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The Porn Question

Recently, I heard a very concise objection to pornography while listening to BBC's podcast programme, which went, as far as I remember, that pornography is wrong because it commodifies women. I found that argument very forcible. I do not know how extensive your knowledge of pornography is, but if you have seen what I've glimpsed, believe me, you'll know what I mean. Let me explain.

I once took on a very educational job of writing up short synopses and catch phrases for rental videos, believing it to be a meaningful and useful step in my career as an aspiring translator. The videos unfortunately included porn films. I was usually given copies of their jackets, but sometimes I had to look them up on the internet to gather any available information about their "plots."

It was OK as long as I could laugh about kinky stuff, but it got quite disturbing when I came across some seriously sick ones involving homeless people and rape, to give you some idea. I had to get out of there quickly before I was mentally scarred for life, but sometimes I do wonder if a regular guy, appearing to be completely normal and decent to all intents, may secretly harbour a colourful collection featuring high school girls in tights or much older women in bondage. Or rape-snuff films. I'm sure we're all entitled to our own fetishes and sexual fantasies in private, but these films do appear to treat women not as live human beings with feelings and pain, but as nothing more than pieces of meat.

What should we do about such extreme cases? Ban porns? There's always that argument that atrocious films are the cause of actual crimes. Banning pornography is not likely to eradicate violence against women, but these films certainly seem to abet diseased desire and promote the mindset that women are simply sex toys at your disposal to release your sexual frustration with. But sex is part of our nature; banning pornography, suppressing such a large part of our nature - after all, sexual desire is up there with the need for sleep and the need to eat - seems rather a myopic solution.

Then what are we to do? Should we embrace sexuality and make all-out porns for women? Shall we try and subjugate men to "female gaze," instead? Commodify male bodies? Say, just as men seem to think it their birthright to undress women in their minds while having a conversation with them (who said women are better at multi-tasking?), shall we stare at men's crotches intently until they squirm?

I happened to air that idea to a group of intoxicated women recently, in the course of a conversation on a completely different topic. They were quick to reject it; they insisted that that is not what grabs their attention about men, and that sizes do not matter. It is a widely-accepted pseudo-scientific fact that men are more visual, whereas women are more tactile. Therefore, I guess very explicit porn films catered for female audience would not be box-office smash hits.

So, hard-core porn films that portray men as nothing more than limbs and muscles and sticks and balls wouldn't work for female audience. We need stories. The whole point of it (well, not the whole, but large part of it anyway) is the "leading up to it." That's why most romance novels normally don't start in steamy bed scenes.

Here again, I must admit to some meagre professional knowledge. At one point during my past career struggles, I studied Harlequin romance. It was strictly for work, not for pleasure; however, if you need any pointer, I'd recommend Margaret Moore if you're into historical romance. "The Dark Duke" was quite good though not a Burney or an Austen, of course.

At any rate, as I was saying, the whole building-up to the final culmination is the life and meat of romance novels or chick lit, usually. Unless you want something saucier. Then I'd suggest you try Cheryl Holt. She's in the school of "sex first, talk later," with heroines passionately humping heroes after they barely met, oh and reaching soul-embracing supreme love through carnal knowledge in the process, naturally.

Either way, what is important for female readers is this connection of "souls"; romance has to satisfy their hunger for this ultimate, eternal love, not just bodily desire. Porns may have "plots" too; yet I believe that they are not much more than just settings to suit male audience's fantasy and to arouse their interest. At least, there wouldn't be much danger of the many protagonists finding their soul mate in the victim of rape in the above-mentioned example.

Does this mean that women are made of finer stuff than men? But that is too weak as a conclusion; if anyone happens to be reading this, the reader, of either sex, will immediately raise an objection that that is too obvious. So, let us explore the issue a bit more.

Should we, then, try to elevate men to our standards by promoting porn films of higher quality, whose plots are not mere props for quickly setting the scenes for twisted, potentially criminal fantasies? Is it a matter of creating "female porns"; porn films in which protagonists spend a lot of time being attracted to each other but crossing wires, before they inevitably find the love of their life in each other? Without too much raw visual but with lots of talks of souls, possibly even of reincarnation? In which every casual seductive maneuver on the hero's part is interpreted as a manifestation of his deep, uncontrollable passion and love for the heroine, every careless and meaningless action or lack of it as purposeful rejection ... or do we do that already in real life?

As of this writing, I'm yet to come to a decisive opinion on the matter. As a woman, I cannot swallow the idea of porn films that portray women purely as objects, carved out to your desire. But are we, women, also subjugating men to our desire, commodifying them and moulding them to suit our fantasy as these soulful lovers of our dreams?

The question is, I'm thinking, should men watch more romantic porns in which the hero and the heroine (whether in singular or plural) spend the first hour and a half getting to know each other, only getting down to business in the climax of the final five minutes? Or, should women give more impassioned appraisal of men's crotches, while also paying more attention to their buttocks, biceps and other manly curves? I'm rather inclined to think so. Come to think of it, we have been rather rude, to be so remiss about such male assets, haven't we, ladies?

