Friday, February 09, 2007

Jenna Does Jenna

Thought I'd take a day off from art and post an essay instead. This article (with a couple of alterations) used to be on the Bridge Magazine website, before that mysteriously evaporated. I thought people might enjoy reading it here:

Jenna Does Jenna

When asked by porn review site if she was nervous during her first filmed sex scene, porn star Belladonna responded, “I hadn’t had sex for a couple of months so I was really horny. I wasn’t nervous at all.” And if you believe that, I’ve got an aphrodisiac to sell you. Belladonna’s been asked the same question in other forums, and her answer seems to vary widely, depending on what she thinks the interviewer wants to hear. That’s just good business; a sex-worker is paid first and foremost to bare her body, but she’s paid even more to bare a certain kind of inner life — what kind exactly varying from customer to customer. Or, as Jenna Jameson puts it in discussing her work as a stripper, “Everything that came out of my mouth was complete bullshit. I could tell by looking at each person what he wanted to hear. I’d tell him I was studying to be a real-estate agent, a lifeguard, a construction worker.”

Jameson eventually quit stripping for the even more lucrative world of triple-X films, and over the last decade has become probably the most successful adult performer in the country — perhaps the most successful in history. She’s won industry award after industry award and appeared in some of the most acclaimed and popular adult movies of all time — most notably Michael Zen’s 1996 Blue Movie. Her production company, clubjenna, only released its first film in 2001, but largely on the strength of her name has already become a major force in the adult industry. This year’s “Bella Loves Jenna” (starring Belladonna and Jameson, naturally) has been a huge hit — it won the Video Software Dealer Association award for best adult title of the year.

Jameson has, in other words, a lot of experience in packaging her inner life for popular consumption. It should be no surprise, therefore, that her new tell-all autobiography is thoroughly entertaining — especially if you’re a fan of the prurient. “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale” isn’t merely about pornography — it’s an example of the genre. Jameson notes that she’s had intercourse with about 60 to 80 people, on and off screen, and a surprisingly large percentage of those encounters are described in sweaty, lurid detail. For example:

“She kissed me for what seemed like forever before working her way down my skin, kissing every inch. She reached my thighs, then stopped and cupped her hand over my pussy. Just feeling the sheer warmth of it — after so much teasing — made me want to explode. When she finally went down on me, I was practically crawling up the walls. She put one finger inside, working my g-spot, as she licked my clit. She looked up at me, her chin damp with my wetness, and asked whether I minded if she used a toy.”

And so forth. Jameson details sex on camera, sex off camera, sex with celebrities, sex with anonymous underage French waiters, sex with men, sex with women, and sex with herself. Add in innumerable pictures of the star posing semi-nude and it’s clear that this is a book to beat off to.

Or at least that’s one thing it is. Jameson is happy to dance with them that brung her, but she’s long had ambitions to appeal to a wider audience as well. In her book she refers to herself as a “niche celebrity,” and pines for more; basically she wants to become a full-blown mainstream cheese-cake phenomena, a la Pamela Anderson. She’s already come tantalizingly close: she had an acting role in Howard Stern’s Private Parts and articles in Cosmo, Jane, and Rolling Stone, and she’s been a regular correspondent for E! magazine.

The autobiography is, then, the latest step in Jenna’s effort to conquer the world, and she’s not taking any chances. As co-author, she’s signed up Neil Strauss, who’s previously churned out best-sellers with Motley Crue (Jameson has slept with Tommy Lee) and Marilyn Manson (yes, she’s slept with him too). Together, Strauss and Jameson seem to have agreed that the best way to win over a wide audience is to be all things to all people. As a result, “How to Make Love…” is an ingratiating mess. Jameson’s narrative is repeatedly interrupted with black and white photos of her in various states of undress, family photos, legal documents relating to the porn industry, comics, interviews, glossy photos, dialogue from videos, diary entries, oral sex tips, pages from Jameson’s planner, vaguely relevant quotations from Shakespeare, and on and on.

