Within the discipline of film studies, canonical figures like Orson Welles, Christian Metz, and John Ford have long since made room for the ruder names of Marilyn Chambers, Radley Metzger, and Seymour Butts. As the field’s borders have expanded in the past decade, redefined by a shift from relatively abstract philosophizing to more concrete cultural history, formerly fringe genres such as pornography, horror, exploitation, and various other psychotronic delicacies have become increasingly frequent subjects of investigation, bolstered by a new generation of graduate students and professors raised on late-night television and mondo video.
The recent publication of Linda Williams’s Porn Studies (Duke) testifies to this trend. Its cover illustrated with a tackily elegant, subtly risqué photo from Larry Sultan’s porn-set series The Valley, this collection of over a dozen essays analyzes Internet smut, the classic stag film, gay Asian American porn star Brandon Lee, WW II pinups, and Pam and Tommy Lee: Hardcore and Uncensored.
But the most shocking aspect of Porn Studies may be how uncontroversial it is. Most of the authors came of age after the publication of Williams’s groundbreaking Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the ‘Frenzy of the Visible’ (1989), the Berkeley professor’s keen critical history which found a readership beyond academia within the burgeoning sex-positive feminist and queer cultures of the 1990s. Thus in her introduction to Porn Studies, Williams writes that these new essays “diverge markedly from the kind of agonizing over sexual politics that characterized an earlier era.” Whereas she and her like-minded colleagues felt the need to argue against “pro-censorship, antipornography feminism” 15 years ago, “feminist debates about whether pornography should exist at all have paled before the simple fact that still and moving-image pornographies have become fully recognizable fixtures in popular culture.”
Porn on college campuses goes back well before the Internet age. Closed-door frat-house stag-film shows began in the early decades of the 20th century, and by the late ’60s, screening such movies became part of an increasingly co-ed sex-studies movement. But it took a few more decades, following pro-and-anti battles within women’s studies, the academic ingestion of Foucault, and subsequent studies of the history of sexuality, for the critical literature on pornographic cinema to catch up. After Hard Core, numerous studies developed from within feminism and queer studies, such as Laura Kipnis’s Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America (1996) and Thomas Waugh’s gay hardcore history Hard to Imagine (1996). Carol Clover’s slasher-film analysis Men, Women and Chainsaws (1992) opened up similar territory for studies of horror (and, like Hard Core, reached a considerable audience beyond ivy-covered walls).
Williams believes that feminism provided a necessary context for the early acceptance of such work. “I think it was easier for women to write about horror and pornography than it would be for, let’s say, heterosexual men, and certainly to teach it,” she tells the Voice. “Even today, I think it’s a little hard for a man to step into a classroom and say ‘Now we’re going to study pornography.’ I remember in the early days, when it was more controversial, someone at a conference said, ‘Well, if your name was Larry Williams, would you even be here today?’ I think feminism enabled me to talk about things that were seen, at that time, as horrific and damaging to women.”
Another factor was a generational shift in cinematic tastes, which became visible as far back as 1995, when Jeffrey Sconce noted in the British film studies journal Screen that “many students now pursuing an advanced degree in film began as fans of exploitation genres such as horror and science fiction. Some retain their interest in trash culture as a secret guilty pleasure. Others, however, increasingly seek to focus their work on these previously marginalized and debased forms of cinema.” Like a new iteration of the horse-opera-loving Cahiers du Cinéma punks before them, these new students, “raised in mass culture . . . are not always willing to give up the excesses of the drive-in for the discipline of Dreyer.”
Sconce’s take is corroborated by Eric Schaefer, a contributor to Porn Studies and author of “Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!”: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919–1959 (1999), which covers another low-culture genre long untouched by academia. (Schaefer is currently finishing a new book on ’60s and ’70s sexploitation.) “During that whole very exciting period when film studies was becoming institutionalized at colleges, you had nightly screenings at film societies, all the great art-houses, and so on,” says Schaefer. “Then, for a lot of people of my generation, who got most of their cinema on TV, there was a different attitude.” In addition to formative years spent in front of Creature Double Feature, “video has had a tremendous impact on cinema studies in general, but especially with regard to marginal material,” he notes. “There are any number of niche video companies that have cropped up that deal in exploitation, sexploitation, early hardcore, marginal Euro-horror trash, Asian trash, and so on, that have really changed the landscape in terms of doing research on these films.”
But those pursuing fringe genres still face hurdles, according to Michael Bowen and Elena Gorfinkel, two graduate students at NYU’s cinema studies department who are writing their dissertations on sexploitation topics, and have organized conferences on the subject. Bowen says that pushing boundaries in terms of objects of study only works if it’s done within acceptable theories, saying that scholars “would encounter criticism—though perhaps not damning criticism—if they didn’t explain at some point why it’s valuable to study these objects. How you do that is by talking about their sociocultural significance, and less about their aesthetic, formal significance.” Noting that the current moment is one of “kinky new topics” rather than “kinky new theoretical models,” he believes that, in a tight job market, “we’re all worried about how to situate ourselves.”
“There are detriments to researching it, particularly in terms of getting research funding,” Gorfinkel adds. “You have to make your case harder than if you were studying something else. The larger debate about whether sexuality itself is a valid area of study is still lingering out there. I haven’t been out teaching at the universities, but I am anticipating some resistance to the notion of teaching sexuality in such an explicit way, depending on how conservative the institution is. And that might pose a difficulty in getting a job if I don’t diversify my fields of inquiry.”
Bowen sees it all as part of a larger cycle, but one that nevertheless contains certain paradoxes: The professional necessities of breaking new ground don’t always translate to broad marketability. “Ain’t nobody,” he says, “gonna get hired into the University of Oklahoma on the basis that they teach porn.”