I Read It for the Phenomenology

Tonight, it’s time for philosophy, bad journalism, and porn.

A while back (okay, about two weeks ago), Slate’s XX Factor blog put up a piece “explaining” why the stereotypical male porn actor is, well, not attractive to women.  According to Lowder’s interpretation of Amanda Hess, who wrote the profile his theorizing is based on, it’s because straight men are afraid that, if a man women are interested in were cast, they’d be attracted to him, and thus insecure about their masculinities.

I’m not buying it.  Well, okay.  I guess it could be a possible interpretation, but not a likely—or even good—one.

While I’m a bit cynical about anything employing the usual bugbears of “feminist” criticism—not only is it not especially empowering to women or minorities, but it seems to engage in a sort of over interpretation based in the hermeneutics of suspicion, and, more personally, gives feminist philosophy a bad name—this little gem ignores the whole mechanics of entertainment, entrainment, and fantasy.

You know, the mechanics that drive mass media, especially porn.

Now, the truth is, Hess nails the whole issue on the head in her opening:

It’s not that more normal-looking guys don’t want to be in porn, it’s that the industry isn’t exactly looking for them. Within the major porn talent agencies, female performers outnumber male ones almost 5-to-1. The directors and producers hiring them are mostly men. They’re staffing porn’s workforce with an eternally refreshed slate of female bodies, and a handful of guys who look like what men think women want: Big arms. Big abs. Big dicks.

Of course if you put straight men in charge of creating a manifestation of imagined fantasies, then you’re going to get what straight men fantasize about being: the ultra-virile stud who gets to do everything with whatever ladies he wants.  The man in one of these films is a kind of “interchangeable prop,” as Hess notes—an empty person, a vehicle for fantasy, a mannequin into which any man can put himself.

Now, this whole process of entrainment and being “caught up” in the action of another in such a way that the other’s action are taken on as if they were one’s own—that is, one identifies so closely with the other that one semi-consciously identifies with the other—is quite well-documented in the sociological and anthropological literature; for those who are interested, I’d suggest Peter Stromberg’s excellent Caught in Play.  Of course, the philosophical implications of this phenomenon are also quite well-discussed, seeing as it’s pretty much foundational to existentialism.  Go read Being and Nothingness or Sickness Unto Death if you’re curious, or just need a bit of prime Danish gloom.

It’s also a classic trope of escapist fiction.  Exhibit A: Twilight.  Okay, about any poorly-writen romance/paranormal romance/adventure story ever.  Though the whole “empty protagonist” plot device is usually associated (with good reason) with underdeveloped female characters, the campy pulp novels of yesteryear—you know, like the silver age sci-fi I used to read (okay, still sometimes do)—feature plenty of hollow male characters whose only job is to do something awesome*.  The fewer unique details you add, the more open and poorly defined you make your protagonist, the easier it is to identify with them.  Philip Pullman’s Lyra and David Foster Wallace’s Lenore are both very quirky characters who don’t even belong in the same metaphysical system this world does—how can any sane person take on the identity of someone who is aware that they’re an abstract fictional object in a work of fiction?

Thus, why it’s important to have porn for men feature the kind of actors men fantasize about being.  Being the boy next door—you know, average—will never work.  Everybody was once a boy next door to someone; that can never fit with the fantasy of being The Ultimate Man who gets The Ultimate Women.  Heck, if some normal-looking guy can be in porn, why am I not in it?  I’m normal, right?  Where is my army of gorgeous women just begging for me to perform Unmentionable Acts with them?

This is the threat: normalcy.  By getting to be Ultraman, one can posit an explanation for what’s happening on screen: obviously, he/me is just so virile and irresistibly manly that women would throw themselves at him/me.  If an average-looking guy, or even one who was attractive without drowning in testosterone, did those same things, the viewer would have to answer for why it wasn’t him doing it.  It’s easy to become involved in fantasy when it’s obviously fantastic; make it seem practicable, though, and it becomes an affront to one’s self, an implied sarcastic questioning of where one’s life went wrong.  Keep the fantasy out of reach, and it can be indulged in with pleasure; make it seem possible, even plausible, and you’re confronted with the question of why isn’t that me?

I’m guessing that, in the entertainment business, giving your audience existential crises isn’t a good thing.


*Not to say, of course, that empty characters necessarily indicate bad writing; Carlos Fuentes’ Aura features an empty protagonist, Felipe Montero, about whom only a few very vague details are ever mentioned—but, of course, Aura is told in the second person, directly involving the reader as part of the action and dragging them along as things get . . . well, creepy.
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