G-Spot: Hipsters and the emergence of altporn
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Under harsh, clinical lighting, with a background cloaked in darkness, a zaftig, heavily tattooed woman fellates an enormous and alarmingly hairless penis. The hairless penis ejaculates, and a ominous computer voice intones that dribbling cum stains resemble "writing in Arabic, or sometimes Sanskrit." As the woman stares at the cum, the voice dramatically pronounces that "if she could learn to read that writing, she would know her ... entire ... future." The penis writes a tiny bit more Sanskrit, and the scene fades to black.
What is this? It's not Andy Warhol's Blow Job (1963). It's the opening blow-job scene from a movie called Hospital, produced by Vivid Alt, an imprint of the mainstream porn production studio Vivid. Vivid Alt produces alternative pornography, or "subcultural erotica." Altporn is, on a basic level, porn that features models who are representatives of real-life subcultures like goth, punk, rave, emo, rockabilly, and hipster. Instead of buxom blondes who appear to have traipsed out of the Playboy Mansion on a cloud of pink boas, altporn features models who are often tattooed, pierced, and generous with the DIY Manic Panic hair dye. In a weird porn-imitating-life-imitating-porn switch, two big stars of altporn, Sasha Grey and Charlotte Stokely, currently star in campaigns for American Apparel.
Alternative porn is nothing new, at least not since the advent of the Internet. While magazines like Hustler and Playboy have formulated the aesthetic of mainstream print pornography, the Internet created a democratic space inside which divergent interpretations of sexuality could be easily presented. Blue Blood is generally credited as launching counterculture erotica in 1992 with the glossy, erotic zine that featured punks, goths, and erotic fiction. But Altporn did not take hold on a large scale until the late 1990s with Web sites like GothicSluts and EroticBPM. By the time alt-erotica site SuicideGirls appeared in 2001 (not quite full-blown porn, but a contributor to the altporn genre just the same), altporn was a full-fledged subset of porn. Today there are hundreds of altporn Web sites, with names like Crazybabes, Burning Angel, Broken Dollz, Razor Dolls, Supercult, and DeviantNation.
For Eon McKai, founder of Vivid Alt, porn is an intensely personal form of expression. "I'd say at no time especially at Vivid Alt no one is told to make a certain type of movie that isn't coming from some place inside of them." McKai states that he and other altporn directors are merely "expressing the aesthetic that they find in their life, that they live in their life." In fact, many people involved in the altporn industry believe that what they are creating is a meaningful form of personal expression. Most people involved in altporn view their work as fundamentally different than mainstream pornography. Cutter, of AltPorn.net, explains, "AltPorn makes the trends and porn-porn tends to follow them. Traditional porn is conservative in a weird insular way. It tends to copy outside things." Cutter doesn't think that altporn appropriates or copies from existing subcultures. He and others view altporn as being organic, DIY, independent, and fundamentally authentic.
All alternative subcultures are inherently interested in the notion of authenticity, and particularly in determining that which constitutes genuine membership into the group. Maintaining authenticity is a crucial part of how subcultures survive. Because subcultures are groups that are in part defined by their opposition to the mainstream, they are innately concerned with the "authentic" or original moment of resistance. Members of the altporn community are just as interested in the notion of genuine membership as the subcultures they depict. Eon McKai vehemently appeals, "We are a part of the subcultures that we represent, so if you look at the people who are behind it, I think you'll find that they are pure to the street, and everything is authentic and this is who we are. We are just making porn about it, and this happens to be who we are. It's really artist and filmmakers who make porn who are really expressing the aesthetic that they find in their life, that they live in their life." But what, really, is authentic porn? Isn't a bona fide cumshot enough to prove authenticity? Eon McKai's own name is a point toward the absurd, as his moniker is a play on the name Ian McKaye, the Fugazi and Minor Threat frontman who was a leader of the straight-edge movement that rejects alcohol, drugs, and casual sex.
From what I gathered from those in the altporn community, authenticity necessitates that creators of altporn be actual members of the subcultures they represent on camera. Smith elaborates, "All the originators in this genre were driven to create sexual media that appealed to their own community and their own communities' aesthetics. So, the goths created goth erotica and the punks created punk erotica and the ravers created raver erotica. So, on an aesthetic level, altporn offers an alternative look, as well as the community interactivity, to prove it's authenticity." Whether they are "true" punks, goths, or hipsters, shouldn't really matter if the work speaks for itself, right?
It wasn't until after I watched hipster porn videos like Sugar Town and Honey Bunny that I realized why altporn needs to paint itself as authentic. Smith puts it best when he says, "Without genuine subcultural attributes, it quickly becomes self parody." For porn that banks on its subcultural attributes, being perceived as inauthentic means dismissed as a joke. Of all forms of cinema, porn with its skeletally thin plots, poverty of character development, and cheap production values is most vulnerable to lampoon. For those who have ever watched porn, I am sure you know that embarrassed, cringey, oh-my-god-ew feeling of watching a particularly ludicrous moment in any scene. That feeling is magnified tenfold when watching a hipster porno that features stars discussing Sartre while wearing nothing but tube socks, such as in Honey Bunny.
While altporn might have originated under the auspice of DIY amateurism, it has proven to be lucrative and, as a result, has carved a niche for itself in the porn market. Because of the push to earn money, altporn has become less concerned with representing certain aesthetics than it is with latching on to new trends and then marketing them to get more customers. Annaliese of Gods Girls reflects, "I think that altporn will always be a representation of what is in-the-now for the customer that it is appealing to, the models that it features and the culture that it represents. The Y generation are furious followers of now trends in fashion, art, music, film, etc., and our site is a reflective of those nuances. Altporn will go where ever the models go and will evolve as the culture evolves. I personally see fewer and fewer applications from stereotypically 'goth' models, so perhaps that look has become less trendy." What's the next big thing in altporn? Hipsters.
It seems like everything is getting hipstered out these days. From clothing to music to even the rebranding of the Pepsi logo, everything is getting a hipster makeover. Porn is no exception. If you look at the logo for Vivid Alt, you'll notice that it's tricked out to resemble an Urban Outfitters catalog. In the videos, the actresses are decked out in American Apparel. Hipster culture subsumes and dismantles the aesthetics of popular culture, appropriates its sincerity, and transforms it into a pastiche of irony. Likewise, hipster porn subsumes and dismantles the aesthetics of hipster culture, appropriates its irony, and transforms it into something utterly sincere: porn. For what can be more sincere than a cumshot? Is it possible to get ironic oral? Hipsters belong to a subculture that is incredibly concerned with image and with defining, controlling, and protecting that image. They can now watch as their vaingloriously crafted personae are subsumed by the porn industry and transformed into fetish. How ironic.