Elevate Difference

Sexy Thrills: Undressing the Erotic Thriller

Growing up, I loved Hitchcock films and film noir, an odd choice for a child who came of age with color television, Rambo and Reagan. Fast forward to post-college years later when I took a job at a video rental store to support a poorly stipend internship, where ninety percent of the store’s revenue was from the sale and rental of adult films. Did Barbara Stanwyck and Tipi Hendren lead to this?

According to Nina K. Martin in Sexy Trills: Undressing the Erotic Thriller, they just might have (thanks for introducing me to the old flicks mom!). The erotic thriller is soft-core, direct to video pornography with elaborate sets and romanticized stories, generally aimed at women - as opposed to hard-core pornography, which, with its emphasis on penetration and myriad other sexual acts and little to no premise to get there, is usually aligned with male pleasure. Using a selection of film texts of the genre, Martin analyzes the effect of the erotic thriller on the construction of heterosexual female sexuality in contemporary American society. According to Martin, erotic thrillers have well-define formulaic patterns - including gothic and film noir borrowings - that define the genre. Within these various narrative texts, sexuality for the heterosexual female is safely explored with in the permitted boundaries and resolves itself around either true love (marriage) or punishment for digressions in personal and professional lives.

Taking an academic look at non-academic texts, Martin shows that the idea of “what women want” is more about what men tell women that women want. Nearly all media companies are owned by men, and almost all film directors are men, so in a mass media and consumer-driven world, contemporary culture is a homogenized template of what individuals are told to desire and need, and dictates come from Hollywood, Hitchcock, Cosmopolitan, Rachel Ray and women’s pornography. And ultimately, as Martin points out, the erotic thriller reinforces women’s subordinate place in society because women—even when in charge of their sexual expression—still have their sexual services purchased and made available for purchase, primarily for men. As a woman is sexually empowered in the films through fulfillment of personal desires, she is disempowered within the public sphere for her actions, thus reemphasizing the public/private split in society where power and authority are mutually exclusive to sexual expression and fulfillment (does anyone view Hillary Clinton as a sexualized woman?). Individual women’s sexuality, Martin states, is inseparable from culture representations of individual women’s sexuality and is not reconcilable with public life and power the way men’s sexuality is. Jenna Jameson is for the bedroom only, Hillary has no sex life (wasn’t that why there was Monica?), and Hitchcock's Tipi is punished for her sexual urges and desires by giant black birds.

Despite the academic prose and evocations of Freud and Foucault, Martin’s critique of the erotic thriller is accessible to interested audiences looking at the text as film criticism, feminist criticism or both (for uninterested audiences there is a smattering of still frames from select films). Martin doesn’t enter the feminist pornography debate because, as she states explicitly in her introduction, the book is primarily film criticism and secondarily feminist criticism. However, she is attuned to feminist concerns and feminisms. Through this numbered lens, the book becomes more interesting for its inability to judge pornography as either pro-woman or anti-woman. Instead, Martin cleanly analyzes how sex is marketed to heterosexual women by well-defined, status-quo affirmations of what is considered normalized (and non-threatening) sexuality and, therefore, doesn’t detach her thesis from the effect of the Second and Third Waves. The empowerment of women, Martin tells us, is through a dictum and language that are not our own.

Written by: Lacey Dunham, July 20th 2007

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