Milestone Movies : Deep Throat (1972)

From Linda Lovelace to Julia Roberts – its not such a long way, baby

by Brannavan Gnanlingham

While social movements like second and third wave feminism could hardly be expected to be unified in ideology, there were few issues which created such dissent as pornography did in the 1970s and 1980s, thus exacerbating the existing divisions between the various feminist movements. Arguably, the various arguments can be applied today to many other popular media texts, from Britney Spears to hit films like Eat Pray Love.

Following US Supreme Court ruling in 1971 in favour of freedom of expression for an obscure Swedish softcore film called I Am Curious (Yellow) there was an explosion in pornographic films. The resulting “porno chic” movement gained commercial success, studio support and mainstream media coverage, in which films like Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door and The Devil in Miss Jones became box office smashes. However, resulting court action against Deep Throat and one of its stars Harry Reems, led to pronography’s marginalisation from mainstream cinema, though it has since become a massive commercial industry.

Deep Throat was considered one of the key films of the movement (though it wasn’t the first ‘mainstream’ hardcore film with Boys in the Sand being released a year before.) However its nominal association with the Watergate scandal (the key Washington Post informant being nicknamed Deep Throat) and the fact that it has since been argued to be the most profitable film ever made (from a budget of around $50,000), came to be seen as the archetypal hardcore film. The film follows Linda Lovelace (played by Linda Boreman) who is so sexually frustrated that she seeks help from a doctor played by Harry Reems. He diagnoses her problem: her clitoris is in her throat, and therefore she needs to give ‘deep throat’ in order to be sexually satisfied.

However, the success of the film – and the huge business it helped to inspire – led to considerable controversy within feminist circles, and religious groups. Critics like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine Mackinnon argued that pornography involves propaganda against women and coercion of women (Boreman became a poster child for their opposition), and that pornography is at best tantamount to rape (and in many occasions are one and the same). Mackinnon and other theorists expanded on their early opposition and argued that pornography reduces women to sexual objects, promotes misogyny, and distorts attitudes towards sexuality. Dworkin and Mackinnon created legislative models that allowed for women to sue pornographers for harm if the harm done to them could be proven to be linked to pornography – however such laws were judged to be unconstitutional, and struck down.

Counter-arguments were equally vociferous, though the grounds of opposition varied. Some feminists argued that censorship was a greater evil than pornography, or that pornography was crucial to exploring female sexuality. Theorist Linda Williams said “pornography is one of the few areas of narrative where women are not punished or found guilty for acting on their sexual desires”. Others argued that while mainstream pornography is misogynistic (and admittedly few ‘mainstream’ popular art-forms can be argued not to be misogynistic), there is room within pornography, like other art-forms, for feminist viewpoints and narratives to be included.

However, part of the reason why the debate around pornography became so fierce, is arguably that all sides were right in some respects when it came to Deep Throat. Deep Throat was a hugely problematic production, and Linda Boreman’s allegations post-filmmaking of rape, physical intimidation and cruelty all lead credence to Dworkin and Mackinnon’s argument against pornography. Boreman’s testimony in the 1986 Meese Commission on Pornography “every time someone watches that movie, they’re watching me being raped” is as damning an indictment a film can get (and contradicted her earlier writing on the film experience as being liberating). The film’s exhibitor’s links to the mafia also add to the murkiness. The visual emphasis on fellatio, and the “goal oriented” structure of the scenes towards ejaculations on the females’ faces created a clear power dynamic, and an emphasis on male pleasure.

Paradoxically though, the film was also revolutionary. It was the first popular film to acknowledge visually female sexuality and female orgasms. As in many of the porno chic films, the female protagonist drives the quest – the ambivalence of the ‘gaze’ in films like this, and in films like Emmanuelle and Debbie Does Dallas was seen at once as sexist in its adoption of particular stereotypes and liberating in its narrative shift from previous films.

Linda Williams argued that Deep Throat’s narrative was “constantly soliciting and trying to find a visual equivalent for the invisible moments of clitoral orgasm”. After all, it was only thirteen years before that Hollywood was getting into a lather over Anatomy of a Murder’s use of the word “panties” in the film’s court trial. Despite the dropping of the deeply sexist Production Code and the so-called rise of American auteurs in 1970s Hollywood, few films dared examine female sexuality (as opposed to male sexuality), and Hollywood to this very day continues to use many of the gender stereotypes for which pornography has copped most of its criticism.

Yet the debates around Deep Throat also expose one of the key dichotomies within feminist movements in the 1970s and 1980s – and arguably, within most minority identity political debates. How does a minority express itself: within or separate from the dominant culture from which it was originally excluded? Does Deep Throat’s adoption of patriarchal tropes mean it should therefore be open to criticisms of misogyny? (Also, were the makers of Deep Throat even aware of their revolutionary depiction of sexuality, or were they simply trying to cash in on a gap in the market?)

How much room is there for subversion of these patriarchal tropes? Would a completely different approach to pornography (e.g. one which doesn’t adopt male stereotypes) have worked better, or simply led towards cultural and commercial marginalisation, and a lack of impact? Arguably, this contradiction led to fractures within feminist movements themselves – in a more general sense – over the role of women within a dominant society, thereby suggesting that the symbolic impact of Deep Throat was much more than simply assisting the subsequent rise of the multi-billion dollar pornography industry.

An example of the contradictions is still apparent in what is considered mainstream film today, suggesting little has changed from the brief period when crowds lined up Times Square to make Deep Throat a smash. While it might be glib to compare what could ostensibly be argued to be a snuff film to contemporary ‘self-help’ phenomenon Eat Pray Love, there are considerable narrative similarities between the two films. Eat Pray Love concerns a writer ( Elizabeth Gilbert, played in ther film by Julia Roberts) realising that she’s in an unfulfilling marriage and trapped constantly within relationships. She decides to cast off the shackles and travel the world: eating in Italy, praying in India and falling back in love in Bali.

Aside from the fact aesthetically that both are ghastly films, there are similar narrative trajectories in the two films. Both feature an unsatisfied woman trapped within stereotypical gender confines who goes on a self-driven quest towards enlightenment and self-expression. Both protagonists end up in the same position as they were in the start of the film, though presumably both had learned something in the process about what fulfils them as women.

Whereas Deep Throat’s fulfilment involved fellatio and doctor visits, Gilbert’s ability to discover herself involves essentially spending a lot of money through travelling the world eating, praying, loving and whining. (It’s not surprising that the film’s merchandise tie-ins include Eat Pray Love yoga mats, gelato machines and bamboo window shades.) But the film also expresses a similar contradiction to Deep Throat. Within the laughable consumerism and white privilege of Eat Pray Love there must also be a reason why the book and film (and similar films like the Sex and the City movies) appear to resonate with contemporary audiences.

Initially, it is hard to see why. While Gilbert is a much more fully drawn character than the cipher that is Linda Lovelace, Gilbert is portrayed as weak, vacillating, and a rather pathetic character. Having the main protagonist lying on the floor crying because she’s in a relationship is hardly a 1970s feminist goal. She ultimately ends up in the exact same position by the film’s conclusion that she was in the start of the film: in a relationship, despite the film’s ostensible journey to be about a woman’s self-discovery. And in a charge levelled at feminist movements during the ‘70s and ‘80s, Gilbert occupies a position of privilege, which means she doesn’t really have to engage with other gender issues in the film e.g. the arranged marriages and treatment of divorced women in ‘other’ societies. The film instead allows Gilbert to feel satisfied by simply a) meditating for one and b) buying the other off. Like Deep Throat, the film is firmly trapped within status quo gender stereotypes, and works its way through its narrative using these tropes.

However, the film’s success is likely to stem from its depiction of a female mid-life crisis, a rare narrative device in Hollywood films. The book and film were praised for their “honesty”, “inspirational quality” and self-journey of a woman in transition by those who liked it. It’s almost as if these texts represented a postscript to the feminist movements’ concerns in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Now that those women have jobs, relationship choices, and increased public power, what happens if these are not enough?

Gilbert is trapped within slightly updated gender stereotypes (the sexually revolutionary ideas of Deep Throat are now old hat, but little else has changed) and she is forced to try to break free by herself – though unlike most other women she doesn’t have to worry about her job, relationship, or public power by throwing it all away. Though, it’s fair to add, whether the film actually provides a meaningful way in which to ‘break free’ is a moot point. However, the same underlying issues remain: is she simply conforming to gender stereotypes in the first place, or is she expressing a ‘new’ way out ?

Perhaps these two films also further express another key contradiction. Feminist movements ostensibly essentialised a proportion of the population ( e.g. “women”) an approach which almost directly contradicts the emphasis on individualism and subjectivity which now dominate critical thought, and importantly drive the two films’ narratives. Perhaps that explains why both Deep Throat and Eat Pray Love can be read in what originally appear to be mutually exclusive ways. Such equally valid interpretations reflect the contradictions within those making the interpretations in the first place.

ENDS