Monday, June 17, 2013

Listening to Dylan Ryan: Authenticity in Feminist Porn




Still (slowly!) working my way through The Feminist Porn Book.  Every piece in it has so much going on, I sometimes feel like "summing up" articles here just isn't doing it justice--but I'll live in hope that readers will be tantalized by little tidbits here to read the book for themselves.  Dylan Ryan's piece, Fucking Feminism, is a dense analysis of feminist porn artfully disguised as a lovely memoir piece.  It's downright tricky, this piece, because you're reading along about Ryan's entry into the world of feminist porn, and before you know it, you've read something that takes on many of the main themes of discussing feminist porn, addressing all sorts of anti-porn critiques without vilifying said critiques, or dismissing them outright; Ryan manages to give room for a lot of the complexities of these debates that are often left to the side.  At the same time, she's kind of "just" talking about how she came to be in porn.  And she does all of this in just a few pages.  It's a great stylistic choice, because the more varied stories are told about (feminist and not-so-feminist) porn, the better.

A central theme of Ryan's take on queer and feminist porn is that of "authenticity", which she acknowledges to be a complex concept.  Noting early on in her life as a porn consumer that the sex in much of porn wasn't the kind of sex she was having, or liked to have, and that the bodies (especially female bodies) in porn weren't like hers in various ways, she knew that she could make better porn.  One way to make better (and, as it turns out, more feminist) porn was to better represent sex and the bodies of performers more authentically:
The films Nina [Hartley], Annie [Sprinkle], and others made represented a sexuality that was open, honest, and without shame; they showcased sex that was fun and consensual. They had a sexual agency that I found arousing. It was the first time that I saw sex that resonated with me and that I wanted to emulate...[e]ven with these films though, I still had issues with the bodies: the differences between theirs and mine. I couldn’t relate to the curvaceous body type of Nina Hartley or Annie Sprinkle. At five-feet-ten and 145 pounds, I have been athletic and sinewy for most of my adult life. My breasts are small A cups, and my look is often more androgynous than girly. Like many women, I experienced the simultaneous intrigue and revulsion that can accompany pornographic film watching: of being simultaneously captivated and repulsed by the performers as they embody stereotypical female “beauty” and “perfection.”
 I suspect that many men also feel a similar "simultaneous intrigue and revulsion", at least at times, though of course men have a different relationship to women's bodies, and to their own bodies, than women do.  Still, it's great that Ryan gives voice to this idea. 

Ryan got a chance fairly early on to do some practical tests of her ideas, when Shine Louise Houston asked Ryan to be in what was to be their first porn film.  The film also starred Jiz Lee(!), whose piece in The Feminist Porn book I talked about here.  (The way these folks met and got together to make feminist porn, by the way, is part of the "context" of feminist porn that Lynn Comella wrote about in her piece in the same book.)  As she has continued to make movies, she has continued to consciously use authenticity as a touchstone, which is part of what makes her work, she tells us, subversive of the traditional paradigm.  She says:
When Shine and I first talked, we both believed that the majority of mainstream porn was inauthentic and not in agreement with what we knew to be true of our sexualities and the sexualities of those around us. “Authenticity” took on a somewhat mythological quality and became the Holy Grail in our vision for pornographic filmmaking: if we could achieve it, we truly would have transcended the existing constraints of the known porn world. We considered authentic porn our goal. Even now, this far into my porn career, I still reference the concept of authenticity as a sizeable part of my rationale for the porn that I make. It is a term that I use frequently to explain my position and identity as a porn performer. By situating myself inside my understanding of authenticity and explaining that to interviewers and interrogators, I also protect myself from some of the criticism that dogs other porn performers. Of course, what is “authentic” varies among individuals. When I say I’m making authentic porn, it means I prioritize my sexuality, which has allowed me a much less-criticized position than a female performer who may not have thought as much about authenticity in sexual representation.
In true feminist spirit, Ryan also talks about the limits of her ability to transform porn as a cisgendered, white woman:  
I struggle to blaze a trail for women while accepting my own whiteness and privilege. I “get” to be in porn, to raise my conceptual fist to the mainstream because I am close enough to the mainstream to even be let inside in the first place. This has been a bitter pill to swallow, but it reminds me that the deeper work of change to the representation of women in porn has to occur beyond me. It will come when we have greater inclusion of women of all body types, ages, and ethnicities in porn to counter the dominant imagery.
See! Told you she is taking on all kinds of various complexities!

She even manages to quickly sum up her shift from 'I'm not a feminist, but...' kind of thinking to identifying as a feminist, and as a feminist porn performer:
 It was at some point in those next few moments, on stage in front of hundreds that I came to see myself as so many others had already: I performed in feminist porn, I was a feminist porn performer. I was a feminist. In all those years of crafting my work to represent empowerment, awareness, positive female sexuality, women’s choice, I was representing feminist ideals about sex. After years of believing that all or most feminists disapproved of what I was doing with my life, it took a moment on a stage beneath a bright spotlight to realize that many feminists not only approved of, but appreciated, what I was doing. It was also the moment I realized I had been setting myself up, through all my choices, to be seen that way—as a feminist porn performer.
Ryan is the kind of writer who has clearly thought things out so precisely that I had to resist just quoting the whole text--as it is, I kind of failed, as you see from the swathes of quotes above. I recommend reading the entire article:  The details of Ryan's entry into porn and the way she navigates these complex conceptual puzzles is half of the joy of the article. The other half being reading what is essentially deep feminist theory that reads like a memoir.


Ryan has several interviews which convey some of the themes of her piece in The Feminist Porn Book:
Here's one on HuffPo. 

One from backstage at the Feminist Porn Conference (I think):


And another:


Note: This is one of a series of posts about articles in The Feminist Porn Book. The other posts can be found here.
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