Pornography and the
Politics of Fantasy
(Duke University Press)This Laura Kipnis is no shrinking violet. In two hundred or so pages, she takes us through fat people's sex, the works of Larry Flynt, Transvestites ("Clothes Make The Man"), a tale of two men in prison for spilling out their sex-murder fantasies to the FBI, and --- in general --- some discussion of how feminists might better and more honestly deal with pornography.
In the summing up last chapter, entitled "How to Look at Pornography," Ms. Kipnis repeats one of her central themes: that is, that pornography is there to take us to the furthermost reaches, well beyond the limits of what we might think of as "acceptable." In the process, it might well be able to teach us something very important about ourselves:
Like the avant-garde's, pornography's transgressions are first of all aesthetic. It confronts us with bodies that repulse us --- like fat ones --- or defies us with genders we find noxious...In a culture that so ferociously equates sexuality with youth, where else but within pornography will you find enthusiasm for sagging, aging bodies, or for their sexualization.
There is indeed a subgenus of porn --- both gay and straight --- devoted to the geriatric. The degree of one's aesthetic distress when thumbing through magazine with titles like 40+, with its wrinkly models and not-so-perky breasts, or Over 50, with its naked pictorials of sagging white-haired grandmothers (or the white-haired grandfathers of Classics, with their big bellies and vanishing hairlines, and, turning the page, the two lumbering CEOs in bifocals and boxer shorts fondling each other), indicates the degree to which a socially prescribed set of aesthetic conventions is embedded in the very core of our beings...It also indicates the degree to which pornography exists precisely to pester and thwart the dominant.
Ms. Kipnis has put together an astounding thesis. She has evidently immersed herself in no small amount of lurid literature in order to deliver the message that the reaction of most of us (sneering, shutting our eyes, calling the police) means that we are missing the vital truths that pornography can give us.
For instance, in the chapter entitled "Life in the Fat Lane," Ms. Kipnis points out that
There is a higher concentration of body fat the lower down the income scale you go...According to the National Center for Health Statistics, almost 30 percent of women with incomes below $10,000 are obese, as compared with 12.7 percent of those with incomes above $50,000 a year.
She points out that fat is "a predictor of downward mobility:"
If fat, you have a lower chance of being hired, and if hired a lower chance of being promoted....Researchers studying the psychology of body image report that fat is associated with a range of fears: from loss of control to a reversion to infantile desires, to failure, self-loathing, sloth, and passivity. Substitute "welfare class" for "fat" here and you start to see that the phobia of fat and the phobia of the poor are heavily cross-coded...
Ms. Kipnis discusses magazines that you and I have probably never dreamed about, much less read --- for instance, fat pornography publications like Dimensions, Plumpers and Big Women, Bulk Mail, along with hard-core videos like Life in the Fat Lane, Jumbo Jezebel, and Mother Load and I. These are "a safe haven" for the defiance of social norms and proprieties, she tells us:
in fat pornography, no one is dieting. These bodies aren't undergoing transformation. Cascading mounds of flab, mattress-sized buttocks, breasts like sagging, overfilled water balloons, meaty, puckered, elephantine thighs, and forty- to fifty-inch waistlines are greeted with avid sexual enthusiasm. The more cellulite the better.
Ms. Kipnis is a hell of a good writer; even better, she has a very important tale to tell. For this reviewer, the high point of Bound and Gagged was the excellent chapter "Disgust and Desire: Hustler Magazine." Remember --- to report is not to love; Kipnis walks the fine thin line of telling the truth without hectoring, scorning, or idolizing. She points out that it was Larry Flynt --- not The Washington Post, or Time, or even Playboy --- who forced the courts to make far-reaching and significant rulings opening the doors to freedom of the press. And she is not shy in pointing out that for the rest of the magazine/newspaper establishment in America, it is a embarrassment to having Flynt carrying the torch for them. But even more interesting to contemplate, there is the revolutionary aspect of Hustler:
The catalog of social resentments Hustler trumpets, particularly against class privilege, makes it by far the most openly class-antagonistic mass-circulation periodical of any genre. (After all, class privilege is the dirty little secret of all national and electoral politics: face it, no welfare moms, homeless, unemployed, no blue-collar workers represent the nation in those hallowed legislative halls of our 'representative' democracy.)
Ms. Kipnis compares Flynt and his magazine to the 16th Century satirist, Rabelais. For, in opposition to the Playboy/Penthouse body, "the Hustler body is often a gaseous, fluid-emitting, embarrassing body..."
Ms. Kipnis says that we are in a strange place with our pornography, or ersatz pornography: "Museum curators are put on trial. Parents are arrested for taking naked pictures of their kids. Sex and AIDS education are under assault. The National Endowment for the Arts is defunded by Congress..." She calls it a panic --- and sees it as a particularly ironic one, since movies, TV, and advertising are constantly stealing the techniques of pornography to sell their wares.
We would like to think that someone out there in the law business should listen to Ms. Kipnis. We would want to hope that some of those dull-bulb professors of communications would make her chapter on Larry Flynt required reading. But the truth is that the very wisdom of her words --- and the very unflinching ability of hers to look at all the wild and weird and up-against-the-wall videos and publications we call "pornography" --- is going to work against her. Ms. Kipnis is so honest, and direct (and, on top of that, mirabile dictu, is such a persuasive writer) --- that our guess is that like the world she is trying to reveal to us, Bound and Gagged is going to be shoved under the table. What it has to tell us is so excruciatingly real and important, that we must --- as with Rabelais four hundred years ago --- hide from it, bury the messenger not in obloquy, but in ignorance.--- Lolita Lark