There are problems with this approach, especially since Strauss’ efforts to shape the mass of material into a coherent whole are perfunctory — at one point he just throws up his hands and prints, apparently verbatim, the transcripts of several conversations with Jenna and her family. Still, the real difficulty is that you just can’t please all the people all the time, and Jameson’s efforts to do so sometimes result in unpleasant juxtapositions. The worst of these occurs early in the book, when Jameson describes being raped at the age of 16 by her biker boyfriend’s stepfather. “I had just become Preacher’s latest victim,” she states matter-of-factly, then goes on to say “I jumped off the back of the boat to the beach and found Jack. I needed…” That’s where the page ends. When you turn to the overleaf, however, you find, not a continuation of the narrative, but two full-page pictures of Jameson and her cleavage. In both photos, she looks extremely young, her lips are slightly parted, and she has a vacant expression that on the face of a model in our culture means only one thing: there’s nothing in here, fellas — fill me up. Once you’ve processed the rape-fantasy and adjusted yourself, you can turn the page and continue reading about the rape — “…to pull myself together. I wanted my father, I wanted to go home, I wanted somebody to help me or fucking do something.”

Despite such missteps, though, the book in general does exactly what it sets out to do — provide the reader with the Jenna Jameson of his or her choice. Looking for a scandalous, self-destructive Betty Ford Clinic nightmare girl? Even the most jaded celebrity-watcher should be satisfied with Jameson’s catastrophic levels of childhood trauma, drug-addiction, abusive relationships, and out-of-control diva behavior. Hoping for a gossip with access to the stars? Jameson’s partied with the rich and famous: she’s lap-danced for a foul-smelling Nicholas Cage, been hit on by Cindy Crawford, and seen a drug-addled Billy Corgan drooling on himself in the back of a limo. Seeking an optimistic can-do girl who made it to the top through guts and hard work? There’s Jenna in high school, going door to door to raise money for her beauty pageant appearances. Looking for an honest, insider’s appraisal of the porn industry? Well, Jameson’s got that covered too. In fact, much of the best writing in the book occurs in the sections where she talks about relatively dry nuts-and-bolts issues — how to get into the business, how to stay there, what the industry is like for male performers, and so forth.

There is one role, though, that Jameson is not willing to adopt — that of victim. Sex-workers have in the past been routinely viewed as exploited and/or psychologically wounded. Gloria Steinem’s 1963 article “I Was a Playboy Bunny” — in which the bunnies are depicted as poorly paid, disrespected, and fairly helpless — is perhaps the most famous statement of this view. And as recently as last May, ABC Primetime ran a scathing exposé of the adult-film industry. The show focused mainly on Belladonna, and strongly suggested that she had been pressured into performing certain scenes in adult films, including one in which she had sex with twelve men at once. It also presented Belladonna as unhappy with her job and with her life. In the most notorious part of the broadcast, the porn star — confronted onscreen with her devout Mormon mother — broke into tears. Though she may vacillate about other issues, Belladonna has been consistent in one point— after seeing the Primetime special, she was pissed. And no wonder; who wants to be presented to a national audience as a self-deluded emotional cripple, an object for pity or contempt?

Certainly Jenna Jameson doesn’t, which is why she has to walk a fine line in her autobiography. On the one hand, she wants to discuss her abusive past, both to show what she’s overcome and, presumably, because it makes sensational copy. So the book dwells at length on her mother’s death of cancer when Jameson was 4 years old. Her father was wiped out, both financially and emotionally. Soon after he took a job as a cop, which kept him away from home. He tried various childcare options, eventually marrying a woman who hit and starved his children. There were several moves, and, with their father more or less constantly absent, Jameson and her brother got into more and more serious trouble. At 14, Jameson was beaten and gang-raped. At 16, she was raped by Preacher. Because of that, she stayed out past curfew, which caused her father to kick her out of the house. This led her to move in with her scumbag boyfriend, Jack. She became a stripper because that’s what the girlfriends of bikers did. Later, she did her first boy-girl sex onscreen in order to take revenge on Jack, who had been cheating on her.

It’s a depressing and sordid tale. Nor is the life of a sex-worker as she describes it particularly attractive. For one thing, it’s physically demanding work. As Jameson describes in a charming illustrated section, common stripper injuries include chronic back pain from wearing high heels, chronic neck problems from whipping your hair around, abrasions from sliding around naked, and the occasional ruptured breast implant from landing on the floor wrong. Porn shoot hours, too are long and grueling: actors get sore and tired. They also risk health problems. The industry has rigorous testing standards, but venereal diseases -- not to mention colds -- get passed around, and there have been a couple of HIV scares.

