Workaholics is not the sort of thing I watch when I want to put my thinking cap on. It’s also one of the last TV shows I’d expect to dutifully analyze gender dynamics or present a feminist perspective, so you can imagine my surprise when the show inadvertently made a very interesting point about pornography and agency.
Every good sitcom needs an ethically compromised character to drive the plot to places where it would otherwise never go. This would be Adam DeMamp. Adam is a sex-crazed narcissist with sociopathic tendencies. While he’s perfectly happy being reduced to his vices, however, he manages to be incredibly astute in his attempts to feed them.
WARNING: contains spoilers! One of the storylines in ‘Dorm Daze’ (S5 E1 – you can view the full ep here) involves Adam’s obsession with an amateur porn webseries. He’s thrilled to discover that the college where he’s been assigned to recruit workers is in fact the same one where the movies were filmed. As he desperately searches for the dorm where these greasy escapades take place he stumbles into a gender studies class and is grilled by what we can only assume are supposed to be “feminazis”. He’s placed in front of the class and asked to describe what he likes about porn (in part, “all the gagging”). But at the same time the professor is explaining to him how women are exploited and plied in various ways, we’re shown exactly this happening to his socially awkward friend Blake, who has been lured onto the porn set under false pretenses. Adam eventually snaps and agrees that the objectification of women in porn is bad (moms shouldn’t go home after doing porn and make ham sammiches for their kids) and they all set off to liberate the female porn actors.
Of course, instead of finding a vulnerable woman he finds his friend freaking out because he can’t bring himself to perform. When Adam turns to the actress and tells her she’s been brainwashed, she informs him that she’s actually a producer and part owner. Adam asks her if it’s really true that some girls enjoy doing porn and matter-of-factly, she says, “Yeah!”.
And then, with a strained look on her face, the feminist prof chimes in: “That’s right, Adam. No man has the right to tell a woman what to do with her body. Even if she’s being sexually exploited.”
“I knew you were an idiot!” Adam exclaims. If you’re familiar with Workaholics, you knew this was coming.
This is the impossible position that women are in today thanks to pop feminism. Certainly, there’s a valid point to be made that men, who possess male privilege, should be very careful not to be paternalistic. That doesn’t mean men shouldn’t step in and call out sexism. They might get pushback for it but taking one for the team is what it means to be an ally. One example that comes to mind is when Benedict Cumberbatch said he didn’t like the term ‘Cumberbitches’:
I just went: ‘Ladies, this is wonderful. I’m very flattered, but has this not set feminism back a little bit? Empower yourselves if you’re going to get silly about a guy with maybe a little bit more of a sort of, you know, a high-regard, self-regarding name!’
Imagine this! A man knowing better than women what sexism is and actually having to explain to them why they should stop doing it. This is alarming. If we’re at all interested in ending patriarchy, how does it make sense for any of us, male or female, to let these things slide? How can we possibly expect males to take the idea that they’re responsible for ending sexism seriously if they’re being actively discouraged from doing so?
We’ve gotten to a point where it’s assumed that women are incapable of perpetuating sexism. Feminists are frequently admonished for critiquing such behaviour because according to liberal feminism, we’re all just individuals and anything we do that we’re not blatantly forced to do is necessarily empowering and off limits to comment. In trying to protect the concept of agency at all costs, many people who consider themselves to be feminists often end up obscuring the harm that internalized misogyny causes to women individually and collectively. Being silent isn’t an option when women argue that men are the new second class citizens and try to hijack discussions of #EverydaySexism.
Most feminists feel comfortable calling this sort of thing out because it’s typical conservative tripe but conservative females aren’t the only ones making mistakes. I know I’ve made my share only to look back and think, What the hell was I thinking? The primary focus should be on male behaviour because it’s male privilege that creates gender inequality. The problem we have now, however, is that women are frequently admonished – usually by other women – for suggesting that men not sexualize and objectify women because apparently this is an affront to female agency. I’ve been part of many conversations about common depictions of women in porn and how it shapes attitudes about gender, sex, and power. Without fail, there are always women who skip over this analysis and go straight to defending women’s right to perform for men. Questioning this approach will invariably get you labelled as a jealous prude who wants to police women’s sexuality even though most heterosexual porn is produced for the male gaze. More importantly, males are exposed from a young age to a version of sexuality that is violent and devoid of any sense of human connection. Although females might legitimately enjoy nudity and depictions of sex, we’re also groomed to think that it’s all a natural, realistic expression of sexuality and we’re pressured to conform to what males have come to expect from us.
Why is it that when the word ‘radical’ appears in other anti-oppression scenarios it’s cool, but it’s bad when it’s articulated through a feminist lens? Colonialism endures in part because it teaches oppressed people to self-sabotage. The bottom line is this: when chauvinists are happy with your feminism because it allows them to rationalize their behaviour, your feminism isn’t feminism.
We know that people who have been affected by the addictions of others usually need to undergo treatment themselves in order to break the cycle of codependency. The analogy applies here. Yes, men need to smarten up, but that won’t happen if we keep enabling them.
Many things are so normalized in our imagination that we’ve never had the chance to look at them objectively and ask what they really mean. Until we have an honest conversation about pornography not just as a social phenomenon but as an industry designed to generate profit and fuel exponential demand, we won’t fully understand the impact it has on our society. Gail Dines has been researching this topic for decades and makes some very solid points in this talk. Check it out:
If you’re a fan of Noam Chomsky, you might also be interested to hear what he has to say about pornography here: