Representation Matters and Porn Culture

Pop culture feminism, emerging from the 1990s and third wave feminism, has had a huge impact on what feminism means today. When Beyonce performed at the 2014 VMAs in front of the word feminist, feminism came back to the mainstream in a huge way. However, feminism in this incarnation, while reaching a broader audience, tends to focus more on how women and other marginalized people look in media, rather than the daily, structural challenges faced by women. This has most clearly manifested in #representationmatters that emerged on Twitter a couple years ago now, and it is a concept that still crops up in feminist circles and mainstream media frequently.

Representation Matters overemphasizes the role of media in feminism. While media is ubiquitous in the internet age and no one is impervious to media messaging, focusing specifically on how media portrays certain bodies or includes certain bodies means that issues of reproductive rights, education, and equal pay are easily pushed to the back burner. Of course seeing your family, culture, and experiences on tv and in film matters, but these fans stress the value of screen representations in modern activism, at the expense of other issues. For example, it does a great disservice to Black Lives Matter when the hashtag #lgbtqfansmatter appears. It compares the value of gay characters on TV to Black people’s lives, and suffering at the hands of the police and the state. Not only that, but it means many feminists are focusing more on their personal connection to mass produced, profit-driven media than finding the needs in their own communities and taking direct action for the lives of those around them.

But why connect this to porn? Too often I am told not to criticize the emphasis on representations because those representations matter to marginalized people and affect their lives. However, when one brings up how porn normalizes rape culture, promotes pedophilia and incest, and fetishizes race (and disability, and transgender identity, and lesbianism and and and), well then porn isn’t real, it’s just images, those bad things happen anyway, and have you seen this TV show? There’s a queer woman of colour in it.

I acknowledge the impact of images on our digital culture. However, the hypocrisy of liberal feminists is in their laser focus on diversity on sitcoms, rather than the violence inherent in porn culture, is truly staggering. If it seems I favour the issue of representation in porn over “mainstream” images (although the internet and myriad other factors have made porn mainstream), it’s because I do focus more on issues of porn in my feminism. The impact of porn, sexting and rape culture on young people (and society as a whole) is astounding, and we should focus on it before letting diversity in media take the front seat.

Representation also matters in porn. The way women of colour are sexualized (the subservient and passive Asian woman, the hyper-sexual black woman), the fetishization of lesbians, bisexual women and trans women, the way class issues and money are depicted, and the way disability is fetishized and mistreated is far more troubling than the shallow representations many marginalized women have on network TV. These depictions do send a message to the overwhelmingly male audience, a message that all women’s bodies belong to men, exist for male pleasure, and deserve to be brutalized and abused. These messages have far more dire impact on women who are in precarious situations sexualized by pornography (incarcerated women, black women, young women – including teenagers, and domestic workers). Incest is a hugely popular category, as is the “underage” or “barely legal” genre.  We have to question that, and what it might mean in our culture, especially when the internet provides younger and younger children with access to the most hardcore pornography. What impact might this have on young minds, on those learning what consent and pleasure mean? If we internalize the ways in which our race, gender or sexuality are represented on NBC, ABC and Fox, what about how those identities are represented on PornHub?

We cannot believe simultaneously that society’s structures impact women’s choices, and that every woman performing or watching porn is a free actor, making such choices without coercion or pressure. How can liberal feminism claim to critique capitalism when it supports pornography? Andrea Dworkin wrote in Pornography: Men Possessing Women that “Capitalism is not wicked or cruel when the commodity is the whore … violence by the powerful against the powerless is not wicked or cruel when it is called sex.” This perfectly highlights the cognitive dissonance inherent to a simultaneous critique of capitalism/embrace of socialism (as is so popular online) and embrace of pornography as inherently liberating. This comes back to what I wrote about “choice feminism” and consumerism in my blog post on Hugh Hefner. This porn-positive feminism cares more about BJ proof makeup than the commodification of female bodies. This brand of feminism even claims to be intersectional, while ignoring the ways in which otherness is fetishized in porn.

According to PornHub’s own “Year in Review” (the link goes to PornHub’s website but does not contain any graphic images), among the top twenty searched for terms for 2016 were “japanese”, “ebony”, “black” and “asian”, suggesting the racial fetishization in pornography is a HUGE problem, particularly for Black and Asian women. Another group of popular search terms (“teen”, “mom”, “step-mom”, and “step-sister”) reflect the popularity of incest and pedophilia. According to this same data, 64 million people visit the PornHub website every day. Millions of people are absorbing these messages.

Representation of marginalized people in our cultural images is important. I will celebrate work that centres women, people of colour, and the LGBTQ community (etc etc) and I will question the centering of straight white males in our media culture. These things have real impact. But focusing on representation is a very safe way to be a feminist. You don’t have to leave your house, or call your representatives, or volunteer for your local women’s shelter. All you need is Twitter and a Netflix login. This type of feminism is so removed from the radical base of feminism that it seems laughable – but when a feminist suggests porn impacts those who watch it, they are criticized for being narrow minded and not embracing sex positivity. Let’s be sex positive while remaining critical, radical, and fighting the rape culture we all live in.

 

 

 

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