Aster Gilbert Challenges Conventional Notions about Porn

Though social taboos about sexuality make us loathe to admit it, a majority of people consume pornography in one way or another. But as Aster Gilbert explained to a captive audience of Conn students on Feb. 1, pornography serves as an important arena where anxieties about race & queerness are (literally) laid bare in ways that encourage resistance.

Gilbert, a doctoral candidate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Kansas, was invited to Conn by Film Studies professor Liz Reich after they met at the 2017 American Studies Association Conference. Erin Duran, Director of Gender and Sexuality Programs and Director of the LGBTQIA Center, was equally enthusiastic about bringing Gilbert to campus and used the event to kick off “Frisky February,” a series of LGBTQIA Center-sponsored events intended to promote healthy, open, and informative conversations about sex and sexuality on campus.  

The crux of Gilbert’s research is centered around “microporn,” defined as pornographic content reappropriated from existing sources and circulated online via GIFs and WEBM files, and the active fandom engaging with it. Congregating on sites like PornHub and 4chan, these online communities craft discursive fanworks like remixes and porn music videos (PMVs) that, as Gilbert argued, tend to feature undercurrents of anti-semitism, transphobia, and racism. It’s these pockets of prejudice that Gilbert savors examining from a theoretical standpoint, as she noted that various subgenres of microporn, despite ostensibly being produced for cisgendered heterosexual white men, rely on the viewer identifying as an othered body in one way or another.

It is from this observation that Gilbert traced a complex path from anxiety over “taboo” desires emphasized in microporn—sex changes, gender swapping, miscegenation—to white supremacy.  A key feature of microporn is text overlays and voice-overs which attempt to justify the viewer’s anxieties with complex rhetoric that has roots in alt-right conspiracy theories.  To prove her point, Gilbert showed off a series of WEBMs from 4chan which set an audio interview clip about “the Jewish conspiracy” to footage where a white man watches his lover walk away with two black men to have sex. The WEBMs elicited gasps from the audience due to how it politicized sexual desires and recalled Third Reich-era beliefs we’d like to forget still exist.  “These conspiracies [and their inclusion in the porn people consume] have real physical effects on the world”, Gilbert explained. “They’re not just GIFs and WEBMs on the internet, it’s white supremacist mobilizations, brainwashing, [and] propaganda.”

The challenge with engaging in these politically charged spaces is the fact that many are actively embracing and exploring the identity politics microporn brings to light. Citing Ariane Cruz’s work on “the politics of perversion,” Gilbert explained how many queer women of color use race play to “openly explore the racial [and sexual] identities of the players in ways that may be seen as transgressive.” While dominant commercial pornography reflecting societal attitudes about race and sexuality may fail to acknowledge LGBTQIA people and people of color, microporn offers a space to radically rewrite those works and question what society sees as acceptable. Thus, Gilbert argued, condemning micropornography as problematic would mean erasing important voices that are silenced far too often.

Indeed, tension defined every aspect of Gilbert’s discussion—be it between racial studies theorists and queer studies theorists who are reticent to acknowledge intersections linking the two, feminists who argue if porn is degrading or should be taken seriously, and the ever-present specter of how to read context. Regardless of what one thought of the specific points Gilbert raised, it was impossible to walk away from it without gaining a newfound appreciation for the political nuances in pornographic content. Porn’s rapid turnaround allows for instantaneous reflection of values and ideologies in regards to current events, further solidifying the link between sex and anxieties fundamental to our culture. As Reich opined while moderating a post-presentation Q&A, “porn is the place where the veil is lifted, the ugliest things appear, the resistance appears, and our anxiety about miscegenation [and sexual otherness] fully comes to life.”

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