"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
There was a time, not too long ago, when the idea of making porn for women was unthinkable. It was “completely unheard of,” writes director Candida Royalle in the new anthology “The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure.” She founded Femme Productions in 1984, but when she went looking for distributors for her “female-oriented” films, she was patted on the head and told, “This is a boy’s club.”
Then in the ’90s, fresh off the so-called feminist porn wars, the genre of “couples porn” began to boom. That gave the small cadre of female directors of the time opportunities in the mainstream male-dominated industry — and “porn for women” began to seem less of an oxymoron. The next decade brought an explosion of feminist-minded pornographers — from trans performer Buck Angel to actress-turned-director Madison Young — as well as the creation of the Feminist Porn Awards. Since then we’ve seen the growth of explicit fan fiction — and with it, a greater cultural awareness of female desire for sexual explicitness — which has culminated in the global “Fifty Shades of Grey” phenomenon.
Which brings us to where we are today: We know that an estimated one out of every three porn watchers is a woman. The idea of porn for women is not only thinkable, and heard of, but the phrase is also increasingly being replaced with a more specific descriptor: “feminist porn.” Not that feminism — which, like porn, is not a monolithic entity — is entirely resolved on the issue: That’s why this book, which is filled with compelling essays by porn performers, directors and academics, has appeared now, decades after the “porn wars” began. These are testimonials about attempts to challenge those familiar foes of any Women’s Studies 101 class — from basic gender binaries to every “-ism” out there — but from inside the adult business.
What the book does most beautifully is carve out a middle ground: The unfortunate result of the “porn wars” was “the fixing of an antiporn camp versus a sex-positive/pro-porn camp,” argue the editors, Tristan Taormino, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Constance Penley and Mireille Miller-Young, in the book’s introduction. “On one side, a capital P ‘Pornography’ was a visual embodiment of the patriarchy and violence against women. On the other, Porn was defended as ‘speech,’ or as a form that should not be foreclosed because it might some day be transformed into a vehicle for women’s erotic expression.” Meanwhile, they say, the “nuances and complexities of lowercase ‘pornographies’ were lost in the middle” — and this book is an attempt to elevate that reasonable center.
I spoke with co-editor Taormino, a porn director, sex educator and author of several books, including ”The Ultimate Guide to Kink,” about everything from sex worker rights to labiaplasty.
First things first, the most basic questions there is: How do you define feminist pornography?
The great thing about this book is that that is one of the central questions it is both asking and answering. One of the things we felt really strongly about is that there is no single answer, which I think is appropriate because there is no single response to,”How do you define feminism?” But I will say generally that I consider feminist porn to be both a genre of pornography and a movement. There are some overlapping themes within people’s different definitions of feminist porn: One theme is exploring the idea of how to make the process of making porn more ethical and addressing the issue of labor, which has always been an issue within feminism. How we can make it fair and consensual and ethical, how we treat the people making it and really raising the standards for how we treat sex workers.
It’s funny because I feel like that bit is what’s so often left out in these sorts of debates about whether pornography can be feminist. We become so focused on the actual content of the film and what is being portrayed on the screen rather than all of that background stuff.
Right, and I’m going to get to the content next, but I agree with you. That’s an issue that you see throughout many of these pieces and it’s why it’s also so important that this book puts into conversation both academics and scholars who study and theorize about porn and porn performers and producers who actually create porn. That was the central goal of the book.
But, certainly, besides the process of making it, feminist porn does have a mission behind it, to really address some of the repetitions, the stereotypes, the tropes of some of mainstream pornography and diversify the representation of desire, pleasure, body, race, class, identity, sexual agency. I mean, we are firing on all cylinders here! We are trying to address a lot of different issues all at once. A common misconception about feminist porn is that we are really concerned about women and women’s representations and women’s pleasure. I like to say that as a feminist pornographer, I priorities female desire, pleasure, orgasm, because all too often they aren’t prioritized in other porn — but I also think that we’ve got to dismantle the images and stereotypes around male sexuality. I think that that’s also the work of feminism, to really expose these gender binaries and these stereotypes. It’s really about trying to challenge the whole system, not just one piece of it.
I’m kind of curious, what do you think of descriptors like “porn for women” or “porn for couples”?
The connection between “porn for women” and “porn for couples” and “feminist porn” is a complicated one, which I think is also revealed in the book, because on the one hand there is the genre called porn for women and it is both a precursor and part of feminist porn. So feminists, obviously, have been making porn since the late ’70s and early ’80s, so this idea of feminist porn isn’t a new one, but it certainly has taken hold in a different way, I think, in the past decade. So on the one hand what “porn for women” as a category did was it acknowledged that women can watch, buy and consume porn, which now people would say to that
“duh,” but back in the time of Candida Royalle, that was a radical notion. People laughed in her face. They were like, “No, no, no, honey, 99.99 percent of viewers are men. You are crazy.” Then, of course, she proved everyone wrong. So, by proving that this category even existed, and that female viewers existed, that’s a crucial piece of how we think about porn today.
