March 18, 2008

"Torture Porn" or Female Empowerment? Neither? Both?

Posted in empowerment, film, ideology, representation, sexualized violence at 11:04 am by LB

Women’s e-news has an interesting article about “torture porn” directors positing their work as “feminist.” This descriptive category, coined by David Edelstein of the New York Times (and frequent Fresh Air film reviewer), refers to recent films such as Hostel and Captivity.

One part of the piece in particular struck me:

“Men are making films and calling them feminist when they don’t understand the feminine experience,” Soloway [a consulting producer of ABC’s TV show “Dirty Sexy Money” ] said. “It’s their salute to how they see female power.”


I find this quite interesting and also don’t doubt this is likely the directors’ intentions. Isn’t it interesting though to see what “power” means to these (male) directors and how it looks when taken up by a woman? But in their unproblematic and uncritical depiction of sex-violence, they don’t see how both are gendered realities, and in women’s daily lives are combined as a means of controlling and possessing women. This lack of contextualization makes their rendering of them more in collusion with gender-based oppression than fighting it.

Further, it leaves the idea of (masculinized) power and its role in maintaining racist, heterosexist patriarchy uncriticized. Women are depicted as powerful so long as they control the violence done to them (brutally done and graphically depicted) by violence of their own.

Lindsey Horvath, who works in film advertising and is president of the National Organization for Women’s Hollywood chapter says, […]

“Essentially I watched an hour and 45 minutes of a woman being stalked, drugged, nearly raped and terrorized,” she said. In the end, the character escapes and kills her attacker. “It’s like as long as the woman kills the guy at the end, then of course it’s a female empowerment movie.”

For the reasons listed above, I find the rationale that the eventual “triumph” of the female character overrides and makes unproblematic the rest of the depictions in a film unconvincing. The ends apparently justify the means. In a way, the sexualized violence throughout the film may also function to make palatable the fact that “the woman wins,” that the woman takes control of herself back from (symbolic) masculine domination.

Further, I really have to doubt that people see movies like these because the woman wins in the end.

I must admit I am fascinated by the way gender and sexuality is produced in horror films. Some recommended reading from my reading “wish list”:

The Naked And The Undead by Cynthia A. Freeland
Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film by Carol J. Clover

Also check out Ax Wound ‘zine.

Thoughts?

UPDATE 3/20: Women’s E-News writer Rachel Corbett has a more detailed discussion up at Alternet.

2 Comments »

  1. Jiz Lee said,

    I’m not sure Corbett’s article goes into as much depth as I’d like in terms of pornographic relevance. From what I can see, “Hostel” is not billed as a pornographic film (though, technically speaking, many Hollywood films heavily allude to pornographic images, particularly for marketing purposes.

    Are you familiar with some of the BDSM pornography that occurs on the websites run by Kink.com?

    I would consider those feminist; not in the “oh the woman is whipping the man” kind of way, but in the sense that the studio is incredibly conscious about the decisions they make; both cast and crew are well versed in San Francisco gender politics and sex positivity.

    I’m fortunate to think of Kink.com as one of the first things that comes to mind when I read “torture porn” on your blog — porn of the bdsm power exchange variety. I’d love to see your thoughts towards that.

    Thanks for a great blog — I’m enjoying reading more and more of it!

  2. lindabeth said,

    Thanks for your comment and your kinds words!

    I should have included the link to the Edelstein Times article ( check it out here ) which would have offered more clarification on the term “torture porn.” The phrase isn’t implying that the film itself should be viewed as pornography, but that it functions like porn. It refers to the pornification of violence in the films and the specifically sexualized aspect of the violence.

    This is a little off topic, but from fashion ads to film to “rape porn”, there is an increasing tendency in our culture to eroticize violent and agressive behavior that emphasizes the sexualized vulnerability as desirable and that produces gender-based control over the women involved. While we understand that the parties involved consented to the shoot, the actions depicted are meant to be understood as nonconsentual.

    In my book, that makes the “torture porn” genre of film much different than (actual) BDSM porn that involves he idea of domination and/or pain between consenting adults for their mutual pleasure. (I highly doubt the women in the films have a “safe word”!) Not to mention they operate under different motivations, with different means and ends, in my view (although I am not familiar with the specific link you gave).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: