If pornographer and prominent defender of the porn industry Anna Arrowsmith did not exist then the porn industry would have to invent her. Few have worked so assiduously to normalise the product of the multi-billion dollar industry as the former parliamentary candidate. However, if the porn producers did have the chance to design her from scratch I’m betting they would do something about her ability to reason and persuade. Her latest article for The Guardian is a classic in the Arrowsmith oeuvre, full of ludicrous statements and unfounded assertions. Commenting on the breakout porn star “James Deen”, lauded as a “feminist” due to such radical patriarchy-smashing acts as “whispering in the ears of female performers” and “holding their hands” Arrowsmith claims to be surprised by his media prominence since, according to Arrowsmith, the “feminism” of Deen is the norm amongst male performers:
“Despite many people believing male porn stars to be misogynistic, the reality is they tend to be men who enjoy the company of women. The fact porn films sometimes require performances from men that can be perceived to be misogynistic does not necessarily mean that the films, or the actors, are misogynistic themselves.”
In 2007 Robert Woztnitzer and Ana Bridges published an analysis of 50 of the most popular porn videos. 88% of the scenes they analysed showed physical aggression; nearly half included verbal insults or threats; 70 percent of the acts of aggression were carried out by men and 87% of those acts were committed against women. Only 5% of the acts of aggression were responded to by requests to stop – overwhelmingly women were portrayed as deserving of their subordinate status.
Porn producers do not sometimes require performances that can be perceived as misogynist, they almost always require such performances. And herein lies the trouble with arguing that misogyny in porn is harmless fantasy; that claim might be tenable if such material were merely one style amongst a wide variety of popular alternatives but in terms of market share misogyny is pretty much the only game in town. Don’t believe me? Type “porn” into google and see how long it takes you to find material inconsistent with the Woznitzer and Bridges content review.
Then there is Arrowsmith’s claim that male porn stars are typically not misogynist. Firstly, if that is the case, it raises the question as to why these supposedly women-loving men choose to contribute to an industry which so relentlessly portrays women as the subordinate sexual playthings of men. Secondly, while the personal views of the male performers can have serious consequences for their female counterparts, their views are largely irrelevant when it comes to the impact of porn on the broader culture. If a racist Hollywood movie is produced with actors who are not racist in their private lives that does not exonerate the producers of the movie nor mitigate the harm of that particular media product. Male performers could be working in domestic violence shelters in their free time but it would not therefore follow that the product of their day jobs ought not be classified as misogynist.
Arrowsmith approvingly quotes Deen discussing his work for the sado-masochistic porn production site kink.com:
“At [BDSM conglomerate] Kink, this girl and I are having awesome sex and she likes to get slapped in the face. The sex isn’t punishment. It’s BDSM lifestyle, and they make it super clear it’s the girl’s fantasy.”
Kink.com is somewhat unusual amongst porn sites in having a code of conduct displayed on their site. Amongst other rules that its producers must abide by you can find the following heart warming injunction:
“If a model begins crying due to pain, the scene must stop and the model must be comforted ON CAMERA.[emphasis theirs] The scene may continue at a lighter pace to avoid continued crying once the model has stopped crying, the tears are wiped away, and the model has explicitly agreed to continue.”
If Deen and the producers at kink.com can be described as “feminist” (Deen incidentally is on the record as saying that he hates feminism) then this must be a wave of feminism that has passed me by. Perhaps they are part of what we might term the “collaborationist wave”.
Under the alias “Anna Span” Arrowsmith is a producer of supposedly feminist pornography. As I have written elsewhere it seems to me that the production of genuinely feminist porn is a legitimate tactic in the struggle against the overwhelming misogyny of the industry (whether it’s an effective tactic is another question). However, it is impossible to take Arrowsmith or groups such as Our porn, Ourselves seriously as allies in that struggle since they insist on making outrageously positive statements about the mainstream of the industry whilst denying the heavily circumscribed nature of the choices available to performers. For example in her Guardian article Arrowsmith breezily states that:
“Porn stars choose the porn industry as a dream job, often over other equally well-paid job opportunities.”
