In 1995 I became a pornographer. Hired as the entertainment editor for Hustler magazine, I'd achieved something most considered to be dubious at best. A feminist friend compared my job working for Larry Flynt to being a propaganda minister for Hitler. According to her argument, I was promulgating a misogynistic agenda almost as brutal as anti-Semitism.
In college I had been exposed to similar extremes of feminist thought. Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin advanced critiques of power and gender that suggested buying a Playboy was an act of aggression tantamount to rape. But by the time I worked at Hustler, the public -- at least segments of it -- was flirting with the notion that porn might be chic. Where I lived in Los Angeles, high-school girls strolled Melrose Avenue in baby T-shirts displaying the "Porn Star" label. Howard Stern brought porn stars into millions of peoples' lives every morning when they appeared as guests on his show.
Pornography had also become a hot topic in highbrow glossy publications such as the New Yorker and Esquire. The basic question of whether pornography is misogynous was brushed aside by most who brought the subject into mainstream media. Magazine stories about porn stars, Hollywood movies about the industry or Wall Street Journal articles about the immense profits made by Internet porn tycoons seldom mentioned the content of the adult industry's main product, porn videos. Much of the public discussion about porn is like a wine tasting at which no wine is served.
As Hustler's main XXX-film critic, I watched hundreds of adult videos. The debate on porn was never abstract for me. Pornography was my life. Not only did I review the videos, but I wrote copy for several of Larry Flynt's magazines, became friends with performers and directors, visited porn sets and wrote scripts for XXX films.
There was an absurd component to my work. The Hustler rating standard is a graphic of a penis, which ranges from fully erect to totally limp, depending on the quality of the film being reviewed. "Porn critic" is perhaps the most ludicrous job title I will ever have. Aside from the ridiculous nature of my job, I was often profoundly disturbed by the aggressively anti-female tone of the films I reviewed. None was more misogynist than those put out by a director and performer who called himself Max Hardcore.
Max Hardcore, who releases nearly two dozen videos every year, is a somewhat out-of-shape, balding middle-age man, with baby-blue eyes and a twangy, Midwestern accent. His trademark is the cowboy hat he wears in every scene. He wears the hat even after his clothes come off. Max refers to his female co-stars as "victims." He dresses them in schoolgirl skirts, ankle socks, pink ribbons and pigtails. They skip into their scenes like little girls. Max pursues them, abducts them, tortures them and more or less rapes them.
Rape is an inflammatory word, especially with respect to the adult industry. Actual depiction of rape may result in an obscenity trial and a prison term for the videomaker. Pornographers such as Max get around the rape issue by ensuring that at some point the female starlet verbally consents to whatever is going on. A typical Max Hardcore scene looks like a rape. A girl is pursued and captured. She cringes and cowers; Max yanks her by the pigtails and slaps her around. But it is not rape, because she tells us it isn't. Images battle with words. Turn the sound down, and it is a rape.
All Max Hardcore lovemaking scenes present images that occur again and again. These are rituals of degradation. Max orally copulates with his co-stars until they gag (performers often vomit during the making of his films, a bit of cinima viriti that is cut from the final product). He calls his form of oral sex "choke-fucking." His camera lavishes the viewer with extended close-ups of teary-eyed girls drooling over his penis. In most of Max's videos, vaginas are probed with a camera mounted on a speculum, the medical instrument used by gynecologists to spread vaginal walls open for examination. Anal intercourse is always the finale of a Max Hardcore scene. This often begins with a ritual in which Max turns the woman over and draws a mouth on her anus with a lipstick. Max is famous for concluding his scenes with a set-piece where he inserts a Sharpie pen in the performer's rectum and has her write "I am a little fuck hole" on a sheet of paper.
Initially, I reviewed Max's videos because he was so popular. He has sold hundreds of thousands of videos in the past decade. He is popular in Europe and South America; French film crews often encamp at his L.A. home, which he calls the "Chateaux Max," and feature him in documentaries on French television. Whenever I was with him in public, Max was continuously accosted by fans. Many of these fans were women.
What troubled me personally about Max's videos was the fact that they made me laugh. They struck me as sick and cruel slapstick, sort of like X-rated versions of "Three Stooges" movies (which also had seriously disturbed me when I watched them as a child). I couldn't escape the fact that I enjoyed watching him trash women, that my laughter was somehow cathartic. Why?
Max's films never seemed to me to be about sex. They dwell on imagery that is so surreal (i.e., lips painted on an anus) and anatomically obsessive (i.e., pulsating vaginal walls), that they veer into a realm that is wholly unerotic. They are psychodramas of rage directed at feminine beauty. The apotheosis of this rage was, in my mind, Max's use of a woman's prime tool of beauty enhancement, the lipstick, to degrade her. Lipstick symbolizes the power of feminine beauty. In the pre-women's lib era, lipstick was often characterized as a weapon in the arsenal of tools used by women to dominate men with their sexual allure. Max takes that weapon and turns it on the woman, rather like stabbing Rambo with his own knife.
No doubt there are myriad personal reasons why some men hate women. So far as I could tell, I hadn't been drawn to Hustler and the adult industry out of enmity toward the opposite sex. What Hustler appealed to most on a personal level was my anti-authoritarianism. I enjoyed the fact that Hustler and the name Larry Flynt pissed off moralists and religious leaders. I was proud to work for a magazine that had been sued by Jerry Falwell and had helped expose moral hypocrisy in our national leadership. I had never considered that my involvement with the industry was fed by personal misogyny. Yet there I was on some level rooting for Max Hardcore when I reviewed his videos.
Where had my misogyny come from? On the wall across from my computer hangs a lithograph. Someone gave it to me as a joke. The lithograph is a reproduction of a vegetable can that dates from the 1940s. It features a semi-nude blonde on the label, the Plentigrand Vegetables girl. She is posed seductively in bra and panties next to the peas and carrots. The Plentigrand girl is the crudest evidence of the old axiom, sex sells. Not even peas and carrots are safe from it.
We all accept sex sells as true; however, in one critical respect the axiom is inaccurate. It is overly broad. It is not merely sex that sells, but female sexuality. True, the end of the last millennium saw the rise of male imagery, notably in Calvin Klein and Polo ads, but female icons continue to push our buttons in everything from beer commercials to ads for cars.
The use of women to sell products is nothing new. The Virgin Mary has always been one of Christianity's biggest shills. Check out all those medieval triptych's of the bare-breasted virgin -- put her in a bikini and paste her into an imaginary beer commercial: it would work.
The trick of advertising is that it works on me even when I know I'm being manipulated by it. It's the same with rape in a Max Hardcore video. Max's performers tell us they are not being raped; the images tell us they are. My brain tells me I am too sophisticated to be manipulated by a TV ad, but the images nevertheless perform miracles of manipulation.
I know that popping open a can of beer will not result in an explosion of bikini-clad vixens in my living room. But every time I see a commercial, some part of me compares the idealized models to the reality of my life. My reality always comes up short. I don't have muscles and a hairline like the guy in the ad; my girlfriend doesn't have a face and body like the women fawning all over the guy in the ad.
In an old ad for Pantene shampoo, model Kelly LeBrock used to say, "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful." The flaunting of LeBrock's unattainable beauty was obnoxious -- clearly, you didhate Kelly LeBrock. You hated her because she was so beautiful. You knew that a woman as beautiful as LeBrock would seldom look your way. And your girlfriend knew she would never look like LeBrock no matter how many times she shampooed with Pantene. At least, this is how the commercial worked on me.
The ad, like most others, engendered hatred of the model, hatred of my life and, probably, self-hatred in whichever woman I was with. I am a misogynist of fantasy women. I feel exploited by them. I hate commercials. I hate the women in them. I hate supermodels. I hate it when they write books. I hate it when their lives and tragedies are detailed in supermarket tabloids. I hate it when I read these stories.
I hate it when a girl I care about looks at her body and tells me she doesn't like her breasts because there are tiny stretch marks on the sides. I hate it when she tells me she doesn't want to go out because she's feeling ugly. Usually, she feels this way after reading Cosmo or Allure, or a story about Cindy Crawford's latest romance in the Star.
Before I left Hustler, I wrote a highly favorable review of a Max Hardcore video. I described Max as a genius, who was making some of the most brutally honest cinema in America today. My praise was tongue-in-cheek. Max's films were disgusting and sick, but they raised uncomfortable questions about myself and the industry I worked in.
Is pornography misogynistic? In my mind there is only one response. How could it not be? Pornography comes from a culture that breeds misogyny. At least it seems to have done so in me.