How ‘X’ And ‘Minx’ Unpack The Politics Of Porn In The ’70s

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In 1979, the film “Hardcore” attempted to bridge a gap as it compelled its Calvinist protagonist to understand that his daughter might enjoy being a porn star in a decade when religious anxiety peaked around recently loosened obscenity laws in the U.S.

The new movie “X,” set in that same year, offers a more jaded image of the conflict between the sexual revolutionaries and the sexually inhibited — with an elderly, pious couple massacring the young crew making an adult film in their Texas town.

In one respect, it’s a fascinating twist on the very unsubtle genre trope in which the sexually active characters are killed off long before the film ends, while audiences root for their chaste, righteous counterparts to prevail (see “Halloween,” “Scream” and “Carrie,” for starters). In “X,” written and directed by Ti West, we’re immediately terrified of this purportedly morally superior pair named Pearl and Howard (an unrecognizable Mia Goth and Stephen Ure) who have the voice of a televangelist booming through their TV at all hours of the night. That’s especially true when Pearl begins to shuffle along the grounds after moonrise wearing a loose nightgown and desperate for her thirsty twat to be quenched.

It’s crass and ghastly, with an on-the-nose premise fit for the often- sensationalist slasher genre and the salacious X-rated cinema embedded in this story. But what happens in “X” is also a direct nod to the friction between the sexual conservative and the erotically free, counterculture liberal at a time when pornographic films were, at best, shamed and, at worst, boycotted and criminalized.

And yet, films like “Deep Throat” and “Behind the Green Door” were everywhere, much to the chagrin of religious and political organizations whose members felt their values were being threatened.

“X” offers a more jaded image of the conflict between the sexual revolutionaries and the sexually inhibited of the 1970s.
“X” offers a more jaded image of the conflict between the sexual revolutionaries and the sexually inhibited of the 1970s.

Photo Credit: Christopher Moss

Porn’s success throughout the ’70s was considered an ominous foil to normative domesticity, said Whitney Strub, associate professor of history at Rutgers University, Newark, and author of “Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right.”

He told HuffPost that this “unruly and unstable” sexuality “that’s supposed to be contained within the heterosexual procreative nuclear family is now exploding onto new levels of public visibility with the whole porno chic moment. So, I think that’s profoundly upsetting to a lot of more conservative and evangelical folks.”

But there’s another side of this debate that is less talked about. Pearl, a representative of the older, middle-class white people who often acted in the service of segregation and Jim Crow laws, is sexually starved inside this social structure.

And in “X,” that repression turns her both insanely jealous and violent. We can only presume West will delve more deeply into the circumstances of how she became this way in his upcoming prequel, but for the purpose of the glorious trash art that is “X,” it works.

Then, here comes a frolicky, scantily clad group that Howard lures onto their property as a supposedly safe space to shoot their kinky film. West cranks up the tension even more by including a strapping Black male porn star (Scott Mescudi’s Jackson) among the cast. Though race is curiously never mentioned in a real way in the film, some viewers will probably notice the way Howard scans Jackson from head to toe when he realizes he’s among this crew, as opposed to how he checks out Wayne (Martin Henderson), the film’s white executive producer.

Scott Mescudi stars in "X."
Scott Mescudi stars in “X.”

In reality, this difference may have been a bit more direct in the ’70s. To anti-porn activists, all porn was equally detrimental. But the idea of a Black man having sex with a white woman (in this case, Brittany Snow’s Bobby-Lynne) constituted a more historical offense to some white Southern religious folks.

That criticism “is used very prominently in attacks on civil rights activists,” said Hilary Hallett, associate professor of history at Columbia University. “White Southern segregationists are very quick to try to make the argument, to the point of absurdity, that the goal of the civil rights movement really is giving Black men access to white women.”

