0057   |   February 4, 2019

Pornography, Part VI: Race

The hosts conclude their conversation with a discussion of the role of race in the sexual imagination. Why is the white, blonde female body so often the location of heterosexual desire in American culture? Why is the male black body so often fetishized?

C.T. WEBB 00:19 [music] Good afternoon, good morning, or good evening, and welcome to The American Age Podcast. This is C. Travis Webb, editor of The American Age, and I’m speaking to you from balmy, slightly rainy Southern California [laughter]. I say that because I know my two cohosts are in much different circumstances.
S. RODNEY 00:37 Yeah. I’m speaking to you from the Bronx. My name is Seph Rodney. And it’s cold like you read about around these parts. I’m looking at my phone. It’s three degrees. But I haven’t even ventured outside because, frankly, I’m afraid [laughter].
S. FULLWOOD 00:54 I am Steven G. Fullwood. I’m coming to you from Harlem. It’s basically the same weather it is in the Bronx. And I resent those people in California, in Houston, and everywhere around the world who are going, “Oh, I’m just going outside with a little light jacket on right now [laughter].” That’s fine, absolutely fine. I know what I chose. I chose the North, and I’m fine with it. And it is cold outside, but it’s a dry cold, so it’s not so terrifying. So you should be fine, Seph.
S. RODNEY 01:21 All right. Cool.
C.T. WEBB 01:23 Yeah. You say that, except when it’s like 50 here, people go out in parkas [laughter]. So it’s a weird thing. So this is to remind our listeners that we practice what we call intellectual intimacy, which is giving each other the time and space and patience to work things out out loud together. This is our last podcast on pornography. We feel like we’ve covered some ground. Last week, we did a recap, which I will spare you today. So listen to the last podcast if you want to hear a recap of what we’ve talked about so far. In the topic we’re bringing up today, I almost wish we had kind of flipped the order and put it earlier because I feel like we probably would have had some useful places to go with it. But it will dovetail into our next topic, which I’ll bring up at the end of the podcast. So today, we’re talking about pornography and race. And we asked one another to think about race broadly as the other, in general, but also specifically in an American/Western context, race and racism. So that’s the topic today. Steven or Seph, do you guys want to lead us into it and sort of see what we figure out together?
S. RODNEY 02:36 I can venture to say something about that. I remember having a conversation with the person who introduced us, Travis, Farid Matuk. Farid is a poet. He’s one of the most rigorously thoughtful people I know, one of the most rigorously thoughtful people I’ve ever met, in fact. And we were having a conversation around pornography years ago, and he said something about how there’s a kind of– not market, exactly. But there’s a kind of valuation assigned to people who are essentially not white, in that realm, that is a kind of engine for libidinous desire. So, in other words, pornography sets up the scene so that the black man or the Asian woman or whoever is not white becomes this kind of fetishized object because of their difference, right? So there’s a way in which pornography really reinforces some of our worst impulses – and when I say our, I mean our culture here in the US – some of our worst impulses under the guise of merely satisfying a kind of curious urge that ends up being kind of shunted into sexual desire. I’m saying all that to say it looks desirable to have the Asian woman with the black man. And I look at pornography like that, and I get it. It works on me. The person who I see as exotic is even more exoticized in that format. And yet, at the same time, I’m able to step outside of myself and say, “Well, on some very basic level, this is not good.”
S. FULLWOOD 04:50 So, okay. You said so much in that. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but I think – I mentioned this before, I think, in one of the past podcasts – that it’s one of the few places where desire is just unfettered. But it’s who’s desire? And I don’t want to constantly center whiteness as the place where things are being acted out because I feel like they’re not simply objects, people of color, or the other, so to speak, the way that we’re doing it. I feel like people go in and they reinforce things, but they also learn. So it’s both an art form, but it’s also mirroring what we do in our society. I love this title of this one pornography. It just makes me crack up every time I see it. It’s like Oh No! There’s a Negro in My Wife [laughter]. And in 2007, there was the first one, and in 2010, there was the fifth one. So clearly, there’s a market for Negroes and white wives. But it tells us something, and it’s– there’s a lot of humor sometimes in porn that I think gets overlooked. I remember the first time I actually saw one. I was walking through Times Square, and I went into a porno store with some friends. And I’m looking at it, and I said, “Wow. This is just some of the best humor that I’ve seen a while.” Somebody knew that it would be catchy, but it captures our imagination in an interesting way. And so, for me, pornography is a place– I mentioned this before in other ways as well, that it’s a place of learning. It’s not simply a place to get off. And what about the other who also finds him or her or their selves in that place but are okay with that?
S. RODNEY 06:34 Right. Right. So that’s great. That is actually great, and I know you want to jump in, Travis. I just wanted to–
S. FULLWOOD 06:42 Yeah, yeah, yeah. Jump in, Travis.
S. RODNEY 06:42 Actually, I want to give this quick anecdote, if I may, because this kind of is where the rubber meets the road for me. Because I’ve been sort of– I’ve been that person that’s been desired, so [inaudible] come out of the porno realm and into the real world. What happened was, when I was living in LA and working at HUGO BOSS in that big galleria – what was it called? – Beverly Center. And I was a salesperson on the floor, and we sold suits and all kinds of overpriced bullshit all day long [laughter]. I wore a suit to work most of the time. I looked good in a suit, so this I’m sure feeds into what happened. I’m on the floor one day. Older guy, must have been in his late 50s, comes up to me. He’s kind of nebbishy looking, curly hair, hands me an envelope, and he says, “My wife’s been noticing you, and we’re interested in chatting with you.” And–
S. FULLWOOD 07:47 Cuckold!
S. RODNEY 07:49 Uh-huh. And I instinctively reached for the envelope, put it in my jacket pocket without opening it. Went home, opened it, and of course, there were pictures of his wife in lingerie, half nude or almost naked. And the offer was for dinner, “Would you like to have dinner with us, la, la?” And–
C.T. WEBB 08:14 I’ve got to improve my dinner invitations [laughter].
S. RODNEY 08:19 And I was curious, so I went to dinner with them. And I listened to– they were not very interesting. I didn’t think the wife was very interesting. And to be honest with you, I don’t know if I would have gone through with it if she was more attractive to me or if they were more interesting to me. But I didn’t do anything. I was just like, “I had dinner.” I was like, “Eh, I’m done,” and that was that. But it happens is the essential point of that story. Go ahead, Travis.
S. FULLWOOD 08:47 [crosstalk].
C.T. WEBB 08:47 No, no, no. It’s fine. I appreciate the story. It’s probably the best part of the podcast [laughter]. It’s going to be better than my analysis at this point. When you were both going through that, it recalled to me something, a thread of the conversation we had a few podcasts ago that I lost and you had specifically asked me about, Seph, and I couldn’t quite bring it back. And I now remember what it was, which is that, in pornography, at least as it is currently imagined on celluloid or the digital version of celluloid, the set piece is the story. That’s the backdrop analogous to the backdrop that would happen on a normal movie set, which is that it is supposed to represent reality. But it really is supposed to disappear into the background to get you to the main part of the story, which in a movie is, of course, the narrative. In most movies, it’s the narrative. And in pornography, it’s the fucking, right? The story is the set piece. It’s the backdrop for the real reason that people are there, which is the fucking of a variety of kinds. And that set piece is semiotic in that it is the naked mimetic pieces of the culture that set up the scenario for fucking that titillate, that provoke, that motivate us. And so you do get– and this ties into our earlier discussion about education. So there is all kinds of instruction about the culture going on or being copied in pornography. So There’s a Black Man in My Wife or whatever the title of the pornography was.
S. RODNEY 10:34 Negro. Negro in my wife.
S. FULLWOOD 10:34 Oh, No! There’s a Negro in My Wife.
C.T. WEBB 10:35 There’s a Negro in my wife [laughter].
S. FULLWOOD 10:38 Which I love Negro versus black [crosstalk].
C.T. WEBB 10:42 So clearly, my liberal training–
S. RODNEY 10:45 Kicked in [laughter]?
C.T. WEBB 10:45 –kicked in, and I swapped out the [crosstalk]–
S. FULLWOOD 10:49 I believe they are called African American [laughter].
C.T. WEBB 10:52 That’s right. Now, right? That’s right. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So in that way, it reveals a great deal about the shorthand cultural stories that we use. And so you can– and one of the reasons this probably is funny, as you point out, Steven, is because it so accurately and succinctly captures the absurdity of these narratives that we have.
