REVIEWS

Jennifer C. Nash
The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014 (ISBN 978-0-8223-5620-2)
Reviewed by Siobahn Stiles, 2017
Included in the Contested Terrains: Women of Color and Third World Women, Feminisms, and Geopolitics Special Issue, edited by Ranjoo Herr and Shelley Park

Jennifer C. Nash's first book provides an overview of black feminist theoretical texts and artistic works relevant to her close reading of several racialized pornographic films. Although Nash agrees with black feminism's critique of the pornographic representation of black female bodies--that such representation is grounded in hierarchies, racial inequality, stereotypical depictions of black female bodies, and black women as hypersexualized--she is attempting to create a new language of analysis and enjoyment, through finding ecstasy and pleasure in both the pain of such depictions and the rupture or broken promises of standard pornographic narratives.

This is a new method of analyzing racialized pornography, which Nash labels "racial iconography," breaking from the focus on the wound or the injuries inflicted on black bodies by their representation in pornographic texts to focus instead on the ecstasy unleashed in both the narrative and the visual representation of black bodies in these films. Nash's understanding of ecstasy in these films is both "the possibilities of female pleasures within a phallic economy" and "the possibilities of black female pleasures within a white-dominated representational economy" (2). She is reading the performance of race in these films as playing with racial fictions, which "underscore[s] that race is constituted, at least in part, by a 'stylized repetition of acts' that can produce pleasure both for performers and for spectators" (5).

She begins with an outline of four feminist theoretical and political traditions--anti-pornography, pro-pornography, sex-radical, and feminist porn studies--to demonstrate how her own analysis both relies upon and breaks away from these traditions. The close readings in The Black Body in Ecstasy rely on anti-porn thought in two ways: that women's experience of pleasure is mediated by structures of domination, and that this hierarchy masquerades as pleasure. Nash's analysis relies on sex radicalism's understanding of the multiple meanings inherent in pornographic texts, and seeks to problematize feminist porn studies' reliance on the Foucauldian paradigm of difference as the foundation of the relationship between spectator and protagonist, where the spectator is seeking to know "the truths" of those depicted on-screen. Instead, she examines racialized pornography from the perspective of pleasure in sameness, where the spectator sees herself projected on-screen. "By interrogating the notion that black bodies appear in pornography exclusively to confess difference or to bare their bodies' imagined truths, my project unravels a host of assumptions about spectatorship, visual pleasure, and race that have been smuggled into feminist-porn-studies scholarship" (21). 

Nash seeks to move from the condemnation that pornography usually receives in black feminist analysis toward an open examination of black female pleasure in reading "with the grain." Ultimately, she is seeking to shift black feminist theory toward a conversation that goes "beyond a rehearsal of black women's troubled relationship with representation, toward a consideration of the fraught pleasures that come in and through blackness, and in and through performances of racial fictions" (147).

Her close reading starts with an analysis of the black feminist theoretical archive, which she "lovingly critiques"[1] in its focus on black female flesh as wounded. She carefully examines both academic and artistic feminist treatments of the "Hottentot Venus," the African woman who in the early nineteenth century was put on display in a cage in both London and Paris. Nash critiques black feminist texts in their "fundamental belief that representation inflicts violence on black female bodies" (30) and their presumption that "the labor of black feminism is to adopt recovery strategies which shield black women from further visual exploitation" (30). Thus ecstasy is rendered "unthinkable" in black feminist examinations of representation, and this investment "in foregrounding the black female body's woundedness comes at the expense of capturing the possibilities of black women's pleasure" (31). Nash's critique is "loving" in its faith and investment in black feminist theory; she is advocating "not an abandonment of it, but instead a concerted effort to craft an alternative black feminist theoretical archive, one that can imagine black female ecstasy in all of its complexity, paradoxes, and--at least at times--uncomfortable contradictions" (32).

