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Book Reviews
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Feminist Media Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2003
Book Reviews
Striptease Culture: Sex, Media and the Democratisation of Desire
Brian McNair, 2002
Routledge, London and New York
246 pp., ISBN 0-415-23734-3 (paperback)
Brian McNair, in his latest book on mediated sex, promises to “roam freely
across the media landscape … mapping … the texts of high art and low porn,”
as well as more mainstream media examples, in order to document those texts
that have made a significant contribution to the “culture of emotional and
physical striptease which characterises our time” (ix). This culture, he argues is
indicative of the “democratization of desire” that has occurred in the capitalist
societies of the late twentieth century. His accumulation of examples draws
together a useful, up-to-date historical record of an otherwise ephemeral media-
scape, albeit limited in the main to the UK and US. His polemical aim is to assert
the importance of diverse sexual representations to a democratic society and to
celebrate the progress being made in that direction. Its broad scope is intended
to interest a general readership and to offer an introductory source for students.
His engagement with existing academic literature is selective, eschewing the aim
to provide a comprehensive review. Anyone familiar with the literature will be
disappointed, I think, by its patchy coverage and lack of theoretical ambition.
The swift dismissal as “ideological” of any counter-arguments to his thesis on
democratisation makes the book one-dimensional.
The structure and scope of the book has the advantage of capturing the
“cross-referential lattice which is the media in postmodernity” (81) traced across
the blurring boundaries of medium, genre, and high/low culture. It also allows
him to demonstrate the way the margins do indeed exert influence on the
mainstream, with pornography being a particular case in point. Porno-chic, the
title of Chapter Four, is the term he uses to describe the effects of this process:
Porno-chic is the representation of porn in non-pornographic art and culture; the
pastiche and parody of, the homage to and investigation of porn; the postmod-
ern transformation of porn into mainstream cultural artefacts for a variety of
purposes including, as we shall see, advertising, art, comedy and education. (61)
Porn thus became stylish and its iconography used in fashion and advertising,
while its proliferation and control is a topic for serious discussion in the public
sphere of print journalism and factual television. Postmodern irony, camp
innuendo, matter-of-fact explication, and academic intellectualism have replaced
ant-porn discourses as the dominant modes (84–6). He is right to use this as
evidence against the blanket condemnation of the media’s “degeneration into
ISSN 1468-0777 print/ISSN 1471-5902 online/03/010115-08 © 2003 Taylor & Francis Ltd
DOI: 10.1080/1468077032000080167
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116 Book Reviews
sleaze” (87) and to emphasise the plurality of approaches to pornography that
this proliferation has allowed. But McNair goes to the opposite extreme and
celebrates porno-chic as “an index of the sexual maturation of contemporary
capitalist societies” in its responsiveness to consumer demand.
His three main conclusions are firstly, that patriarchy no longer operates as
the dominant ideology of the media as a consequence of its responsiveness to the
social and political changes brought about by feminism and gay liberation.
Pluralistic and progressive sexual discourses have been so widely disseminated
that previously marginalised sexual identities and taboo sexual practices have
been brought into the mainstream (205). Secondly, that this process has been
enabled by capitalist organisations in the pursuit of profits from niche markets.
The countervailing forces represented by the moral guardians of patriarchy are
in retreat, partly as a consequence of technological developments that make
censorship more difficult and partly because they are a cultural anachronism.
Thirdly, that this new culture is anti-authoritarian. There is no place for
ideological interventions, whether progressive or not, that seek to supplant
patriarchal ideology with another set of imposed values.
McNair’s lack of any critical relation to capitalism means that the problematic
aspects of consumerist versions of sexuality are left unexplored. Indeed he
dismisses any objections to the sexualised culture he describes as ideologically
motivated and therefore irrelevant, whether derived from elite, Marxist, femin-
ist, or conservative perspectives. Instead he offers a vision of progress into a
future where, unhindered by the class relations of capitalism, which he sees as
no longer relevant (5), or by countervailing ideological forces, the free market
will deliver a democracy of desire. His optimistic progressivism offers only the
evidence that supports his vision of a better future. Reversals, such as occurred
in the 1950s and 1980s, are dismissed as temporary and insignificant in the
longer term. “Patriarchal dictatorships and religious fundamentalism” through-
out the world will eventually succumb “at a pace determined by local condi-
tions” to change that is “rapid and unstoppable” in the wake of the digital
revolution in communication (14). He describes the media as a “level playing
field” in which pluralism meets no obstacles. Structural and institutional resis-
tances are mentioned although not elaborated, and dismissed as “in measurable
decline” (207). Progressive historical change is inevitable, he believes, because
the capitalist media generate a “virtuous circle” (10) in which their responsive-
ness to changing ideas and tastes in the audience then feed back into encourag-
ing more widespread change.
