How hard is this to swallow? Jenna Jameson, popular culture and the Cali-Pornification of the media.
Pornography is fast becoming America’s defining cultural form and is already its quintessential business
Twenty years ago pornography was something that most people associated with seedy men in dirty raincoats buying “blue” movies under the counter in backstreet sex shops. In 2007 pornography, pornographic imagery or even just plain old sex, is everywhere. We can see it on the television, in the newspapers, on the Internet, in music videos, in fact where there is a mediated form there is a way. Brian McNair refers to this as the ‘pornographication of the mainstream’; Feona Attwood calls it ‘the sexualization of culture’; however it is undeniable that pornography is now an integral part of our culture, our media and our lives. In this essay I want to examine the ways in which sex has infiltrated popular culture and what effect this has had on the media and on the construction of terms such as pornography and mainstream. I am going to analyse the success of Jenna Jameson, the most famous porn star of the present time, who has seemingly straddled the divide between celebrity and porn star. I want to look at the ways in which someone of her standing has been able to achieve such notoriety, what has changed in the media landscape that has enabled her to do this and whether or not the divides between pornography and mainstream have truly disintegrated or whether they have merely eroded.
This is the part of the review where I pretend to have to tell you, the reader, who Jenna Jameson is. If we agree to dispense with that charade and admit that we both know who Jenna Jameson is (which still leaves us with the out of ‘but I’ve never seen any of her movies’)
Jenna Jameson has been referred to as both the “Queen of Porn” and the “World’s most Famous Porn Star”. She has now made over one hundred films, won over twenty Adult Video awards and owns her own pornographic film company and Internet site “Club Jenna.” Like many porn stars Jameson built her success from stripping in local bars to topless modelling to making adult movies. Yet unlike few adult actresses before or indeed since, Jenna Jameson has had a fair amount of success in mainstream culture. She has appeared on theHoward Stern Show over thirty times, appeared in music videos for Eminem andKorn, played herself in the cartoon Family Guy, garnered sponsorship for athletic shoes from world renowned company Pony, voiceovers for two incredibly successful video games and hosted her own show on channel E! Most importantly she has had an incredibly successful autobiography, “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star” which was published by an offshoot of HarperCollins and spent a fair amount of time on the New York Times bestsellers list. Her success in the mainstream has been unprecedented for a porn star. As Dan Ackman in his essay ‘A Star is Porn’ states:
On the web at least, Ms Jameson is as famous as Jennifer Aniston or Sandra Bullock…All told she has entered the mainstream to the point of capsizing the old rules at least most of the time
This dichotomy between the notions of success in the pornographic whilst simultaneously achieving recognition in the mainstream is what inspired me to focus this paper on Jenna Jameson. For a pornographic actress to achieve what is almost celebrity status is altogether unique. Indeed for decades porn stars have been vilified and abhorred as the dregs of society, as well as perpetually defined as low class or low culture.
It is the particularly explicit way in which porn depicts sex and bodies, it’s flaunting of boundaries, its perversity and its irredeemable ‘lowness’ that are often used to justify its condemnation
Yet Jameson has managed to negotiate herself not at the top of her socially debased profession, she has also situated herself in the middle of popular culture. We may put some of this down to her determination to succeed, as Jameson herself states
I didn’t want to be just any model: I wanted to be the best, the most photographed, the most known. I wanted people to say ‘Oh I know Jenna, I’ve seen her in hundreds of magazines.’
However her success can mostly be attributed to the changing face of media institutions the breaking down of traditions and the ‘pornographication of the mainstream.’
Before I continue, I would like to define what I mean by the terms, mainstream, celebrity and pornography. Pornography in its most basic definition is a media form (be that print, visual or aural), which is produced specifically to cause sexual arousal or desire. Yet one person’s view of what they deem pornographic can vary dramatically from another’s, according to a variety of social factors, for example race, class, gender or sexual orientation. As McNair says:
Definitions of the pornographic, then, are closely connected with competing perspectives on the meaning and function of impact and effect.
