Approximately 70 percent of Americans visit a pornographic website at least once per month, and $3,075 is spent on porn every second, according to CNBC. What effect is this massive amount of exposure having on the way we look at relationships, intimacy, sex and each other?
Visiting Professor Celine Parreñas Shimizu may have some answers. A filmmaker and scholar, Shimizu is an expert on the intersections of film, sexuality and race. Her books include The Feminist Porn Book and The Hypersexuality of Race, winner of the 2009 Cultural Studies Book Award from the Association for Asian American Studies. She has also directed numerous award-winning films. Shimizu is teaching in the School of Cinema and Sexuality Studies Department this year.
Media representations have such a huge effect on the personal, in terms of sexuality and just in terms of how we interact with each other. I’m really interested to know how you got interested in that intersection of sexuality and media, specifically in film.
Well, it’s precisely what you just said. I moved here in the ’80s from the Philippines and really felt a kind of browning of my skin. That’s a particular perspective that we don’t quite see from the inside a lot. You see it from the outside — “brown girl comes to the U.S.” — but what does that actually look like in terms of really beginning to understand yourself as a brown person, meaning that there are spaces that are dangerous and unequal spaces.
To answer your question really directly, I think that the kernel that motivated my interest was when I moved from the East Coast to Berkeley, as a young woman coming into my own sexuality, I walked into a tradition of the perception of Asian women. I got on the bus one day and I sat in the back. I remember I was smiling, thinking about my future as an undergraduate unfolding in the present moment of my traveling to school, but then a man stopped me and said, “Haven’t I met you before? Haven’t I met you in Angeles, [Philippines]? And weren’t you throwing ping-pong balls out of your vagina?” I mean, I almost exploded out of my body. And my first reaction was I am not that woman. I’m a good woman with an upwardly mobile future. But then I started questioning that good- and bad-woman dichotomy.
From there, I found myself looking at representations of the sexualized Asian women in Hollywood film. Those women in those films weren’t just objects; they themselves were subjects in struggle, trying to figure out their own sexuality and how they were being named by others. I really focused on the potentiality of these women to define themselves, to name themselves in the cinema, and that highlighted my own position as a spectator.
So that began my career of being both a filmmaker and a film scholar. I wanted to be able to dissect images and to really destroy their power. But also in recognizing their power I understood the importance of making images that prioritize the perspective of what is inside that brown body. The perceptions that are born from having certain experiences, and I wanted to be a part of that authorship. And now that I’m older, I think nurturing those voices is even more important.
I read an article that you were interviewed in, about the rise in pornography featuring transgender bodies. I wanted to ask you if you saw that as something that potentially could positively affect that community, or if you thought that it was something that was not helping.
When I was doing my grad work at Stanford, as someone who was interested in sexual representation, in order to really understand that problem, I needed to go to the explicit representations of sexuality because they are images that have been circulating for more than 100 years. So that’s a very important part of that problem of representation. Also, it’s a billion-dollar industry, and it’s important to interrogate it and to study it and to analyze it, so we can understand one of the largest discourses on sexuality and representation in the world.
A recent phenomenon is the rise of transgender stars, and recognizably transgender figures including Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox. But what is more unknown, according to this article and according to the industry, is that the representations of transgender people in pornography have been very popular for the last two decades. What does this mean?
And for me, just because people are interested in it doesn’t necessarily translate to a recognition of the complexities of that lived experience. It could be a manifestation of a kind of fetishism, where there’s an intense focus on the genitalia and wanting to know what’s going on down there. At the same time that that exists, there also exists the opportunity to expand both the sexual act and identities that are available to us in the world, so it’s quite double-edged. But it’s worth studying and worth understanding.
I know that you are a scholar of pornography, and I was wondering if you ever get questioned about whether it’s legitimate or useful to study pornography and how you respond to that.
I’ve spent a lot of time at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, looking at the racial representations in pornography in the last 100 years, where you can see in pornography that people are trying to achieve some kind of sexual education. What goes on, in terms of what you’re supposed to do in the sex act? So there’s that educational aspect of it, but there’s also this fascination that’s being worked out. What does it mean to see racial difference as part of the erotic fodder? Or visual racial difference that informs the eroticism of a sex scene? Or even there are things that we don’t understand in our society, the rise of mail-order brides, in the ’50s the rise of the war bride, and you could see those themes showing up in pornography because people are trying to work out the significance of these new relationships. They are engaging these kinds of new social relations and new social problems with these images.
Do you think that because pornography is outside of the normal or “acceptable” social space, that it gives people the freedom to explore in that way?
The rise of pornography says a lot about the limited representations of sexuality in traditional or mainstream Hollywood, or cinema. The way in which we see sexuality and sexual acts in film can be captured in the practice of the dissolve or the fade to black when the Hollywood sex act occurs. You don’t actually see what happens in terms of the sexual act. And I don’t mean explicit intercourse, but I think there’s a lost opportunity in showing the drama that can occur in the close-up intimate encounter. The private realm of what happens in the moment of the sex act. The decisions that people make when they say I am going to intimately engage your body. How am I going to touch you? How am I going to speak my desires to you to let you know how I want to be touched, how I want to touch you.
There’s an incredible drama that happens in that scene that is not quite mined. So I think people go to pornography, and those needs are not necessarily met there either. But I think that the rise in pornography says a lot about the limited vocabulary that has been used in representing sex in Hollywood films and beyond.
Potentially intimacy as well.
Yes. It’s ripe for development, the language of intimacy on screen. Which is why I’m so excited about being here at SF State in a joint visiting professorship in Cinema and Sociology/Sexuality [Studies] because what I find is that there are students in sexuality who are so interested in studying pornography. Studying not only the institutional organization of the industry but also learning a language for how to dissect film.
What is the language of sexuality that circulates out there? What are our own expectations when we’re looking at a film in terms of sexual representations? The representation of desires. The limited kind of desires that have been represented on screen. But how can we speak about it? How can we have a language that identifies different kinds of acts? Different kinds of intimacies? Different kinds of passions and commitments in cinema.
And then in film studies, I find that people are very interested in understanding the genre of pornography as well, as well as the significance of intimate encounters on screen. What does it mean for people to come together across inequalities? Is that always already a site of colonialism and discipline? Or are there ways that we can talk about the intimate encounter, enabling new kinds of recognition and new kinds of knowledge? What about the politics of representing different sexual others? So I feel that [by] meeting these students, I am addressing their needs, but it also inspires my own work.
- Celine Parreñas Shimizu
- Transgender Porn is a Best Seller, But Is It Good For Trans People?, International Business Times, July 29, 2015
- School of Cinema
- Sexuality Studies Department
Photo by Veronika Gulchin