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Spectatorship in Lesbian Porn: The Woman's Woman's Film

From: Wide Angle
Volume 19, Number 3, July 1997
pp. 91-113 | 10.1353/wan.1997.0011

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Wide Angle 19.3 (1997) 91-113

"We don't make videos for a Hustler audience because your fixation with the old in-and-out is a BORE..."

Fanny Fatale's acerbic tone reciprocates the nastiness in Hustler's review of Clips, a 1988 amateur video from Blush/Fatale. Sharply criticized in that review as both actress and producer (under the name Debi Sundahl), Fatale responded in her own magazine, On Our Backs. She does not engage Hustler's reviewer specifically. Instead she refigures the grounds of the criticism. Rather than disagree with the content of Hustler's review, she questions the relevance of any assessment of lesbian produced porn by a mainstream porn magazine. Fatale dismisses Hustler's review as irrelevant: not only does the Blush/Fatale audience differ from Hustler's, she says, but -- incredibly -- the men's magazine does not seem to realize that the lesbian audience is out there. By contrast, she says, Blush/Fatale's video and print porn foregrounds a concern for the lesbian porn spectator.

Studies of porn and spectatorship share the distinction of remaining largely uninformed by the lesbian produced artifact. Linda Williams's Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible," for example, is an impressive analysis of the dominant genres of pornography. Admirably promiscuous in her methodology, Williams narrows her focus by omitting lesbian produced porn (among other genres), reasoning that other critics to whom this other porn is addressed are more capable, and should be given the first opportunity to critically engage the genre. Williams claims that "since heterosexual, predominantly male-oriented sexuality is the dominant identity of our culture, such analysis is justifiable." The exclusion of lesbian produced porn, though intellectually, personally, and politically justifiable, however, also has a familiar wearisome effect: lesbian produced porn, its audiences, and its producers, are again effaced.

Generally speaking, feminist formulations of spectatorship have purchased coherence by bracketing lesbian desire. As a consequence, the possibilities of lesbian spectatorship remain largely uninvestigated. Gendered spectator theories have been complicated beyond Laura Mulvey's seminal essay, especially since Mulvey has herself revised her own thinking. In the introduction to Viewing Positions, Linda Williams recognizes the limits of originary spectator theory and the subjectivities untapped by its logic:

Although the hegemony of a masculine-bourgeois-white-Euro-centric classical gaze was eventually challenged by a range of diverse positionalities not only of gender but also of class, race, sexual orientation, and ethnicity, those challenges did not themselves add up to a newly coherent formulation of spectatorial relations. Rather, they tended to add up to an interesting list of exceptions to a dominant mainstream whose typicality went by largely unchallenged.

Williams is correct when she describes the challenges as not offering a coherent substitute. But she misses the point in evaluating incoherence. Multi-positioned readings do not aim to simply add up or to summarize what makes them exceptional in order to topple the dominant narrative with their own grand theory. Instead, diverse readings aim at fragmentation, making desirable and necessary what Williams sees as a shortcoming. A critical establishment seems to assume that the issue of spectatorship is now settled, and that such challenges, though interesting, are not worth considering. But critique is not only warranted but overdue. Indeed, some groups think reinvestigation is urgent. The introduction to the Bad Object-Choices collection of essays, How Do I Look? Queer Film and Video identifies the impetus for such a project:

Queer presences are censored not only from the screen, but from behind the camera and from the audience as well. These latter censorships are largely effected by film theory itself... which generally adheres to a heterosexual presumption in theories of spectatorship. A first answer to the question "How do I look?" is, in theory, that I don't. I am neither there to be looked at, nor am I the agent of the look.

Lesbian subjectivities in particular have been overlooked. In the same volume, Judith Mayne argues that "one of the 'problems' that lesbianism poses, insofar as representation is concerned, is precisely the fit between the paradigms of sex and agency, the alignment of masculinity with activity and femininity with passivity." As an...

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