Thus this begets the question, what is pornography? This question, could elicit hours of analysis, for example one person’s art could well be another person’s pornography. However for the purposes of this paper, I can only focus on the traditional but albeit simplistic notion of what pornography is: sexual imagery that is conceived for the purposes of titillation and arousal. Likewise terms such as mainstream or celebrity can be interpreted in a number of ambiguous ways. A celebrity who is revered or idolised in one part of the world maybe unheard of somewhere else. Again for the purposes of this essay I can only focus on what I (as a western white female) perceive as celebrity; someone who is widely acknowledged in the media world that I inhabit according to my cultural and social position.
In the ‘Report of the U.S Attorney Generals Commission on Pornography’ published in 1986. E Meese stated that
In virtually every medium, from books to magazines to newspapers to music to radio to network television to cable television, matters relating to sex are discussed, described and depicted with a frankness and an explicitness of detail that has accelerated dramatically within a comparatively short period of time.
This quote from over twenty years ago demonstrates the impact that sex and sexually orientated imagery has had on modern media. However we can chart the ‘pornographication of the mainstream’ back a little further. Gail Dines in her essay entitled ‘Dirty Business: Playboy Magazine and the Mainstreaming of Pornography’ discusses the impact that men’s magazines such as Playboy,Penthouse and Hustler have had on the way in which pornography is portrayed today.
These three top-selling pornography magazines (together with their imitators), in turn, helped to lay the economic, legal and cultural foundations for the development and growth of the video pornography market, a market that threatens to swallow up the shrinking print pornography industry.
By taking a critical political economy approach, Dines is able to chart the rise of pornography, analyse it according to the social climate of the time and consider what outside factors contributed to its popularity. She positions Playboy as an initial reaction to 1950’s suburban America and the view that women were beginning to emasculate men by grasping onto slices of independence. According to Dines this meant that therefore men could believe they were gaining the power back by objectifying the source of the fear. Although this is a very valid viewpoint it is important to note here that Dines does ascribe to an anti-pornography feminist reading of the rise of Playboy and her analysis although thorough does have a bias. However what is important to take from her reading is the rise of the male consumer and the effects that this had on the magazines such as Playboy.
To make Playboy acceptable to the nation and to distinguish it from the under the counter pornography associated with seedy working class America, Hugh Hefner its founder and editor had to ensure that it had a respectable façade.
The markers of upper-class life, which appear casually thrown in as afterthoughts (cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and Picasso) were more likely deliberately placed to cloak the magazine in an aura of upper-middle class respectability.
Playboy’s ability to groom its male readers into believing that they were not reading smut but simply a ‘lifestyle’ magazine was at the heart of its success.
Yet this alone does not precede the ‘pornographication of the mainstream’ as we perceive it today. As both Dines and Brian McNair point out, the key factor in the success of pornography is its rise as a capitalist commodity. The old adage “sex sells” has never been more prevalent than when applied to the pornography created in Hefner’s time. Dines discuss’ the effect that both advertising and the onset of free-market competition had upon Playboy during its founding years.
Hefner by sexualising consumption provided an extremely hospitable environment for advertisers looking to expand markets in the post-war boom.
The arrival of market competition in magazines such as Penthouse and Hustler, which in order to gain the ascendancy produced more explicit images, signifies two things. Firstly the creation of a capitalist, market driven environment surrounding the pornography industry and secondly the creation of increasingly explicit materials available to the masses. As Dines states:
One of the results of the war was a growing acceptance in the mainstream soft-core market of more explicit imagery, thus opening the way for mass distribution of more hard-core materials.
McNair in his book “Mediated Sex: Pornography and Post-Modern Culture” discusses this commodification of pornography further.
Pornography as the mass cultural commoditized form of cultural representation, implicated in the alienation and anomie, which, according to this perspective, have characterized capitalism in the Twentieth Century.
It is impossible to ignore the impact that capitalism has had on the sexualization of our culture and it is essential in examining the ever-increasing presence of pornography in our society today. Jenna Jameson has declared publicly that she need never make another porn film again; by 2005 “Club Jenna” had revenues of over thirty million dollars with profits estimated at just over half of that.
Linda Lovelace wound up broke and renounced her career, Ms Jameson is rich and presents pornography as a means to financial empowerment… The culture doesn’t just shrug at her celebrity it embraces it.
As the quote at the start of this essay shows, pornography is now big business. In Hollywood, California, the porn industry creates almost twice as much revenue as the entertainment and film industry and in 2001 over ten thousand films were produced generating a four billion dollar revenue. The economic viability of pornography has been created both by demand and free market competition, which have only served to highlight its integration into the mainstream. Thus with pornography becoming such a powerful market force is it inevitable that a popular and financially successful star such as Jameson would become a household name? The economic climate alone can not be responsible for propelling Jenna to her (pseudo?) celebrity status and as McNair states the influence of porn as an economically viable force is somewhat hard to gauge because of the reluctancy of the industry in general to reveal firm facts and figures. However I think the economic climate and the financial viability of pornography is imperative not only in the pornographication of the mainstream but also in the success of Jenna Jameson navigating that divide.
Another key factor in the sexualization of our society is the increase of technological advancements within the media, which runs parallel to the changes in the economic climate (technology inextricably caught up in a consumerist culture.) All the while hardcore pornography was something that could only be acquired through clandestine means, its impact on our culture, as a whole could only be minimal. However as traditional media institutions such as newspapers have been broken down, media forms such as the Internet and satellite television have risen and risen. The effect that this has had on pornography has been tremendous. As Feona Attwood says in her essay ‘Reading Porn: The Paradigm Shift in Pornography Research.’
While developments in media technology have at times become the occasion of their own very moral panics… their potential to deliver porn to a wider audience than ever before and to make any attempt to regulate it apparently futile has also prompted a reconsideration of what pornography may come to mean in future years.
Thus as we can see not only does the Internet have power to bring pornography to a wider audience but it can also provide it reasonably unregulated. Jenna Jameson would not have nearly the same sort of success she has had without the Internet. In an article published in The Guardian late last year, Charles Arthur states:
It seems that “Jenna Jameson” is the twentieth most popular search online according to wordtracker, which tracks such things… perhaps, that’s because they know who she actually is.
This quote exemplifies the complex dichotomy between the Internet and pornography. Although the Internet gave pornography a widely available platform, we can also see how much pornography has influenced the media and media technologies. As McNair says
The demand for porn in particular has been a driving force in the process by which successive generations of information technologies have become part of mainstream culture.
Jenna herself also states
When it comes to early adapters, the porn industry always gets to new technology first.
This creates a chicken and egg situation. Which comes first, the demand or the means to provide the demand? Whatever the correct answer is to this question, one thing is undeniable; technology has had an enormous impact on pornography and the sexualization of our culture. Without it I would argue that the mainstreaming of porn would not be nearly as a contentious or important subject. Implicitly tied up in the notions of economy and technology is the idea that we, as a culture, have placed more onus on the concept of ‘leisure’ time and the ways in which the media now routinizes our day. Developments such as the Internet and Satellite Television have penetrated our lives to such a degree that it is almost impossible to escape them, to the point that they often dictate the way in which we live. I would argue then that not only does this make pornography part of our daily media world, but also it also perhaps offers a place where people feel that they can escape from the mundane nature of work and the constraints of society.
As I have stated the success of Jenna Jameson relies heavily on the availability of pornography and more explicitly her image on the Internet. The significance of this however goes further than just availability. The effect of these new forms of media raises a whole host of other questions. For example as Attwood explains,
The potential of new technologies to decentralize media production and consumption and even to call the very categories of public and private into question.
As she discusses, this combined with the “tabloidization” of our culture has seen the disintegration of what we perceive as our private and public spheres. Sexuality and discussions of sex have always traditionally fallen into what could be deemed the private part of our lives. Through magazines such as Playboy it slowly began to infiltrate public spheres thrusting sex more and more into our public mediated world. Later technological developments such as the Internet or DVD have bought the private into the public even more, for example through the use of web-cams or cyber-sex. In these spaces the consumer can connect sexually with the public in the privacy of their own home. Linda Williams in the introduction to her book “Porn Studies” describes this as on/scenity.
On/scenity: the gesture by which a culture brings onto its public arena the very organs, acts, bodies and pleasures that have heretofore been designated ob/scene and kept literally off-scene…On/scene is one way of signalling not just that pornographies are proliferating but that once off-scene sexual scenarios have been bought into the public sphere.
As this quote exemplifies, sexuality and pornography through economic, social and technological advancements have entered the public sphere to create what McNair terms the ‘Pornosphere.’
In 1997 whilst undergoing a re-branding, Penthouse magazine declared,
Sex is not the shameful or embarrassing subject it was for our parents. It drives our culture. It’s on the net, the telly, cable and catwalk. It’s the advertising copyline for modern life.
As this quote shows, we are fully entrenched inside this ‘Pornosphere’. McNair believes that two things; technology and demand, have created the creation of this new sphere of life, which as we have seen has become a powerful economic force. This sphere, he believes, is so pervasive that it has transcended traditional boundaries of public and private. Again this leads us to the question that if our cultural viewpoint is drenched by the trappings of this Pornosphere and as a result of this the decentralization of the media, is the success of women such as Jenna Jameson merely an inevitable by-product of that Pornosphere? That sooner or later pornography will unashamedly capitulate fully into the mainstream? Whether we want it too or not?
Thus not only do we have pornography as an entity entering into our mainstream consciousness but we also have all the trappings of pornography influencing our popular culture. As Attwood states,
Mainstream publications incorporate language and iconography traditionally associated with soft porn, carry advertising for sexual services and commodities and endlessly interrogate sexual pleasures.
This effect has not gone unnoticed in the media as well as in academic writings. In an article entitled ‘The Mainstream Flirts with Pornography Chic’ which appeared in the New York Times, W L Hamilton writes,
The continuing push towards more explicit sexuality in advertisements, movies and on network television; and in particular ‘the appropriation of the conventions of pornography- its stock heroes, its story lines, its low-budget lighting and motel room sets by the mainstream entertainment industry, the fashion and fine-arts worlds.
This appropriation of pornographic imagery by the mainstream is termed by McNair as ‘porno-chic’’. For example he describes Madonna as the epitome of porno-chic, using imagery associated with porn (in her singles Erotica andJustify My Love or in her book Sex) yet never fully immersing herself in the hard-core pornographic. McNair’s porno-chic differs dramatically from what we perceive to be true pornography. Yet as he also states, if this sexualised sensibility prevalent in pornography had not infiltrated our (sub)conscious then porno-chic could not exist.
Porno-chic aims to transfer the taboo, the transgressive qualities of pornography to mainstream cultural production, but in the knowledge that if media audiences are in general less easily shocked than in the past, mainstream culture remains a zone where real pornography is not acceptable.
As we can see from this quote, McNair believes that although we are in an era that is fast approaching the ‘pornographication of the mainstream’ it is only through “porno-chic” (an altogether watered down version) that we find it acceptable. This would seem to suggest that a pornographic star such as Jameson would never be able to find complete acceptance in our celebrity culture at this present time. He argues this further by stating that porno-chic is usually celebrity-led, (it is appropriated by already famous people using sex to sell their image or product) whereas pornography is usually anonymous. Although I agree with the theory behind McNair’s vision of the “porno-sphere”, I would also argue that actress’ such as Jenna Jameson, could and are challenging this notion of porno-chic being a celebrity based phenomenon. Jameson’s profile is larger than that of many Hollywood actresses’; she’s not only porno-chic and famous. She is porn and famous. A testament to this is an article in the Guardian in 2004 entitled ‘The Celebrity Political Backers’ which states which way celebrities were going to vote in the 2004 US presidential election. In a list that includes names such as Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Paul Newman and Bono, Jameson’s name appeared, voting Democrat. McNair argues this point by believing that if pornography is situated within our culture, albeit not within acceptable boundaries then people’s view of what is pornographic and what is not pornographic has been altered. I would argue that whatever you deem to be so-called “real” pornography, someone like Jameson can only be seen as first and foremost a hard-core pornographic actress. Her integration into the mainstream then, is more than just assimilation by a celebrity of porno-chic. Like Feona Attwood in her essay ‘Sexed-Up: Theorizing the Sexualization of Culture’ I also believe that although McNair’s celebration of our porno-sphere, may make the sexual more accessible and more available, at the same time it also makes it more easily regulated and easier to police. Once sexuality falls under the realm of the ‘public’, we have to ask what is left that is intimate, private and sacred?
As we have seen the ways in which pornography has entered our peripheral vision has been economic, social and technological. All of these factors have helped actress’ such as Jenna Jameson achieve the kind of notoriety that we would not expect from someone who is associated with pornography. Up until recently most academic discussions concerning pornography have focussed on the feminist aspect of the debate. The ‘Porn Wars’ have been documented considerably in both scholarly and media texts, with anti-porn feminists believing that all
Depictions of women in patriarchal culture have reflected their sub-ordinate sexual, political and socio-economic status.
Thus pornography is the worst kind of male-dominated, demoralising, degrading media there is. Radical feminists on the other side of the coin believe that their sexuality is empowering, that it affords them ascendancy over men, that through the sexualization of their bodies they achieve power. As Jenna herself states
Though watching porn may seem degrading to some women, the fact is that its one of the few jobs for women, where you can get to a certain level, look around and feel so powerful, not just in the work environment but as a sexual being. So, fuck Gloria Steinem.
The anti/pro pornography debate has troubled feminists for years, Ariel Levy a famous critic of ‘raunch culture’ (a term to describe women who feel that they are empowered, active and ferociously sexual), believing it to be merely a regurgitation of the patriarchal objectification of women, went so far as to specifically respond to Jenna’s comment, believing it to be a unrealistic vision of Feminism.
‘Its one of the few jobs for women where you can get to a certain level, look around and feel so powerful’ writes Jenna Jameson…However it is easy to see how many people fail to see why selling a mobile ring tone of your sex moan along with a whole catalogue of bejewelled sex toys, action figures and adult videos adds up to an empowered image of twentieth century female sexuality.
It would be impossible in this essay to analyse the feminist pornography debate in any great depth, as this is not an area I wish to focus too much on. However I think it is important to mention the political aspect of the ‘pornographication of the mainstream’. If these anti-pornography debates are so rife throughout both academia and media it can only filter through to the public consciousness, therefore bringing pornography more to the forefront of opinions about media representations of women. I would argue that the constant analysis of the pornographic, negative or otherwise, can only raise the profile of pornography and contribute to the mainstream becoming increasingly sexualised. Jameson was famously invited to Oxford University in 2003 to debate the pro-porn viewpoint, which she went on to win 204-27, highlighting that even when embroiled in feminist politics pornography can still influence and effect popular culture.
If, as we have established we are in an environment where pornography has become intertwined with our popular culture, it is interesting to look closer at someone like Jenna Jameson to see how far she has really come. Some critics believe she has been entirely successful in entrenching herself in mainstream media. As Vanessa Grigoriadis writes in her article ‘Jenna Jameson, “Girl on Top’.
Jameson’s name is perhaps the only one, other than Ron Jeremy’s that people who don’t watch porn know. Indeed Jenna Jameson is a kind of cultural shorthand for “porn star” tossed off casually in arch comedy series “curb your enthusiasm” and even romantically linked to Britney Spears.
To her, Jameson is porn personified in popular culture. Boyd Farrell, writing for the Guardian, agrees, highlighting the merger of our private and public spheres, as well as the economic viability of pornography.
In America everyone has two moralities; a public one and a private one. Porn is already so available, not just on the Internet – which has made it more respectable for the middle classes- but on cable, in hotel rooms, wherever. Jenna Jameson and Seymour Butts are bona fide stars and although they might not admit it, all the big media corporations are already in the porn business.
Jameson herself appears to have mixed on views her status as a celebrity and indeed whether or not this is her ultimate goal. In her book “How to Make Love like a Porn Star”, she writes.
Mainstream fame, or at least the tantalizing possibility of it, had now entered my bloodstream. I was never the same afterward.
I was on national TV. I didn’t feel like society’s dirty little secret anymore.
Up until then I had lived in the sheltered world of the sex industry. And I had come to believe I was a star. But when I met all these (famous) people, I realized I was nothing. I was just a niche icon not a real celebrity… There must be something more I could make of myself.
These quotes seem to point to a desire on Jameson’s part to become a household name, to achieve the same sort of status as the rock-stars and actors she found herself associating with. It was not just the “tantalizing” prospect of celebrity as she puts it, but also the establishment of pornography as a valid cultural form.
Every article I read about the mainstreaming of porn declared that I was going to be the one to make the industry legitimate.
Yet in more recent interviews Jameson has denied that she ever craved bona fide celebrity, that all she desired was to be at the top of her profession, that of pornography.
I’m so friggin unaffected by the whole friggin Hollywood scene – give me the job or shut up… I’m not a show pony. I don’t want to hang out with you and your friends… I don’t want to play some part where I have to dye my hair, get my boobs reduced and change my name.