S. FULLWOOD 11:19 Absolutely.
C.T. WEBB 11:20 The absurdity of black dicks in white women. I mean, the absurdity of Asian– all of it, right? It’s all just so ridiculous, I mean, as many things are about culture, and that we value, and that we elevate.
S. FULLWOOD 11:36 That have currency. Yes.
C.T. WEBB 11:38 Yeah. Yeah. Currency is a perfect word for it, absolutely, because, I mean, the amount currency that is involved in the porn industry. So race, to bring it back to something concrete and then let you guys take it, so race works on all of these levels in the porn industry. So I was just reading in preparation for the podcast this morning that, in mainstream pornography, the overwhelming preference for white women. There’s a very big market for non-white women and whatnot. But the star, right, the central star of pornography is the white woman and her body and what is being done with that body, how that body is being– oh, go ahead. Jump in, Steven.
S. FULLWOOD 12:22 Oh, no–
C.T. WEBB 12:22 I was just going to say–
S. FULLWOOD 12:23 [crosstalk] and blonde hair, so we’re talking about a package here. I loved that you said [inaudible]– I might have read the same thing you did in The Independent. Was that the article you read?
C.T. WEBB 12:34 Maybe, yeah. That was certainly on the list of things that I read.
S. FULLWOOD 12:37 And so it’s the class thing. It’s a power thing. It’s demonstrably very interesting about who is desirable, but so little– I would say just mass thinking about it isn’t about what she represents. It’s just that thing. It’s even like it goes into other areas about non-whites dyeing their hair or trying to assume or to have looks like look a typical Pam Anderson blonde, do you know? So I think it’s interesting how that blonde came up and sort of dominated porn for the longest, the longest, and still today, that’s what people are looking for, some people anyway. But it says something about our desires, and I like thinking about it.
C.T. WEBB 13:24 In gay porn, is race as marginalized as an industry or as a sub-industry of the industry?
S. FULLWOOD 13:35 I think it’s roughly about the same. It’s a white male, though, obviously.
C.T. WEBB 13:38 Sure, of course [crosstalk].
S. FULLWOOD 13:39 I don’t know if he’s necessarily blonde, but because of sort of mass-marketed gay idea– so he’s a certain size. He’s a white male, and he can be blonde or brunette, or sometimes the ginger shows up. But it’s the idea, I think, analogous to the white female. I think it’s heterosexual desire is power. It’s the idea of power. However, because there’s mass-produced porn, and then there’s the amateur porn, and then there are all these different things in between it, that there are all these other desires that play themselves out that don’t resemble either one of them, that don’t even include the white presence in that way. So I like the idea of democratic porn or decentralized porn, that people are producing their own fantasies, so I see it more now. I think we’re in that age right now, which is really a powerful moment, really, to kind of see the absence of that or just more diversity in porn.
S. RODNEY 14:36 So I wonder whether part of the reason that blonde are so robustly desired in the porn industry is the relatively simple circumstance of their rarity in the human diorama. Blondes are statistically a much smaller part of the world population, I don’t know, than any other sort of – what’s the way to say this? – ethnic group that presents in a really obvious way.
C.T. WEBB 15:25 Maybe. I wonder if it’s– I mean, kind of going off of that is, again, it’s this sort of glamour of whiteness. I mean, that’s as white as white, right? I mean, other than albinism, a milky woman with platinum blonde hair is about as white as you can get and still [crosstalk]–
S. FULLWOOD 15:46 It’s like Rumpelstiltskin white, yeah.
C.T. WEBB 15:46 Yeah. Yeah. And not fall into abnormality like with albinism. So–
S. RODNEY 15:54 And I remember, speaking of that, that reminds me of one the things that Orange [Twittler?] said, which was when he called those African countries shitholes. Remember he said almost in the same breath, “Why can’t we get more people from like Norway, Sweden?” that kind of thing [laughter].
C.T. WEBB 16:10 Some Scandinavian country.
