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As Powerful as She Wants to Be
By Rich Moreland
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2014 Rich Moreland
All rights reserved.
Real Sex Merchants
"If no one could define a skunk more closely than that, campers would be in trouble."
Walter Kendrick on Justice Potter Stewart's declaration that he knew pornography when he saw it, though he could not precisely describe what he saw. From The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture (1996)
A One Reel Showpiece
"In the wide open spaces where 'men are men' and 'girls will be girls', the hills are filled with romance and adventure," reads the title card that opens a 1915 silent film, A Free Ride. A clumsy tale of a man who picks up two girls in his Model T, the brief vignette introduces hardcore sex to a fading Victorian Age. The one reel showpiece is an early documented classic; a grainy black and white celebration of sexual curiosity wrapped around the quick and somewhat effortless seduction of willing females. It is real sex, the non-simulated type, and establishes "smokers" or "blue movies" as the original hardcore genre of American film. In the early decades of the twentieth century, society demanded that a proper woman, uncorrupted by immoral and lewd thoughts, stifle her sexual expression. However, beneath the humdrum and propriety of the farm, neighborly small towns and city office buildings, lay a substratum of sexual delights. Simply put, there are women not bound by decorum and A Free Ride's viewers are privy to a secret: girls like to have fun, too, and can call their own shots while they are at it.
Urban areas offered clandestine venues for stags. The films were whorehouse appetizers designed to titillate the imagination and open the wallet. On the far side of the bawdy house were fraternal organizations, local clubs and fire halls. Here stags offered sophomoric peep shows that replaced the bordello adventure with a few guffaws and dirty jokes. Stags sneaked into these gentlemen only environs on a catch as catch can basis. Illegality was assuaged when local gendarmes looked the other way in exchange for a free pass to watch the sinful. A quick buck was the hustler's aim and a fast exit after the show expected. Like an archeological find at the end of digging season, the offending layer of the hardcore was covered over, at least until the next visit.
The short reels present a loose narrative revolving around a handful of themes sketched into a plot. Among them are the doctor's office where the female patient willingly disrobes; the bored housewife who entertains a stranger, often a delivery man or handyman or on the darker side, a housebreaker or neighborhood voyeur. The casting couch is the most direct scenario. The male professional, commonly a teacher or film producer, seduces the innocent female who yields for a promise or a little needed cash. When the modern hardcore film age enters the American consciousness, these themes are revisited with regularity. The classic Deep Throat (1972) is a doctor's office spoof. Over time extra characters are added. The husband comes home unexpectedly to join in his wife's deliveryman fun; the doctor's nurse, in her "usual" office wear of garters and heels, participates in the patient's "treatment." Stags emphasize chance encounters, reflective of fantasies where sex is exhibited for its own sake to entertain the "male gaze." The emotional connections of the characters are vacant, allowing the viewer unencumbered access to the carnal. In its simplest form, the central notion of a stag is that the sex is viewed with an adolescent lens and the assumption prevails that a good time is had by all.
In their heyday stags were comedic, displaying society's average sort, individuals whose personhoods are of no consequence when it comes to the sex. The men are older, appearing sometimes paunchy, and the women a tad worn. If the female performers are seen as sex objects it isn't because they are degraded or humiliated. Their identities are missing by virtue of the stag's limited storyline, leaving only their sexuality to explain their presence. Yet stags are multilayered in their format. One level presents an inside look at a hooker and her "john." The motel film of the late stag period reinforces this convenient image. The audience assumes a blue movie female to be a sex worker playing herself, sexually receptive to a man she has just met. Another view is the couple next door that turns the audience into a collective voyeur. Other stags illustrate the simplest definition of the filmed pornographic narrative, disconnected persons who show up for sex. Who they are as individuals is unimportant. As writer Dave Thompson indicates, stag performers are any of us and all of us and it matters little if the women are prostitutes, entertainers, or office workers and the men merely store clerks or delivery workers. It's the fantasy that counts.
The 1920s was a decade of stag popularity. A wink and a nod greeted special movie nights for local men's groups and college fraternities. The period offered up the perfect stag girl persona, the rebellious flapper. Modern and independent, bratty and middle class, she drank, smoked and partied with the speakeasy crowd. This Jazz Age sweetie might, given the right circumstances, unabashedly spread her legs for the camera. The working class stag viewer saw these tarts exposed and flat on their backs, subjects of the vulgar joke that is the film itself. But reality presented shades of difference because female stag performers, especially the unemployed Hollywood actresses looking for a break, were far removed from the upper classes.
