In Defense of “Torture Porn” — the Term and (Some of) the Genre’s Practitioners
With its dismal first-weekend performance at the box office, Captivity offers an opportunity to bemoan (or cheer) the diminished commercial prospects for that genre we’re no longer allowed to call “torture porn.”
“is a non-position that allows a critic not to engage the work. It’s critical name-calling.”
“[T]here’s no such thing as torture porn.
“The defining genre identifiers of pornography are that it explicitly depicts actual sex acts. That is the spectacle promised, fulfilled, and required for the genre designation. [...]
“If everyone agrees to play nice, we might agree that no one in the audience is literally masturbating during the torture scenes. There is torture in Hostel, and that is the spectacle promised, and fulfilled. [...] [B]ut Hostel does not depict real human bodies being subjected to real torture in the throws [sic] of real agony and death. That it is fiction does not negate its possible power, but disqualifies it from the spectacle of real bodies in unsimulated physical acts which identifies pornography. If this is torture porn, it’s softcore at worst (best?). Equating titillation with pornography is short-sighted, because it turns the experience of all aesthetic pleasure into ‘pornography’; e.g. Van Gough [sic] paintings are color and texture porn.”
There are some interesting but problematic arguments here.
First, let’s dispense with his understanding of “pornography.” One dictionary says the word means
“writings or pictures or films etc. that are intended to stimulate erotic feelings by description or portrayal of sexual activity.”
Another dictionary defines it as
“the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement”
or (more appropriately)
“the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction (the pornography of violence).”
So “torture porn” wouldn’t require genuine torture, merely its “description” or “portrayal” or “depiction.” (And to further knock down Stangl’s argument, while pornographic movies do include “actual sex acts” [e.g., penetration and ejaculation], the pleasure depicted is almost always simulated. You only need to see a few male porn stars frenziedly jerking off to recognize that they’re not aroused in any meaningful way. I’m betting the discomfort involved in filming faux torture more closely approximates real torture than pornography approximates sexual satisfaction.)
In other words, that which we call “torture porn” fulfills the “portrayal” requirement.
And, obviously, the movies in the genre fit the third cited definition, a non-literal use of the word “pornography” (etymologically: “writing about prostitutes”) to describe “the depiction of [nonsexual] acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction.” (Hence, that van Gogh analogy doesn’t really work.)
But there’s a place between that metaphoric definition and the literal meaning of the word “pornography” that seems to be of the most interest to Stangl: He says that it’s wrong to ascribe to these movies an audience getting something akin to sexual pleasure from the depiction of torture, or the intent on the part of the filmmakers to stimulate “erotic feelings” with torture. As he put it: “[N]o one in the audience is literally masturbating during the torture scenes.”
I’m hoping that he doesn’t take such a limited view of the term “porn” that he requires a semen sample, but to claim that there’s no ecstasy derived from cinematic scenes of physical or mental torment is just silly.
These movies might tap into deep anxiety, but why would we watch them if we didn’t also anticipate that they’d provide some sort of twisted delight? If it’s not the same as sexual satisfaction, the rush of fear is similarly intense and exhilarating.
Just as importantly, torture porn also meets a need for release. One of the appeals of grisly horror movies is their transgressive pleasure, the implicit license to enjoy the pain and suffering of others. As ugly as it is, there is a sadistic streak in all of us, and these films can offer a safe outlet for it. Of course, some movies about agony are clearly designed to force the audience to question their motives for consuming movie violence, but Saw and Wolf Creek (and, I’m guessing, Hostel) aren’t among them.
That brings me to Stangl’s core (and most compelling) argument:
“[T]he problem of the day is that the phrase ‘torture porn’ is passive-aggressive non-engagement with a film. [...] [W]ho bothers with textual analysis of pornography?”
Well, there’s porn with costumes and stories and soft lighting, and there’s porn with 23 guys serially stroking off on a woman’s face. Only one can be meaningfully analyzed. (Anal-ized is, of course, another matter entirely.) Yet even the most artful porn is designed with one primary purpose: to get you off.
Similarly, there’s torture porn that’s made with care and social or political context and (horrors!) maybe even an idea or a developed character. Some works are provocative and resonant and leave deep scars and bear further discussion. And then there’s Saw.
I’m happy to talk about the subtext of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with its exploration of the effects of isolation and industrialized agriculture and the lack of a social safety net; and the contrast between the self-centered young adults and an almost nostalgic depiction of a seriously fucked-up nuclear family; and the barbaric things that happen in the absence of a soothing female presence.
I can make a case for all those themes in the movie, but it doesn’t change what The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is. It remains — and I don’t mean it as a put-down — torture porn.