On the flip side, there certainly are plenty of women I hear from who say, “I watched this so-called ‘porn for women’ and it doesn’t turn me on, and I can totally get the politics of it, but, man, it doesn’t get me off.” In some case it’s because some people consider porn for women to be a softer, gentler, nicer porn and, of course, we got to interrogate and criticize that notion as well. I mean, I think the trouble with even thinking that there even is porn for women is that it assumes a singular female viewer, which isn’t fair and isn’t true. For some people, romance really provides a context for porn, and it really does help them get off on and connect with porn movies. But for other people, they just want to take their underwear off and they just want to see other people take their underwear off too. They don’t need a big story line or a plot or Hollywood production values to make that happen. So, it’s important that this thing exists called “porn for women,” but I don’t want it to box us in and define this as the only porn women want to watch, or should watch.
One of the things that the book makes clear is that feminist pornographers aren’t necessarily “pro-all-porn,” many are actually pretty critical of mainstream porn. So if anything they’re “pro-the-possibilities-of-porn.”
Yes, that’s a great way to put it. I think that for better or for worse, pro-sex or pro-porn feminists have this reputation for being like, “Hey, man, it’s all good!” First of all, I don’t think anyone ever said that, but it somehow has been repeated enough that it’s part of our popular cultural sense, that pro-porn feminists are “down with everything, man.” And it’s just not true. Personally, is there porn out there that I find stupid, boring, repetitive and, yes, even offensive? Absolutely.
I think that one of the things that’s so clear in this book, and which my co-editor Constance Penley is constantly saying, is: One of the things we’re responding to is that there’s this notion that certainly is propagated by anti-porn feminists and other people, which is that there is one thing called porn with a capital “P.” And it’s monolithic and we can qualify it in all these different ways and say this is what it looks like and this is what it does. As Constance says, “That’s just not true.” What there is is a whole series of pornographies with a lowercase “p,” and that’s what we have to look at and investigate. There is no one thing, and she even challenges the notion that there is a clear division between mainstream porn and independent porn, or mainstream porn and feminist porn, because there are feminists working within the mainstream porn industry and then there are feminists working independently, and there are non-feminists working independently, and vice versa. They’re all over the place.
There isn’t one monolithic thing and, yes, of course, built into feminist porn is the notion that we’re critiquing porn that’s already out there, that we feel like doesn’t represent female sexuality in a diverse enough way, doesn’t prioritize female pleasure, doesn’t represent authentic female desire, or simply doesn’t get us off. So we’re going to go and make our own. I think that’s inherent to the thing: Part of what we’re doing is necessarily in response to what’s already out there.
Right. So how do we refer to that porn that feminist pornographers are responding to? Because like you said, “mainstream” doesn’t quite do it.
I’d like to just say “some” mainstream porn, or “repetitive, stereotypical porn.” I feel like the porn that I’m responding to is porn that feels like it’s constantly repeating these very specific sexual roles and these specific tropes, it’s repeating a specific aesthetic, and it feels tired and repetitive and overdone and uninspired.
So speaking of specific aesthetics, the other day you responded on Twitter to a piece I’d written on the labia pride movement. You were concerned that it was unfair to blame the small labia aesthetic on porn, as many labia pride sites do. Can you explain why?
So, obviously, I love the labia pride movement. I was 100 percent behind it. Love it, dig it, support it. And I think we still have a long way to go in terms of normalizing the diversity in female bodies and female genitalia. We know that. But what I was asking you on Twitter was how many quote-unquote tiny, delicate, feminine, perfectly symmetrical vulvas are there in porn, and how many have been arrived at surgically? Because I’ve been in porn for 10 years, I’ve seen a lot of vulvas, a lot of vulvas, and I actually think there’s great diversity of vulvas that I see in the performers I work with and on the sets that I’m on and the porn that I watch. In all of my years of talking to people who are pretty honest and straightforward with me, I only know one person who’s gotten labiaplasty of the hundreds of performers I know. So I’m wondering if we have an instance here again of a kind of urban mythology that’s seeped into our consciousness that we’re all taking for granted as fact, and that is, “Oh, yeah, all the pussies in porn are perfect because they’ve all been surgically altered.”