Not some porn stars, not a small percentage - no, apparently all porn performers are living out their dreams and neither the risks of working for women hating men, nor the dangers of disease, or of being socially shunned can deter them from the single minded pursuit of their goal. This in spite of the fact that they could apparently get paid equally well by other employers, (Deen oddly appears to be an exception to Arrowsmith’s panglossian depiction of the options available to porn performers, since he was homeless in his teens and was working at Starbucks prior to his porn debut).
There are defenders of porn who rise to the minimum level of seriousness that allows for meaningful debate on the topic of pornography. Alas, Anna Arrowsmith has demonstrated once again that she cannot be counted amongst their number.
 Readers interested in Deen’s unusual brand of feminism are invited to read this interview in which Deen ponders the question as to whether or not the late porn director Chico Wang (who kidnapped, beat and probably murdered his porn star wife Haley Paige) was a bad man.
There’s an article on The Guardian lauding “ill Manors” the new protest single by Plan B (aka Ben Drew). In many ways this is an admirable intervention by Drew. The song variously takes on the London riots, the mainstreaming of chav hate, the economic effects of austerity and the profligate spending on the olympic jamboree whilst the poorer parts of the capital are subjected to rising unemployment and harsh austerity. The article rightly places “ill Manors” in the tradition of aggressive musical protest pioneered by The Clash and Public Enemy. While I’m a fan of both groups, lyrically they could be clumsy and even embarrassing at times (and yet at others eloquent and inspired). The problem with “ill Manors” is that it’s strictly on the clumsy and embarrassing side - the worst line (and there are many) being “Lets go looting, no not Luton”… Matters aren’t helped by the video which looks a bit like the film La Haine reworked for a school play and inexplicably includes the famous footage of John Prescott punching Craig Evans in 2001.
The best political music of recent times has generally approached political subject matter in a relatively oblique manner (PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake being a good example). I’m not entirely sure why this is, though I suspect it may have something to do with living in a culture saturated in irony (a parody of “ill Manors” surely can’t be long in the offing). Whatever the cause though, I think most of us would like to see a more direct and unapologetic form of musical protest. A worthy attempt though it is, “ill Manors” is not what we’ve been waiting for.
Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker circa 2003.
I’m just finishing up writing my contribution for NLP’s Rebel Music series - a somewhat contrary attempt to situate Steely Dan as political radicals rather than the manufacturers of appallingly smooth jazz-rock they are mostly viewed as by the casual listener. The almost cloyingly slick music of the Dan’s late period (a key part of its charm as I try to argue in my NLP contribution) together with their impenetrable lyrics (by the standards of rock) make the Dan a pretty hard sell. Just by chance yesterday I came across a guide for Steely Dan neophytes. It’s a good read, but of course, as with anything so subjective I don’t entirely agree with its suggestions so I thought I’d provide a guide of my own. References to substance abuse abound in the dan’s lyrics so here are my prescriptions for some Steely gateway drugs (the uber-smooth 1980 album Gaucho standing in for the big bad H).
1. Any Major Dude Will Tell You
The third track from 1974’s Pretzel Logic this song is rather unusual in the Dan’s cannon - containing both emotional sincerity and lyrics which take little deciphering. Lyrically the song is a fairly straightforward attempt to console a friend experiencing what sounds like depression or some form of breakdown: “I never seen you looking so bad my funky one/you tell me that your super fine mind has come undone.” In its emphasis on the universality of pain and the impermanence suffering (“when the demon is at your door/in the morning it won’t be there no more”) it is hardly original, but there’s something genuinely moving about the combination of the uncharacteristically gentle lyrics and the softly strummed acoustic backing. The only part of the song that requires consultation with the Steely Dan dictionary is the second verse where Fagen compares himself to a “squonk”: a mythical animal supposedly resident to Pennsylvania. According to myth the squonk is an extraordinarily ugly creature covered in blemishes which spends most of its time hiding in shame and weeping. When encountered by hunters legend has it that the the squonk will evade capture by dissolving itself into a pool of its own tears…
Another track from Pretzel Logic, lyrically it’s rather more typical of the rest of the Dan’s oeuvre. The song details an encounter with a ”Moonie” - a member of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification
cult church which has a seminary based in the hamlet of Barrytown in up-state New York.