There’s also immense psychological stress. Stars can lose respect for both money and sex; your “pussy will…change…from a pleasure center to a cash machine,” Jameson warns. Things can get even worse if you have a boyfriend. Jameson’s most wrenching experiences in the industry came not during her first scenes, but during some of her last ones in the book, when she was dating her future husband, who was dead set against her sleeping with other men. Already under contract for the film, she vomited in a trash can and then went through with the scene. Even without the massive social stigma, sex work hardly seems like an easy or pleasant way to make a living.

Nonetheless, Jameson is determined to present herself as a woman who has set her own goals and made her own choices — even if some of them were less than ideal — rather than as an exploited dupe. “…I want to be judged by who I am as a person, not by what happened to me,” she insists. “In fact, all the bad things have only contributed to my confidence and sense of self, because I survived them, and became a better and stronger person for it.” She is careful to make it clear that she was never forced to do anything she didn’t want to do. At the beginning of her career, she vowed never to do anal or double penetration on film, and she never has. (Nor has she done interracial scenes -- though she doesn’t mention this in her book.) These days, in fact, she refuses to have sex with any man onscreen except her husband, Justin Sterling, who is co-owner of her production company and director of most of her releases. Nor is Jameson unique; in her advice to prospective starlets, she emphasizes that she’s not the only one who can draw boundaries. As one example, all new performers can choose to perform scenes with or without condoms (Jameson suggests choosing condoms). The industry is eager for “fresh meat,” she says, so women have a lot of leeway in what they do and how they do it.

For Jameson, porn has been anything but degrading. As in American success autobiographies from Franklin to Booker T. Washington, she presents her struggle as ennobling, emphasizing her work ethic and talent for self promotion. For instance, when she first went to become a stripper, the club owner wouldn’t hire her because she had braces. So she went home and, using a needle-nose pliers and a pair of wire-cutters, “popped each metal link away from my teeth, one by one.” When she went back, the owner was understandably speechless, but gave her a chance. Soon she had transformed “from a geeky teenage girl into a money-crazed psycho,” becoming the club’s top earner by working like a madwoman through twelve-hour shifts. Eventually, sex-work gave her wealth, fame, status, and respect — so much of all of them that she claims porn is “one of the few jobs for women where you can get to a certain level, look around, and feel so powerful, not just in the work environment but as a sexual being.”

That may sound ridiculous, but it’s worth noting that women in porn are paid much more than men for doing the same work. Sex-work is also one of a very few ways in which a young woman without skills, education, or cultural resources can make a ton of money. What sports are for many inner-city kids, sex-work is for many woman — a potential means of social mobility. Sex-workers aren’t necessarily weaker or more foolish than anyone else, but many of them do have fewer options. That was certainly the case for Jameson, which is why no one should be surprised that, despite the generally positive tone of her book, she occasionally exhibits some ambivalence. When a CNN interviewer asked whether Jameson would want her daughter to follow in her footsteps, she answered as most of us would: hell, no. “[T]his is such a hard industry for a woman to get ahead and get the respect that she deserves,” Jameson explained. “I fought tooth and nail to get to where I am, and it's not something that I would want my daughter to go through…. For my child, hey, I want them to go to college and be a doctor.”


Goblinko said...

One of the funny things about capitalism, it can raise a hooker to the level of inspirational figure. The whole thing is about fighting to the top by any means necessary. I don't know, i just don't get it honestly. Something about blind ambition & money crazed-ness isn't attractive to me.

Noah Berlatsky said...

I mean, it's just a capitalist success story. I think her book is interesting for a lot of reasons, though. And I certainly don't think she's *less* admirable than anyone else scrambling for fame and fortune. Like artists, for instance.

Goblinko said...

I don't respect them either!

Jon Chandler said...

how much does money cost?

Noah Berlatsky said...

Ummm...I don't get you Jon; could you explain?

Sean, I just am a little leery about sneering at "hookers" as you kind of do in your first response. It's kind of like sneering at homeless people. They're some of the most despised people in society; kicking them when they're down just seems unpleasant to me. (And I do think Jameson is still more widely despised than she is celebrated, though obviously she has a following, too.)

