by Rich Moreland, November 2014
Renewing acquaintances is a reminder that as we move forward, our wisdom and perspectives hopefully travel with us. In the commercial world of adult film where careers are short and movies are churned out with unrelenting rapidity, change is slow, but it does happen. On Tuesday November 11 at Goucher College in Baltimore, I had the opportunity to check in with a feminist filmmaker I first met almost six years ago, Tristan Taormino. Sponsored by the college’s Feminist Collective, Tristan’s speaking engagement filled an on-campus lecture hall.
I wanted an update on feminist porn and Tristan did not disappoint.
After chatting about how she broke into the business through shopping a proposal to make an educational film on anal sex for women, Tristan’s main purpose was to familiarize her young audience with feminist pornography. Indeed, I started researching my book on the subject years ago and realize that today’s college students may be unaware of the genre’s existence.
Tristan considers herself to be a third wave feminist because, as feminist performers and directors in the business today affirm, the second wave was heavily anti-porn. In the post-1980s when the third wave gave every woman sexual options denied her a generation ago, attitudes began to change. Today young women perceive adult film to be a choice and building a career porn is more normal than ever before.
The “Cinema Verite” of Porn
Explaining that performers get into porn for a variety of reasons, among the most obvious a love of sex, money, and a portal to another career, Tristan added one that may have surprised the audience, the combination of pain and pleasure performers get from certain types of shoots. Having written that feminism and BDSM porn often walk hand-in-hand down the adult film Yellow Brick Road, I could not agree more. It is, however, further affirmation that today’s adult film woman is in control of her image on-screen and if being sexually submissive or dominant is her preference, she feels emboldened to go that route without shame.
To emphasize that today’s porn girl can get down and dirty on her own terms, Tristan reminded the audience that she resumed her directing career in 2005 with the notion that she could remake gonzo, the “cinema verite” of porn, into a female-friendlier genre. The owner of Smart Ass Productions stated that in its earliest form, gonzo was “mean sex with a jackass feel,” really nothing more than a “circus.”
There are minimal production values in gonzo and the performers often look directly at the camera, bringing the viewer into the scene. One of the most popular gonzo takes is the girl on her knees in an oral scene, eyes staring up into the camera. In the overly predictable formula, lots of choking and gagging with the pop shot leading to the inevitable facial is the standard fare.
How to make that more female acceptable and honor the choices of women who like to perform in gonzo shoots became part of Tristan’s mission. And, she has been more than successful, leading a vanguard of women filmmakers who have scored adult film awards in what Tristan describes as “the best-selling genre in porn.”
Tristan honored Candida Royalle as the first feminist pornographer who “proved that women do like porn.” No argument from anyone on that. But expectations were limited. In the 1980s, Candida’s FEMME Productions held on to the belief that women wanted to see sex embedded with a storyline, what porn calls a “feature.” Today, feminist views have expanded.
A fan of “reality porn” where the plot line is vacated (check out her “Chemistry” series), Tristan believes that adult film is closer to the audience now because of the behind-the-scenes interviews, frequently added to DVDs under the title “extras.” Porn performers have “fascinating stories to tell,” she said, and “anything is on the table” in her BTS segments.
From an on-screen perspective, porn is a woman’s world and Tristan reinforced that notion with the typical porn mantra that “women are the stars, men are disposable.” In fact, men are traditionally regarded as mere “props.” To expand their larger reality for the viewer, the feminist director also interviews them. Feminist porn works to change how men are perceived and today the “disposable” image is fading.
Reiterating that porn performers love to have sex, Tristan’s filmmaking devotes some attention to maledom rough sex. However, she points out that female performers choose what they want to do, often influenced by their personal fantasies. In this context, combining pain and sex is honored, but only if it is consensual for everyone.
Consent and Respect
In wrapping up her presentation, Tristan updated the feminist porn definition. It has expanded in the last few years. Here are some of the newest considerations.
Consent, respect, and a safe working environment, long-standing feminist traits, are more important today than ever before. This standard has reached beyond the feminist model into porn studios that may not necessarily think of themselves as feminist in that regard. Though feminist filmmakers take the next step by actively seeking the “participation and collaboration of the performers,” Tristan said, most Porn Valley cinematographers have not come on board with that.
Today feminist porn also emphasizes consent when delving into the power exchange that shows up in BDSM and rough sex filming. Though such images may be misconstrued as humiliating and demeaning to female performers, Tristan admits that she cannot control the way her filming is interpreted. The viewer needs to remember that every woman in feminist porn is calling her own shots, especially in the dominant/submissive scenes she may prefer.
Addressing social imbalances is more evident in feminist porn than ever before. Racism is one example. Tristan “rejects the way it [casting and shooting non-whites] is done in the porn industry,” she says, emphasizing that she welcomes “performers of color” on her set and puts them on-screen where they “have the power to represent themselves.”
By the way, a college speaking engagement inevitably bring ups one question from students: “How do I get into the business?” Referencing the runaway popularity of Duke University’s Belle Knox who is just nineteen, Tristan stressed that she does not hire performers under twenty-one because teenagers do not have a mature understanding of their own sexuality to perform sex acts in front of a camera. Belle is the exception. Tristan suggested that any potentially interested young person wait a few years and investigate the industry before plunging in.
In conclusion, Tristan Taormino stated that “the lines between mainstream [porn] and feminist porn are more blurred and movable” than any time in the history of the industry. Indeed, feminist porn is now “a movement, genre, and an industry,” she said, not to mention a career.
To contact Tristan, go to her website here.