I think porn is an easy scapegoat. Porn is the scapegoat for so many things that are wrong with our sexual culture. I think this notion of what we’re supposed to look like, and female bodies and diversity, has been around before even porn became so prevalent and acceptable for people.
I’ve got to say something so brutally honest that I can’t believe I’m really saying it to mainstream media, but I’m gonna, and that is: people gossip a lot in porn and I hear a lot of shit, and people can be cruel and mean. And there have been times when I’ve said — I’ve been just in conversation with people and I’ve said, “You know, I really want to shoot so-and-so for my next movie.” And someone will say, “Uh, have you seen her? ‘Cuz she’s gotten really fat.” Or someone else will say, “Um, you know, she just had another baby and those stretch marks are awful.” Again, they’re talking to the wrong person because I like body diversity when I can get it, and I am unafraid to shoot someone because they’ve “gained a few pounds,” and people say the craziest, most explicit shit about porn performers. But I’ve never once heard – I’m just being brutally honest with you, Tracy – I’ve never once heard, “Her pussy is really ugly.” Or, “Have you seen her pussy lips? They’re crazy weird.” We all as directors have our own aesthetics, but I’ve never heard anyone dis anyone’s pussy before. Maybe they just haven’t said it to me, but they’ve said enough other really offensive shit to me that I feel by now I would’ve heard it.
It’s funny, that’s your experience inside the industry, and the experience outside the industry is that you hear people insulting pussies all the time in mainstream, fratty movies where pussies are disgusting, or they’re too loose, or they smell bad, or whatever.
Right, I hear a lot of offensive shit, it really curls my toes, but I’ve never heard anyone say, “Oh my God, her outer labia are just too big.”
So related to that, as we talked about a little bit on Twitter, a study recently made the rounds finding that the stereotype of the average female porn star being a blonde with big boobs was false; she’s actually a brunette with b-cups, at least according to the Internet Adult Film Database’s data. What did you make of that?
I found that super-fascinating. I think that it echoes my own experience, which is that I feel like what I would call a kind of a “California girl,” which is a blond, thin, white woman with breast implants, who has a kind of over-the-top femininity, that aesthetic exists and is alive and well. But that’s a segment of the porn industry and the talent pool, and one you can actually entirely avoid if you want. Because now there’s so many different kinds of porn, that if you want to see just a flat-chested brunette, or you want to see a “sporty girl,” or you want to see gender queers and dykes, or you want to see black women with big butts, there are so many different aesthetics now that I feel like there’s no one singular iconic image. And certainly sites like “Burning Angel” – you know, “Burning Angel” has established its own kind of aesthetic, in that alt-porn world, and so there’s room for the pierced, tattooed punk rock girl with the Mohawk. That girl can work.
Now, that said, I do think that there are certain aesthetics – there still is a certain beauty standard that exists in porn that propels certain performers to more success, more roles, higher visibility than others. You can’t deny that. If they did an analysis of all of the contract girls at the height of the contract girl era, I bet there were more blondes. I think it’s an interesting thing to analyze everything equally, which is what they did, versus who gets the most visibility, who gets the most box covers, who gets the most roles, who gets the most “success.” I still think there’s overwhelming whiteness, and the people who work the most, make the most money, and are on box covers the most, tend to be white. Are there exceptions? Yep, but very few. And they still tend to be very skinny. We’ve still got a long way to go.
My last question: Do you ever get tired of feminist debates over porn? These conversations have been raging for forever, do you feel like we’re getting anywhere?
Oh, we’re getting somewhere. We’re for sure getting somewhere. I feel like what’s happening right now is so inspiring: There are more scholars and academics than ever before studying and theorizing about porn. There are more feminist pornographers, feminist-identified performers, there are more women in positions of power in porn than ever before. That part for me is really exciting. I also feel like, for the women who laid the groundwork for this — Annie Sprinkle, Deborah Sundahl, Susie Bright, Carol Queen, Betty Dodson, some of whom are in this book — the payoff is beginning to really show itself. The work that they did so early on really paved the way for the work that I and others are doing now.
In many ways, it feels annoying that we have to rehash some of the stuff from the sex wars of the ’80s and ’90s, but I don’t feel like we’re stuck there. I feel a real sense of momentum, and I feel finally like there is a loud response to the resurgence of anti-porn feminists like Gale Dines. Every day, someone writes to me and says, “OK, I just found out there’s this thing called feminist porn.” That’s super-exciting because I feel like it shifts the dialogue; the next time that a friend of that person says, “God I hate porn,” they can turn to them and say, “Have you seen all the porn that’s out there? Because I don’t know if you have, and there are alternatives.” That, to me, means there’s been progress and that we can shift the way that people think about porn — the way that people make it, the way that people consume it, and the way that people relate to it.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)