McNair’s use of “Striptease Culture” to characterise our time is premised on
a metaphorical conflation of emotional and physical exposure, an exposure that
is seen as empowering in its effects. There are several problems with this
approach. Take this passage for instance:
The whole point of a sexual politics worthy of the adjective “democratic” is that
we gain and exercise the right to find, articulate and celebrate our own
sexualities, while showing due respect for the tastes, desires and sensitivities of
others. That is the real challenge posed by striptease culture. (207)
Does his use of the term “striptease culture” here imply that if we take off the
layers of encrusted morality and authoritarian precepts, underneath we will find
the truth of our sexuality? Or is it that the proliferation of sexual representation
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Feminist Media Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1 117
enables us to “find” our sexual identity and desires as a consumer in a market
that allows for the endless play of the masquerade as we try on different
identities? These questions cannot be answered because the relation between
biological sex, sexual identity, sexual desire, and sexual representations is not
systematically explored. Instead we have an unproblematic equation drawn
between economic liberalism and sexual liberation, without any conflict or
unwanted effects. Is this is what democratic freedom means in the sexual
sphere?
The claims to sexual democracy are taken up most centrally in the fifth
chapter, confusingly entitled “Striptease Culture: The Sexualisation of the Public
Sphere” (how then is the book as a whole to be differentiated?). This is about
“the media of sexual confession and self-revelation” involving, in general,
amateurs, “ordinary people … revealing intimate details about their feelings and
their bodies in the public sphere” (88). This occurs in confessional talk shows,
documentaries and docusoaps as well as print media and the Internet. Under
this umbrella term the benign representation of professional strippers in docu-
mentary television merges with the exposure of famous people’s private lives or
the discussion of sexual abuse on talk shows. These all manifest the erosion of
the boundary between the public and the private wrought by new technologies
and the ensuing decline in authoritarian control over the media. The effect, he
argues is democratic, bringing into the public sphere issues and sexual identities
that previously remained invisible. The prevalence of emotional expression and
human-interest stories has feminised the public sphere. If it is also voyeuristic
and exhibitionist what is wrong with that? “Striptease culture is the real thing,
and it can be difficult and uncomfortable to watch in a way that the pleasing
images of porno-chic … may not be” (108). It is the result of turning over
discursive space to the people. “We may not always like what the people do
with that access when they get it, but such is cultural democracy” (108). This
argument ignores professional and generic mediation, as if we were in direct
communication with “the people.” (Nor is it made clear how “we” are divided
from them.)
This argument is made possible by skating across superficially similar media
phenomena without locating them in an institutional context. Ideological effects,
whether oppressive or democratic, emerge through established and linked
practices of production, distribution, and reception that persist quite stubbornly
and which the concept of genre is able to capture. This is lost in the loose
categories and decontextualised examples employed in this book. Also, the
gender politics of these different forms are obscured by the use of “striptease”
to designate both self-revelation through talk and through removing one’s
clothes. Use of the term “voyeurism” across verbal and visual forms renders the
differences immaterial. For example, the professional performances cut into
documentaries about strippers are designed to be erotic and are read as such.
When this is mixed with interview material, the gap between avowed intentions
(giving stigmatised women their own voice) and their effect (soft porn for the
late-night schedules) can be huge and depends on institutionalised reading
practices that are not simply the result of individual taste.
Jane Arthurs, University of the West of England
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118 Book Reviews
Signifying Female Adolescence: Film Representations and Fans, 1920–1950
Georganne Scheiner, 2000
Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT
171 pp., ISBN 0-275-96895-2 (hardback)
The emerging field of Girls’ Studies has grown rapidly during the last
decade and has produced some outstanding work in many branches of the social
sciences and humanities. Georganne Scheiner’s Signifying Female Adolescence is a
solid addition to the still-short list of “big books” to be published in this
field—not in terms of its size (it’s a slim volume), but in terms of its ambitions.
Taking as its premise the familiar assertion that “films not only reflect culture,
they help to create it” (3), this book studies how mainstream American film has
reflected and created its nation’s discourses surrounding adolescent girls. Sur-
veying Hollywood films from the flapper-dramas of the 1920s through the
bobby-soxer comedies of the late 1940s, Scheiner provides the first substantial
overview of how America has historically imagined its teenage daughters on
film. A second concern of hers is to trace the ways in which girl audiences
“talked back” to these mediated images of themselves, through fan practices
which, she argues, allowed girls to resist and expand definitions of femininity,
and of fandom, that construct both identities as passive.
