Attwood, F. (2002) 'A very British carnival: Women, sex and transgression in Fiesta magazine', in European Journal of Cultural Studies, 5 (1) 91 - 105.
This piece offers a close textual analysis of the British downmarket soft pornographic magazine Fiesta. Attwood is keen to test the usual views about pornography, that it represents male power over women on the one hand, but a transgression and reworking of sexual norms on the other. Both analyses need to be further grounded in actual texts, which pay attention not only to visual imagery, but text and 'sensibility' (ways of "speaking sex") (92).
Pornography usually attracts critical attention because of its low qualities, its tendencies to arouse to move the body and elicit vulgar pleasures [strong hints of, but no actual reference to Bourdieu here]. Thus 'sophistication and intellect' are displaced by 'excess, thrills and fun' (93) and an association with working class pleasures. Such an association has led some analysts to see it as potentially transgressive or carnivalesque, with its insistence on the body and its attempt to reject official hierarchies. In Britain specifically, there has long been a 'bawdy tradition' represented by seaside postcards, Carry On... films, pantomime and funfairs. The characteristics of Carry On... films have been identified by Jordan: '"grotesque exaggeration and repetition"... stereotypes; rude puns, a "masculine view of the world", an anti-work, anti middle-class, anti education stance...and an "insistence on sexuality, physicality and fun"' (93). They also display anxieties about male sexuality, where men are foolish and impotent, and easily dominated by women. Attwood finds traces of this tradition in Fiesta as well, leading to the possibility that 'Pornography and other bawdy traditions may embody a masculine view of the world, but they may also mock and undermine it' (94).
It is difficult to generalise about pornography. It may take a medicalised form as in Forum, an upmarket one as in Mayfair, or a more downmarket version such as Fiesta. There may be international differences as well, between say Fiesta and the American Hustler (94) [see Kipnis on Hustler in Grossberg, L., Nelson. G. and Treicher, P (eds) (1992) Cultural Studies, London: Routledge]. Fiesta clearly borrows from a number of British downmarket texts. It does express transgression but in a 'rather playful, awkward and self-conscious manner', and tries to maintain links with 'an imaginary "every day" world' (95). This gives it a cosy domestic form, and a certain apologetic tone -- it transgresses but has a '"not-meant-to-be-seen" quality' (95). Sex is vulgar and naughty, but a private matter, with few public, political implications.
These remarks are supported with an analysis of the visual style of Fiesta and its general mode of address, including the way it permits readers to contribute (via the notorious feature 'Readers' Wives"). There are no fantasy worlds. Instead, models appear 'in the most mundane settings; living rooms, bedrooms, front drives, amongst roadsweeping equipment... Sex takes place within the routines of work, domestic and social life, at office parties, in the suburban home, at friends' houses' (97). The action itself may be carnivalesque, but everyday reality is not transcended. It is transfigured, however, rendered as a series of opportunities for sex and laughs in a way which is both 'utopian and vulgar' (97).
The everyday life depicted is in fact a nostalgic one, built with lots of references to popular television, or seaside postcards, or vulgar British comedy. Mockery of the male body is a common feature. So is mockery of romance, beauty and eroticism -- always reduced to basics. In this way sex is brought down to earth, made ordinary and easily available. However, there is little sign of an assertion of any alternative -- "its self-conscious naughtiness and obvious anxieties about female pleasure hardly suggest repression cast aside' (98). Indeed, the fun is hard to separate from guilt.
Fiesta depicts women as having real bodies rather than idealized ones, and as being sexually insatiable. There is also a strange inclusiveness, especially with Readers Wives. All and any type of women can be included, since women are 'always and only ever sexual' (99). This offers some evidence for the dissolving of conventional categories and boundaries, including the 'conventional significance of the heterosexual couple', and 'ideals of domesticity and romance ' (99), but at the price of reducing women to sexual activity. Women share with men an enthusiasm for sex, but there are some gender differences in the letters, which invite male activity and female passivity. Male dominance and female submission are not major themes, however -- as with all sexual utopias, Fiesta seems to believe they will never happen (in real life). Women are both a form of escape into pleasure-seeking, and an object for 'fearfulness and distaste' (100), as in the conventional use of women as 'representational currency '(100).
There is a lot of 'dirty talk' in Fiesta, partly because explicit visuals would be illegal in Britain. Much of the talks seems to follow the classic work on pornographic narratives -- climaxes, for example are delivered regularly and economically (phone advertisements ask readers to '"Phone, wank, spurt"' (101)). However, visuals are not dominant, not involving the mechanisms of scopophilia: instead, the attempt is made to describe sexual feeling. Talk takes full advantage of innuendo, double entendre and other bawdy devices. It attempts plain and vivid explanations, describing sex as a 'tactile and noisy practice firmly rooted in flesh... [a]... carnivalesque poetry of the body which celebrates its rudeness, is gushing, slurping, grunting and panting' (102). This sex talk 'comes to signify real sex' (102) and to bridge the reader into activities such as phone sex which is advertised in the magazine too. This talk clearly draws upon the ambivalences of British bawdiness mentioned above -- innuendo and double entendre, for example, reveal the sexual, but also render it as 'actually improper, comical, naughty, guilt-ridden' (102).
The figure of the reader's wife is particularly significant here, as representing both the sexual and the everyday. It is liberating and transgressive that ordinary women are allowed to express their sexual desires, yet the feature only offers imaginary access to such women.
Men and women are treated differently in the way in which they are allowed to speak in the magazine -- women are only allowed to confess, while men's opinions are valued as plain speech. Thus although women's pleasure is depicted, it is still seen as outrageous, and is as misunderstood as in most conventional porn written by and for men. This also provides a limit to the policy of letting women talk about sex -- 'it is ultimately men's talk that is framed as real speech about real sex... [while]... the reader is advised to approach the women's letters with caution' (104). Women are not really meant to appear after all, except as 'fantastic creatures telling fabulous tales. The "mere fact" of female sexual desire is only a dirty joke after all' (104).
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