Thursday, December 09, 2004

“It’s about the stuff you can’t have, right?”
-Lenny Nero, from the film Strange Days (1995)

The ITP Nelson Canadian Dictionary of the English Language defines pornography as “sexually explicit material that sometimes equates sex with power and violence” or “the presentation or production of material.” The word itself is derived from the Greek word pronographos, or the writing about prostitutes (it seems that people have found a way to pervert new forms of media for more prurient interests even back then).

While it is a fairly common definition, it is fairly broad, not including things that have become regarded typically as pornography. As well, it applies the definition to other works which most people would not regard as pornography. For example, the advice and writings of Dr. Ruth Westheimer are fairly sexually explicit, yet more for educational purposes, yet are considered “pornography” according to this definition.

And then we have word being applied to non-sexually explicit material, and I’m not just talking about that scene in There’s Something About Mary where the protagonist uses a lingerie newspaper ad for visual stimulation (“What’s that hanging off your ear? Is that hair gel?”).

In the article “Ecoporn Exposed” (published in The Utne Reader, Sept/Oct ’04 issue), Lydia Millet compares the beautiful images of nature (often consisting of cute cuddly grizzly cubs, spotted dolphins, and mother-and-baby koala bears) to those found in Hustler magazine (sorry, no example here). Oddly-mixed metaphors aside, the article is more about the ineffectiveness of idealized images of nature for promoting environmental preservation. However, the author raises a few interesting points on how the features of pornography can be applied elsewhere.

“Both are clearly porn,” Millet writes, “They offer comfort to the viewer: They will always be there, ideal, unblemished, available. They offer gratification without social cost; they satiate by providing objects for fantasy without making uncomfortable demands on the subject.”

While most people (including myself) will not completely agree with the last two parts (especially when you consider the HIV outbreak and subsequent shutdown in the adult film industry earlier this year), pornographic material certainly does all and is all of those things: comforting, available, ideal, unblemished. One comparison that she Millet misses is that it shows the unattainable. Let’s face it…most women do not have bra sizes in the DD range (at least not naturally) while most men do not have monster-sized genitalia that extend past their knees (“Huh-huh…he said extend”). And chances are that pizza delivery boy (“Large pizza with extra sausage”) and pool cleaner boy (“Ma’am, I cleaned out your pipes…”) are not necessarily job titles that will allow you to have sex more often.

Idealizing just about anything has turned into a fetish and become the mainstream, just as much as the adult industry has enjoyed some explosive growth (pun mildly intended) in recent years. Because of this, it is fairly easy to draw comparisons between pornography and other mass market media, regardless of whether or not sex is involved.

“Food porn” (or “gastroporn”) has been the phrase that has been used to describe beautifully crafted imagery of dishes that most normal people couldn’t hope to do. Food Network cooking shows do this a lot. Showcasing the work of talented chefs with years of experience, they effortlessly take ingredients and combine them into a work of art. Chefs like these have years upon years of experience and expertise. Attempt to cook like that and most of us will have something charred and blackened. It probably wouldn’t taste good either.

“Domestic porn” is the term given to home improvement shows and magazines like Martha Stewart Living, where the domestic divas of the world show us what we'd have a really tough time doing unless we had that type of background or spare time. They show us techniques that would have most people causing significant damage to their homes as they see the absolute ease in which things are done, which are very costly to repair when they realize that it's a lot harder than it looks.

And then there's the late art icon Bob Ross. It's almost smugness, the likes of him shoving it in your face that he's better than you are (although chances are that he was a really nice guy in real life), when he takes a palette knife and a few shades of green and creates a beautiful landscape in a matter of minutes, even though talent typically takes years to develop. I had a few interesting comments about his show on a friend's blog when the topic came up.

What these have in common with pornography is they all show us the best case scenario while reminding us of what we don't have and what we aren't doing. What I'd like to see are practical cooking shows and home improvement shows for the rest of us. I wanna see stuff that is a little on the overdone or underdone side because we didn't read the instructions properly. I wanna see the sour reactions of guests as TV chefs present dishes that literally taste like dirt. I wanna see home improvement guys breaking windows and inadvertently firing nail guns through their toes as they attempt to put up floor board.

But on the other hand, the conniseiurs of pornography probably would stop watching if all the scenes were over and done with after the thirty second mark and all the porn stars had stretch marks, pot bellies, and hairy backs.

I actually stopped watching pornography because it was reminding me of what I wasn't doing with members of the opposite sex on a regular basis. What's interesting, though, is that when cooking and home improvement are turned into educational shows, it becomes pornographic. However, when images of explicit sexuality has any form of instruction in it, it ceases to be pornographic.

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