Scripted Fantasy Vs. “Authenticity” – A Tricky Balancing Act

A pic from the start of our dungeon scene with Mickey Mod and Siouxsie Q

A pic from the start of the dungeon scene with Mickey Mod and Siouxsie Q

I’m back from Toronto where I had a massive two weeks attending the Feminist Porn Awards and Conference as well as shooting five new scenes for Bright Desire and for my feature film. It was hard work trying to organize filming opportunities in a strange city, often finding locations at the last minute and altering plans when necessary. It didn’t help that I was sick most of the time. Still, I came home thinking I’d managed to capture some amazing scenes and I was looking forward to editing them.

Now I’m feeling like things didn’t go as well as I’d thought, mainly due to this article by Siouxsie Q in SF Weekly. It tells of her experience filming a scene with an unnamed director and uses it to critique the concept of “authenticity” in feminist porn. Given that Siouxsie describes shooting with Mickey Mod, who she hasn’t shot with before, and given that I’ve been posting photos and writing about the scene I shot with both of them on Sunday, it’s pretty easy to guess who this unnamed director is. Yep, that would be me.

Suffice to say, I felt perturbed when I read what Siouxsie was written. I’m upset that she felt the experience was bad. I also feel misrepresented. I have written a personal email to Siouxsie hoping to discuss the issue but given that the SF Weekly piece is very public and this feels rather like a massive subtweet, I’m going to write about it here.

The shoot on Sunday after the conference was an interesting experience. I thought it had gone well enough but it had also given me a lot to think about with regards to filmmaking and my approach to feminist porn and I had planned on writing about the experience at my leisure. Instead, I’ll do it now. And I’m going to be a bit more detailed than I originally planned.

Let me give you the background on this scene. I had heard that Mickey Mod was going to be in Toronto for the FPAs. I was keen to work with him and emailed, asking if he was available and if there was anyone he wanted to work with. He suggested Arabelle Raphael, who was available and happy to be involved. So far, so good.

I had heard that the Oasis Aqualounge was available as a location for porn shoots and I saw that they had a classy looking dungeon room. This got me thinking of ways to use it and naturally thoughts turned inevitably to 50 Shades Of Grey. Yes, I know, predictable. But also commercially viable and maybe, kind of fun. I liked the idea of recreating two of the better scenes from the book and I also liked the idea of having Mickey, a person of colour, playing the Christian Grey character. I ran the idea of a light BDSM scene past him and Arabelle and they were OK with the premise. Arabelle said she only wanted to do light kink which fitted in well with my idea for the scene. Further emails were exchanged and plans were firmed up. I told them that I envisaged the scene would involve a lot of scripted set-up shots at the start involving two props. After that, things would be more open in terms of what happened.

In the past I’ve mainly shot real-life heterosexual couples, documentary style. This dungeon scene was one of the first ones that would require scripted actions and direction. It was a new scenario for me, methodically and stylistically. I was attempting to shoot a mild BDSM scene for the first time and I’ll admit I wasn’t 100% sure of what I was doing – I’m a fairly vanilla girl. But it’s DIY amateur porn filmmaking, it’s how I work so I figured it would turn out OK in the end.

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On the Sunday evening Arabelle had to cancel because she was ill. She arranged for Siouxsie to replace her. So 2 hours before the shoot I was shaking hands with my new performer, hurriedly trying to explain my plans for the shoot. I thought I got the main idea across but it was a fairly short conversation. I felt nervous about the sudden change but Siouxsie was very friendly and I felt confident she would be good to work with.

So we got to the club, set up and Siouxsie arrived and got changed. I had another brief chat about my plans with her and Mickey but I now suspect it wasn’t detailed enough. The pair were also very obviously hot for each other and they did a lot of off-camera kissing – a fact that made me happy since I figured their chemistry would be visible on screen.

In any case, we got started, shooting the setup shots and ad-libbed introductory dialogue. I was trying to create the 50 Shades power play – an inexperienced yet horny young woman and her confident, dominant lover. The scenario wasn’t perfect, I’ll admit, but I was keen to depict a fantasy scenario rather than a documentary one.

Things progressed, we were shooting arty, shadowy shots and time started ticking away – a problem when you’re paying by the hour for a location. A moment came when Mickey was undressing Siouxsie and he pulled her breasts from her bra. He slapped her nipples in the process and she moaned, clearly enjoying it. Then he slapped her face… and I reluctantly had to call a halt. As much as I didn’t want to interrupt what they were doing, the slapping felt wrong for the ingenue fantasy we’d been setting up. It felt like it was too much too soon in the scene. We redid the undressing without the slapping. And I felt like shit for changing it.