Nash examines feminist porn theory through several works, including Patricia Hill Collins's Black Feminist Thought (Collins 1990), in which the author contends that "the violent racial traumas of the past . . . are made into technologies of fantasy in contemporary sexualized representation" (quoted in Nash, 38). White women are objects; black women are animals in pornography, according to Collins, and sexual images of black women represent the instance of injury, the wounding of black female flesh. Nash examines both black feminist theory and artistic feminist representation of the black body, a dual analysis that adds strength to a work in search of ecstasy in racialized pornography. She finds both fields depicting various sites of woundedness and recovery, but lacking in the area of black female pleasure. In her examinations of several pornographic films, she seeks to remedy this lack, to transform the black feminist theoretical archive "into a home not just for locating and healing wounds, but for naming and claiming desires, for speaking about the complex ways that pleasure--both racial and sexual--moves under our skin" (58). Rather than relying on the traditional black feminist assumption that black spectators must necessarily read "against the grain," Nash shows how black spectators can find pleasure in pornography by reading with the grain.

Nash locates this pleasure through four strategies as seen in four separate films: Lialeh (1974), which combines pornography with blaxploitation in a genre-blending that allows for multiple identifications through its failure; Sexworld (1978), which relies on a play with racial stereotypes to locate pleasure in blackness itself; Black Taboo (1984), which exposes and deflates racial fictions through comedy and the absurd; and Black Throat (1985), which, in its failure to expose black women's particular sexuality, points to the universality of sexual practice across the imagined racial divide.

Melding the genres of hard-core pornography with blaxploitation, Lialeh, the first all-black hard-core pornography film[2] specifically addresses black spectators. This film--through Nash's analysis--points to two problematic assumptions of black feminist film theory's celebration of oppositional reading strategies: "that the on-screen world is not designed to please black spectators (indeed, it is created for white male spectators), and black viewing pleasures are extraordinarily limited, emerging only from actively re-interpreting dominant texts" (61). Nash rejects these two assumptions in her analysis of the film. By blending the two genres, Lialeh, the "first blax-porn-tation film" (63) anticipates black spectators' pleasure, and in the "generic failure," the incomplete fusion of these genres, multiple black viewing pleasures are opened up. The goal of blaxploitation is racial loyalty; the goal of pornography is to make bodies visible. It is in moments where the film fails to achieve these goals that enable multiple forms of identification and pleasurable black female spectatorship. Nash examines specific scenes in which blaxploitation's myth of black phallic power is subverted by black female characters using the phallus for their own pleasure, "often at the expense of celebrating black male pleasures" (80).

In the third chapter, "Race-Pleasures: Sexworld and the Ecstatic Black Female Body," Nash examines how playing with race and racist assumptions can provide pleasure for both black and white spectators. Her analysis of Sexworld draws upon scholarly examinations of the link between racial oppression and pleasure as well as theories of gender performativity. She combines the two to "treat blackness as a fraught, complex, and potentially exciting performance for black subjects, as a doing which can thrill, excite, and arouse, even as it wounds and terrorizes" (87). The protagonist of this film, Jill, verbalizes her "race-pleasure" through her "insistent rhetorical gesturing toward blackness" in the dialogue of the film (94). In this film, the racist fictions about black women and black sexuality are played with and "function as performed, embodied pleasures" (105).

Nash's analysis of the absurd/comedy inherent in pornography comes from a close reading of Black Taboo and the presence of "race-humor," black protagonists using humor to make racial fictions visible. In this analysis, Nash does not suggest that race-humor is unproblematic; rather she demonstrates that race-humor is "a powerful and fraught tool, capable of both imploding racial fictions and entrenching them, sometimes simultaneously" (111). Just as Lialeh questions black phallic power, Black Taboo's narrative presents some unusual sexual acts that question the masculinity of its protagonist, specifically the main character, Sonny's, sexual relationship with Jodi, a blow-up doll. Nash demonstrates that "race's eroticism is often linked to its hyberbolic absurdity," which can be both comical and pleasurable, while also painful (127). Racial fictions are exaggerated, then deflated; the promise of specifically black "taboo" in this film is never kept. "The labor of race-humor becomes one of naming the racial fantasies that hinge on their unspokenness. Once named, the fictions that provide the film their racial charge are exposed, rendered absurd, and made laugh-able" (127).

