Pink Prison: Power Play and the Woman’s Gaze

In the late nineties, Zentropa–the film company of famous filmmaker Lars von Trier who is known for his outspoken persona, creating controversial taboo-breaking films such as the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or awarded Dancer in the Dark (2000, starring Björk and Catherine Deneuve) and Dogville (2003, starring Nicole Kidman)–launched a series of porn aimed at women under the banner Puzzy Power with Trier’s international producer Lene Børglum (1961) at the helm.

In the late eighties and early nineties, Børglum took part in the experiential art house underground film movement surrounding the transgressive Richard Kern in New York, creating 8 mm loop films that show explicit sex in fragmented shots while seeking to push out of, and troubling up the boundaries of conventional norms and definitions for gender and sexuality.

Based on that experience, Børglum’s goal for Puzzy Power was to create sexually explicit films inspired by the esthetic of the 8 loop films, and with content that would appeal to women.

Among the most successful Puzzy Power films is Pink Prison (1999), written and directed by Lisbeth Lynghøft (1962). Filmed on the sets built for Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, Pink Prison is about the 32-year old female photographer and journalist Mila, who breaks into a notorious prison where only men are allowed in order to secure an interview with its media shy warden. Rejecting not only the phallic female-objectifying gaze of mainstream porn, but also its homophobia, the film features Mila both watching men masturbating, and also men having sex together as she searches through the prison for its warden. Lynghøft captures both the power and sensuality of male bodies and sexuality in these scenes.

Film scholar Linda Williams concludes her historical analysis of hard core with some thoughts on what she would consider a truly feminist re-vision of porn. Given that porn always has been a male speculation on female sexuality and the “truths of sex, writes Williams, “perhaps the true measure of the feminist re-vision of pornography would be if it were to produce a pornographic ˜speculation’ about the still relatively unproblematized pleasures of men ¦ when erection, penetration, and ejaculation are no longer primary, self-evident measures of male pleasure, then a realm of female pornotopia may be at hand (Hard Core 276). “ Mila approaches such a feminist re-vision of pornography on her journey through the prison, examining the different bodies, desires and pleasures of a range of men.

After breaking into the prison one night through a dark air vent, Mila approaches the cell of a man; she sees him first standing with his back towards her. The light is dimmed, the walls within the prison a deep red hue. She turns off her flashlight; studies him.

The camera shifts to study the man from his front, framing his body as he holds on to the rods of the gate to his cell. In the background behind him we see the air vent just above the floor. The contours of Mila’s head are vaguely visible behind the screen, the pale shimmer from her face and hair. The man removes his shirt, turns around to put it on his cot, and, with his body facing Mila, begins to stroke his chest with his hands, over his abdomen, down into his pants, touching himself, moaning. All along the camera crosscuts continuously between studying him and Mila watching him; she gasps with anticipation.

The sound of more intense moaning draws Mila in its direction; she casts a lingering gaze at the half-naked man still touching himself, his eyes closed, before crawling on. The synthesizer music swells, the beat quicker.

In the next cell, she finds two men engaged in raw passionate sex. Mila unbuttons the top buttons of her shirt, slips a hand in beneath it, and begins to touch her breasts. She lets go of a sigh and one of the men turns around in her direction. She quickly withdraws while the camera lingers on the two men.

Mila’s journey through the prison features her not just watching others have sex, however, but also her taking part in it.

One of my favorite scenes is the kitchen scene where Mila has sex with the prison chef among a buffet of colorful dishes, which they playfully include in their sensual sex. Accompanied by a lively rhythm, this scene portrays a richly visual and sensual feast à la Nine ½ Weeks, but without the manipulative power play it features. A gender equal rotation of initiative, and a democratic positioning of their bodies instead characterize the sexual encounter between Mila and the chef. And whereas the chemistry between the characters of Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger becomes sickly ultra-tense, the atmosphere here remains completely relaxed. The two are simply having a really good time together; she giggly, and he with a warm big grin on his face throughout.

Pink Prison, which won a Venus Award as Best Scandinavian film at the international adult industry trade fair VENUS, is a striking film with its focus on the woman’s gaze on male sexuality and its portrayal of democratic, gender equal sex. The film’s meditation on control is also interesting for how it features both women and men getting a kick out of either being in control and surrendering control. As modern beings in a competitive society where it seems imperative that we constantly remain on top of things, sexual abandon may appear an appealing pause from the daily pressure to always measure up in a culture that gauges success according to accomplishments.

And as the first hardcore porn films to be produced by an established mainstream film company (the largest in Scandinavia), the Puzzy Power films represent a brave and intriguing concept, which is encouraging for what it reveals about the growing attention devoted to the need for progressive, gender democratic porn catering to modern women and men.

(This post is an excerpt from my book After Pornified: How Women Are Transforming Pornography & Why It Really Matters, forthcoming fall 2012.)

Quizzical Mama

Quizzical mama, aka Anne G. Sabo, PhD, is a former academic turned public educator, author, speaker, freelance writer, and mama- and sex blogger. Her book After Pornified: How Women Are Transforming Pornography & Why It Really Matters (Zer0 Books, October 2012) has been called “a goldmine for all sex-positive women and men,” and a “candid, well-informed personal story of how a good girl became involved in porn." She writes mores about progressive porn and sex-positivity in her New porn by women blog and at her resource site Love, Sex, and Family, and she muses about life and parenting in her Quizzical mama blog. She lives in Northfield, Minnesota, a small college town just south of the Twin Cities, with her spouse and their preschooler daughter. You can follow her on Facebook or on Twitter @quizzicalmama.

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