Sexual representation: introduction

by the editors

from Jump Cut, no. 35, April 1990, p. 16
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1990, 2006

In this issue we are presenting four articles on sexual representation in cinema. JUMP CUT has had a longstanding interest in gender representation and, more specifically, in the media's use of sexuality. JUMP CUT editor Linda Williams recently published one of the first texts analyzing pornography as a genre — Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible" (Berkeley, Univ. of CA Press, 1989). This pioneering work opens up a crucial area for serious media criticism and hopefully classroom teaching. It establishes the context for analyzing sexual media in a feminist, non-puritanical way.

In this Special Section, Gertrud Koch looks back at pornographic cinema's very early use in brothels and forward to pornography's current function of replacing brothels altogether. She offers a particularly insightful discussion of the specific kind of voyeurism which pornographic cinema elicits, and she ties that voyeurism to the more general "economy" of the senses which advanced industrial economies need. As Harry Braverman demonstrated in Labor and Monopoly Capitalism, Taylorism in industry now relies on a world of paperwork, computers, and automation. The visual acuity and alertness demanded from the workforce becomes reinforced by an entertainment industry marketing visual sexual desire.

Koch also applies insights from Michel Foucault to discuss what can be seen as a more positive aspect of pornography, the relation between lust or sexual exploration to a will to knowledge. Foucault saw this relation as primarily a repressive one, with lust and power propelling each other. He finds that the ever-expanding discourse on sexuality reinforces oppressive, diffuse structures of social control. Koch accepts much of Foucault's analysis, but she looks beyond it to see in pornography both an extension of infantile sexual learning and a profusion of concrete details, which women may appropriate concretely or symbolically for themselves to construct alternative modes of subjectivity and pleasure.

In this vein, earlier articles in JUMP CUT (No. 30, Mar 1985) by Thomas Waugh and Richard Dyer have also discussed pornography's more positive function in serving the will to knowledge. Both men analyze pornography's crucial role in giving gay adolescent males the knowledge of what homosexuality is. In this issue of JUMP CUT, Chris Straayer offers an additional analysis of how lesbian viewers can and do appropriate the sexual representations offered them by the dominant entertainment industry, which always structures its products upon the ideology of what Adrienne Rich aptly defines as "compulsory heterosexuality." Straayer calls on feminist cultural critics to re-examine their analysis of subject positions for film viewers as either masculine or feminine, in which the feminine viewing position is equated with masochism, transvestism, or masquerade. The positing of alternative subject positions, either in terms of sexual preference or racial and ethnic identity, is crucial if feminist film criticism is to take into account the result of individual activity and assertion in receiving film and television texts.

Finally, two analyses of specific films, EL BRIGADISTA analyzed by John Ramirez, and GANJA AND HESS analyzed by Manthia Diawara and Phyllis Klotman, provide insight into how a film text can use sexual representation in a narrowly hegemonic way to uphold a progressive cause (EL BRIGADISTA) or transform what might be thought of as an exploitation genre, the vampire film, to explore complex forms of racial and sexual representation which undermine hegemonic ideology and the power structures it supports (GANJA AND HESS).

One of the most drastic changes that has occurred in media production and distribution in the last decade has been the creation of a domestic space for pornography. This has come about through VCRs, the distribution of pornographic video in an ever-expanding network of video rental stores, and in the cablecasting of soft-core pornography. To the audience for hard-core can be added the equally voyeuristic viewership for more "serious," often confessional television programs dealing verbally with the same subject matter but derived of visual explicitness — e.g., DR. RUTH, DONAHUE and OPRAH. The change in availability of explicitly sexual media creates a different climate and set of expectations about sexual representation. Artists and media critics have to deal with these issues in an era of political and sexual repression, yet the very fact of sexual conservatism makes our dealing openly with this subject matter even more necessary. JUMP CUT remains committed to exploring these issues in a feminist, gay, anti-racist, and sex-positive way.