Sexy Thrills: Undressing the Erotic Thriller


How erotic thrillers impact contemporary ideas about feminism and femininity

Unlike the bulk of soft-core pornography, direct-to-video erotic thriller films are made specifically to appeal to women. Nina K. Martin argues that this makes them a valuable resource for investigating female sexuality, subjectivity, and gender construction, and her Sexy Thrills is the first study to use them to examine the construction of female desire.

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How erotic thrillers impact contemporary ideas about feminism and femininity

Unlike the bulk of soft-core pornography, direct-to-video erotic thriller films are made specifically to appeal to women. Nina K. Martin argues that this makes them a valuable resource for investigating female sexuality, subjectivity, and gender construction, and her Sexy Thrills is the first study to use them to examine the construction of female desire.

The heroines of these productions have overtly sexual adventures, often dabbling in a variety of sex work positions—including call girl, stripper, and exotic dancer—to get in touch with their sexual desires. Martin explains, however, that the films highlight a fundamental tension between endorsing an empowered, sexually experienced female heroine ("the sexy bad girl") and reinforcing more conventional, constructed standards that limit the acceptable forms of feminine sexuality. So while the sexual explicitness of the films acknowledges the increasing appeal of pornography to female heterosexual viewers, erotic thrillers remain couched in romanticized narratives and settings that speak to very traditional understandings of femininity and desire.

By analyzing the way the specifics of this hybrid genre have been shaped by pop cultural products targeting women, including soap operas, women's magazines, and talk shows, Sexy Thrills unpacks the construction of female desire to reveal how sex is marketed to heterosexual women.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Film criticism has a long history of reevaluating critically ignored and despised genres such as pornography and teen slasher films. Sexy Thrills is the first book to fully address and explore the major genre development in cinema commonly referred to as the erotic thriller. In this extremely well-researched, -organized, and -written book, Martin makes a strong case for the importance of these films from a feminist perspective."
Peter Lehman, editor of Pornography: Film and Culture

“Martin makes a series of impressive arguments about the themes, subtext, and stylistic innovations of the format that could send academic audiences back to their Tivo for more than simply cheap thrills.”—Sexuality & Culture

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252074370
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2007
  • Pages: 216
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2007 Nina K. Martin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03195-3


A woman dances slowly and seductively on a spotlit stage, moving her hips rhythmically to a throbbing bass beat. Her hands roam over her own body as she gazes at the crowd, gradually unbuttoning her shirt to reveal red lace lingerie. She feels the pull of eyes as she continues to undress, dancing closer to one audience member and then moving to the other end of the stage to undulate for another. Meanwhile, women in various stages of undress are scattered at tables around the floor, some rubbing their bodies on either men or women, who are seated and watching. Both performers and observers appear to be caught up in the sensual environment, erotic tension mingling with the pulsing music and light show.

This vivid scene exemplifies one of the erotic moments in Lap Dancing (Mike Sedan, 1995), a direct-to-video (DTV) erotic thriller about an innocent actress who takes a job at a strip club in order to "get in touch" with her sexuality; after her "education," she is finally experienced enough to land a mature and sensual role as a full-fledged screen actress. Similarly, 2002 DVD releases (or straight-to-video features) such as Lady in Blue (Michael Paul Girard, 1996), Illicit Confessions (Mike Sedan, 1997), Two Shades of Blue (James Deck, 1998), and Kiss of Fire (Antonio Tibaldi, 1998) all have significant scenes in strip clubs, where the art of exotic dancing represents a means to seduction and a path toward a woman's gaining sexual knowledge and empowerment.

