Performance and Performativity first paper

My first paper for Performance and Performativity was due Friday, and I submitted it! I meant to post my drafts here, but just kept working over them. So, you just get the final draft.

Word count: 1549

The Performativity and Precarity of Porn Stardom:

Danny Wylde’s ‘Summoning of the Porn Star’ Ritual in Madison Young’s Thin Line Between Art and Sex

            “I was invited to participate in a porn film and much to my surprise I arrived on set and found that everyone involved was an actual person, not a porn star,” says Danny Wylde (Thin Line). This sums up the binary that Wylde explores in his art piece/ritual, the tension and incompatibility of porn stardom and personhood. This ritual, which is the first scene in Madison Young’s Thin Line Between Art and Sex, is a satirical “art piece” in the form of a pagan/Satanic ritual to “conjure forth the porn stars from the past” (Thin Line). This ‘summoning’ inverts and then reinforces Peggy Phelan’s “axis of purity/perversity” (44) by positioning the “real people pretending to be porn stars” (Thin Line) as “disgusting” or perverse, and the porn star, who is an inhuman ideal, as pure but also not virtuous, and therefore perverse. This art piece highlights the performativity of porn stardom, and the precarity that the “real people” (Thin Line) performing porn stardom operate under.

Peggy Phelan claims that the “categories of ‘pornography’ and ‘perversity’ depend on the curious fascination of the spectator’s voyeuristic pleasure, a pleasure that pivots on the axis of purity/perversity” (44). Wylde invokes the “voyeuristic pleasure” (Phelan 44) of the spectator when he discusses his early interactions with idealized porn stars who, Wylde says “have sex all day, they do nothing else, that’s why they call them stars – because you look up to them” (Thin Line). Wylde’s spectatorial pleasure is predicated on the idea that porn stars are porn stars. They are not ‘real’ people. Wylde’s response to the idealized porn star reinforces Phelan’s assertion that the viewer can “’possess’ the image which remains immobile within the frame… of the spectator’s gaze” (46), and his response to realizing that the porn set is full of actual people rather than porn stars shatters this immobility. The porn star cannot be a real person, because their personhood directly conflicts with Wylde’s ability as a spectator to possess them.

Wylde’s performance, however, inverts Phelan’s axis of purity and perversity (Phelan 44). The porn star’s very porn stardom means that they are pure in Wylde’s mind, and it is the physical bodies of the “real people pretending to be porn stars” (Thin Line) that are “disgusting.” The impossibility of the porn star body, which never requires a douche, an enema, or even food beyond coffee, is what makes her a porn star. She is an idealized and inhuman body, existing in a state of perpetual sexual readiness and physical purity. The sex that she has “all day” (Thin Line) does not pervert or damage her purity, and it is this fantasy of the dehumanized sexual vessel that Wylde’s fantasies are based on. It is therefore Wylde as the masturbating teenager generating this fantasy of the idealized porn star that is perverse. The spectator becomes the site of perversity, and the porn star is held up as pure in comparison.

If, however, we read Phelan’s definition of purity as virtuousness, rather than physical purity, then Wylde’s idealized porn star is perverse. Writing on the topic of whore stigma, Jill Nagle notes that “[t]his division [between whore and not-whore] translates into a mandate to not only be virtuous, but also to appear virtuous” (5, emphasis hers). Wylde’s porn star is not virtuous, because she is “having sex all day” (Thin Line) and she does not even appear to be virtuous, because she is perpetually sexually ready and if it were not for the “outfit… that is imposed on her… she would be naked all the time, ready to fuck at a moment’s notice” (Thin Line).

The outfit is imposed on the porn star because it is unacceptable that she be visibly “ready to fuck at a moment’s notice” (Thin Line); her readiness would render her unintelligible within a culture that does not accept freely available sex. Nagle says that “good girls, then, stay out of the fray by eschewing any display of sexual intent or autonomy, lest it be used to relabel them bad” (5). Wylde seems to be demanding that a real porn star voluntarily and publicly place herself in a position of heightened precarity. The naked and ready porn star is unacceptable, unintelligible, in public space, and as Butler notes, “those who do not live their genders in intelligible ways are at heightened risk for harassment and violence” (ii). Wylde is therefore asking that the porn star place herself at this “heightened risk” (Butler ii). The porn star’s sexual readiness is a performance of gender, and Jill Dolan notes that “while it is crucial not to conflate sexuality with gender, expressions of sexuality further illustrate the operation of gender codes and constructs in the representation of the female body” (63), and Butler herself links sexual labour to gender-based precarity (ii).

