Return to Syllabus   Dr. Andrew Wood
Office: HGH 210; phone: (408) 924-5378

Mayer, V. (2005). Soft-core in TV time: The political economy of a "cultural trend". Critical Studies in Media Communication, 22(4), 302-320.

Note: These comments are not designed to "summarize" the reading. Rather, they are available to highlight key ideas that will emerge in our classroom discussion. As always, it's best to read the original text to gain full value from the course.

The author seeks to unpack the “sex sells” explanation for the increasingly pornographic nature of television entertainment. To that end, she states, “Critical media scholars must begin to unravel the myth that the presence of sex on television reveals a popular demand for more sex in popular culture” (302). Mayer argues that the production and marketing of sexual images demands closer analysis. In this essay, she focuses her attention on Girls Gone Wild (GGW).

Initially, Mayer provides an overview of the GGW infomercials that sell videotapes (and “continuity programs” to keep folks buying this product). These products reflect a kind of “reality television” with their unscripted encounters, middling production values, and amateur “stars.” Of course, Mayer emphasizes, this “reality” emerges from a limited context of white, middle-class, heterosexual norms.

Following her introduction of GGW, Mayer describes divided scholarly responses to this phenomenon. Some scholars highlight the “democratization” of sexuality and its concomitant “liberation” of women from prudish and hypocritical limitations. In contrast, others critique “soft-core as a backlash against second-wave feminism [finding] common cause with Marxist attacks on the objectification and commodification of young, female sexuality” (p. 306). This critical response castigates self-commodification, the branding of one’s body. Mayer argues that adopting one perspective or the other may be convenient. However, a closer look at the political economy of GGW reveals a more complex reality.

To understand this political economy, Mayer explores the regulatory shifts that allow GGW to help link the television and pornography industries. She contextualizes these in light of the 1973 Miller v. California (Wikipedia entry) ruling that empowered localities to more easily define obscenity by application of “community standards.” She also describes how 80s-era regulations cracked down on the pornography industry in other ways. For this reason, Mayer states, GGW producers claim that their product is documentary, not porn. The author then turns to a simultaneous expansion of television markets where such a product could be told, historicizing the arrival of infomercials in an increasingly deregulated television environment. Thus, “As the hard-core market contracted, cable and television markets expanded” (p. 309). The resulting paradox: stricter regulation of pornography but broader markets for documentary infomercials like GGW.

Mayer turns at this point to her fieldwork and interviews with pioneers in the videotaping of public nudity, describing the economy and hierarchy of the emerging “professional” class of video-“documentarians.” Into this environment, Joseph Francis and his Mantra Entertainment brought a particular focus on the “quality girl” -- that nubile 20-something who was “not that innocent.” Also, unlike other smaller producers of that era, Mantra used Francis’s connections to buy time on cable stations that could deliver the young male demographic. Mayer concludes this section by noting how Mantra has sought to expand its particular brand of entertainment into restaurants, music, and other venues. “From this analysis, one might say that GGW does not just traffic in women’s bodies, but is a forum for the sale of men to other men” (p. 316). And now we await “Girls Gone Wild: The Movie.”

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