User-Generatd Porn Storytelling: Ecstasy and Exploitation on Xtube

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I knew that for the final VRM project I wanted to work with the idea of user-generated porn as a space for digital storytelling, but I found myself stuck in trying to think through a form for that content to take. On the one hand, I’m interested in how sties like Tumblr and Twitter have become spaces for pornographic media sharing and archive curation. But, I wasnt interested in making anyone engage with media that makes them too uncomfortable and the use of those mediums would’ve been constructed heavily around visuals. So I instead found what I hope is a happy medium: my final “paper,” which I’ll instead call a project despite being text-heavy, is presented as an Xtube profile page.

You can find it here.

Visiting a porn site is obviously NSFW, but the profile page I’ve created includes only a few, non-graphic video thumbnails toward the botto. Otherwise it’s all text, both my own writing and a cataloguing of the self-descriptive terms/activities/desires that users have the option to choose from. I decided that, even if I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to make y’all engage with porn directly, I could still make you engage with the platform itself and see what the space looks like as a social networking tool.

The profile page I’ve created houses my writings in the available categories of self-description. My introduction come in the “general info” section. A discussion of the history of user engagement and a now-defunct profile comes in the “About my Partner” section. And my analysis of two recent user examples is available for reading in the “sexual interests” section. I highly recommend you visit the profile pages for the users, even if you’re uninterested in viewing the pornographic videos. Also, QualityCouple’s video is not pornographic and instead is a clean, informative video about their choice to leave the site.

I wanted this project to be informal and informative. I want visitors to the page to get a feel for what the potentials, positive and negative, are for using Xtube as a space for storytelling. In order to engage with my full text, a visitor must navigate the structure of the profile page. The videos I discuss are available for viewing in the “favorite videos” section of the page, so visitors have the option of viewing them if they so desire. I thought this was the best compromise, allowing y’all from the course a look into the site’s structuring—without bombarding you with the pornographic imagery that is obviously everywhere on this site.

My analysis mostly takes on two users who both utilize the platform to create content involving third party participants. biversbear is a user who has captured potent moments of intimacy on cam within a context of dirty kink and role-play. jayscock is a user who exploits homeless men in his area and puts that exploitation online for all to see. Both use their videos to tell stories of their sexual encounters, but they have starkly different relationships to “vulnerability” and notions of the “authentic.” I briefly discuss Zizek, quote Lorde and Warner.. But the text offered here is not completely academic. More than anything it’s an introduction to the tactics used in this space when users craft images and narratives that involve both themselves and their sexual partners.

For anyone uncomfortable clicking through, here’s a preview of what it looks like:

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Telling Trans Stories: Multiplicity and Community-Building Through Documentary

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Here’s an abridged look at the paper I’ve written on trans documentary:

Documentary film is a powerful medium for storytelling, but far too often the stories told about trans individuals and trans experience rely on narratives of life-long confusion, binaristic gender transition processes, and the overcoming of trauma. These experiences are not to be discounted, but their dominance belies a hunger amongst trans audiences to see diverse experiences and controversial internal divisions tackled in the documentary form. Central to this problem is the question of audience. Documentary efforts produced for wide cinematic release or televisionary distribution are produced, by default, for cisgender audiences. Similarly, the lack of means and notoriety provided to transgender filmmakers means that most trans docs are made by cisgender individuals.

Trans exclusion from the LGBT discourse, the growth of genderqueer identities, trans erotics, and racial politics are often left aside in favor of oversimplification and didactic sensationalism in typical trans media.The fissures that exist in conceptions of transness and the day-to-day struggles of living trans life offer much more fruitful insights than discussions of sexual reassignment surgery and lifelong certainty. But they aren’t as exciting or appealing to cisgender viewers.

My paper is about celebrating a very different sort of trans documentary. I’m specifically interested in films that eschew full-length biography or drawn out stories of transition in favor of films that offer interviews with diverse trans individuals about their experiences of, and their thoughts on, trans identity. These films are certainly educational, but they actively work against the mainstream project of educating cis audiences. Instead, they capture unfiltered expositions from trans interview subjects. These films don’t seek to answer questions about trans identity and make them digestible and coherent for outsiders. Instead they offer a multiplicity of answers and stories that complicate trans identity further. These films show members of the trans community that they aren’t alone in feeling inadequately represented by the bulk of trans depictions.

Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler’s 2008 film Still Black: A Portrait of Black Transmen is a gorgeous black-and-white film composed of interviews that explore six men’s lives as professionals, religious leaders, educators, husbands, fathers, sons, and artists. Its straightforward organization is infused with trans sensibility through camerawork and editing that mimic the affect and uncertainty of the participants’ responses. Race and class are front and center, as are nuanced stories of forming and maintaining romantic and sexual relationships. The men come from varying socioeconomic backgrounds and varying levels of investment in a notion of trans community.

Mosaic: A Documentary and Dialogue (2014) is a more recent film from a Winnipeg-born Ryerson University student named Markus Harwood-Jones. His film is a four hour road trip documentary and montage of interview clips compiled from a couch-surfing odyssey across trans communities in the United States. Both of these trans filmmakers build on a familiar model of participant interviews to create documentaries by and for the trans community. The organization of interview footage in Mosaic operates as a stream of consciousness montage, framed only occasionally by the filmmaker’s personal journey. An interview I conducted with Harwood-Jones plays prominently in the paper.

Ziegler and Harwood-Jones blur boundaries of academic and filmic work with trans documentary, privileging the words of their participants and creating film as part of broader engagement in online networks. Their work begins to bridge the gap between traditional, feature-length documentary and the new digital storytelling practices that allow trans individuals to be the visual artists of their own experiences (Vivienne 2011). These films are presented in mixed reflexive and performative modes, with sensitivity to the power imbalances inherent in documentary form.

“It was an academic project, but it also was very much my own artistic project, and a community project…. Sometimes I feel I am pressured to take this artistic work and other artistic works and really make them fit an academic paradigm. And I’m very hesitant to do that… I am not interested in making this for academics. I’m interested in making it for community members I worked with and their communities” (Harwood Jones, Interview).

I chose to reproduce this quote at length because it sums up the filmmaking sensibility that both Ziegler and Harwood-Jones bring to their works. Ziegler is currently working outside academia as an activist, while Harwood-Jones is uncertain about his academic future and how he might incorporate his art into that setting. The social and material capital provided by their positioning as scholars is essential to getting their work made and seen—Ziegler was very clear on this point in an interview with the Huffington Post—and yet both are dubious of an academy that regularly marginalizes and sanitizes their voices (Newman 2013). This explains their corollary commitment to new digital methods and online trans networks. As trans filmmakers and trans community members, they are not only using digital networks and technologies to create and publicize their films, but are in turn using film to create new communities in online spaces. They are also bringing the diverse trans stories that are often only told online into the cinematic discourse.

John Collier: Photography as Anthropological Method

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Photography has been a central research method in Anthropology: photos are used to measure, count, and compare for further analysis. As “proof.” But they also provide a recording of humanity that escapes words.  Filming a moving image provides greater opportunities to have movements and emotions grounded in shifts of time, less reliance on language to capture what is happening in action and interaction. Collier makes much of objectivity and the difficulty of the lens’ intrusiveness, but did indeed stage photos himself. So it’s a complicated subject.

This flickr gallery shows a selection of Collier’s work: https://www.flickr.com/photos/johncollierjr/

His photos show intimate moments between human subjects, allowing for comparison. Cindy has a further breakdown used for educational settings on her blog: findingeden.org

We wanted to find an example that shows the shift in utility from photography to moving images, but there were none readily accessible that showed the situations documented by Collier. Instead, I thought I would emphasize the new role of drones in anthropology. Drones are now being used to photograph ruins and remote populations, and are growing in popularity as a means to search for digging locations for archaeology. These unmanned aerial vehicles, equipped with cameras, have altered the ethical discussion. They remove the direct and visible human voyeur as interlocutor and replace her with a more sterile, ostensibly more objective lens from the sky.