The sexual availability of Wylde’s idealized porn star is just one aspect of this art piece that brings Judith Butler’s concept of precarity to the fore. Butler situates sex workers, a category that includes porn performers, as an identity category facing exceptional precarity (ii). Porn stars blur the distinction between public and private by performing the private act of sex in the public space of a studio, and challenging the gender norms that Butler says determine “how and in what way the public and private are distinguished, and how that distinction is instrumentalized in the service of sexual politics” (ii). It is the element of sexual politics that Wylde’s satire highlights most clearly. The porn star cannot inhabit the same space as the porn performer, because the porn performer is a person. A person defecates, eats, and has talents, desires and aspirations beyond their sexual labour. By asserting that these real people are “disgusting” (Thin Line) and that they are only “pretending to be porn stars” (Thin Line), Wylde points a finger at the social construction of the “good girl/bad girl binary” (Nagle 5) and even at Phelan’s construction of “the axis of purity/perversity” (44). By emphasizing with such extreme intensity the binary between porn star and actual person, Wylde’s performance undermines the binary that it claims to enforce. This art piece can be seen as a “subversive resignification [that] serves the purpose of exposing the illusion that gendered acts… are stable components in a coherent and necessary order of identity” (Loxley 122).

Wylde claims that a ‘real’ porn star is sexually ready at all times, that her vagina “smells great all the time, she doesn’t menstruate, it’s impossible for her to get bacterial vaginosis” (Thin Line), and that she doesn’t need food or ever require an enema. That Wylde can articulate this inhuman ideal of porn stardom highlights the ways in which the performance of porn stardom is taken up as “a sign of its internal or inherent truth” (Butler i). The porn performer performs porn stardom, and this is a performative act in that it calls into being the idealized porn star body that the performer temporarily inhabits. The construction of the porn star, who cannot have bodily processes or functions, means that the porn star is one-dimensional construction incapable of an artistic (or even human) life beyond their porn stardom. The porn star is non-compliant in the sense that they cannot be recognized as a person, because they do not have any of the indicators of human bodily existence. As Butler notes, “non-compliance calls into question the viability of one’s life, the ontological conditions of one’s persistence” (iv). By performing a non-compliant identity, the porn performer puts their own viability into question. They are eclipsed by their performance of porn stardom, a performance that pushes them into precarity.

By explicitly linking performativity with precarity, Wylde’s piece articulates clearly and with humour the point that Butler makes when she says “[t]he performativity of gender has everything to do with who counts as a life, who can be read or understood as a living being, and who lives, or tries to live, on the far side of established modes of intelligibility” (iv). The porn star cannot be counted as a life, cannot be “read or understood as a living being” (Butler iv). But the porn performer, the person who uses the “hundreds” (Thin Line) of enemas in the bathroom, who menstruates and is capable of bacterial vaginosis, this person lives “on the far side of established modes of intelligibility” (Butler iv). This person exists under conditions of precarity, imposed in part by what Carol Queen describes as a prevalent conception that women in the sex industry “have no boundaries and sometimes no choices” (128). Wylde’s assertion that the porn star is always “ready to fuck” (Thin Line) highlights the lack of boundaries that are assumed for porn stars. Since the only options presented by Wylde within his piece are to be a “disgusting” real person or a porn star with no boundaries, porn performers are in an impossible position, caught between being sexually idealized or stigmatized by our sex-negative culture.

Wylde highlights both the performativity and the precarity of the porn star and of the porn performer who exists behind and within this impossible, illegible identity. His satirical art piece subverts the binaries that it proposes to reinforce, and sets up the rest of the film as an exploration of the space between porn performance and porn stardom.



Works Cited

Butler, Judith. “Performativity, Precarity and Sexual Politics.” AIBR. Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana 4.3 (2009): i-xiii. AIBR. 13 Feb 2013. Web.

Dolan, Jill. The Feminist Spectator as Critic. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991. Print.

Loxley, James. Performativity. London: Routledge, 2007. Google Play Book.

Nagle, Jill. Introduction. Whores and Other Feminists. Ed. Jill Nagle. New York: Routledge, 2010. 1-15. Print.

Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London: Routledge, 1996. Google Play Book.

Queen, Carol. “Sex Radical Politics, Sex-Positive Feminist Thought, and Whore Stigma.” Whores and Other Feminists. Ed. Jill Nagle. New York: Routledge, 2010. 125-135. Print.

Thin Line Between Art and Sex. Dir. Madison Young. Perf. Danny Wylde, Madison Young, Justin. HeartCore Films/Good Releasing, 2010. Film.

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