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Berries Bittersweet: Visual Representations of Black Female Sexuality in Contemporary American Pornography


My dissertation, Berries Bittersweet: Visual Representations of Black Female Sexuality in Contemporary American Pornography interrogates how pornography, from the 1930s to the present, functions as an essential site in the production of black female sexuality. Closely reading a diverse pool of primary pornographic visual materials, across print, moving image and the internet, such as photographs, magazines, trade magazines, videos, DVDs, and internet website viewings, I argue that pornography offers an ambiguous casting of black female sexuality, simultaneously constructing the black female body as craved and contemned yet ultimately not merely other, but in-human (not woman). Pornography's inscription of racial, sexual alterity on the black female body is both somatic and symbolic.

After an overview of the history of pornography, its central yet liminal relationship to nation and oft ignored collisions with race, I unveil print pornography (photograph, cartoon and magazine) as a medium that ultimately speaks to the photograph's task of visualizing a "real" and authentic racialized body. I argue that men's magazines such as Playboy and Players are important texts that delineate pornographic imaginings of desire and national belonging circumscribed by race. I then explore early moving image porn and the stag genre beginning in the 1930s, arguing that the black female body within stag films challenges the rigidity of gender roles that the films subscribe to, ultimately contesting the black female's position within the bounds of American womanhood. The decade of the 1970s, pornography's golden age, an intensely ambivalent era in the history of American pornography, marks a moment of mainstream recognition for the black female body within pornography, yet her inclusion is still underscored by the premise of her racial sexual difference and her performance of primitivized and pathologized sexuality. I examine the golden age as a critical juncture where hard core pornography, blaxploitation, and these two genres' analogous pornographic gaze--a heteronormative and sexualizing sociality--cemented the black female body as intelligible in and through not just her pornographication, but her representation as pornographic body produced and consumed for a mainstream mass market audience.

This ambivalence marks the black female in her transition from the stag era in the 1930s, through the golden age of pornography in the 1970s, into the video age beginning in the mid 1980s and through the present. It is most vivid in my discussion of taboo and the popular and financially prosperous phenomenon of black/white interracial pornography. I frame my discussion of Internet interracial porn against the history of American miscegenation and the coeval yet persistent national ideologies of racialized American womanhood and manhood deeply steeped in sexuality. I unveil interracial pornography, one of the most consumed and financially prosperous types of American pornography, as a domain of porn especially invested in the construction of the black female's racial, sexual alterity, allegorically evoked and projected onto the body. Lastly, I explore the space of the Internet, the fastest growing and most transformative area of contemporary American pornography, and cyberspace's unique positioning of the black female as an embodied figure in the typically unembodied realm of cyberspace.

From examining American pornography from the 1930s to the present, I reveal that neither pornography nor its representation of the black female body is fixed, yet both are anchored in a complex and contradictory negotiation between fantasy and reality that hinge upon the authentication of the black female body via the premised indexicality of the photograph's image. The black female body, as an oscillating site of desire and loathing, humanity and inhumanity, both affirms and challenges the ideological foundations, norms, and "rules" of pornography. My project reveals pornography is not just a fertile ground in considering the production of black female sexuality. It is a critical visual media in the production of national imaginings of race, gender, and sexuality, simultaneously maintaining and resisting social hierarchies, hegemony, power structures, systems of oppression and liberation.

My project echoes the inter-disciplinary nature of the field of African Diaspora Studies itself--combining the insights and methodologies of visual theory, psychoanalysis, history, film studies, sexuality, gender and women's studies. By bringing these fields into conversation, I elucidate the power and significance of visual culture and its central role in the production of race, gender and sexuality. A comprehensive exploration of the representation of black female sexuality in these three pornographic media, print, moving image and Internet, is a paramount, multi-faceted project that has not yet been approached within the academy. Beyond filling an academic void, this project exposes the need for counter-hegemonic and polyvalent images of the black female body while lifting the stifling veil of taboo shrouding discussions of sexuality (specifically in the context of hardcore pornography) within the academy. It develops a much-needed critical gaze and an interdisciplinary framework of visual literacy from which to approach visual representations of black female sexuality. This dissertation undertakes an essential, necessary project and my research is a fundamental contribution to cultural studies within the African Diaspora as well as the fields of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and Visual Studies.

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