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A Taste for Brown Sugar
Black Women in Pornography
By Mireille Miller-Young
Duke University PressCopyright © 2014 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Sepia Sex Scenes
Spectacles of Difference in Race Porn
The same unknown actress appears in two 16 mm stag films projected onto the wall of a private collector's apartment located just down the block from Harvard University. The collector, an expert in film restoration with a soft spot for vintage erotic film, explains that it is not unusual to find footage from one pornographic film used in another because, from the 1920s to the 1960s, films were constantly edited and duplicated to make new material. The actress is an attractive black woman in her twenties, with a light-skinned complexion, pressed hair set in waves almost to her shoulders, a dancer's perfectly toned body, and bright, captivating eyes. In the first film, which like most 16 mm stags of the period was only about ten minutes long and lacked a soundtrack, the unnamed actress plays a maid. The film is titled The Golden Shower because the mistress of the home, Miss Park Avenue, apparently gets urinated on while having sex with her butler in the bath. Following this, the intertitle claims, "desire lingers on"; Miss Park Avenue, still naked in the bath, calls for the maid to bring her robe. Dressed in a maid's uniform, the black actress arrives after she, too, has had a romp with the butler in the living room. As she begins to fulfill the sexual demands of the mistress by kissing, caressing, and providing oral sex, an intertitle announces, "No Depression here. Stock Market's down and so is the maid." Shot in the 1930s, this stag film uses humor about the financial crisis to narrate the heightened tension of the times about sex across race and class, between a black woman and a white woman, a domestic worker and a wealthy employer.
In the next film the collector screens for me, The Hypnotist, the same actress appears once more. This time she is Madam Cyprian, a hypnotist for hire in what appears to be her own home. A rather matronly white woman arrives with her better-dressed husband, and from the few intertitles in this film, we can deduce that they are looking for help in their sex life from a skilled hypnotherapist. Madam Cyprian first begins a "séance" with the wife. The camera focuses on her entranced face and especially on her mesmerizing eyes, framed by gesticulating hands. Madam Cyprian leads the transfixed wife to her bedroom to have sex, returning later to enact the same "séance" with the husband, having sex with him as well. Once satisfied that she has instructed him, Madam Cyprian leads the husband to the bedroom to meet the naked, now-aroused wife. There the hypnotist directs the entranced spouses in how to have (presumably improved) sex. Finally, Madam Cyprian joins in, and the three possessed bodies form a spellbound ménage à trois. Through the black woman's exotic, sexual, supernatural abilities, the white family is magically restored. The white man, whose gaze this film was assuredly designed to address, realizes his fantasy of having both women, one domestic and the other exotic. Yet in both films, though the black actress performs two kinds of sexual labor in the service of white women and men, there are powerful moments in which the camera focuses on her mesmeric face and we find her smiling back at us, mischievously winking, comically rolling her eyes, mugging for the camera, and playfully sticking out her tongue. In these animated facial performances—what I call "facial stunting"—stag-film actresses inserted a complex performance of black subjectivity into the film text. These gestures are important because they highlight how black women's performances in pornography simultaneously conformed to and challenged the representational and physical conditions of their labor.
In these gestural interventions, I argue, there are clues as to how black women in early pornographies experienced their sex work and deployed creative, embodied repertoires of performance to negotiate the representations they were called to inhabit. Imagining that actresses like the unknown woman in The Golden Shower and The Hypnotist may have intervened in these films' racialized fantasies about black womanhood, at a time when modern commercial pornography was just beginning to take shape, helps us to consider the strategies of black erotic performers more than eighty years later. If we acknowledge that black sex workers in porn are not only victims of bad representations, but sexual agents and complex social actors who work on, within, and against problematic tropes about blackness in today's pornography, we might imagine that early performers, under rather different conditions of sexual commerce, technological innovation, and racial oppression, may have done the same thing.
Stag films, or early pornographic movies, offer a rare lens through which to observe gendered sexuality, unauthorized fantasy, and racial fetishism as they were imagined, performed, captured, and circulated in the early twentieth century. This early pornography helps to historicize erotic fantasies as objects open to study. Because pornographic media were illegal in the United States during the stag-film era, we can now view only what was rescued from, or catalogued and archived by censors charged with eliminating these films. Because so much early pornography was deliberately destroyed or unintentionally lost, the remaining materials are even more remarkable for those of us hoping to trace the performances of the anonymous actors and models therein. The rarity of surviving stag films also means that it is extremely difficult to evaluate the nature of their representational codes, the labor conditions and experiences of stag performers, or the precise nature of the production and consumption of these materials. Moreover, because early pornography was both illicit and stigmatized, it is difficult to find former actors who acknowledge a role in making it. If these actors are still living, there is no simple way to track down people who worked under aliases in what was truly an underground enterprise. No one has collected their stories, no libraries keep their records, and no grandchildren, assuming they even knew about it, are proudly stepping forward to share knowledge about their grandmother's porn career during the Depression. Despite these difficulties in researching stag films it is essential to understand how black women came to be objects of interest in pornography. Although much of the evidence available in the latter part of this book—including the voices of the actors—has been lost, the stag period provides a crucial background to the story of how black women shape pornography and how they are shaped by it.
To study black women in stag films one must first reconstruct an archive of the presence of black people in this popular though underground media form. I have been involved in a process of excavation and interpretation of this lost archive of black women's images throughout this project, digging for rare photographs in bins in the street markets of Paris, culling materials from the secret vaults of institutional research centers, and screening the private collections of film buffs trading in vintage erotica. My own work has been akin to the methodology discussed by Giuliana Bruno in her book Streetwalking on a Ruined Map, in which she illuminates what it is like to move through an "archeological site of textual absences and voids" of a cultural production that has "not only been forgotten but lost to the historical archive." Like Bruno, I am interested in exploring a "territory of subjugated popular knowledge," and, like an archeologist, I want to "mine the field" to "reveal discontinuous, diverse, and disqualified areas." In mapping a genealogy of black women in pornography, this project necessarily navigates a terrain of knowledge that is incomplete, inaccessible, devalued, and dying—much of the material I found is literally disintegrating! Researchers that have been able to excise and examine the extant materials tend to focus on genre and spectatorship, rather than on the production of early pornography as a site of racial erotics, racial drama, and race relations. By mining the landscape of forgotten and lost pornography I want to illuminate how pornographic images are firmly embedded in economic, social, and cultural systems that create and circulate meanings about racial difference and blackness in the West.
A Competing Gaze
The concept of the gaze, for many feminist scholars, serves as a paradigm for asymmetrical power relations: the domination of the slave by the master, the colonized by the colonizer, and woman by man. That the spectacle of the enslaved or colonized black body was presented for a dominating "imperial gaze" is an important starting point for thinking about how black bodies have historically been imbued with sexual meanings that come to be reiterated in pornography and to have powerful legacies in U.S. media culture today. That spectacle is separate from the spectacle of black people in early pornography, which was a specific genre of representation created to excite arousal and circulated to extract profit. Yet both types of spectacle—the imperial gaze and the spectacle of black bodies in stag film—are intertwined. If the function of slavery was to guarantee the use of enslaved black bodies for the needs of the master, part of the power of the master's imperial gaze was the assurance of visual pleasure, and of owning the right to look. This voyeuristic pleasure in the imperial gaze shaped black women's representations and labors, and at the same time rendered them objects of this gaze, as other and obscene, through forces of the market, law, science, art, invention, and ideology. This pornographic gaze extracted pleasure from the eroticized, fetishized creature it created. It fabricated black women as illicit erotic objects.
Imagine the abjection and pain endured by black women experiencing the sexualized nature of spectacularized vision: their very sense of self attached to the look of others, the profound forces of social control they experienced daily linked to the exposing imagery of their bodies. Yet despite these very real material constraints black women faced as spectacles, we must not forget their subjectivity.
I propose that the spectacle of racial and sexual fetishism in early pornography can be reread to include moments of subjectivity, consensual expression, and sometimes, resistance alongside histories of sexual subordination. Since the 1970s many scholars have challenged gaze theory, arguing that the spectator/spectacle relationship is not merely one of social control, but is full of contradictions and reversals. What I am suggesting here is that, although the pornographic gaze—the visual culture around black women's sexuality that gives rise to the formal industry of pornography in the late-twentieth century—has, at its roots, a racial and sexual fetishism obsessed with the fascinations and horrors of black women's difference, this relationship of power can be, and has been, refused, deflected, and appropriated by black women themselves.
The idea that black women could insert subjectivity, agency, or even resistance into oppressive and alienating representations like pornography may seem unthinkable. This unthinkability is especially the case for the period under discussion in this chapter, spanning slavery to Jim Crow, when African Americans embraced conservative moral values to counter discourses of black sexual deviance. Because historians have often allied the narrative of black resistance with conservative sexual morality to counter sexual appropriation and abuse, my choice to center the pornographic may seem to risk reasserting the dominant perception of black sexual pathology and inferiority. Yet, to see black women only as spectacles fixes them in a passive role that denies them any chance of articulating their own desires, pleasures, and needs.
Discussions of how black women operate on the sexual margins continue to produce anxiety among blacks about how all black people might be seen by whites, and about the purported romanticization of rogue actors, who, in accommodating racist and sexist images, fail to present a favorable view of the black community. As many scholars have argued, black subjects on the margins call into question the logic upholding bourgeois gender and sexual norms within black communities, which have been used as a bid to achieve civil and human rights. These marginals expose gender and sexuality as disciplinary regimes which when embraced by black communities, all too often, propel the very regimes of racist, biopolitical control of black populations that black people are attempting to resist. Black gender and sexual outsiders—sex workers, queers, gender nonconformists, and others—offer a lens through which to view how racial power is always bound to gender and sexuality, and how those persisting under these intersecting oppressions labor to negotiate and shape the forces of race, gender, and sexuality in their lives.