With a few exceptions, everyone has a delicious romp in the stag. Researchers Al Di Lauro and Gerald Rabkin believe the film illustrates the vulgar humor found in adolescent off-color jokes. Typical is the early 1920s short The Goat. The male hero, a bit of a simpleton, is easily played for a fool by the female characters. In the pivotal scene he is standing against a fence with his penis poking through an opening in it, a primitive version of what is commonly known as a "glory hole" in modern adult film. An amused woman presses her nude body against the opposite side. The narrative's three females conspire to dominate the joke. The unsuspecting man copulates with a goat he cannot see when it replaces the female on the other side. Exhausted, he peers over the fence and announces, via the title card, to the giggling trio, "That's the best girl I ever had in my life."
The film is typical of stags in which the woman plays the hand. She determines if the sex is to occur. Film historian Constance Penley believes the stag genre is feminine friendly, noting that women often start the sex and define its boundaries, a modern sex-positive feminist idea. Male sexual ignorance is exposed when the "hero" gets his comeuppance. Women are the mischievous ones and men, as revealed in The Goat, are duped by the gag.
Despite the message that women often enjoy themselves in these blue movies, anti-porn feminism decades later will insist that stag women are objectified and harmed, victims of the male gaze. Incidentally, objectification also applies to men who, like the female performers, have no larger character development. In fact the clueless men are frequently incompetent buffoons, hardly bearers of a gaze that humiliates. Without a deeper understanding of who these early hardcore performers are and why they interact with each other, the objectification question lingers.
Let in the Thieves
Modern society 1920s style was ready to break from its Victorian prudery. The promise of open sexual attitudes hovered over a post- war youth acclimating itself to fast living and the automobile. Enamored with a new urban culture, girls bobbed their hair and lifted their hemlines beyond the naughty. By age nineteen or twenty women left home for work, college or both, putting off traditional married life for the present. Flaunting their newfound independence, they rebelled against prohibition and kissed any man they wanted, much to the horror of their Victorian mothers.
For the fledging Hollywood film industry, the Jazz Age brought scandal and harassment. Movies were too dissolute, reflecting Tinseltown's weakness for parties, drugs, alcohol and sex. Accusations of murder were foisted on comedian Fatty Arbuckle in 1921, which personified Hollywood's moral turpitude. Starlet Virginia Rappe died in a San Francisco hotel room while partying with Arbuckle and his friends. The circumstances of her untimely death along with rumors of her alcohol use, past abortions and venereal disease painted Hollywood in its foulest colors. The demise of other Hollywood types under similar circumstances, director William Desmond Taylor and actress Olive Thomas in particular, sparked an outrage that pressured the film industry to self-police or face government intervention. The result was a film review board, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. Largely run by Irish Catholic Joe Breen, the committee produced a set of guidelines under the direction of former Postmaster General, Indiana Republican Will H. Hays. Launched in the mid-1930s the Hollywood Production Code, or the Hays Code as it is generally known, was a bitter dose of self-regulation. It was lax on violence but draconian in its treatment of anything sexual. The self-appointed guardian of moral values, the Catholic Church, chimed in with its own monitoring organization to lend Hays zesty support. Formed in 1934 the Catholic Legion of Decency (CLD) assumed the high-minded judgment of censorship and survived until the mid-1950s. At that point the moralists transitioned to a new censorship organization with lessons learned. The Citizens for Decent Literature (CDL) kept its Catholic roots but avoided overt displays of religious zealotry.
The post World War I years offered up receptive audiences for the exploitation film, a product designed to skirt Hays by living on the boundaries of the acceptable. Marketed with carnival hucksterism, these movies traveled from town to city with a road show shtick that assured the customer a peek at the lustful, but delivered little that aroused. An elusive coterie of independent entrepreneurs, widely known as the Forty Thieves, promoted their films as adult fare. Exploitation became synonymous with low production costs and bad taste advertised with "carnivalesque ballyhoo." The producers controlled distribution by dividing the nation into regions and booking films in rented theaters or other venues not connected with the major studios. Publicity gimmicks tagged along to lure the audience. The big draw was shock and titillation. Lobby posters hinted at the depravity and wickedness that befall the naïve young women who are ensnared in lust and shame. Unforgivable vices expressly condemned by the Code and not on Hollywood's radar, prostitution, drugs, abortion, venereal disease, interracial sex, white slavery and unwed motherhood, set up the exploitation agenda.
Grindhouses, small urban theaters avoided by polite society, served as the exploiter's roost, but there were too few to make a reasonable profit. Backwater towns and summertime carnivals provided more fertile territory. The rumored cheap thrills of exploitation fare tapped the shoulder of the surrounding population for a look-see. A road show stop brought the rube's golden chance, assuming his moxie held. But the local farmhand and town clerk got a mere smidgen of what he thought he was buying. Whether it was a carnival stop or a local cinema, David Friedman, the master of the exploitation racket in the post World War II era, summarized the longstanding secret to success: promise the lewd and bawdy and show practically nothing. The locals left thinking the next time they'd see it all only to shell out their hard earned bucks for another round of disappointment.
Exploitation films reinforced a Victorian ethos that shaped America's rural temperament, especially in the years between the wars. Offering a narrative packaged around the sexual, exploitation films supported formidable conservative values such as marriage and family while dealing with vices that threatened the young. Enticing titles sold morality lessons. The exploitation gem Reefer Madness (1936) is a tale of high school students whose marijuana use entangles them in a web of self-destruction. (In the later Cold War years, the film resurfaced as a humorous cult classic for a drug-oriented counterculture.) Other films such as The Sin of Nora Moran (1933), The Wages of Sin (1938), and Secrets of a Model (1940) deliver the unforgiving message that sadly naïve young women are headed for shame and broken lives whenever they abandon traditional virtues. Slaves in Bondage (1937) cautions the public about the evils of prostitution and how unsuspecting girls fall prey to the debauchery lurking in the big city nightscape. The "don'ts" of the Hays Code always reassured the moviegoer that home is father's haven and it is best to stay there until marriage safely opens the door to intimate bliss. In the exploitation product a woman's sexual agency is absent. Her vulnerability and exposure to transgression marks her destruction.
Depression era America retained its small town homogeneity and its missionary position sexuality. Warnings of venereal disease and the evils of masturbation were the twin bogeymen that by some measure controlled physical expression among the young. Notwithstanding CLD opposition, sex hygiene films of the 1930s such as Damaged Lives (1933), a picture about the ravages of sexually transmitted infections, provided the only knowledge of the intimate some people ever got. The CLD condemned these films as insidious foreign imports unfit for a robust American youth. Such accusations gained traction in a time of impending war in Europe. Fascism engulfed Italy and Germany while the specter of world communism loomed out of Russia. An isolationist leaning public was wary of unwanted immigration and anyone whose roots hinted of foreign influence was seen as a threat to Americanism.
The most enduring exploitation film was a post-war latecomer called Mom and Dad (1945), the story of an unwed pregnant high school girl and her missteps into an abyss of shame. Produced and marketed by road show extraordinaire Howard "Kroger" Babb, whose nickname comes from working in a Kroger grocery store, the fairly dull production has a hook: the birth of a baby. Billed as adult fare, separate shows were scheduled for men and women to capitalize on the mysterious and forbidden. To wrap an aura of credibility around the production and forestall the censors, Babb employed a guest lecturer, ostensibly a medical person whose name was predominant on the one sheets, and two "nurses," often hired locally for the gig. The lecturer, always identified as "Elliot Forbes," introduced the film using the "square-up," a brief statement about the social problem the film presents. Requiring everyone to sit through the lecture, Babb induced the audience to pony up extra money for a sex education book, extending his profit on every showing. Best of all, the live birth fulfilled the picture's educational purpose, keeping law enforcement at bay.
Mom and Dad was showbiz hokum in its finest hour. David Friedman, who obtained the rights to the film in 1956, claimed that Mom and Dad earned $40 million in its heyday not counting all those books that went for a dollar each. The film had a seemingly endless shelf life, making its final run in the 1970s. In 2005 it was selected for the National Film Registry, the stamp of a classic.
Veiled in Performance Art
Stag popularity was sustained through the Depression and beyond. Offering a bit of relief in exhausting times, an exhibitor with a 16mm projector and a handful of reels was in business anywhere a bed sheet could be tacked on a wall. After two decades of travel, stags continued to fill their own educational niche, revealing the mysteries of the female anatomy and the wonders of sexual techniques. It was a tribal rite of passage, particularly for college students, and a bonding experience for the local men's club. Perhaps a few ideas to try out with the wife was only a hope, but an enticing possibility nonetheless.
While the Forty Thieves plied their trade with little censure, a new barker joined the tour with a risqué creation based on an old idea, the burlesque film. Long a part of vaudeville, live dancers brought the flesh too close to the customer for some morality minded communities. Gypsie Rose Lee starred at Minsky's Burlesque in Times Square until 1937 when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia won his battle against New York City's sex shows. But with the advent of the Second World War, burlesque buoyed morale. Glossies of adored dancers and movie stars circulated in the barracks and painted bodies decorated "nose art" on bombers. Burlesque was suddenly chic.
Excerpted from Pornography Feminism by Rich Moreland. Copyright © 2014 Rich Moreland. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Neglected Stepchildren 1
Remember Where You Started 12
Part 1 23
Chapter 1 Real Sex Merchants 24
Chapter 2 A "Gaze" of Their Own 47
Chapter 3 My Body, My Rules 70
Chapter 4 Her Own Amateur Porn Movie 89
Part 2 111
Chapter 5 An Attitude, Not a Movement 112
Chapter 6 Space for Everyone 136
Chapter 7 Real People are the Medium 156
Chapter 8 My Porn-Art Daughter 170
Chapter 9 Too Much Gray 186
Chapter 10 A Safe Place for All of Us 208
Conclusion: Once Was 230
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I could not put this book down. Informative and compelling.Subject matter I would not ordinarily think about... But glad I did