Still, this specific description of an exotic dancer at work (or play) resonates well beyond the small screen, for it also describes a Cake "Stripteaseathon," held periodically at a New York City hotspot by Club Cake, an organization devoted to fulfilling "the experiential part of women's sexual lives." Cake (a euphemism for female genitalia) was founded in 2000 by two female (and one male) straight twenty-something New Yorkers. The club has subsequently taken off, currently attracting more than twenty-five thousand subscribers worldwide and sponsoring lap dancing gatherings, vibrator parties, and porn watching nights-all specifically geared toward straight female participants and the men they choose to invite. As one of the founders, Melinda Gallagher, suggests, "The women participating are doing so not to fulfill a male fantasy but to fulfill an empowered vision of themselves not having anything to do with the male paradigm." This same "empowered vision" can be witnessed in Los Angeles at Crunch Fitness, part of a nationwide fitness chain. There women participate in "Cardio Striptease" classes where they can learn to take off more than weight, but they're warned, "Careful, it may also improve your private life." As Genevieve Field, copublisher of the "literary smut" Web site, explains, "Sex is chic right now."

The connections drawn between the representations in the erotic thriller and these contemporary examples of female heterosexual culture are not accidental. They suggest a powerful intermingling of sexual consumerism, feminized niche marketing, and a postfeminist focus on sexual exploration as the means to female empowerment. All these themes circulate through, and are perpetuated by, the sexy and female-oriented erotic thriller genre. Part romance novel, part made-for-television movie, part noir thriller, these films are influenced by multiple genres and introduce a distinct, gendered formula for visual arousal. The scene from Mike Sedan's Lap Dancing, which highlights the experiences of a sexually frustrated and emotionally unsatisfied woman, typifies their narrative and subjective focus. Two primary components-erotic sex and suspenseful thrills-combine to create the erotic thriller genre, a contemporary form of soft-core pornography that, as opposed to hard-core, male-oriented porn, deals specifically with the sexual subjectivity of women and the social construction of gender.

The study of an erotic film genre geared toward women is inevitably an exploration of contemporary attitudes about femininity, for the sexual materials produced address larger cultural perspectives on sexual behavior and social gender roles. What popular culture deems "sexy" contributes to the commodification and construction of the contemporary sexual woman. Representations in sexual entertainment products and the materials that make the experience of "sexiness" possible-lingerie, champagne, candles, soft lighting, mood music-evolve from a longstanding cultural imperative to differentiate gender roles, situating women's desire as "other" to men's. All of these signifiers then contribute to the production of a "feminized" version of heterosexuality, as women are repeatedly linked in films and other cultural forms (magazines, novels, television) to certain standards of sexual behavior and to the products that contribute to maintaining femininity's status quo.

The DTV erotic thriller is a form of erotic entertainment that specifically addresses heterosexual female viewers, and the emergence of this genre coincides with a definitive cultural tension surrounding femininity, heterosexuality, and feminist discourses. "Feminism" remains a very contentious term and movement within contemporary culture, where the 1980s backlash outlined by Susan Faludi has continued to transform public opinion surrounding definitions of feminism and femininity. Celebrity critics and authors, whose work circulates in the popular press and on network television, instigate many of the tensions surrounding the "correct" definition of feminism. This accessible, popular form of feminist-related writing and discourse I term "pop feminism," as distinguished from more academic and activist-oriented writing by its mass circulation and its predominant support of traditional representations of femininity.

The DTV erotic thriller intersects with pop feminist ideals about sexuality. In the last decade, the popular press has been glorifying the "bad girl," and sexual experiences are seen as intrinsic to the construction of heterosexuality, evidenced in articles written for Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Glamour, Redbook, and other traditional women's magazines. The narratives and structural characteristics of the erotic thriller are similar to the rhetoric of sexual self-help articles that claim sexual experience and experimentation as a quick way to liberation and empowerment. Both forms of popular culture posit a hyperidealism toward the possibilities of sexual exploration, without considering the sociopolitical power dynamics that influence sexual practices. The erotic thriller's system of contradictions maintains an either/or structure regarding femininity, similar to the madonna/whore binary circulating throughout representations of women in all forms of culture. While the heroines of the films explore various sexual practices, an underlying threat of danger and destruction relating to this exploration always exists. On a superficial level, these films offer a kind of how-to scheme for creating desire and romance in the bedroom, and a safe way for spectators to experience "bad girl" sexiness-stripping, exotic dancing, and prostitution. Yet the films simultaneously limit sexual exploration through a system of dangers and punishments, where the heroine's "freedom" to explore is allowed within the constraints of marriage, compulsory heterosexuality, and romantic idealism. The feminist values of economic and emotional independence are always accompanied by danger and murder, so while heroines may experience the majority of their sexual interludes outside of marriage, through infidelity, the murders and threatening situations that ensue within the narrative reinforce the importance of certain standards of femininity.

