Parsing Political Pornos
A theoretical and analytical approach to governors, glasses, and getting it on
By David A. Martinez, CMC ’11
Hustler’s erotic parody Who’s Nailin’ Paylin?: Adventures of a Hockey MILF begins with the ringing of the doorbell of what seems a miniature version of the White House set in Alaska. The protagonist, Serra Paylin, opens the door to reveal two uniformed soldiers who “have a flat tire” and need to borrow the phone to call “the Kremlin” – or, as they translate it for the clueless woman, the “tow-truck” – to fix their broken USSR tanks. “In the spirit of foreign relations,” Paylin invites them in. After the required prelude to sex – an awkward conversation that includes a sexually charged knock-knock joke – Paylin begins fellating them, but only after bizarrely commenting that their penises “look germy.”
Except for the recognizable references to Sarah Palin’s foreign policy qualifications, which the press harshly criticized during the 2008 campaign cycle, the first scene of Nailin’ Paylin reads like many other pornographic films, at least at first sight; it turns a mundane experience (helping strangers who have car troubles) into fertile ground for unfettered sexual fulfillment. One telling aspect that can help us understand the representation and fetishization of the quintessential Hockey MILF, however, is the inclusion of her glasses and hairstyle as part of her publicly-constructed persona from beginning to (literally) climatic end in each of her scenes.
In the second scene, for example, an unnamed female intern helps Paylin prep for a public appearance by teaching her “new words that [she] can use to express [herself].” After failing to teach her the words “absolutely” and “definitely” (which Paylin turns into an emphatic “You betcha!”) or getting her to identify an obvious reference to Abraham Lincoln, the intern gives up and sends Paylin to bed. Paylin’s unnamed husband then comes out of hiding and reveals his affair with the intern to the audience.
Before the coitus begins, the man puts glasses on the intern and gets her to put her hair up so that she can resemble Paylin; in a pointed metatheatrical reference, Paylin’s husband highlights the fictional nature of the forthcoming pornographic performance by having the intern try to look like the protagonist, who is, in turn, a Sarah Palin look-alike. The construction of the male fantasy, however, does not end with the visual aspect of the encounter; he tells the intern to “say what [he likes] to hear,” thus adding an auditory component to the performance. In a parody of political rhetoric, the intern promises flexibility, even if she has to resort to “backdoor politics.” Unsurprisingly, the scene features anal sex. The scene, which ends with Paylin’s husband ejaculating on the intern’s glasses, again consciously highlights this crucial symbol at play. That Paylin wears the glasses at all times – even in the lesbian threesome finale – suggests that her persona would be incomplete without them.
What, then, is the larger symbolic cultural significance of Paylin’s glasses and hairdo? In the words of gender/film theorist Mary Ann Doane, the glasses often appear as one of several “signifiers of unattractiveness… one of the most intense visual clichés of the cinema.” Only when the woman sheds such signifiers of “[simultaneous] intellectuality and undesirability” in a dramatic and public way can she become objectified. In light of Doane’s theory, Paylin’s constructed persona embodies a paradox since it relies on the intellectual sign, the glasses, paired with infantilizing speech and mannerisms.
An early episode of Arrested Development satirizes this cliché. In “Visiting Ours,” Michael entrusts Gob with discovering what incriminating information George Sr.’s former secretary, Kitty, holds about the Bluth Company. In an awkward storage closet scene, Kitty and Gob flirt – but before she can kiss him, and thus initiate the sexual encounter, he asks Kitty to remove her glasses. Kitty complies, revealing that she is cross-eyed. Repulsed, Gob asks her to let down her hair, hoping that her appearance will then conform to his (and society’s) standards of beauty. Her hair becomes a frizzy, lop-sided mess, a physical change that, again, does not please Gob. When Kitty refuses to put her hair back up, a defeated Gob turns off the lights so that he can conjure his perfect sexual partner where she can only exist: his imagination.
Our conclusions about the cultural symbolic value of glasses in Nailin’ Paylin, of course, only hold true if we concede that pornographic films and other films have no fundamental differences. Some scholars refuse to make such a concession. Literary and film critic Magnus Ullén, for example, argues that “[t]o enjoy pornography, mere intellectual processing of the [cinematic] discourse is not enough: it calls for a mode of reading which involves the physical activity of the body as well.” By referencing the role of masturbation, Ullén differentiates pornography from other films through its function, not its content. A movie with explicit sex, after all, does not fall automatically into the category of “pornography.” The acclaimed independent movies Shortbus and Y tu mamá también exemplify this fundamental distinction.
Shortbus, which has garnered a cult following from the LGBT community, explores the limitations of monogamous relationships and has gained notoriety because of its depiction of unsimulated sex. Jamie and James, a gay couple increasingly growing apart, decide to salvage their relationship by inviting a third partner. In one of the most recognizable scenes of the movie, Jamie and James take home a young ex-model, Ceth, so that they can have a threesome – the first trial of their newly non-exclusive relationship. Silence and tension make Ceth uncomfortable, so he asks them to make noise. In an unexpected move, Jamie starts singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the other two men join in, Ceth by using James’s erect penis as a microphone. The ridiculousness of the song selection de-eroticizes the sex scene by introducing a comedic and humanizing element. Since the film’s main function is not to serve as a masturbatory aid, although it could and probably has, then we cannot label Shortbus as “pornographic.”
Y tu mamá también, on the other hand, modified the archetypal road movie and introduced the dynamic Diego Luna / Gael García Bernal duo. A coming-of-age film set right at the end of the 71-year rule of the Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, the movie juxtaposes the budding sexuality of the two male leads with the societal ills that economic development and neo-liberal policies caused. In many instances, the omniscient narrator adds political context to events the boys experience but cannot fully explain or digest; in some sequences, the camera leaves the main characters and sets its own path in order to show the viewers what the over-privileged and over-drugged students are completely oblivious to. The film’s frank depiction of sex, including homosexual sex between the two best friends, highlights both the chasm between the characters’ supposed political attitudes and their actions and their detachment from reality; even though both boys say they fully support their friend who came out of the closet, they are so repulsed after having sex with each other that their friendship effectively ends after that drunken night. Given this drama brought about by internalized homophobia, Y tu mama también also fails to meet our working definition of pornography.
Returning to our initial theme of political pornography, what can the blatant politicization of a small segment of our pornography tell us about our society? In all honesty, not much. Political pornography relates most closely to any other porno featuring a recognizable public figure or their look-alike. As mentioned before, pornography’s success lies largely in its presentation of the possibility of sexual fulfillment in everday situations. In other words, pornographic films strive to universalize the sexual experience so that the viewer can imagine him- or herself as part of the situation presented. The political pornography that we analyzed, on the other hand, works to maintain this individual and recognizable identity.
In this sense, political pornography is not a new development in the ever-evolving world of porn but, rather, merely speaks to a market demand. After all, U.S. jurisprudence has always protected our right to consume pornography in the privacy of our homes. But political pornography seems not too different from typical iterations. How much more ironic can you get than an anti-climactic conclusion to an article on pornography? As far as we are concerned, like in life and sex, it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts.