Exerting Power through Porn: “Smutty Little Movies” Book Review

“If it exists, there is a porn of it,” claims the infamous internet meme. This simple statement provides a lot more value than perhaps its intended shocking effect, which we can see in Peter Alilunas’s Smutty Little Movies when adult content disseminates into any new avenue of technology or thought. The academic monograph examines both the adult video and the societal struggle to regulate and contain pleasure as pornography transitioned from the public to private sphere, new technologies developed, and capitalism and the traditional family model confronted sexual pleasure and a lack of social control. Alilunas gathers research and evidence from a wide spectrum of sources, mostly non-academic in nature, to analyze the codependency of the home video industry and adult film.

Alilunas introduces Smutty Little Movies with several key themes and questions surrounding the movement of explicit material from the public to the private spheres (especially from the big screen and the 1970s Golden Age of adult film to private adult video) and how pornography could be defined as an thought structure, allowing dominant classes to exert power in controlling what was considered “pornographic” and off-limits or inappropriate in any way to other classes or groups. The book is structured into four distinct parts that are tied together through the pornography-as-power ideology. Alilunas first chronologically examines changing technological, cultural, and industrial perspectives, beginning with the invention of the Panoram, a visual jukebox found in public places like bars and drugstores, that eventually turned into a “Solo-Vue” with curtains or walls and displayed images of female nudity. As the Panoram provided more privacy in public, motels, in realizing the economic potential of showing adult films, became the liminal space between the public theater and the private home. The underground film piracy economy was key to this transition since adult content was still made for the big screen only, though some motel owners did start filming their own content. Peep-show booths like the Panoram and motel viewing were outdone by George Atkinson who eventually became known as the father of home video rental after he realized that he could provide adult videos in the security of the home for a major profit. At this point, quantity of adult content became much more important than the quality, and so Alilunas argues that capitalism became one of the driving factors for the quiet and private spread of pornography.

Magazines were also a major marketing arm for the adult video industry. Alilunas looks at a variety of publications. Initially the content was the product, meaning magazines focused on sampling of still images and stories. When Adult Video News (AVN) entered the industry, a strategy for quality and taste further pushed pornography into the private sphere. Rather than sampling, AVN acted almost as newsletter foreplay for the actual videos and presented the idea and context rather than the content. This push for seeking out quality content also further reinforces the problematic gender narrative in which women must be “protected” but also might only be interested in “tasteful” pornography. Alilunas goes on to describe two key women in the rise of the adult video industry, though he acknowledges that neither received the credit they truly deserved, which proves how it is “a male-dominated industry built on women’s bodies” (130). Ginger Lynn made her mark as an adventurous girl-next-door actress around whom the Vivid Video company’s marketing strategy was built, though the male owners did not later acknowledge their combined effort. Candida Royalle stepped behind the camera in order produce real change for women and focused on reestablishing female control rather than submission in sexual pleasure. However, even Royalle’s own production company was backed by male investment. Further, she reinforced the pleasure-in-quality narrative, falling into the same categorical traps that places value on individual pleasure. Finally, Alilunas explores external regulation of adult video, which he claims as being rooted in a fear of changing societal morals and the disruption of the traditional family unit. Regulation took place both legally (e.g. investigations, trials, governmental studies) and through grassroots movements (e.g. religious groups, antiporn feminist groups, and corporate video rental companies refusal to stock adult content).

Alilunas ultimately concludes that although adult video saved the adult film industry, it is only one player in the ongoing discourses of power and controlling pleasure. Whether explicit external regulation or decentralized and constantly shifting discourses around what pornography should be, there will always be something new to discuss, reconcile, and push beyond, such as the Internet, which viewers of the Panoram would not have been able to fathom.  

Peter Alilunas, an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Oregon, grew up in America in the 1970s and 80s, a time when pornography seemed to be taking over the nation. He explains though that his memories of pornographic images and encounters were fleeting and confusing, which is reflective of his later discovery that academia surrounding the dissemination of pornography is severely lacking. Alilunas’s background in Media Studies is especially relevant since he argues that pornography was a crucial part of the home video’s history (and vice versa) rather than just a consequence of the home video. He received the Society for cinema and Media Studies Dissertation Award of Distinction for Smutty Little Movies in 2014.

Alilunas, despite the lack of literature in pornographic studies and the adult film industry, works to fill in at least some of those gaps on a broad scale, which is also his greatest strength in creating Smutty Little Movies. Rather than pulling together academic content, Alilunas investigates history of the adult video industry and the context surrounding the proliferation of pornography over the years. He is not so media-heavy that he analyzes specific pieces of media but rather pulls from a variety of contextual sources to understand the motivation, process, and outcome of technological, cultural, and industrial changes. More specifically, he pulls from catalogues, magazines, brochures, advertisements, autobiographies, blog posts, fan websites, newspapers, zoning laws, court rulings, etc. to form his own understanding of how society affected pornography and vice versa.

Smutty Little Movies acknowledges many areas in which it could go into more depth, such as queer and race dynamics or even further criticism of problematic gender narratives, but as Alilunas notes at the beginning, his “decision is an effort to limit the scope and scale of the research to a particular industrial history that has not yet received much scholarly interest while simultaneously occupying a massive historical footprint” (31). Having said that though, his ultimate arguments about the power of pornography and societal control could be further grounded in theory, such as Foucault’s thought on the relationship between power and oppression.

As intended, Smutty Little Movies fills in a wide gap in the vast pornographic history, though it’s important to keep in mind that it’s only one gap of many. Observing cultural thought through technology and industry provides a fascinating view of how we are able to both gain control and lose control of our own individual identities. This book is especially relevant for those who grew up in the so-called Golden Age of adult film in the 1970s and the rise of the home video in the 1980s. This study is also important for current college-level students as gender and sexuality disciplines expand and open us up to hidden narratives in our past.

Works Cited:

Alilunas, Peter. Smutty Little Movies. Oakland: University of California, 2016. Print.