Documentaries are never unbiased. Everything is shot with intention and meaning, every angle and close-up indicative of a larger, broader tile in the mosaic of the director’s idea. They want to sell you something–whether it’s a conspiracy, a new perspective, a scandal, the documentarian will make sure the audience can piece it together with as little help from the people behind the scenes as possible.
Porn sells ideas, too. Not as explicitly, of course, but they’re still there. “Women are objects” is a big one. “Men can’t control their urges” is another. Porn is often considered a release by those who avidly view such content, but the real world implications of their fetishes often manifest not only in their real lives, but also in the way such content is further curated and manufactured. Your preferences are not private, rest assured.
Hot Girls Wanted, the Netflix documentary produced by Rashida Jones and directed by Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus follows a group of young women in Miami as they make their first forays into the industry. Through this prism, Bauer and Gradus shed light on certain nefarious practices (such as “forced blowjobs” and racial degradation) while being absolutely transparent in their abhorrence towards the industry with ceaseless condemnation.
And porn deserves it. Young men and women curate their sexual preferences and ideas about sex through porn, which can often have unsettling effects on young people’s minds growing up. Many grow out of the broad, often silly depictions of both sexes, as made evident by the fact that forced gagging isn’t the preferred method of greeting. Which isn’t to say that remnants aren’t left over–considering the way men look at women as subservient, either hyper- or non- sexual creatures deserving of either praise or ridicule (and sometimes both at the same time).
But that doesn’t necessarily mean the documentary is without fault, either. Shining a light on the porn industry sounds noble in theory, but in practice one ends up exposing women who could have–potentially–left the machinations of a Kafkaesque institution behind now subjected to instant recognition by anyone who watches documentaries. Porn is stigmatized. Netflix isn’t.
Stella, the “protagonist” so to speak, quits the industry to live a normal life with her boyfriend after the emotional strain becomes too much for either to bear. She supposedly works a normal job now, but if someone said they recognized her before HGW‘s release they’d be outed as a deviant by onlooking society. Now, literally anyone with a Netflix account–which, again, is a lot of people–are free to gawk and stare at women who asked to leave a life of exploitation only to dive headlong into a new one. Out of the furnace, into the fire.
The documentary paints these women as young and irresponsible, in over their heads and not entirely cognizant of the consequences. And yet–I assume–they asked permission to film these young, irresponsible women in much the same way as the pornographers would have. Even Stella’s webcam confessionals could be viewed as a direct exploitation of her emotional strain at being objectified and brutally fucked on camera for the enjoyment of countless faceless, anonymous onlookers as emotional exploitation and intellectual debate–all while a crying young woman contemplates the severity of her actions.
Then there’s the famous Duke University pornstar, Belle Knox. She’s part of the introductory montage as a means of guiding the audience into the world of porn, like Virgil to Dante into the fiery hell of mainstream, decent soceity’s understanding of online sex. Knox talks about sexual autonomy and the liberation of women’s sexuality in today’s society, but one of the girls in HGW‘s focus, Ava Kelly, doesn’t buy it. “She’s got a good PR team,” she says while watching a video of Knox being gagged and beaten.
This is where the documentary’s somewhat shaky premise started to take hold: not in porn’s exploitation of women, but in society’s fear of sexually autonomous women. Porn has become so tightly intwined with freedom and sexuality that feminists preaching equal rights, celebrities, and pornstars have, to some, become virtually indistinguishable, and sometimes manifested in the same person. Sexual liberation for women has always been a point of contention for an overwhelmingly white, male dominated patriarchy that exists in our US of A, because it takes ownership of females away from those who believe they can and should be owned, if not outwardly then subliminally.
Feminism begins and ends with sex, and once the notion of a woman speaking out about the rights to her body comes from a spokesperson of feminist ideals, she’s immediately pegged a whore for associating herself with even the idea of sex in the first place. Because pop culture has trained large sections of the male populace to believe that women do not–and should not–enjoy sex. Men frequently view women as being from a different planet, and the oft-peddled notion that women can’t enjoy sex for the sake of narrative simplicity in the media creates a toxic ripple effect which tends to turn violent when confronted by reality. For we are a society of extremes–black and white, wrong and right, virgin and whore. No room for grey areas when it’s easier to shout knee-jerk reactionary noises at the TV from the comfort of one’s home.
No woman preaching gender equality is going to seriously convert anyone who isn’t already open to the idea, just as pornstars aren’t going to find happiness or freedom at the end of their experience. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need porn to enlighten kids about what sex really is. Criteria like consent, respect, and safety would be topmost concerns for everyone under every circumstance. But this is not our world, and the incessant stigmatization of sex in any context leads to a bizarre reality where people can be uptight and prudish yet secretly enjoy the exploitation of young women in private.
Confused as HGW could sometimes be, and useless as it may have been to add to the endless whirlpool of exploitation that is exposing the porn industry, it did remarkably highlight the importance of respecting female sexuality and how ignoring it can release itself in a myriad of unhealthy, vicious means.