This dichotomy of focus between adults’ production and girls’ consumption
poses some problems, because either goal is substantial enough to fill a book by
itself; tackling both sometimes hinders Scheiner from thoroughly theorizing or
teasing-out the contradictions and paradoxes that emerge when we consider
what filmic texts signify among competing communities of consumers and
producers, adults and children. Additionally limited by the paucity of extant
evidence for audience-reception, Scheiner nonetheless uses available sources
responsibly and creatively, as when she scours the letters columns of girls’
magazines for clues about how young female consumers responded to popular
films, and what sorts of agency those responses represent. Her final chapter
focuses specifically on a single test-case, an international fan club for teen actress
Deanna Durbin in the 1930s and 1940s, which provides highly original and
intriguing information about young audiences’ uses of film to assist their
subjectivity-formation. The evidence she uncovers from this obscure pocket of
cultural history suggests how much work lies ahead for scholars similarly
interested in uncovering the histories of cinema fandom and of girls’ everyday
lives. This chapter also crystallizes Scheiner’s most consistent argument: that
teenage girls—both on film, and in real life—find overt and covert methods for
“carving out a cultural space” for themselves, a term she uses frequently
throughout.
Arranged chronologically, the book treats each decade between 1920 and 1950
as a discrete entity and a separate chapter; in each, Scheiner establishes historical
context for the material conditions of girls’ lives, and then provides overviews
of how girls were represented on screen in that decade, highlighting some links
and contradictions between the two. Her summaries of films’ themes in each
decade are exhaustive and accurate, and provide other scholars with a wealth of
information on which to base their own inquiries (with one unfortunate caveat—
there are occasional misspellings of personal names and source titles, which can
cause headaches when one researches these terms). Especially useful and orig-
inal is Scheiner’s lengthy filmography. This is the kind of information that is
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Feminist Media Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1 119
necessary to establish a field of inquiry, the leg-work of naming and compiling
which gives future scholars a foundation from which to start. Most of the films
that Scheiner names are not available on commercial video, which makes
particularly useful the primary research she conducted in film archives; she has
documented patterns of representation that would otherwise have stayed largely
unrecognized, and unrecognizable.
Scheiner states in her introduction that “this is an historian’s look at film and
culture” (4), which gives fair warning to cultural-studies scholars that they will
not find in these pages the analysis they might wish for. While she logically and
consistently lays out excellently detailed evidence, Scheiner does not ask of her
materials the kinds of questions that would lead to an overarching interpretation
of change over time. For example, while fears of young girls’ sexuality is a
constant theme in American history during the decades Scheiner analyzes, the
presentation of that concern in films changes starkly: in the 1920s, sexually
delinquent girls appeared in the genre of melodrama; in the 1930s, such girls
disappear from the screen almost completely, replaced by little angels and Miss
Fix-Its; in the 1940s the threat of girls’ sexual delinquency resurfaced as a joke,
represented in lighthearted domestic comedies where the delinquency turned
out to be an empty threat, and the girls remained “good” after all. The
differences in how Hollywood saw its own relationship to real social anxieties
(mirroring them in one decade; ignoring them in the next; neutralizing them in
the next), are astounding facts that beg for some interpretation with recourse to
theories of culture, gender, and media. “But why?” is a question that haunts the
reader throughout, even while we realize the unfairness of the question, for
Scheiner never claims to make “why” part of her scope.
Scheiner promises an historian’s overview of cinematic representations of
girls, placed within the historical contexts of material conditions, and this she
admirably delivers. It will be up to future scholars of girlhood and media to
pursue a fuller understanding of American cinema’s constructions of adolescent
femininity, and of girls’ own reactions to those constructions. In those future
projects, Scheiner’s book will be an indispensable foundational text.