The reason I felt like shit is because I’ve long subscribed to the idea of making sure performers were happy and enjoying themselves. It’s part of the feminist porn idea of depicting genuine pleasure (or “authenticity” as its sometimes known). Filming documentary style is great for that because you just shoot what you can while the performers get off in the way that best pleases them. But as I discovered, trying to depict a fantasy scenario and staying true to the world and characters you’re creating sometimes means abandoning the idea that it will be genuinely pleasurable for the performers. Sometimes those two ideas can’t co-exist because the constructed media you’re creating requires artifice. It requires acting.

When the slapping moment happened, I had to stop my performers from being true to their own desires (at least, within the relatively artificial setup I’d put them in) and ask them to act. And I’ll admit I wasn’t used to doing that and I felt uncomfortable doing it. But at the same time, I had two cameras there, I’d paid my performers and I’d paid for the location and I was trying to create a visual sexual fantasy that would appeal to all those millions of 50 Shades fans because I’m a capitalist pornographer after all. So I had to make a choice.

After that I intended to shoot some short scenes with the props – a riding crop and a sex toy. Both the performers had expressed a dislike for the crop I’d obtained and I’ll admit it wasn’t perfect. Indeed, the props we had weren’t really that great. So in the end, the props went by the wayside when Mickey went down on Siouxsie as she was strapped to the St Andrew’s Cross and she had several orgasms and it was all far too sexy for me to yell cut. So I just went with it. And I was pleased with the result.

It was time for the more free-form sex bit. I asked Siouxsie if she’d take her shoes off because it’s a porn trope I don’t want to replicate. She preferred to keep them on, so on they stayed. Then there was a blowjob, some spanking and then they had what Siouxsie described as “top notch boy-girl” sex. I didn’t direct them after Siouxsie was unchained beyond asking them not to get too rough in keeping with the scenario. There was some dirty talk, a bit of choking, some power play dialogue and some nice orgasms. Overall they seemed to have a good time, their connection was intense and we captured what I could. I stopped filming thinking that I’d got a fairly good scene, despite the fact that it hadn’t really gone according to plan. I figured I had a strong start and it played out mostly within the boundaries of the fantasy. It hadn’t been exactly what I’d wanted but compromise is the name of the game.

Afterwards we chatted happily, packed up and let in the furries who were queuing up outside (we’d booked the dungeon during a public furries sex party, I suspect their noisy gambolling will come out during parts of the scene). Siouxsie and Mickey were keen to sample the spa and other parts of the club so we hugged and parted ways. I went home thinking we’d shot a decent enough scene and that our performers were happy with how it went – even if there’d been a few awkward moments.

Of course, I did find myself musing about the “script vs authenticity” problem the next day. Having to direct and make the performers redo something like that was a new thing for me and I felt like I hadn’t really done a good job in trying to balance the two competing needs.

The focus on ethical work practices in feminist porn puts emphasis on making sure performers are comfortable with what they’re doing but there’s also a desire to see them enjoy themselves. It’s better for everyone if people are having fun in porn. Things get complicated when you try to introduce story or fantasy into that scenario; how do you reconcile the fantasy envisioned by the director or writer with the fantasies/desires of the performer? One solution is to match them up a little by asking performers what they like and by creating scenes that suit them – something that I’d tried to do, albeit clumsily, with my 50 Shades scene.

But what happens when the scripted scenario doesn’t work for those who are enacting it? Does it matter? Should we be concerned if performers are only acting, especially given that they are being paid for what they do? Do they get to have a say in what gets filmed if it’s not turning them on?

I think this conflict is one of the issues feminist porn is trying to explore at the moment. The conference featured two separate panels on the concept of “authenticity” as well as some discussion on a third panel about how “authenticity” can clash with the idea of sex work being work. Hence, Arabelle Raphaelle’s quote:

“The emphasis on authenticity in feminist porn can be problematic. It erases the fact that performing is labor and not just ‘fun.’ The people feminist porn companies hire are sex workers; we make our living creating hot scenes… It’s our craft and I am proud of it.”

Feminist porn IS having a discussion about what it means to be genuine and authentic. There’s an awareness that any filmed sex is going to be necessarily “fake” because there are cameras involved and there’s always some element of performance involved, even if those depicted are experiencing real pleasure and real orgasms. “Authentic” is being used as a marketing term in feminist porn and that can be problematic, especially if it is being used to prescribe only certain body types, sex acts or responses.