State-sanctioned Documentary

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From Sung Ohm, Josh, and Surana

For our “staged era” film we chose a film perceived to be propaganda from Leni Riefenstahl. This staged procession from Triumph of the Will (1935) shows a Nazi party rally in Nuremberg.

Our second clip is from the 1967 observational (and partly skeptical) documentary film The Anderson Platoon. Funded by a French state-run tv channel, the film gives a French perspective on American cultural norms on the battlefield in Vietnam.

Our third clip shows embedded video journalism. Here, the videographer faces limitations on filming and framing by the demands of security concerns, American state ideology, and military ideology. The mediation of the state message via authoritative news media sources ensures audiences perceive the film as “authentic” and “real.”

Talking About Trans Documentary Filmmaking

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Trans issues are having a moment, for whatever that means. It’s not as if we’re being inundated by trans media. Every other character on TV is not yet trans, and when they are they’re often not even played by trans actors. But in a familiar cyclical fashion we’re seeing a new wave of trans stories and figures gain notoriety and critical praise in popular culture. Activist Janet Mock’s widely-circulated interview with Pierce Morgan gave audiences yet another necessary lesson in pronouns and respect.

Laverne Cox, who made the transition from dance diva and reality TV star to respected actress and activist, was voted onto Time’s100 Most Influential list. She also had a cover story written about her for the same publication. Cox’s new documentary effort from MTV and Logo, Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word, seems like the natural coalescing of her activism and current media saturation. The documentary is well-made and thoughtful. But it honestly feels like more of the same.

http://www.mtv.com/shows/laverne-cox-presents-the-t-word/laverne-cox-presents-the-t-word/1731865/playlist/

It’s a sad fact that documentaries about trans subjects rarely feel all that queer. Even when crafted through independent productions, the innovation, playfulness,and subversion that often mark queer filmmaking seem to be missing. Perhaps trans subject matter is already so often threatening and controversial that artistic or methodological ingenuity would push those stories just a step too far outside the mainstream. Whatever the reason, trans documentaries seem stuck following formulas and telling stories without investing in what one might call a “trans” sensibility. A big part of this disconnect seems to be the general lack of trans filmmakers who have access to adequate resource to craft their own documentaries. Laverne Cox certainly played a large role in The T Word, but she was one trans voice in a sea of cisgender television executives, producers and directors that decided what that special would look like.

The T Word offers a set of stories about the struggles of trans youth. That’s a model that has been done over and over again. Stories about young people who are transitioning/recently transitioned are inspiring to young viewers who are coming into their gender identity. These stories are also fascinating to the cis audiences who debate the controversy of childhood transition and marvel at the remarkable aesthetic results of adolescent hormone treatments. So it’s no surprise that that is one of the most common ways to see real trans stories in the media.

But the miniseries Transgeneration aired on MTV’s LGBT sister channel Logo 10 years ago, and the stories are hardly different now. It’s great that The T Word actually gets to air on MTV… but it only aired on a Friday night, notorious for low ratings. And the after-show dialogue with Cox that talked through the issues aired solely on Logo. The T Word is much more invested in educating cis audiences than Transgeneration ever was. It seems that focus (along with Cox’s name) is the only thing that made the special worth airing on a popular and widely-avaialble channel like MTV.

I don’t want to suggest that there aren’t projects that go about trans story-telling in innovative ways. The paper I’m putting together will examine what it looks like when trans documentaries come from trans filmmakers. What are the material conditions necessary to make their films possible? Can they access their desired audience? And who is that, anyway? Are they more overtly political in their activist agendas? And what are the formal strategies they employ to translate trans experiences onto the screen?

Against the dominant trends I identify from mainstream, cis-made productions like The T Word, I will analyze several projects that have reclaimed this space for trans filmmakers: Still Black: A Portrait of Black Transmen (2008) by filmmaker Kortney Ryan Ziegler is an artistic and academic look at trends identify and race. Mosaic (2014) is a homeless trans road trip documentary by Canadian-born Markus Harwood-Jones. And the Patchwork series (2013-14) comes from trans artist Raphael Fox‘s UK-based Lucky Tooth Productions. They are all very different projects and artists, but they each bring their own unique take on the subject matter.