The predominating syntax that shapes these films combines a romanticized, "erotic" appeal with a dangerous "thriller" narrative-a "pleasure/danger" principle. In the erotic thriller, the narrative thrust of infidelity provides pleasure for the film's heroine while simultaneously containing that desire with threat, often in the form of a murderous husband or a psychotic lover. Inevitably, someone ends up dead, and the heroine is either blamed or positioned as the next victim, suggesting that her desires elicit some form of punishment. The structure of the film perpetuates discourses surrounding active female sexuality within other pop culture forms, especially in the wake of the 1980s porn debates that coined the phrase "pleasure and danger." Contemporary women's magazines, talk shows, and soap operas utilize both instructional and therapeutic discourses in an attempt to fix heterosexual female identity, focusing on women's responsibility for their own sexual pleasures (with articles and stories such as "Seven Days to Even Better Sex," "Are You Having All the Orgasms You Can?" "8 Pleasure Maxing Positions" and "The Better-Orgasm Diet!"). The erotic thriller replicates these issues, focusing upon the heroine's pursuit of sexual pleasure, yet regulating these desires through the danger these pursuits appear to entail. These films verify the instability of female heterosexuality within modern culture: a sexuality that exists in an active, mutating form that requires containment and suppression.

While this book can be seen as feminist film criticism, I do not see these films as feminist films; rather, I recognize that the erotic thriller emerged within a period influenced by the women's movement and its public media backlash. The tensions surrounding definitions of feminism and female heterosexuality structure the ideological meanings implied in these texts. In providing a context for these films, I look closely at two forms of popular culture associated with female consumers: the women's magazine and the erotic romance novel. Neither of these media forms proposes to be feminist in idea or goal, but each still contains discourses important to women, feminist and otherwise. In looking at women's culture, I also explore the way the media currently defines "feminism," and the interest within pop feminism in how "sexual women" relate to power and pleasure. Still, throughout this text, I suggest that the term "feminism" is slippery and elusive, a historically specific term that evolves and mutates.

The foundations of this research on the DTV erotic thriller were laid years ago amidst a deluge of theoretical work on pornography. Hard-core porn resonates with controversy, dividing both feminists and film theorists regarding the interpretation of its meanings and function within popular culture. Hardcore pornography is generically unique in revealing the evidence of sexual pleasure and the construction of heterosexual male subjectivity through its conventions. However, soft-core porn dwells between two realms: the explicit sex of hard core and the rather mundane world of mainstream narrative cinema. In a way, soft core would appear complicitous with the worst of both realms, pandering in the blatant sexual exploitation of women's bodies while forming a universe around a male character's actions and voyeuristic gaze. Yet, beginning in the 1990s, soft core emerged in another incarnation that complicated any tidy definitions of its purpose: as the erotic thriller.