Ilana Nash, Mount Holyoke College
Latino/a Popular Culture
Michelle Habell-Palla´n and Mary Romero (eds.), 2002
New York University Press, New York and London
280 pp., ISBN 0-8147-3624-6 (hardback)
At a time when George W. Bush is presenting Americans to the world as
unvarying in their US allegiance and patriotic eagerness to make war in the
Middle East, Latino/a Popular Culture offers a most welcome, politically engaged
and anti-imperialist, alternative view of America and its populations. This
collection of essays examines the complexity of Latino/a identity in North
America in the context of both homogenising mass media images and the
alternative images emerging from Latino/a cultural production. The volume
asks questions about the “sharp distinctions” (5) between high-profile Latino/a
media personalities such as Geraldo Rivera and Jennifer Lopez and the realities
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120 Book Reviews
for many Latino/as who are denied legal status in the US and who face an
increasingly militarised border zone and treacherous journey across the border
to find work. The editors ask “[h]ow do the symbolic embrace of and dance with
Ricki Martin … by the leader of the nation (and the so-called free world)
contradict and mask the nation’s current and historical record of treatment
towards Latinos at home and abroad?” (1).
Latino/a Popular Culture also presents the heterogeneous character of the Latino
communities in the US who “bob and weave between solidarity and distinction”
(4), sharing a history of colonialism and the stark economic reality of the North
American Free Trade Agreement as a point of unity among different groups. But
the essays also demonstrate the different cultural identities, histories, and
politics to be found among different communities and within them. It explores
the relationship between these (shifting) cultural identities and various forms of
popular culture covering four areas: the media, music, theatre and art, and
sports. Yet there are themes that emerge repeatedly in the essays and crucially,
is the question of the Mexican—American border.
For instance, one of the strongest essays in the book is Josh Kun’s analysis of
MTV and the border music band “Tijuana NO!”. Kun argues that “born and
nurtured within the Tijuana—San Diego Borderlands, Tijuana No! concocts
antigovernment, anti-U.S., anti-imperialist, anti-PRI antiracist, anti-NAFTA, pro-
immigrant, pro-Zapatista, proanarchy punk explosives and throws them at
anyone who might, on the off chance, have anything to do with power” (105).
However, Kun points out that the band is also signed to a pro MTV German
label, BMG International, and the band’s videos are screened on MTV Latin
America. But instead of considering this situation a “grand contradiction,” Kun
sees it as a “strategy, a tactic of refusal launched from within the very circuits
of commerce itself” (107). For Kun, Tijuana NO! produces “subversive noise” by
disrupting global marketing definitions of the “local” in rigid national terms.
The band emphasise their identity as “frontizeros” (border citizens) who “refute
the policing and militarization of the U.S.—Mexico border” and who redefine
citizenship “outside of the strictly mapped national formations” and “in opposi-
tional relationship to the modes of citizenship offered and catalogued by
dominant culture” (109).
Kun examines the band’s anti-imperialist politics vis-a`-vis the US, but he also
demonstrates how the band defies the problematic nationalism that often hides
behind a larger imperialism. For instance, the band supports Eje´cito Zapatista de
Liberacio´ n Nacional’s declaration of war against the Mexican Government, and
Kun argues that Tijuana NO! gives us images of “Mexican nationalism as a
corrupt, weak face hiding behind a mask of U.S.-financed lies” and of Mexican
campesinos who “pledge allegiance to a transational, global network of their own,
the worldwide movement for indigenous rights and revolution” (114).
However, Kun’s critical analysis of Latino nationalisms is one of the excep-
tions, rather than the rule, to this volume. Some of the other essayists write from
inside a problematic nationalism instead of analysing their relationship, not only
to US imperialism, but to subordinated populations on both sides of the border.
My favourite essay in the volume though, deals with the question of national
identification in a highly sophisticated manner. Frances Negro´ n-Muntaner’s
analysis of the controversy surrounding the 1997 launching of the Puerto Rican
Barbie is an outstanding piece. Negro´ n-Muntaner argues that the toy caused the
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Feminist Media Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1 121
most furious debates on Puerto Rican identity and popular culture since West
Side Story. US-based Puerto Ricans considered the doll as a “Trojan horse of
identity destruction” while Island intellectuals and consumers “gleefully em-
braced” her. Negro´ n-Muntaner explains the “skirmish” by suggesting that “each
community used Barbie to tease out its location regarding its disenfranchised
colonial status, both avowed (most U.S. Puerto Ricans) and disavowed (most
Islanders)” (40). For US-based Puerto Ricans, the Barbie incorrectly represented
Puerto Rican ethnicity as white (even the Barbie box implies that Puerto Ricans
were descended from the Spanish) and Negro´ n-Muntaner produces a highly
engaging account of the (historic) symbolic importance of hair and the contem-
porary importance of the Barbie commodity to argue that it is not the colour of
the dolls skin, but the texture of her hair which was crucial in terms of indicating
her (authentic or inauthentic) ethnicity. For Negro´ n-Muntaner, “Puerto Ricans in
The United States have traditionally visualized themselves as “of color” in the
struggle for enfranchisement” (42) and so Barbie could only be authentic if she
was wavy-haired and mulatto. In examining the Island embrace of the doll,
Negro´ n-Muntaner offers a very interesting analysis of el jibaro–“the mythical
nineteenth-century mountain dwelling, white Spanish creolized peasant” (45) on
whom the Barbie was actually modelled. This figure becomes important in
Puerto Rico’s sense of imagined national identity both because the figure is
white (but not Anglo) and because it is passive (in contrast to the combative
working class that replaced it). Thus, for Island Puerto Ricans, the Barbie’s
jibararisma is a comforting symbol of an unchanging and authentic nation hiding
the reality of Puerto Rico’s colonial status and the increasing Americanisation of
the Island’s elite population. By interrogating both positions, Negro´ n-Muntaner
demonstrates the persistence of problematic national myth-making in the con-
text of US imperialism.
