I feel like the sign of a great non-fiction work is ending up in deep rabbit holes and exploring the references and footnotes in it. Alice in Pornoland: Hardcore Encounters with the Victorian Gothic by Laura Helen Marks is an amazing buffet of rabbit holes: erotica theory, media studies, histories (both well-known and generally invisiblized), queer theory, sociology, pleasure activism and literary scholarship are all here.
The book itself is a fascinating exploration of the porning (creating pornographic versions of texts that originally weren’t “erotic”; i.e. porno parodies that reimagine “Batman” as “Buttman”, minus the camp satire) of such works as Alice in Wonderland, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Dracula, etc. In the book, Marks does fantastic work in working through the cultural meanings, contexts and histories of porning of these Victorian works and why it occurs in the first place. What do our imaginings and retellings of Victorian sexuality mean about our current culture’s sexuality? How have the porn creators used it to examine / work with / re-imagine gender, romantic orientations, sexualities, and racialized histories of trauma? How does subversion through adult films as about the past create futurist spaces? Or, if you want to sneakily hook your friends into reading it (like I did), just text them “Want some A+ scholarship on hardcore vampire porn??”
Even the side explorations around the topics are great. Two that really caught me were: 1) a discussion of a film where a “hysterical” woman needs to access her masculinity by pegging The Good Doctor who’s supposed to be “curing” her. “Victorian Medicine” and institutional power all exposed, subverted, and flipped. 2) A true piece of history on how photography and the printing press made government officials afraid that easy access to erotic materials would create “…An over stimulated and uncontrollable public.” That that refrain is not new, is really both heartening and saddening.
Importantly, the adult films that the author samples present a fairly wide range of the porn spectrum: queer, straight, vanilla, kink, period pieces, and ones that are contemporary but draw on Victorian texts and reframe them. It is really heartening to see that Marks is directly looking into genres of porn that are often marginalized in research. The variety and quality in the sample show that they have really put in the work to understand the subject matter and give space for the conversation that’s happening between the pieces as well. Marks’s work also serves to highlight the invisible histories caught on film and, through this, preserve them and help wider audiences engage with them.
Exploring these reimagined histories all naturally leads to very important implied reflective questions: What erotic materials do I consume? What does it mean about my world that this is erotic, shocking, repelling, funny, or enticing? Ultimately, where do I fit in with the history of humans and sexuality? It’s a really cool opportunity to look at ourselves in and out of costume, with monsters, through key holes, and figure why we’re here in the first place.
Guest Posted and Written by Mike Reisner, LMHC, director of education for the Center. Currently he is serving as a BIPOC-focused clinical counselor at Marist College; additionally specializing in supporting people who identify as LGBTQIAA+, on the autism spectrum, having medical needs or are differently physically-abled. In the rest of the world he is a Queer Brujx, a physical and digital artist, and a decolonizing former baker who makes the world’s best cookies in between reading weird books and playing indie table top RPGs.
Graphics and light edits by Larissa Farrell (she/her) and Social Media Coordinator Victoria Reuveni (she/her).