analyzing the “frenzy of the visible”— the strenuous efforts of the films themselves to make tactile pleasures available to sight.

In a recent extended discussion with the Berkeleyan — the second part of which will appear in next week’s issue — Williams said that she has never “[taught] her courses on pornography ... as an occasion for students to confess their secret desires or private sexualities. The students don’t have to say, ‘This turns me on; that doesn’t.’” Instead, Williams and her students analyze how sexual acts are constructed, filmed, and edited as visible, moving images. Doing so, says Williams, provides “avenues to talk about sex in ways that we usually don’t talk about it — graphically, critically, and analytically in terms of the history of moving-image media, the history of the objectification of women, theories of desire and pleasure.”

Since that first Irvine course a decade ago, Williams has taught two graduate seminars on pornography proper and two upper-level undergraduate courses on “cinema and the sex act” and on “sex genres” at Berkeley. During that time she has moved away from the feminist orientation of her first course toward a broader attempt to understand the pervasive popularity of diverse pornographies as they have moved from illicit, underground “stag films” for men only to films, videos, and Internet images consumed by everyone, women included.

Williams recently spoke with the Berkeleyan about the changing field of pornography studies. The conversation began with a reference to Williams’s anthology Porn Studies (published this summer by Duke University Press), which includes 10 chapters written by graduate students who participated in seminar classes she taught at Berkeley in 1998 and 2001. (Essays by established scholars in the field round out the volume.)

How has the academic landscape changed with regard to pornography studies since you wrote Hard Core in 1989?
I think it’s changed enormously. I know some people may still want to debate the issues that I was enmeshed in when I wrote Hard Core: Is pornography bad for women? Does it harm them, objectify them? But these questions are not as important to me as they once were. I am still very critical of pornography, and still very interested in a feminist perspective, but Porn Studies is full of all sorts of other ways of looking at pornography. There are chapters on pornographic comics consumed by female readers in Japan, on how the Starr Report functions generically as pornography, on “celebrity porn” home movies, on pornography in the digital era, on gay and lesbian pornography, on straight pornography by a gay director, on the elements of pornography in avant-garde films, on race and class issues in pornography, on the economic factors that contributed to the rise of the pornographic feature, on pin-ups . . . and much, much more.

Why are the feminist debates that informed Hard Core no longer an issue for you?
First, because I think pornography is self-evidently important as an attempt to visualize diverse sexual pleasures. Second, because it is so much more pervasive than when I was first writing about it that feminism is now just one way into the subject. It happens to have been my way into it, but as it has become so familiar it is harder to register the same shock.

I cite some remarkable figures in the introduction to Porn Studies. Whereas Hollywood releases 400 films a year, the porn industry puts out 9,000 to 11,000 videos. When I first started to teach pornography — not when I first started writing about it, but much later — some students would be familiar with it and some not. Now you can’t find a student who hasn’t seen pornography, including women.

The word I like to use to talk about the pervasiveness of hard-core pornography is “on/scenity” — as opposed to “obscenity,” which signifies something really taboo, something rigidly kept off (ob) the scene of public representation. On/scenity, on the other hand, refers to all the discussions and representations of sex that used to be hidden away but that now insistently appear in the new public/private realms of home video and the Internet. What interests me is not the story of the scandal of pornography but really the story of — for better or worse — the democratization of it and the criticism that becomes possible with this democratization.

Does this suggest, or demonstrate, a changing attitude toward the taboo?
You could call it quasi-taboo. It used to be that only men watched pornography, in private places set aside for them. The literary scholar Walter Kendrick wrote a great book, The Secret Museum, about what happened when indecent ancient frescoes unearthed from Pompeii were put on display in the Victorian era, when the very concept of pornography was just developing. The work was housed in a secret place, the Museo Borbonico near Naples, where only certain knowing, elite gentlemen could see it. Kendrick writes a whole history of pornography as the story of how certain “gentlemen” first attempted to keep the lower classes and women from looking at the equivalents of the frescoes from Pompeii, and how this has slowly broken down by class and by gender.