I’m also currently trying to set up an interview with Markus about the Mosaic film. I think the interview will be an invaluable addition to the paper. Ethically/politically I feel I must include a dialogue with at least one trans voice in my own work if I purport to write about trans voices. So that’s where my focus is currently. Hopefully the interview pans out. This is a paper that I’ve had a ton of fun researching. I’ve discovered so many trans docs and trans artists in the process. Looking forward to putting it all on the page.

Docu-adver-tainment-ography: Another Veritable Freakshow

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I’m really appreciating the shift into documentary and ethnography, because I think these subjects lend themselves best to questions of scholarly ethics and visual representation. Broderick Fox’s Documentary Media is so far an engaging read, and brought me back to an edition of Spectator that he edited on “rethinking the amateur.” The work therein really drove me to start thinking more concretely about redefining amateur pornography and questioning where lines of self-represetnation, artistry, and scholarship really intersect.

Youtube is certainly not short of amateur documentary and video essays, the likes of which we’ve made and hope to make for this course. They sit alongside clips from professionally-produced content, mixed into a giant sea of mindless and mindful entertainment alike.

Sensational fake news stories spread like wildfire, but no piece of content is as directly associated with the term viral now as the viral video (the alliteration definitely helps). Part of being a savvy media consumer in 2014 is determining what is fake online and what is authentic. Since the documentary, and its stylistic markers, are directly associated with authenticity, an understanding of documentary and its competing roles as entertainment, ethnography, and now advertisement is necessary in order to navigate the massive amounts of media we consume daily.

de Brigard writes about the history of ethnography and documentary, pointing out the potential for abuse and a few examples of filmmakers that were accused of being disingenuous, unscholarly, or manipulative. I want to draw on this kind of dialogue to talk about a trend that is perhaps not new but fascinating in its current prominence: documentary advertisement. Not just infomercials, but actual documentary content used as advertising.

I posted recently about Broke Straight Boys, a gay-for-pay porn pay-site that is using Youtube to release diary of a pornstar videos that are combinations of advertising tool and legitimate attempt at documenting these young men’s experiences and histories. It’s an example of documentary content created as a corollary to the sensational. It is an appeal to pathos and humanity, ultimately used to bolster what Linda Williams calls a “body genre” (porn), heavily invested in the physical reaction of the audience. The clip I chose this week comes from this same vein of content, instead this time used to make up for and compliment the gore and scares of a horror show.

Since American Horror Story: Freak Show premiers tonight, it’s all I can think about. Lucky for me, Ryan Murphy has used the pre-season flurry of marketing gimmicks to create a series of documentary efforts about the real-life “freaks” he has cast as the show’s supporting characters. I’ll focus my attention here on one of the most recent posting, a video about Erika Ervin. Erika is a transwoman portraying a freak named Amazon Eve. What really intrigues me about these videos is that they are, really and truthfully, insightful interviews with these cast members about their life experiences as differently-bodied individuals. The actors show vulnerability, discuss harsh personal realities, and (of course) praise the show for allowing them to be who they are on widely-viewed television.

Instead of with interweaving the classic documentary style interviews with images and videos from the subjects’ past, they opt to use visuals from the show. It is as much a commercial and a preview as it is a celebration of a real, lived human life. Unlike the BSB video, which seemed to be produced by someone with limited understanding of traditional filmmaking and included no content from the material being sold, these videos are directed by Murphy himself and are upfront in their presentation of the non-documentary content.

This example is far from amateur, but it is serving a similar purpose. These Horror Story videos are meant to lend authenticity and emotional weight to a project that dares to call its actors “freaks” and use them to get chills and scares out of you. Erika Ervin makes a direct call for reclamation of freakishness, which I’ve addressed here before as a useful rhetorical challenge. And, even more excitingly, she actually got the role auditioning as a man and the character was changed to fit her gender identity.

Any tv show or film that we might call a cultural fixture but that doesn’t cross these boundaries and produce this kind of multi-modal content is simply not at the forefront anymore. US visual culture now includes participating directly in tv and reacting collectively, real-time on twitter. We like to see into actors’ and other celebrities’ personal lives. We want Youtube to provide us with extra content above and beyond what we can get on tv, not just a rehashing of old stuff. Here we have Ryan Murphy and FX attempting to do this work, and I think it’s generally successful.