These two essays are the highlights of what is high-quality collection of
scholarship on Latino popular culture. Well informed, and extremely readable,
Latino/a Popular Culture is a much needed addition to a discipline whose
Anglocentrism has only recently begun to be questioned.
Milly Williamson, London Metropolitan University
The Cyborg Experiments: The Extensions of the Body in the Media Age
Joanna Zylinska, 2002
Continuum, London
256 pp., ISBN 0-8264-5903-X (hardback)
The Cyborg Experiments is an edited collection of theoretical studies on the
works of Orlan and Stellarc. It also includes interviews with the performers, and
further reflections on practice from those who have worked with them. As a way
of bringing together the issues and a focused debate from both critics and
practitioners it is a successful collection. It is required reading for anyone
studying these performers specifically and it also explores digital aesthetics more
widely, opening up theoretical links across the terrain of bodies/digital aesthet-
ics and performance.
Joanna Zylinska introduces the collection by using Marshall McLuhan to set
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122 Book Reviews
up the debates which follow. This introductory section also highlights the two
main strengths of the collection which are, on the one hand, the synthesis of
performative and academic writing it provides and on the other, the focus that
such a concentrated collection allows. The first two parts, “The Cyborg Links”
and “The Obsolete Body?,” focus primarily on Stellarc. “Part 3: Self-Hybridis-
ation” focuses on Orlan. These sections include pieces by Stellarc and Orlan as
well as Rachel Armstrong who has collaborated with Orlan.
The concluding section of the book, “Part 4: Aesthetics and Ethics: Technologi-
cal Perspectives,” uses the issue of ethics in a productive way. Chris Hables
Grey, Jay Prosser, and Joanna Zylinska contribute to this section by producing
a synthesis of aesthetics, ethics, and prosthetics. This is the strongest part of the
collection and successfully opens up the performances of Orlan and Stellarc and
the discourses surrounding them to offer modes of change and movement,
introducing new ways of thinking through body/prosthetic dynamics. A situ-
ated ethics is considered and a committed, well-developed set of arguments
arises from this section. It is this part of the collection that creates a sense that
the figuration of the cyborg remains an important, overused, but still under-ex-
plored terrain. It also genuinely offers a way of thinking through the dualisms
that haunt many other discussions of the trans and post human.
As discussed, there are distinct highlights to the collection overall. However,
the earlier parts of the collection often seem reductive. Several of the chapters
fall into the category of argument which either attempts to prove that Stellarc/
Orlan embody a new subjectivity or to prove that they do not. These debates
also seem to fall into a further reductionism over whether that new subjectivity
is defined as “post” or “trans” human. These debates have been in circulation for
some time and the earlier part of this collection does not move them on.
Feminist critiques of the body are used to situate Orlan and Stellarc through-
out The Cyborg Experiments but they do not appear here with the strength that
they could. There is also a relative absence of Queer Theory, particularly in
relation to transgender, which would perhaps be able to open up some of the
challenges posed by cyborgian practices more successfully. A consequence of
this is that “the body” re-appears as a universalising trope to represent hu-
manity as against the machine, and earlier parts of the book seem to re-inscribe
the Cartesian dualism they seek (presumably) to critique. In these earlier
sections the text is also highly problematic, sometimes re-inscribing and often
reducing that which it critiques.
However, overall, The Cyborg Experiments is a focused and interesting collec-
tion that is relevant to performance studies and digital aesthetics and it also
informs debates around subjectivity and identity. It could best be described as
a reader that informs research in these fields, most saliently through the
discussion of ethics in the final section of the collection.
Kate O’Riordan, University of Sussex

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