The direct-to-video market labels these soft-core films "erotic thrillers," the designation clearly readable on the display cases at the local video store or after a Netflix description, accompanying titles such as Illicit Dreams (Andrew Stevens, 1995), Two Shades of Blue (James Deck, 2000), Sexual Malice (Jag Mundhra, 199 ), Dead Sexy (Robert Angelo, 2001), and Bare Deception (Eric Gibson, 2000). What distinguishes these films from mainstream fare such as Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, 1987), Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992), or Killing Me Softly (Chen Kaige, 2002)-besides lower budgets, more sex, and "B" movie stars-is that they never play the big screen. These films are strictly straight-to-video or cable broadcast films, which displaces their reception from the public experience of a darkened theater to the private experience of the home. Their proliferation in video stores and on Netflix also coincides with the porn industry's interest in garnering a female audience, trying to attract couples (instead of just heterosexual men) to sexually explicit viewing. While hard core throughout the last twenty years became more episodic in structure, the erotic thriller combined both narrative and sexual spectacle, attaching a story to the interplay of bodies. Furthermore, erotic films geared toward women appear to require richly detailed, feminized mise-en-scène to appeal to their target audience. According to the way the films are marketed, with box covers displaying half-naked men and women in a romance-novel clinch, female-oriented sex and the trappings of romance are interdependent and indistinguishable.

This project focuses upon how the erotic thriller engages with female heterosexual spectatorship and desire, for the genre does maintain certain semantic and syntactic elements that link it to other women's genres: the "woman's film" of the 19 0s, the bodice ripper or erotic romance novel, the female gothic, the made-for-television movie, talk shows, and soap operas. Like most genres, the erotic thriller repeats a formulaic system that provides certain pleasures and fulfills expectations; this formula becomes apparent in terms of the numerous sequels involved (Body Chemistry 1-4, Indecent Behavior 1-3, Night Eyes 1-4, Animal Instincts 1-3). Each film focuses upon a heterosexual female protagonist who is actively negotiating her sexuality, the narrative usually following the trajectory of her sexual frustration to her sexual fulfillment. Furthermore, male bodies are also objectified (within the parameters of R-rated film) and women are positioned as looking, watching, gazing, and acting on their desires. Frequently, flashbacks and fantasies are shown on screen to indicate the heroine's subjectivity, and sex scenes are very romanticized, focusing upon the mise-en-scène of desire rather than the explicit display of bodies. Sex scenes are candle-lit, soft focus, with billowing curtains and luxurious bedding, designer lingerie, champagne, strawberries, bubble baths, and much kissing and caressing. This emphasis on material objects indicates the connection the genre has to popular cultural products and consumption.

Yet, a tension exists between the accumulation of material wealth and the lack of emotional and sexual satisfaction in the heroine's life. The heroine is usually a high-powered career woman, frequently married, who emasculates her husband by making more money than he does. The husband denies the heroine sexual pleasure, so she must move outside of the marriage in order to achieve fulfillment; this move toward infidelity contradicts many Hollywood narratives, past and present, where marriage is the goal. Here, marriage is dreadful and often deadly. Still, infidelity, in the end, is never completely encouraged, as the heroine's experience of life-threatening danger indicates the narrative tensions such generic disruption causes. In an erotic realm of seemingly "both/and" sexual experiences, where a woman is "free" to explore her sexual appetites, the "either/or" structure of contemporary femininity maintains a firm hold. The madonna/whore binary means you can't have your cake (sexual pleasure) and eat it too (romantic commitment).

My research does not include demographic statistics or ethnographic surveys that would suggest who the "actual" viewers of the erotic thriller might be. As Chuck Kleinhans stipulates, there is very little reliable demographic information as to who is watching and buying certain types of sexual materials. Furthermore, since sexual entertainment viewing is linked to issues of privacy, and in some cases, secrecy, the trail of "actual" viewers becomes hard to trace. While I think this area of film studies is underdeveloped in the examination of both hard- and soft-core porn, to constitute the exact audience for the erotic thriller would have to take into account the industrial and marketing concerns that construct that audience (and therefore have a stake in creating a certain demographic). Instead, I am interested in how the genre's specific formal, narrative, and textual operations position certain types of engagements and forms of subjectivity. The erotic thriller's relationship to other women's genres, as well as its narrative concern with active female protangonists, suggests its worthiness as an object of study for critical feminist inquiry.


Excerpted from SEXY THRILLS by NINA K. MARTIN Copyright © 2007 by Nina K. Martin. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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