Pornography, if it’s defended, is defended in the name of freedom of expression. The creators of pornography, it is argued, are making an artistic statement. Okay, few defenders of pornography are willing to call it art. But they claim that pornographic performers are proud of their bodies, free from sexual hang-ups, and eager to share their worldview with the rest of us.
That makes pornography the direct counterpart of the 19th century minstrel show. Both pornography and minstrelsy depict an idealized world that doesn’t really exist. And both involve the exploitation of the people they are supposed to be depicting.
Minstrel shows portrayed African-Americans as comic, dim-witted buffoons. But their white audiences believed that they were accurate examples of African-American culture. “Negroes like that kind of music,” they claimed. “That’s the way they really dance, don’t you know.”
Pornography portrays women as exploitable, demeanable, and rapeable. Do its viewers believe that pornography provides accurate examples of what all women are like? Maybe not, but the defenders of pornography claim that some women – the actresses – don’t object. “She’s just expressing her sexuality in that video,” they claim. “She’s just proud of her body.”
No, maybe she’s just trying to make a living. If women could earn as much as men, as easily, things might be different. At least men can stand on the corner waiting to be hired for honorable manual labor. When women stand on the corner, they have fewer options.
And if she’s an amateur, the point is not that she’s proud of her body. The point is that she isn’t proud of much of anything else. She doesn’t expose herself because she’s free. She exposes herself because she’s enslaved. And the men who watch her are taking advantage of her bondage, just as surely as the white people who watched minstrel shows were taking advantage of African-American powerlessness.
Note: many minstrel performers were white people in blackface, which contradicts my analogy. But there is no similar term for authentic 19th century African-American performances, which tends to prove my point, don’t you think?