Does the “secret museum” still exist in this era of unfettered access to porn?
Oh, certainly. My favorite recent example is Jesse Helms waving Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs on the floor of the Senate in order to persuade his colleagues to defund the NEA. He wanted the senators to be scandalized, but he also asked that all the women and pages leave the chamber! Only in a gentlemen-only “secret museum” can you do that.

You’ve charted the change in public attitudes toward pornography. Is there an accompanying change in attitude toward the human body?
Bodies aren’t as private as they used to be. Because of media, print, film, video and the Internet, we live our bodies in much more public ways. The first essay in Porn Studies is about the Starr Report as pornography. In 1998 The New York Times could not report on the Monica Lewinsky scandal without directly discussing the president’s penis. The whole world was talking about the president’s penis. I remember reading the newspaper at breakfast and having to talk about it with my then-teenage son. At such a moment, private parts are not quite so private.

You seem to gravitate toward taboo subjects, like pornography and sex in Hard Core and Porn Studies, and race in Playing the Race Card [Williams’s third book, analyzing the function of race in American melodrama]. In what way have those been problematic subjects to explore?
I’m interested in lots of things, not only taboo subjects! But it is true that the ones I keep returning to are those that resist efforts to get to the core of them by talking about them in politically correct ways. These are the things that I feel I myself have to learn how to talk about—subjects that are both compelling and maybe a little bit scary. Playing the Race Card, my book about American racial melodrama, was even harder for me to write than Hard Core: I had to overcome the sense that as a white woman I wasn’t entitled to write about either black victims and white villains or vice versa. It took me quite a while to learn that if I paid attention to how this racial melodrama worked on me, how it appealed to me as a white woman, I might actually have some insights about a tradition that was, after all, begun by the racist and racial sympathies of the white woman Harriet Beecher Stowe.

It was harder for me to find a voice in which to write about racial melodrama than it was with pornography — where, as a woman, I was expected to have certain ideas. When I started writing about pornography, I knew I was expected to say that it was bad and it was bad for me. I remember reading Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography and completely agreeing with her view of women as victims of the “brutality of male history,” and then having a nagging feeling that I was just parroting an opinion, not adding any insight. I had at that time begun working on a book called Film Bodies, which was to be a series of essays exploring the central motivation of the cinematic art form and technology: the pleasure of viewing the human body in motion. I planned to look at genres that focused on particular kinds of body movement and spectacle — musicals, horror films, low comedies, ‘weepies.’ I embarked on a chapter about hard-core pornography because it seemed both rather obvious what to say. But as a topic it kept gnawing at me, becoming more interesting the more I seriously engaged the question of the central problem of how to construct sexual pleasure in a moving-image medium. It may or may not evoke sexual reactions in the viewer. What matters is what the film or video thinks will evoke sexual reactions in the viewer.

On the face of it, pornography is about sex, but to you it seems to be about so much more.
Pornography is a way of talking about all sorts of important things. That’s what I learned teaching it. But it also is a way to talk about sex in ways that avoid the rather deadly social scientific jargon. With pornography, you have a range of explicit sex acts in front of you: Then you can ask, “How are they performed? How are they choreographed? How are they edited? How are they constituted as an act? How do they end? What pleasures are we to presume are being experienced?” Just as I would teach a course on melodrama by closely analyzing the big moments of pathos, or a musical by analyzing the songs and dances, so it becomes necessary to analyze what I like to call “sexual numbers” in plain language.

For example, in Hard Core I had a very long chapter on the convention of what the porn industry calls “the money shot” — visible external ejaculation by the man. This is an amazing convention that has endured in the heterosexual and gay-male porn industry for some 35 years, even though it isn’t the least bit convincing that the partner who observes it finds it all that exciting. It’s a fascinating case of the moving-image medium needing both to produce a spectacle and to assure viewers of the authenticity of pleasure. But whose pleasure? The genre is haunted by the fear that the woman’s pleasure is faked, and it is as if to reassure itself that it isn’t that it gives extra proof of authentic male pleasure. Once you get over all the embarrassment of talking about things like “money shots” — which happens rather quickly with today’s students — there is quite a bit to say!

> Part two: On/scenity: Williams knows it when she sees it. She discusses the democratization of pornography.