Goblinko said...

I wasn't specifically sneering at hookers, after all, it's a totally honorable, noble profession (nope), i was in fact, sneering at capitalism's tendency to encourage the ignoble, the depraved & the immoral to become folk heroes of economic success. It's just another bullshit fairy tale. If Jameson wasn't a hooker made good, i wouldn't sneer at her, i'd feel sorry for her, but she's turning herself into a marketable product, & a role model for other women.

Noah Berlatsky said...

I don't know; part of the point of the essay is that sex workers don't deserve to be pitied or sneered at any more than anyone else in a crappy blue-collar job. One of the positive things about sex work is that people can occasionally make good; there's some social mobility. I really think sex work is as honorable/noble a profession in moral terms as anything else in capitalism — being an artist, a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher etc. etc. I don't quite see how it's a fairy tale -- she made a ton of money by working really hard, but she doesn't really gloss over the miserable parts of her life (of which there are many.) I thought the book was pretty honest overall (I mean, not entirely honest, but pretty honest.) She is turning herself into a marketable product, but that's what all celebrities do. That's what I'm trying to do, to the extent that I participate in undertakings like this with the purpose of marketing my work. I dunno -- do you just generally despise all celebrities? Or is there something about her status as a sex worker that makes you feel her success is particularly despicable? (I mean, I think I do find her more admirable than someone like Brad Pitt -- she's had to work harder and overcome worse odds — though when it comes down to it they're probably about equally talented....))

Goblinko said...

Good questions Noah. Anyhow, i gotta disagree with you about prostitution or sex work or what have you being on the same terms morally as other service type professions. There's just not the same kind of social stigma, emotional confusion & wear & that sort of thing on the other careers you mention. Prostitution would still be morally & socially difficult under any economic or political sytem. Sex workers are probably always going to be on the bottom of the social heap, fun to mess around with, disposable when they get in the way or not useful anymore. The same can be said certainly, for alot of the working class, however, sex workers are generally ostracized from their family & ordinary social circles. Just like drug addicts. So, blue collar workers have a collective value & permanence & social standing, when compared to sex workers. Anyhow, as far as her being a commodity & role model, it still has alot to do with morality for me. I wouldn't want any young girl to be a porn star or any of that nonsense. Jameson is selling a fuckable cast of her pussy & ass on her website! I mean, on one hand, if she was an artist & there were actually some ideas being explored here that would be awesome, but coming from a porn star, it just adds to the grossness. Selling yourself i have no problem with, marketing & commercials & whatever, that's cool, the thing i don't like is elevating porn stars like Jameson to celebrity status. Not all porn stars though, there's another example, Cicolina, who i actually like quite a bit. I buy her schtick more. Part of it is that she made porno movies before everyone was doing it, & she has real boobs! Anyhow, alot of this isn't so much about logic but gut reaction. It's just gross to me.

Noah Berlatsky said...

There isn't quite the same stigma everywhere, you know; America's a lot more, well, Puritan than a lot of other places. It's certainly true as a practical matter that sex workers are often ostracized; whether that's inevitable or not seems somewhat open to question, at least.

I sort of got the sense that it was a gut reaction for you. Stigmas generally work like that. I think, obviously, the porn industry is not an ideal profession for women in a lot of ways. But is it really more demeaning or dangerous or hideous than factory work? Than waitressing? Than working a shitty service industry job? Women go into sex work not because they want to, in some absolute sense, but because it's better than the alternatives (which are often extremely degrading in their own right.) Certainly, anyone involved in capitalism is morally culpable, but it's the people on the top who have the most choices (like CEOs) that I'd really like to see with the stigma, not the people on the bottom.

Jameson's boob job is a case in point. She got it because she wanted to make more money...and the doctor screwed her over, putting in much bigger implants than she wanted. My impression was that she would have gotten them reduced long ago -- except that the operation is really incredibly fucking painful, and not something you want to do multiple times (Pamela Anderson notwithstanding.)

I agree with you on one thing; sexwork is creepy because it's such a perfect metaphor for capitalism.

Goblinko said...

There's another thing, people on the top don't have alot of choices. The amount of compromise you've got to make in order to attain that degree of power or that position on the ladder is insane. If you step out of life, you're gonna get it. You still have to play the game if you're at the top.