Pornography panel speaker profile: Sarah Harman

Pornography panel speaker profile: Alex Dymock
December 5, 2012
Pornography panel speaker profile: Frances Hatherley
December 7, 2012
By Diarmuid Hester

 

This Saturday, 8th of December One+One: Filmmakers Journal with the London Underground Film Festival presents “New Adventures in Pornography,” a screening and roundtable discussion on contemporary theories of the pornographic.
This week we’re profiling each of our speakers and asking them a few questions to arouse your prurient interest – today we introduce Sarah Harman, a PhD candidate Brunel’s Screen Media Research department. She’s working on a thesis provisionally entitled “Returning to Roissy: Femininity, Feminism and Masochism in adaptations of The Story of O” but her fantastically wide range of research interests include feminism, sexuality studies, British film and TV, and representations of the vampire (even, as we’ll see, in porn). She’s written before about Twilight50 Shades of GreyThe Story of O and Quills and has presented papers at national multi-disciplinary conferences on the subject of femininity and film. Sarah is also an assistant editor of Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media and is a contributing co-editor of Screening Twilight: Critical Approaches To A Cinematic Phenomenon (I. B. Tauris, forthcoming). You can check out Sarah’s work at academia.edu.

 

One+One: What is pornography? 
Sarah Harman: Pornography is harder to define than it often appears; and broader than our current definition accords for. The still and moving image are a relatively recent invention in our history yet they dominate our understanding of the pornographic, as the visual document of ‘sex for sale’, for the sexual gratification of an unknown viewer. I’m unconvinced by this definition. For instance, I’m currently working on putting together a special journal issue with Bethan Jones (Aberystwyth University) and Ruth Deller (Sheffield Hallam University) on E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. So I am led to ask are books porn? Is Fifty Shades porn? Or perhaps instead, erotic? Is it erotica? Pornographic erotica? Or is it ‘bad porn’? And what might ‘bad porn’ mean? What might it be contrasted against? Is there, by implication ‘good porn’?  Or, does the virtue of its medium lift it above porn? If books are ‘above’ porn, or the pornographic; by implication then, are pornographic films and images ‘below’ the medium of literature? Does this traditional hierarchy still hold true in our contemporary understanding of the pornographic? If porn functions simply to show us sex: sex being performed; sex being done; or had; and sex being seen; watched; and viewed then, no, books cannot be ‘porn’. But do we need to adjust our contemporary definition? This is something I’m thinking through in my own research, as I examine the filmic adaptations of Pauline Réage’s Story of O.
One+One: The worst thing about porn is…
SH: People’s reluctance to discuss it beyond the binary of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. In cultural studies, and film studies in particular, there ought not to be distinctions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ texts. We certainly don’t ask if film itself is good or bad, both because the umbrella term of ‘film’ is far too broad to make sweeping generalisations, and also because we understand that films both contain (and reinforce) dominant ideologies, as well as subverting them. This latter concept hinges on a more nuanced understanding of audiences than simply blindly indiscriminately consumers, objectifying dupes of the capitalist system.
One+One: The best thing about porn is…
SH: I’m currently really interested in filmic porn parodies. [DH: see above “Batman XXX: A Porn Parody”]  There’s a curious page in Ron Jeremy‘s autobiography that lists his most popular porn parodies; these include “I know Who You Did Last Summer,” “Terms of Endowment” and “What’s Butt Got to Do With It” (Ron Jeremy: The Hardest (Working) Man in Showbiz, 2007 p.172). The inclusion is clearly there to add humour, but I’m interested in looking at them beyond their punning title, particularly as there’s been a real increase in the production of these texts recently. I’m hoping to take part in a porn panel at a conference next year with Iain Robert Smith (Roehampton University), Johnny Walker (DeMontfort University) and Bethan Jones. Clarissa Smith (University of Sunderland) and I have written our paper focusing on Tru: A XXX Parody which in case it’s not clear from the title, is parodying HBO’s True Blood. We argue that the porn parody is a contemporary mode of adaptation worthy of study and critique, and ask whether porn parodies can be considered paratext, and if so, what effect this might have upon the canon.Through examining this dialogue between True Blood and Tru it is hoped that their symbiotic relationship with ‘legitimate texts’; and thus ‘legitimate culture’ will help to contextualise porn as within culture and not indeed separate, outside or below it. It’s with a curious and watchful eye that I note the recently filed Fifty Shades of Grey: a XXX Adaptation lawsuit.
One+One: Who’s your favourite porn star?
SH: I have a love hate relationship with James Deen. I’m currently beginning a research project on his porn stardom, again with Clarissa Smith, and we’ll be presenting some of our initial thoughts in the forthcoming year. He’s also in a number of porn parodies. His portrayal of Quagmire in the Family Guy The XXX Parody, for instance is something to behold.
One+One: Who’s your favourite porn theorist?
SH: I’d say Clarissa Smith but there’s an obvious bias there. I also read a really interesting study of Ron Jeremy recently, by Emily Shelton. Both I feel, enter into a dialogue with Linda Williams‘ Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible”, as she states “It is no wonder that so much has been written about the issue of pornography and so little about its actual texts. This lack of knowledge about texts that are nevertheless quite numerous feeds into the anti-pornography feminist stance that sets pornography off from the rest of cultural production, showcasing it as the extreme case of patriarchal power [. . .] how can we adequately discuss the pornographic without making some stab at a specific description of pornography?” (p. 29 emphasis in original). [DH: Interesting interview with Linda Williams here] I think this is key. It’s my consideration that cultural studies must redress its own exclusion of pornography from the field of cultural production, if we are, indeed to fully grasp its role within present (granted: capitalist/neo-liberalist and patriarchal) society. What we understand to be the ‘porn industry’  – if even such a generalising, umbrella term can be considered  – functions not only within the field of cultural production but with less difference than imagined that would justify its estrangement from any other ‘valid’ or ‘acceptable’ genres, mediums, or modes.