I’m not sure that I’m a good representative of feminist porn. I’m perhaps too straight and too commercial to really illustrate what the movement is about. Still, I try to follow some of feminist porn’s ideals when I create my films. One of those ideas is collaboration with performers and attempting to include their sexual needs in the scene. Perhaps this is why Siouxsie wrote: “…they were primarily committed to capturing something ‘authentic’.”

In the past I’ve made scenes that are mainly based on what the performers want but lately I’ve decided I want to try something new: scripted scenarios. As Gala Vanting so eloquently put it last year, I’ve previously been a bottom director, now I’m getting into topping. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with scripted/fantasy porn. After a couple of years of depicting other people’s fantasies, I’m personally excited about attempting to recreate my own on film. But as someone who is not comfortable being in front of the camera, I need performers to enact those fantasies for me. And this is where my needs and their needs possibly come into conflict. Finding a way to compromise and balance those things is one of the challenges I face.

Perhaps I failed in that challenge with Siouxsie Q and Mickey Mod.

I will say that I think I succeeded in finding that balance when I shot my MMF bisexual scene on the Thursday before I left Toronto. This time around I was using an actual script I’d written several years ago and it featured a pick list of very specific sex acts. Thankfully, I wrote the scene in a fairly free-form way which meant there was little need for continuity shots. My three performers were friends and very hot for each other. What happened is that after some plot-related setup shots, they moved to the bed, I told them what sex acts and positions were required and they happily did them for as long as they wanted. I didn’t ask them to do anything they didn’t want to. They were totally on board with what I required and were happy to follow my instructions. The end result was a happy director who got all the shots she wanted and three very happy and exhausted performers who’d had a great time, even if it was by-the-numbers.

I’m not sure if that can happen all the time but I know it’s something I’m going to aspire to in my future filmmaking efforts.

Meanwhile, back to that SF Weekly article. I just want to say that my intention in filming that scene was not the “acceptable authenticity” that Siouxsie is writing about. I was not trying to define what she should find sexy nor was I trying to depict an “authentic” BDSM sex which Siouxsie perhaps thought was bogus or too tame. My aim was to be true to the fantasy of the scenario as I’d envisaged it.

To be honest, if I’d wanted to create an “authentic” kind of documentary-style scene I’d have just shot them in my hotel room and not bothered spending money hiring a dungeon room or asking them to act. But I didn’t do that. This time I was attempting to create a fantasy scene while also ensuring that my performers enjoyed themselves, at least a bit.

And perhaps I failed at achieving that. Perhaps I’ve been naive in hoping I could combine the two things. Perhaps I should have just insisted that my two performers follow my direction and do the work I’d paid them for without caring about their needs.

But I don’t want to be that director.

In attempting to take the desires and needs of my performers into account in this scene, I was partly interested in their welfare and partly interested in capturing (at least some) genuine pleasure. Because it’s just nice, you know? People like to see performers having a good time. Including myself. So in that you could probably say I’m “committed to primarily capturing something authentic”. But I’m not insistent on it. I don’t demand orgasms if the performer isn’t feeling it. I’m OK with saying that all of the porn I’ve shot so far is a mix of artifice and – for want of a better phrase- “documentary-style realness” and which side of the line it falls on depends on the performer, the scene and even the time of day.

My plans for marketing this scene were not going to be based around the idea of “authenticity or genuine pleasure”. Indeed, given that it’s a 50 Shades-theme scene, it would be nonsensical to try and attach that idea to it. When I finally get around to watching the footage, editing it and uploading it to my site, I’ll very much be promoting it as an embodiment of the fantasy that 50 Shades represents. Despite the fact that the novel is badly written, it has captured the imagination of a lot of people, women especially. I wanted to capture the vibe of that fantasy and offer it to those who are seeking a visual representation of it.

It probably doesn’t qualify as feminist porn at all, to be honest. But it is something that I wanted to make for commercial and personal reasons.

It’s perfectly legitimate to question the concept of “authenticity” within porn and to talk about how feminist porn is dealing with that issue. But to use the construction of this scene and the way in which it was organized and filmed as an example of the misuse of “authenticity” or “a dangerous game of respectability politics” is off the mark.

 

If you want to see it, this scene will probably appear at Bright Desire in a couple of months.

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