- Soft in the Middle:The Contemporary Softcore Feature in Its Contexts
David Andrews has set himself an unenviable task—to write a critical history of a film genre that often works overtime to make itself unnoticeable. A genre whose producers either remain tight-lipped about their wares or aspire to a supposedly higher class of filmmaking. A genre whose fans rarely if ever greet their objects of desire with anything but anxiety or exhausting rituals of deflation. In many crucial ways, softcore pornography gets even less respect (or even simple attention) than hardcore due to its perceived compromise of hardcore's pure, unblinking eye. Lacking the organic codes of the "high" art film on one end and the "low" scientia sexualis of the hardcore porno on the other, softcore occupies an amorphous middle ground, and Andrews's fantastic book Soft in the Middle: The Contemporary Softcore Feature in Its Contexts offers a long overdue tour of this at times ungraspable genre.
Andrews might balk at the classification of his book as a history. But even when he is wiping off his theoretical lens in the first two chapters, he does so to register the evolution of softcore and its various subgenres. In fact, it becomes clear throughout Soft in the Middle that softcore itself grew out of the larger category of sexploitation, which he defines as "as any narrative feature that, by foregrounding nudity, makes sexual titillation its most credible commercial appeal" (2). Softcore, by contrast, pivots around a crucial narrative-number dichotomy reminiscent of hardcore and the Hollywood musical: "Only when such spectacle achieves a certain duration, regularity, density, and activity does sexploitation yield numbers . . . creating a pluralist whole—and only then does it merit softcore designation" (2). But according to Andrews, classical softcore enjoyed an extremely short vogue, roughly from 1968 to 1973, due to a variety of factors: the popular ascendancy of hardcore; the increasing explicitness of the New Hollywood Cinema; court decisions like Miller v. California (1973) that gave states the right to determine obscene material; and rising real estate values, causing the decline of the grindhouses, which provided sexploitation with its primary exhibition outlets. And thus softcore virtually disappeared until the early 1990s, its period of greatest popularity due to the funding of Showtime and HBO.
Andrews uses consumerism as a theoretical tool to explain these historical shifts, first from classical exploitation to classical sexploitation and then to contemporary softcore. If classical exploitation betrayed a "productivist" ideology in the excessive moralizing of, for example, drug or VD films, then classical sexploitation embraced the consumerist ethos of the 1950s and dovetailed snugly with the greater sexual freedoms of the 1960s. But those freedoms usually upheld an unbridled male desire. Contemporary softcore, by contrast, runs on a consumerist, postfeminist female desire that corresponds to late capitalism's ever more precise lifestyle marketing. Thus it flourished on cable in the 1990s rather than video in the 1980s, since video rarely organized around a coherent taste bundle (also, cable opted to program older sexploitation items rather than fund new softcore features in the 1980s).
Apart from consumerism and postfeminism (really two sides of the same [End Page 72] coin in a softcore context), Andrews powers much of his book through analyses of softcore's narrative-number format. After all, it is this dichotomy that lends softcore not only its middle, or, more pejoratively, middling status (too many sex "numbers" to qualify for art cinema or mainstream film and yet too much narrative for hardcore pornography), but also its ability to travel through a variety of outlets (e.g., mainstream video chains and cable channels) via timid to nonexistent advertising (and hence little controversy as well). With this understanding of softcore's essential weightlessness as a foundation, Andrews moves into unpacking the use of concepts such as "soft" and "middle" to ridicule softcore's gauzy, heavily stylized aspiration towards the "harder," more solid gestalt of the art film. His critique here reminds us that all narrative genres evince some sort of hybridity, some...