Two Lost Girls

Repost from old blog, 10/9/2006

“In countries like the U.S. and Great Britain, we exist in a wholly sexualized culture, where everything from cars to snack food are sold with a healthy slathering of sex to make them more commercially appealing. But if you’re using sex to sell sneakers, then you’re not just selling sneakers, you’re selling sex as well, and you’re contributing to the sexual temperature of society. You’re going to get people who, unsurprisingly, become overheated in that kind of sexual environment, and if they attempt to assuage their desires by resorting to the widely available medium of pornography, they’re going to have their moment of gratification, and then they’re going to have a much longer period of self-loathing, disgust, shame and embarrassment. It’s almost like a kind of a reverse Skinner-box experiment, where once the rat has pushed the lever and successfully received the food, then he gets the electric shock.”
–Alan Moore

I just finished reading Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s incredible graphic novel Lost Girls. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, even though I was intrigued after reading interviews with Moore (the quote below is from a wonderful interview with the Onion AV Club, and I urge you to read it because it nearly blew my mind). Being somewhat of a [novice] student of erotica, though, I had to pick it up.

…more

What I wasn’t prepared for was how rich and full the story is, but even as I enjoyed it on an intellectual level it still gave me an almost perpetual hard-on (yes, even during the lesbian scenes – when erotica is done right, it can work wonders). I don’t want to get into the concept or plot (you can read that for yourself), but I particularly savored the self-reflexive aspects of the story. It’s a story about telling stories, about the allure and treachory of fantasies (“Yeah, imagination’s peculiar, ain’t it?” one character muses. “I mean, sometimes it traps us, sometimes it’s what sets you loose.”), and as such it strikes properly sad and elegiatic notes. Fantasies always have to end. Reality always intrudes, usually harshly, sometimes even violently.

But the book is also funny, as well as incredibly pornographic, and it takes the subject of sex seriously while at the same time poking gentle fun at itself. One of my favorite moments occurs when the portly hotel proprietor, reciting a sinfully dirty incest story during an orgy, reflects on the implications that incest would have in real life. “Children raped by their parents. Horrible. But they are fictitious. They are uncontaminated by effect and consequence.” Just when you’re ready to accept this insight, he goes on: “I, of course, am real, and since Helena, who I just fucked, is only thirteen, I am very guilty. Ah well, it cannot be helped.”

There is plenty of incest in this book, along with pretty much anything else you could imagine – bestiality, water sports, pedophilia, rape fantasies, foot fetishism, etc. The art is really striking and beautiful, the colors intense and bold. Sex as joyful escape, sex as willfull ignorance. Sex as violence, sex as creation. And a whole lot of complicated permutations in between.

Mary Harron’s “The Notorious Bettie Page,” the best movie I’ve seen this year, is about a woman who finds something she can do really well, something that happens to be vociferously in demand. But despite the fact that she’s not harming anybody, and is in fact bringing delight to a lot of people, she is still enmeshed in a culture that shames the sex industry even as it makes shit-ton loads of money off of it, even as it consumes it and needs it.

At least, that’s how I read this strangely sad and affective movie. Bettie Page is religious, but sees no harm with showing off the body God gave her. Then there are the fetish pictures, involving all sorts of preposterious leather boots, chains, and harnesses. “Boots and shoes, shoes and boots, they can’t get enough of them,” says Lili Taylor’s photographer. Bettie innocently wonders why. “Don’t ask. It takes all types to make a world. You see, the customers who want this stuff are very respectable, very high quality people: doctors, lawyers, diplomats … even a judge. They’re not people like us. The pressures they’ve got … they’re not the ‘average Joe.’ So what if they want something that seems a little strange. If it makes them happy, sure.”

So Bettie gives them what they want, what makes them happy, and because she enjoys what she does, she makes herself happy in the process. But in the end, it doesn’t work. Society’s need to flog itself for what lurks quite unremovably in its collective unconscious is too powerful.

“What do you think Jesus would say of what you’re doing right now?” another photographer asks Bettie as she gamely poses while tied up and gagged. “Well, I can’t speak for him,” Bettie responds.

She doesn’t have to. Even now, fifty years or so later, plenty of people are happy to speak for him themselves.