S. RODNEY 16:11 Right. Right. And he was probably looking at Kirstjen Nielsen when he said that. So there’s a way in which– there’s a way in which– yeah. So maybe they are combined, right? So it’s about rarity. It’s about power. It’s about that kind of purity of whiteness that people are trying to get at.
S. FULLWOOD 16:36 Yeah. Yeah. There’s something that pokes my sensibilities about being told over and again that this is the ideal. But when you start to talk to people individually about their desires, they may have a cornucopia of desires, but this is the thing that’s constantly sort of in our face. And so there’s a friend of mine, and you know him as Sean Bempong. And he said, one day, he was watching a show, and it was like a series or whatever. So there’s someone in an airplane doing loop-de-loops, and there are two men on the ground, and they go, “Hey, I wonder who that guy is?” And Sean goes, “Immediately, they’re setting it up because it’s a woman, of course. But if she lands that plane and takes off her helmet, and there’s a bunch of blonde hair as she whips it around or whatever,” he says, “I’ll never watch it again [laughter].” And the reason why he said it was because he felt like this is what they do over and over again, that certain shows just kind of prop up this one person. And he goes, “This isn’t good for women, necessarily. It’s not really even good for the show. This is the fake diversity, right?” But she comes out as an object of desire that you see over and over and over again in series. And, of course, Sean never watched it again, of course. And we talk about when we watch these series and we watch how certain tropes are over and over again kind of played in our faces, what do you do about them? And I think that’s a part of the orientation or desensitization around diversity or around different kinds of types of people that could be in shows, right? [inaudible], “I just need to put white actors in the King of Egypt,” or whatever it was called, that movie, “because who’s going to see Ahmad or this guy? No. They want to go see these people.” I’m glad the movie flopped because of that. But also, it’s that idea. I think it does feed into our ideas about what we think is legislatively proper to desire. And so I want to refine that language later, but I know that’s the neighborhood I want to be in.
C.T. WEBB 18:38 Yeah. No, I buy that. And in the non-pornographic realm, but how those things interconnect or reflect one another, one of the Batman movies, one of the early Batman movies that Kim Basinger was in, one or two, has this pretty iconic image at the time of Kim Basinger all in white. So she’s blonde, of course, all white, in bed, in a white bed, white sheets. Maybe she’s dreaming, and the doors, the glass doors to her room open, and there’s the Batman all in black, in shadow. And, I mean, clearly, this is evocative of a kind of verboten racialized desire and plugs into a variety of other things around white narratives, light and dark and all this kind of stuff. But again, sort of how these two– how pornography and sort of mainstream culture mirror one another and communicate with one another. This is the dinner invitation for you, Seph. I mean, you’re there at the door. I mean, that’s what that desire is. Yeah. I don’t know. I don’t have an elegant segue.
S. FULLWOOD 19:52 [crosstalk]–
S. RODNEY 19:52 Well, it makes me think– sorry, Steven. You go ahead. I’m sorry. I apologize.
S. FULLWOOD 19:57 Oh, no. No apology. You go right ahead because I have something I’m still working on that connects to what Travis just said.
S. RODNEY 20:00 Well, it made me think of– I’m thinking about how in that scenario in the Batman film, what then gets to comfort the white audience, right, who tiptoe up to that line of understanding that their desire is for something verboten, what saves them, right, is that when Batman unmasks, he’s white. So they’re like, “Ah.” So everybody in this theater kind of goes, “Whew. Oh, wow. Oh, close call there. We almost tripped over our own messes.” And then it makes me think of– oh, there was this other film. And I think I may have just lost it. There was something about Batman, Kim Basinger, and blondness, and whiteness. I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve lost that [laughter].
S. FULLWOOD 21:03 Hopefully, it will come back to you. Hopefully, it will come back to you. So what I was tapping into, Travis, was this idea of the regular world and then pornography and how sometimes these things intersect or kind of reflect one another in some way. And the person who popped up in my mind was Vanessa Williams, who because of the Penthouse photographs–
S? 21:23 That was intense.