The final verse contains one of the more memorable put downs in rock: “Don’t you scream or make a shout/ it’s nothing you can do about/it was there when you came out/it’s a special lack of grace/ I can see it in your face/I can see by what you carry that you come from barrytown.” The final line is a reference to the bouquets of flowers commonly carried by Moonie proselytizers. Although The Beach Boys are usually fingered as the prime influence on Sean O’Hagan of The High Llamas, he’s also been influenced by Becker and Fagen, most obviously on the 1993 song “Checking in, checking out” which finds O’Hagen clearly under the influence of “Barrytown”.
3. King of the World
When critics discuss Steely Dan’s lyrics they are more likely to reference novelists such as Terry Southern and Thomas Pynchon than they are to mention musical contemporaries. It’s easy to see why in the case of “King of the World” from Countdown to Ecstasy. Straight out of a Kurt Vonnegut short story the song playfully describes a rather unruffled sounding survivor of a nuclear holocaust who attempts to contact other survivors in order to go on a leisurely trip around ground zero: “You and I will spend this day driving in my car through the ruins of Santa Fe”. The song’s chorus wryly captures the absurd machismo and suicidal logic of the cold war: “any man left on the Rio Grande is the king of the world as far as I know.”
4. Show Biz Kids
Although Becker and Fagen were embraced by some of the punk generation (Ian Dury and Elvis Costello are notable fans) they are usually bracketed with the soft rock aristocracy of the 70s. And not only by their critics, a large portion of the Dan’s own fanbase seem to consume their music with little regard for their extremely subversive lyrics. Fagen and Becker even make reference to their curious position in the song “Show Biz Kids” - a scathing attack on the affluent youth of LA: “Show business kids making movies of themselves/you know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else”. Running out of ways to insult the Hollywood rich kids Fagen finally sneers “And they got the Steely Dan T-Shirt….”
5. Time Out of Mind
As Erik Adams suggests in his piece for the AV Club Gaucho is the album perhaps most likely to confirm anti-Dan prejudice. The album is the product of a finickety studio perfectionism that makes their other records sound like the work of The Fall by comparison. However, if any tune from the album is likely to draw in a resistant listener it’s the soaring “Time Out of Mind”. The most upbeat track on the album, the song’s narrator is a more than usually pretentious drug dealer extolling the virtues of smoking heroin: “tonight when I chase the dragon the water will turn to cherry wine and the silver will turn to gold”. It’s typical of one of the darkest albums in pop that the only moment on the album that appears to be inspired by unabashed joy is actually about embracing opiate induced oblivion.
and one to avoid…
Although it’s finally wormed its way into my affections and though it contains some of their funniest lyrics, the musical backing is guaranteed to alienate anyone who’s grown up with the idea that acoustic guitars and electric distortion equal sincerity.
The backlash against the Kony 2012 campaign has seen several commentators write stinging critiques of Jason Russell’s ‘Invisible Children’ organisation. Well worth reading though they are, the photo above of Russell and his cohorts posing with the SPLA does rather render such critiques superfluous. A picture’s worth a thousand words as the saying goes..
The American Adventure theme park looking a bit worse for wear in 2009. I dimly recall visiting when I was 15. I rather like the idea of abandoned theme parks (perhaps because of the rather eerie one depicted in Satoshi Kon’s wonderful anime Paprika.)
Prescient comment on Barack Obama by Adolph Reed. Jr. in 1996:
“In Chicago…we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices: one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program – the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle class reform in favoring form over substances. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics here, as in Haiti and wherever the International Monetary Fund has sway.”
Coming soon from NLP… Our first ebook by the erudite Mr Daniel Hind.