Absurd is to put it lightly here. But while pornographic films created some opportunities for racially underrepresented artists, there were still concerns about how they were represented — much like the conversations we’re having today about Hollywood movies. Women of color in adult films were often exoticized or subservient, like Black female characters on a plantation, as referenced in works like Jennifer Nash’s “The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography.”

It wasn’t much better for Black male actors, Strub noted, as apparent in “Behind the Green Door” with Johnnie Keyes. “[He] walks out in this extremely Africanized garb and it’s playing in all of these tropes of Black masculinity that are pretty obvious and reductive,” he added. “You see that throughout the decade, race as this exotic thing because it’s such a white imagination here at play.”

This also comes to mind while watching “Minx,” this week’s other ’70s-set narrative centered on the porn world. The HBO Max series stars Ophelia Lovibond as Joyce, a young white woman hoping to reform a women’s magazine by covering everything from abortion access to rewiring gender roles.

Joyce is unable to receive support as a female entrepreneur and feels the need to find a male partner named Doug (Jake Johnson), a known name in the porn business. At that point, “Minx” moves from straight-laced feminist journalism to a racier version of that content — with pornographic images of men directed at straight female readers.

Jake Johnson and Ophelia Lovibond star in "Minx."
Jake Johnson and Ophelia Lovibond star in “Minx.”

Photograph by Katrina Marcinowski

Showrunner Ellen Rapoport keeps “Minx” oddly breezy, rah-rah and incredibly safe. That is enough to keep viewers entertained with, for example, a montage of penises in a model audition scene, or Joyce trying to galvanize women confined to kitchen duties as Doug charms potential business partners in another room. But the subtext is white fantasy and innovation. The models are mostly white. The visionaries behind the magazine are mostly white, though there is a Black female colleague (Idara Victor) in more of an executive assistant position who has no opportunity to offer input on the publication’s feminist lens.

Beyond its erasure of non-white feminist voices — a missed opportunity that could have served as a corrective to the white female-led erotic publications at the time, like Viva and Playgirl — “Minx” blithely disregards the political landscape of the time. Though most ’70s anti-porn activists spent a lot of energy on mainstream content for heterosexual men, it’s likely they’d also push back on an erotica magazine for heterosexual women.

Some anti-porn activists were concerned about women being “driven to adultery and promiscuity,” Strub said. And others raised legitimate concerns that porn promoted violence against women — or claimed publications like “Minx” did not adhere to the reality of female sexuality anyway.

Ophelia Lovibond and Jake Johnson star in "Minx."
Ophelia Lovibond and Jake Johnson star in “Minx.”

Photograph by Katrina Marcinowski / HBO Max

“Even the feminists that are not censorship advocates say it promotes bad sex, pure and simple,” Hallett said. “It promotes a vision of sex that is not female-centered, has no bearing to what women actually derive pleasure from.” She cites resources like “Our Bodies, Ourselves” by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective and sex researchers like William Masters and Virginia Johnson that counter the narrative that women are as drawn to images of sex the same way as their male counterparts.

But none of that is really taken into consideration in “Minx.” Even though Joyce passes around copies of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” she doesn’t seem to fully engage with the material. It’s easy to imagine that because the sexual component of the fictional magazine is primarily driven by a man, “Minx” is going to miss the mark on a few things. But there is Joyce, as well as Rapoport.

Perhaps subsequent episodes will delve into these complexities, or examine the reality that erotica for women was far less successful than erotica for men, or that gay men contributed to the readership of “Minx”-like magazines due to the dearth of queer sex magazines at the time, as this oral history of Viva describes.

To say that porn in the ’70s was complicated would be a massive understatement. But offerings like “X” and “Minx” have the opportunity to highlight a normalization of sexuality that many are still uncomfortable with today.

From a decrepit woman slashing the throats of young porn stars, then turning around and having sex with her creepy beau, to an array of nude men posing for horny female readers alongside an article about contraception, the business of pleasure in storytelling can be fun, ugly or dangerous. But particularly in the golden age of porn, it was always political — and that can never be sanitized.



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