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No Laughing Matter?

Mr. Tsutomu Yamaguchi, one of the "double atomic bomb survivors" passed away on 4 January, 2010. His extraordinary experience was featured in a comedy quiz show by BBC, aired last December. This programme immediately caused a stir among Japanese viewers, which led BBC to issue apologies a few times. Here's the video-clip of the programme in question.

It may be "bad taste" and "ignorant" as some viewers thought, but it certainly isn't racist in any way, or trying to belittle the tragedy. You can see they are just being British. These men are bursting to say something funny on the topic, but they are not making light of Mr. Yamaguchi's experience or poking fun at atomic bombing itself. As far as I can see, the only offensive moment in the programme was when one of the panel said "his life wasn't curtailed" because he lived to be 93, rather carelessly and dismissively, and Stephen Fry hurriedly murmured "not exactly." If you think he had a jolly good old life, only kicking the bucket at 93, the old dog, then you should've done your homework. Just google "atomic bomb disease/ victims."

Apart from that, I do not find the programme itself particularly offensive (although it is not at all hard to imagine how his family must've felt, watching this programme). I do take issue with BBC's apology, however.

"QI[the comedy quiz show] never sets out to cause offence with any of the people or subjects it covers. However on this occasion, given the sensitivity of the subject matter for Japanese viewers, we understand why they did not feel it appropriate for inclusion in the programme."

This is fine, you may think. A good enough apology on a tricky matter. What seems to be missing in this official comment is the bit about QI frequently taking up European experiences during WWII too, this not being any preferential racist treatment for Japan. Interestingly, this part of the apology, which was reported by a reliable source of Japanese media (Nikkei), cannot be found anywhere else in the English coverage of this fiasco (so that was only my rough translation: the original text from the article was 『第2次大戦中の欧米人の悲惨な経験についてもお笑いクイズ番組で「しばしば取り上げてきた」とし、日本人だけを差別的に扱っているわけではないと釈明している』).

How charmingly condescending, as only Brits can be: "oh we shouldn't have done that. These Japanese, they're so touchy about atomic bombings. We, the mature Europeans, laugh at each other all the time, in fact, even at the Holocaust. That's the extent of our sophistication, it's part of our culture and history. But they'll never get that, will they, because they don't understand the first thing about humour (particularly the British kind)."

Oh, please don't go highbrow on us, BBC, especially with that sad excuse of a second-class comedy quiz show, with a bunch of middle-aged men in Hawaiian shirts trying so hard to be funny, desperate not to be outdone by others. If you need to make some apologetic noises, then please let it be about failing to be funny or provocative.

Granted, laughter has transcending power. To laugh at something means, to some degree, to look at things differently. That is why we can laugh at tragic events; it does not mean we are inhuman monsters who find other people's tragedy funny. We are laughing at something else that humour lets us see in the otherwise unlaughable situation. Laughter offers us a different perspective.

In fact, laughter probably is the only way we can cope with the sheer human misery in some cases. Laughter offers us some escape, as it lets you switch out of your perspective. It allows you to look at your life from outside, which is already some form of relief in itself. While you're laughing, you are outside of your own predicaments; you're no longer trapped in your life. If you can laugh, despite everything, you are OK.

This works on onlookers too; those happy people, who lead comfortable enough life, may be jostled out of their comfort zone when they laugh at something they are not supposed to find funny. It makes them feel uneasy. Laughter can have some disturbing effect, precisely because it sticks the harsh, raw reality of this world in our faces for a split second. Because of this, laughter is, by nature, subversive. In the hands of someone like Dario Fo, it can be made into explosive expressions of anger. But we don't go into that here, to keep it simple.

So, laughter is probably the greatest gift we have (some even claim that it is a specifically human ability to laugh, though I'd argue that that is a particularly human-centric idea and even smacks of imperialism somewhat. How many times have we seen similar scenes in films where the supposedly incomprehensible "natives" make some awkward attempts at jokes to the dumbfounded-and-then-delighted white people, by which we are supposed to understand that they have managed to build some connection because those who have been hardly perceptibly human so far are now shown to be "human"? But I digress).

We can laugh at ourselves, and embark afresh on this thing called life. Or, we can laugh with those afflicted, in our utmost compassion for the fundamental misery of our existence. There should be no taboo for laughter, as long as it is offered in understanding of our fellow beings. Sometimes, all we can do is laugh or cry.

Here's my complaint, BBC; you can laugh at anything you like, but please have the decency to make it funny. (And tread carefully when you apologise.)

I heard a rumour before that James Cameron was planning to make a film about the late Mr. Yamaguchi. While we cannot expect this film to be as irresistibly witty as BBC, we can at least be sure that it will be thoroughly informative, disturbing and deeply moving. I'd very much like to see this film. In 3D, of course.

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