But, more importantly, I want to use it as a jumping off point for a discussion of documentary form and it’s appropriation for complicated commercial uses. What does it mean to have documentary sensibilities, and where do those conflict with commercialization and advertisement? Should the label documentary be used to describe both an ad like this one and a hyper-schoalrly ethnography?

Here are some of the other videos from the series:

Revisiting the Renegade

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In thinking about putting together my first video essay, I was drawn to material I first started working on four years ago in undergrad. While putting together a syllabus for a class I called That’s So Gay: Male Homosexuality in 20th Century US Culture (including cinema, journalism, and poetry), I finally recognized a filmic pattern that had been influencing me for most of my life.

As a youth uncertain about my sexuality, films about gay characters were a regular part of my cultural diet. But, as much as I was familiar with watching and identifying with Hollywood’s versions of gay men, I had never put together the alarming fact that effeminate gay men simply do not get to be protagonists of films. Nor do they ever have sexual encounters on screen. On the other hand, masculinized gay men seemed to have much more protagonistic potential. They got to be portrayed by major stars as romantic leads. They even got to occasionally engage in overt eroticism within the camera’s frame. Their erotic pleasure seemed at least plausible as a plot point or visual. But these men weren’t just masculine or sexual. More importantly, they were almost constantly portrayed as outsiders.

It’s from this general outline of Hollywood’s gay male characters that I formulated two standard tropes that most examples seemed to align with: The Metropolitan Gay Man and the Renegade Gay Man. Renegades are the descendants of the gay villains, criminals, and outcasts who have occasionally made it onto the silver screen and into the pages of respectable literature. For my undergraduate thesis, which this research eventually became, I defined 7 specific characteristics for each trope.

Renegade qualities: masculine or straight-acting, working class or impoverished, conflicted anti-hero, loner or sufferer of unrequited love, criminality (often directly implicating his sexuality), conflicted about his sexuality, and narrative role as a traveler/quester.

Metropolitans are in may ways simply the opposite: Effeminate, upper-class or obsessed with conspicuous consumption, campy or used as comedic relief, part of an urban elite (often a gay neighborhood), undoubtedly and readably gay to other characters, lack of visual erotic fulfillment, and use for the transformation of straight characters.

Any character that meets a majority of either set of characteristics was considered to be based in that basic character model. It’s from this work that I decided to put together my video.

It was disheartening, once I’d gone back through a 100-page text I hadn’t read in a couple years, to contemplate squishing this argument down to under 5 min. After tediously selecting potential clips from all the films I’d written about (8 total), I was sitting with almost an hour of potential material to incorporate and another hours worth of notes for my narration. After a day of panic, I quickly decided to scrap the Metropolitan (easily the more boring of the two tropes) and focus the time and energy of this 5 minute video on the Renegade.

So that’s what you have here: my attempt at casually and visually portraying an argument that easily took me 50 pages to do justice in written form. I hope this iteration of my argument makes sense, and I hope you see some usefulness to it from the perspective of our course.

This project was formulated around the concept of controlling images, a la Patricia Hill Collins, and I wanted to provide an overview of the kinds of gay male characters in which I see a similar categorization into unsavory types. The ostensibly gay-for-pay hustler will never be the equivalent of the Jezebel when it comes to cultural indoctrination, but there is an astounding lack of diversity in depictions of gay men. That’s what I’m tackling here, in an effort to more broadly question how we make gay characters (and gay sex) palatable for mainstream consumption in cinema. Much of the original nuance is missing from my argument, but I’m quite happy with the end result. The video conveys what I intended and engages with the films in a much more visceral way than I could ever hope to achieve on the page or in a talk that excludes video content. I’m really glad to have gotten the chance to make this translation happen. And, who knows, there might even be a corollary Metropolitan video essay coming down the pipeline.

So, without further ado or babbling, here’s the video! (just try not to make fun of my awkward voiceover).