This book attempts to conceptualize how black women's historical subordination operates in chorus with their always-present insurgency against the unbearable weight of oppression in their lives. Using a mobile conceptual framework that I term "black feminist pornographics," this chapter launches a reading practice that strategically speculates on the evidence missing from this incomplete archive. Inspired by my research on living performers in the adult industry (see chapters 3–6), this methodology argues that attempts to assert a competing vision of value and desire—a competing gaze—are embedded in the most egregious and mundane representations. These moves toward a competing gaze may not always be successful, or progressive, but they are always contestatory of existing looking relations.
For black women, representation is a contest of wills. This understanding leads me to what might be considered an anachronistic and even risky scholarly practice of reading backward, recovering black women performers' subjectivity through taking seriously chance moments like the self-aware facial performance of the unnamed actress who opens this chapter. To read backward is to revise history. Beyond recounting black women's appearance in early pornography and the kinds of representational fetishes they were called upon to embody in their performances, this recovery of the archive involves speculating on how they might have experienced and made use of pornography as a site of erotic labor and expression, while holding in tension the ways that they must have also experienced it as a space of exploitation and constraint. While we cannot know the intent of these unknown and unknowable actors, I argue that we must consider their possible resistant uses of pornography despite the probable conditions that existed for them under particular and shifting historical circumstances. To imagine a space for black women's resistance in early pornography, we can plumb the ambivalent performances found in this dying archive. This is a necessary risk for the project of centering the subjectivity of marginal black woman actors.
Black Feminist Pornographics: A Brief History
Black sexual history is not merely a story of expropriation and regulation, but one that involves black people's sustained battle for sexual subjectivity, agency, and autonomy. A wide range of expressive forms have given voice to black Americans' aspirations for erotic sovereignty. Following the demise of slavery in the United States, sexuality, Angela Davis writes, became an essential domain for black women to activate subjectivity, agency, and autonomy: "For the first time in the history of the African presence in North America, masses of black women and men were in a position to make autonomous decisions regarding the sexual partnerships into which they entered. Sexuality was thus one of the most tangible domains in which emancipation was acted upon and through which its meanings were expressed. Sovereignty in sexual matters marked an important divide between life during slavery and life after emancipation." Though songstresses like Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday were not always the authors of their lyrics, their performance of blues songs still expressed a complex sexual experience and consciousness that would have been impossible under slavery. Davis reads chance moments in blues performances as evidence of black women articulating their longings for love, intimacy, and sexual pleasure alongside critiques of their racist lynching, exploitative wage labor, systemic abuse, and grinding poverty. These "blues women" show that within expressions of sexual subjectivity there can exist critiques of sexual and other kinds of oppression and injustice.
Like the blues, early photographic and film pornography featuring black women functioned as a tangible domain for sexual subjectivity and sociality. Black women's dynamic pornographic performances provide sites to imagine where, even when they do not control the means or modes of production, black women could potentially express a visual poetics of erotic being and relation. In addition, like blues women, black women in pornography confronted both forces of structural oppression and expectations from the African American community to live up to middle-class respectability.
Excerpted from A Taste for Brown Sugar by Mireille Miller-Young. Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsPreface. Confessions of a Black Feminist Academic Photographer vii
Introduction. Brown Sugar: Theorizing Black Women's Sexual Labor in Photography 1
1. Sepia Sex Scenes: Spectacles of Difference in Race Porn 23
2. Sexy Soul Sisters: Black Women in the Golden Era 66
3. Black Chicks: Marketing Black Women in the Video Era 104
4. Ho Theory: Black Female Sexuality at the Convergence of Hip Hop and Pornography 142
5. (Black) Porn Star: Aspirations and Realities in Porn Work 180
6. Behind the Scenes: Confronting Disempowerment and Creating Change in Black Women's Porn Work 226
Epilogue. Behind the Camera: Black Women's Illicit Erotic Interventions 263
What People are Saying About This
"A Taste for Brown Sugar is a thorough and compelling look at a subject steeped in society's anxiety and imagination: black women in pornography. Mireille Miller-Young dives head first into a thorny topic with clear, nuanced thinking. This book tackles complicated issues of race, sex work, feminism, pleasure, and representation in a rigorous, thoughtful way. Finally: scholarship that centers black women's labor and ideas in both academia and the sex industries and gives crucial voice to underrepresented workers and feminist thinkers. Miller-Young's approach is intersectional, engaging, and, above all, accessible to scholars and general readers alike. This book will enrage you, enlighten you, and make you rethink everything you know about race and sex."
"A Taste for Brown Sugar is a game changer, a courageous and bold book that shifts the discourse on the contested history of race and porn. Mireille Miller-Young's rigorous historical and ethnographic research disrupts the 'good versus bad' binary that has dogged debates about pornography for decades."