Book Review – Gay Pornography: Representations of Sexuality and Masculinity

Review of Gay Pornography: Representations of Sexuality and Masculinity by John Mercer. I. B. Tauris. 2017. (PB £16.99). 240pp.

review by Brandon Arroyo, Concordia University, Canada.

The title of John Mercer’s book certainly intends to make an impression. With an assertive, commanding, and all-encompassing title like Gay Pornography, one eagerly wonders if this might be the contemporary sequel to Thomas Waugh’s foundational Hard to Imagine (1996). However, Mercer’s aims are far more modest – yet no less essential – than Waugh’s. I bring this up to suggest that the over-reaching title ultimately overshadows the sensible and focused line of thought maintained throughout. A more accurate title might have been: Gay Pornography’s Keywords, because of its success in articulating a vocabulary describing the role of gay pornographic culture within masculinist society. This is the book’s primary contribution: to provide readers with a unifying discursive framework through which to understand gay pornography’s contemporary mediascape. Mercer’s keywords are the linguistic tools essential to producing dynamic pornographic studies in the future.

While pornography studies are increasingly embraced by the academy, Mercer reminds us that not only is it still in its infancy, but analysis of the genre’s gay texts are comparatively barely out of the womb. Mercer’s is only the fifth monograph on the topic of gay pornography. This small number surprised even me as someone invested in gay pornography studies, and helped me realise just how complacent we have become when we receive every article or special issue on the topic as a manna from heaven, rather than a wake-up call to the large amount of work that has yet to be done to fortify this area of study. And while Linda Williams’ (Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the “Frenzy of the Visible” 1989) and Waugh’s foundational texts are rightly regarded as the foundation upon which we as contemporary scholars build our own work, little attention is paid to the fact that those books are dense pieces of scholarship that can be quite impenetrable for undergraduate students. I have read Williams’ book from beginning to end as both an undergraduate, and as a graduate student, and can attest that without an understanding of second-wave feminism, the sex wars, silent film, the porno-chic era, Marxism, Freud, and film theory, there is a minimal amount one can take away from that book. This is where books like Rebecca Sullivan and Alan McKee’s Pornography: Structures, Agency and Performance (2015), and now Mercer’s Gay Pornography, productively fill in the gaps of overview, historical context, terminology and suggestions for further reading for young scholars beginning to situate themselves within the current state of pornography studies. 

Mercer’s detailed analysis of these pornographic keywords forces even experienced readers – especially gay ones – to recognise just how assumptive they have been in utilising rhetoric without a collective and detailed definition of what those terms mean within an academic framework. Categorisations like “the boy-next-door,” “twink,” “daddy,” “the beautiful boy,” “the ‘fooled’ straight man,” “the international,” “the amateur,” and “the star,” are given rich descriptions that form the core of the book. Despite popular notions that the internet “flattens” cultural, structural and geographic differences, Mercer productively argues for the persistence of the plurality of these masculine types consistently represented across contemporary networked pornography. 

This argument accounts for the book’s most consistent theoretical intervention: “saturated masculinity.” Mercer’s central argument for this term is that “contemporary masculinities have become so saturated with meaning that new categories and new articulations of masculinity emerge constantly.” Saturated masculinity acts as Mercer’s discursive transitional bridge from the constructs of a “heteronormative vision of masculinity and sexuality in terms of sexual conduct, body types and settings” of the 1980s and 1990s, to our contemporary internet connected era. Mercer’s formation relies on deemphasising the experimental and varied masculine types exhibited in gay pornography from the 1970s yet the notion of saturated masculinity none the less offers a productive construct through which we can conceive and interpret a multitude of gay types that the genre offers. 

While, on a personal level, I admire the thoroughness of the research, and the subsequent challenges that Mercer lays out in the sections about “whiteness” and race representation in gay pornography, perhaps the most productive aspect of this wide-ranging book is that anyone will be able to find a chapter that will appeal to their own interests. Gay Pornography is a foundational text in the sense that Mercer is brave enough to declare with this book that gay pornography is worthy of a study laying out a discursive foundation for a sub genre that needs cohesive terminology to prosper. This cohesiveness is needed because its study is increasingly being produced out of a wider range of academic departments. I hope that Gay Pornography’s essential job of narrowing definitions and terminology works to expand scholarship across disciplines, and is recognised as the subtle call-to-action that it represents.    

Note

Disclosure: The reviewer was included as a contributor to a special edition of the Porn Studies Journal titled “Gay Porn Now!,” which was edited by John Mercer. Outside of this association, Brandon does not have any other professional or personal relationship with Mercer as of this writing. 

Contributor

Brandon Arroyo is a PhD candidate in film and moving image studies at Concordia University. His dissertation is an affective analysis of contemporary gay male pornography focusing on confession, transmedia identity construction, and the dynamics of space and place. He has been published in the Porn Studies Journal, Textual Overtures and MediaCommons. He created and hosts the Porno Cultures Podcast, featuring interviews with academics about their work in pornography studies. He is co-editing an anthology with Thomas Waugh about sexual confession in the arts over the last 25 years. 

 

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