S. FULLWOOD 21:24 –they snatched her crown or whatever and boo-hoo for one minute. She boo-hooed for one minute and then used the image in her first video, where she was the hot stuff, right, The Right Stuff, and she’s wearing a red dress. Well, by the time her second album comes along, she has a song called Save the Best for Last. And she’s in a white sweater, and she’s drinking International Coffee [laughter]. There’s this interesting sort of– she has an interesting racialization space in terms of how her career worked and how she used it. And so she waited for that day that the Miss America contest would come back and say, “Hey, would you like to host the show or whatever?” And at first, she said, “No,” and years later, she goes, “Yes.” But how she used a very light pornographic situation to her benefit, and remarkably no one– I mean, people remember it. But with each successive generation, people don’t, “Oh, just Vanessa Williams.” They don’t know about the Penthouse photos. That could have sunk her, but she’s the most famous Miss America and the most successful Miss America ever.
S. RODNEY 22:28 So that was the thing. Thank you for jogging my memory. That was the thing that I wanted to say was that I don’t know if people would have been as freaked out if the breast that was exposed in Justin Timberlake’s dance with Janet Jackson were not a black breast. I honestly don’t know. I mean, I think that was a moment when– is it just about the female body? Or it was just something else–?
C.T. WEBB 22:55 In America, maybe. I’m not saying you’re wrong. I’m just saying–
S. RODNEY 22:58 I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m speculating.
C.T. WEBB 23:01 –we are so wound up in America around bodies that I don’t know. Maybe.
S. FULLWOOD 23:08 I think you’re being kind. I think it’s schizophrenic. I think it’s insanity, really, because we’re talking about Toddlers & Tiaras and these little girls dressed up like women. And then we’re giving them conflicting messages around what sex is and sexuality is. And then we’re like, “Oh, well, you can’t have sex until you’re this time because then you’re not a proper woman,” and all these dumb and conflicting messages that we give to kids.
S. RODNEY 23:32 Right. And then we take all the women and we make them juveniles. We put them in these little baby doll dresses and kit them out in certain ways with the Catholic school girl’s skirt, that kind of thing. So you’re right. There’s a kind of schizophrenia around race. And I think, I mean, one of the ways to think about this is that these are– and this is a really simplistic analogy, but it might work for us. There’s a way in which these are lenses through which to understand our own culture and where we end up in that kind of cultural schema. Pornography is a way to understand ourselves, how we are seen, how we are valued, how much we have currency as a body, as a viewer, as a participant. And this is great because I think we kind of really tripped over into the next long conversation we need to have, which is race. And race is– white supremacy, really, is a lens through which to understand our culture and our place in it. And I’m really looking forward to talking about that.
S. FULLWOOD 24:50 Oh, absolutely.
C.T. WEBB 24:51 Yeah. So that’s the final word as far as I’m concerned. I’m happy to let Seph have the final word. Steven, if you something, definitely jump in.
S. FULLWOOD 25:00 Very briefly, James Baldwin wrote an essay called Here Be Dragons, and he’s talking about male masculinity– or American masculinity, specifically. And there’s a moment in the essay where he says that he feels like the faggot is a body where men can act out a fantasy on it without taking responsibility for that fantasy. And I feel like that that’s what pornography is for me at times.
C.T. WEBB 25:23 Nice. Wow. Okay. I’m adding nothing to those because those are both very insightful comments. I appreciate it. All right. So, everyone, if you’re listening, send good thoughts to Seph because he’s going to try and apply for an apartment in New York, which I’m sure, if you know New York, is a challenge [laughter]. So good luck with that.
S. FULLWOOD 25:46 Good luck.
C.T. WEBB 25:46 And Steven and Seph, thanks very much for the conversation today.
S. RODNEY 25:48 Indeed. Thank you, guys.
S. FULLWOOD 25:50 Very much so. Great.
C.T. WEBB 25:50 Talk soon.
S. FULLWOOD 25:51 Talk soon.
C.T. WEBB 25:52 Bye. [music]


First referenced at 25:00

James Baldwin

“James Baldwin (1924-1987) was a novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic, and one of America’s foremost writers. His essays, such as “Notes of a Native Son” (1955), explore palpable yet unspoken intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-twentieth-century America.” Amazon

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