September 4, 2003

Daze Doggystyle

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Know it when you see it?

A century ago a Supreme Court Justice said, ruling on porn and free speech, “I know it when I see it.” He’d be hard pressed to make the same statement today, as porn, art, gender theory, and entertainment have all begun to mix. Twenty-five years ago there were massive protests at Cornell against the monolithic male structure of Playboy and the good-old fashioned casual misogeny it represented. Now porn is studied and deconstructed at Cornell and other universities, and adult entertainment stores boast a large female clientele. Moreover, porn has not only become acceptable, it’s become, to some degree, cool. How did porn enter the mainstream?

Studio Economics

When Hollywood faced a major depression at the end of the 1960s, one of its recovery measures was to do away with the production code in favor of our modern ratings system (MPAA). As David Cook explained in his book Lost Illusions, the MPAA copyrighted all of their ratings except for the X, which was equivilent to the newer NC-17, and could be self imposed by a director. The idea was to protect artistic integrity, but the X quickly became adopted by the adult industry, was disowned by the MPAA, and denied booking in many theaters and advertising in most large newspapers.

It was also around this time that three classics of porn canon were produced in quick succession: Debbie Does Dallas, Devil in Miss Jones, and Deep Throat. These films all received a wider release than many of their predecessors and could almost be considered ‘crossover’ titles. Their audience included many people who would never watch (or own up to watching) adult entertainment. They were also somewhat kinder and gentler than many of their contemporaries in that their protagonists were women with at least the vestiges of motivation, character, and power. They also had staying power: at one point in All the President’s Men, the heroic reporters, who have named one of their sources after Deep Throat, actually go to see the film. What’s amazing is not only that two men who have successfully taken on the government freely admit to watching a porno, it’s that they go almost eighteen months after the film’s initial release. Any studio film which enjoys that kind of run would almost certainly garner blockbuster profits. Deep Throat was the Titanic of ’70s X-rated film. The X stigma is such that Blockbuster refuses to shelve any movie with the rating, including the Academy Award winning Midnight Cowboy, which, if produced today, would probably garner a PG-13.

Tits and Ass With Soul

Within mainstream media, the portrayal of those who work in or patronize the adult entertainment industry has become noticeably more positive. This, of course, doesn’t include hookers and strippers, who have never had anything but hearts of gold. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, set in the ’70s L.A. porn scene, depicted a world which resembled nothing so much as a dysfunctional family, including the den mother figure of Julianne Moore’s beatific, coke-snorting Amber Waves. Anderson’s story of Dirk Diggler’s rise and fall was the typical Hollywood star parable and not so coincidently mirrored the decline of the fruitful auteur reign in the legitimate film world, which occurred around the same time. The film was also loosely based on the life of John C. Holmes (who also enjoyed the ultimate pop culture accolade: a shout out in a Quentin Tarantino flick). Holmes is getting his own bio-pic later this year in a mainstream studio release called Wonderland. Ron Jeremy seems to be a permanent fixture on VH1 (there is no more definitive mark of vanilla entertainment than this), and a character on Aaron Sorkin’s great dramedy Sports Night actually dated a porn star for her personality (which his ex thought was funny as hell). Two of the most important cultural artifacts of the past decade, The X-Files and Am

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