Throughout her analyses, Nash builds on the foundational work done by Linda Williams's feminist analysis of visibility in hard core pornography (Williams 1989). But Nash specifically locates ecstasy in the failure of visibility. Her examination of Black Throat relies on the link between ethnography and pornography, both of which "share a desire to know the 'truth' of other/Other's bodies and a commitment to crafting a representational universe which contains the Other" (131). Black Throat, much like the other films analyzed here, breaks its promise to expose "black women's sexual differences--namely, black women's distinctive practices of fellatio" (133). Rather than playing out as a difference narrative, this film is more an initiation narrative and a buddy-film; it is in the interracial friendship between its two main characters that this film examines--and exposes as false--racial-sexual differences. Although this film seems to be about different sexual practices for different races, it in fact demonstrates a "fundamental sameness of bodies" (144). Nash's reading of Black Throat exposes "that the imagined 'them' is always already quite similar, if not identical, to the imagined 'us'" (145).

In all of these close readings, Nash demonstrates how failures--of genre-blending, of comedy, of racialized taboo, of exposing the ethnographic "truth" of black sexuality--provide for multiple identifications for multiple spectators. Black audiences of pornography find multiple sites of pleasurable viewing through these failures or ruptures. Nash reads these films "for failures, for inconsistencies, for ruptures, and for refusals" to "provide rich entry points into theorizing racialized pornography's insecure narrative promises" (143).

The question running through my mind as I read Nash's analysis of these four pornographic films is the same one that usually arises in the critic's mind when examining a work using the close reading methodology: how does this fit into the bigger picture? The "generic failure" in Lialeh; the "race-pleasure" in Sexworld; the "race-humor" in Black Taboo; and the exposure of sameness in Black Throat examined by Nash certainly provide examples of multiple identifications and the possibility of ecstasy, but are these examples representative of the vast collection of black pornography or are these ruptures rare? What has changed in the three decades since these films were produced? I was hoping for a discussion of this in the concluding chapter, but was left wanting after I put the book down.

Although Nash points to a major critique of textual analysis--ignoring the context of production and spectatorship--and promises in the introduction to "move back and forth between text and context" and "between representation and the multitude of possible spectator responses" (22), she provides only a minimal analysis of production and reception contexts. It is unclear how her analyses of production and reception inform her close readings of the films. For example, in chapter 5, she provides an overview of the Dark Brothers production team, which produced one of the films she analyzes, Black Throat, but then abruptly returns to theory and does not mention the context of the film and how it relates to her close reading. She does note the "paucity of scholarly information available about actual spectatorship" (23), and with that limitation in mind, her close readings are thorough and broad enough to fulfill her promise to account for "the personhood, the messy subjectivity, of all pornographic spectators" (23).

Overall, however, this work is a significant contribution to feminist porn studies and to the analysis of representations and images of black bodies and black female desire and sexuality. The Black Body in Ecstasy starts a new conversation within feminist porn studies, an original, provocative discussion of the multiple identities and ecstasies that can be located in instances of rupture in pornographic films. Nash defies traditional black feminist theory by locating female pleasure on-screen in reading "with the grain" rather than locating woundedness and recovery in reading "against the grain." This is not a staunchly pro-pornography analysis; rather, it builds on existing black feminist theory to explore new possibilities for the representation of black women's bodies in visual, mediated culture.

 

References

Collins, Patricia Hill. 1990. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. London: HarperCollins.

Williams, Linda. 1989. Hard core: Power, pleasure, and the "frenzy of the visible." Berkeley: University of California Press.

 

[1] Nash borrows this phrase from Tricia Rose, who used it to describe her own scholarly analysis of hip-hop in a panel discussion in 2008.

[2] Nash uses the term "all-black" to refer to the film's main characters; there are a few white supporting characters in this film.

Siobahn Stiles is an assistant professor in the Communication Studies Department at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. Her research focuses on identity as formulated and reflected in mass media and feminist methodologies.

"Rather than relying on the traditional black feminist assumption that black spectators must necessarily read 'against the grain,' Nash shows how black spectators can find pleasure in pornography by reading with the grain."