Whatever Jameson’s intentions or feelings towards her role in the media, her position as a cultural commodity is only increasing. Porn stars do not usually have forty-eight foot billboards in Time Square advertising their website, Jenna Jameson does.
However some critics believe that porn stars like Jameson can never achieve fully fledged celebrity status. That a metaphorical glass ceiling will always divide the notions of pornography and mainstream. As Charles Taylor writes:
As a representative face of a segment of pop culture that’s both more popular than its ever been (porn’s yearly income rivals that of Hollywood and Pro-sports) and still unacknowledged by most its consumers, Jenna Jameson has become an unintentional provocateur… I can walk into one of the big media mega-stores and buy one of her movies… but I’m not likely to see her turning up on Letterman or Leno…Its doubtful that Jay or Dave would oblige her with a plug by holding up a copy of Brianna loves Jenna or let her mention her website Club Jenna.
This would seem to symbolise that no matter how far a porn star has gone, no matter how much we live in a world where the Pornosphere has changed our perception of culture, the complete pornographication of the mainstream can never occur.
As Attwood discusses pornography is perpetually equated with a “low” culture, with the debasing of society.
Challenge conventions of decency and rationality and to resist regulatory and to resist regulatory controls and is often represented as a downward spiral, a debasing of the public sphere, a worrying turn (or return) to the emotional, personal, physical and visceral and all things “low”.
If pornography is perceived as the epitome of “low”, how can it ever be absorbed into the mainstream? Society needs a cultural scapegoat to be able to distinguish between high art and low art. For every positive there has to be a negative, pornography’s existence is imperative to create a cultural balance. Thus the pornographication of the mainstream can only go so far, Jenna Jameson can only achieve so much. If pornography filters completely into the mainstream is it still pornography? As McNair says
Porn’s outsider status- the product of the pornographer’s determination to break societal taboo’s by revealing practices which familial, social and religious educations tell us should be forbidden, or at least remain hidden – is at the heart of its eroticism.
According to this point of view then, pornography to be pornography has to have an outsider status, if it merges fully with the mainstream, by definition is it no longer porn? No matter how much we now live in a world which is increasingly pornographic, no matter how sexualized our culture becomes will we ever see a complete integration of pornography into our mediated world? Can the pornographication of the mainstream ever reach its ultimate goal? And if our media has become so sexualised, ‘will a focus on “pornography” be useful any longer’? How valid a term is pornography in a culture that is bordering on the pornographic? I would argue that no matter how explicit our culture appears to become there is a still a huge gulf between what we see as hard-core pornography and porno-chic. This makes the character of someone like Jameson all the more interesting. There are few of her contemporaries that have managed to navigate this divide to as much effect. Most household names equated with pornography for example Hugh Hefner or Ron Jeremy, are not only male (therefore arguably culturally privileged?) But they have not reached the same kind of celebrity status as Jameson has. Hefner’s name maybe as well known but his impact is altogether different from Jameson’s. He may have helped create a pornographication of the mainstream but he had not been a product of it nor exemplified it to the same degree. I would like to argue then, that Jameson’s position is almost unique and whether she has paved the way for women like her to achieve the same kind of notoriety remains to be seen.
The pornographication of the mainstream then seems to be a phenomenon that we cannot escape from. In all our media the sexual is prevalent in some form or other and it appears to only becoming increasingly so. The impact of someone like Jenna Jameson is an effective means to measure this pornographication, her star only continues to grow and she is becoming increasingly pervasive all the time. Pornography has entered our mediated worlds through a variety of reasons as we have seen and its status as a cultural commodity can no longer be ignored. The inevitability of Jameson’s success cannot be argued with, the cultural, political, social and technological climate combined with her hard work and determination has enabled her to achieve the success she has. She is not porno-chic as McNair describes it, she is pornography and her effect on mainstream culture is a very interesting one. Yet whether she becomes fully absorbed by celebrity culture or indeed whether she can become fully absorbed by celebrity culture is debatable. (As is whether she wants to or is prepared to become absorbed). If the construction of the term pornography is in such a constant state of flux, that its meaning is changing every moment then nothing can be presumed to be a definite. What remains, however is her ability to navigate successfully the divide between pornography and the mainstream and in doing so challenging a division that once seemed irreconcilable.