Debating pornography in two dimensions

Wednesday, December 11, 1991

Masterpieces
By Sarah Daniels
A Small House Productions play
At the Athenaeum II in Melbourne until December 14
Reviewed by Pip Hinman

At a time when the exploitation and degradation of women's bodies in advertising, films and magazines seems to be reaching record levels, this production, written in 1985 by English playwright Sarah Daniels, is a fiery contribution to the discussion on pornography and violence against women.

Masterpieces portrays a direct relationship between pornography and violence. This is also the line being pushed today (albeit hypocritically) in the mass media. Simon Mann in the Age's Tempo magazine on November 27, for instance, cites evidence from studies in the United States and Australia to "prove" that an increase in the sale of pornographic material directly corresponds to an increase in rape.

But Masterpieces relies too much on a rather exaggerated characterisation of gender roles and ignores a host of complexities involved in the pornography debate. Daniels' script stirs audience emotions in a heavy-handed way. While the director says that the play is not anti-male, all the male characters are misogynists. Instead of aiming its fire at the kings and queens of the billion dollar porn industry, Masterpieces makes you feel that all men are to blame.

The plot revolves around Rowena, an unbelievably naive social worker whose closest friend Yvonne shows her the sort of porno material she has to deal with in the classroom. At the same time as Yvonne is trying unsuccessfully to convince the male headmaster to have the material banned from school, a pupil is raped.

Rowena's shock at these events prompts her to question her own husband Trevor's attitudes to pornography and women. A dispute erupts between the two with Rowena arguing for the need for censorship. Trevor protests that the Nazis burned books too, but his blatant sexism prevents the debate developing.

The play's emotionalism is taken a step further as Rowena is charged with murder because she pushes a man who appears to be harassing her at a railway station under an oncoming train. Even if this wasn't an act of self-defence, Daniels seems to be asking us, wasn't Rowena's action justified? To underscore the message, we find out that this incident takes place just after Rowena has seen a snuff movie.

Pornography is violence Yvonne concludes at the end of the play. Nowhere in Masterpieces is there any attempt to canvass the cost of giving the state more control over people's lives.

Author Lynne Segal is one of many feminists who has campaigned against the use of censorship to tackle misogynist representations of women. She argues that censorship will not solve the fundamental societal problems of which pornography is just a symptom. Rather it will dramatically increase the power of the state and the moral Right. Segal examines recent psychological experimental research dealing with this issue and concludes that none has so far established a direct link between violent pornography and violence against women.

Segal asks, "Should we not tackle all sexist and racist representations of women, rather than reduce these to the explicitly sexual and call upon what are probably spurious connections between pornography and violent behaviour?".

Her point is that society constantly portrays women as fetishised objects for male consumption and that pornography is far from unique in distorting and repackaging human emotions.

Segal says that if the feminist rejection of pornography is to be more than the projection and denial of our own anxieties and confusion about sex, we need to look more critically upon and create our own alternative forms of representation and media production. "Feminist campaigns focussed solely upon pornography cannot pursue this wider goal. Indeed insofar as they seek increased legal restrictions upon explicitly sexual representations, they are likely to distort and undermine such objectives, strengthening the moral right which would seek to ban feminist, lesbian and gay erotica."

From GLW issue 39