Now that I think about it, Katy Perry’s unsexy sexyness isn’t so unusual. This presentation of sexuality which is designed to fail is the stock in trade of lads mags like Loaded and Nuts. I’ve noticed this before, but never really thought about it; on reflection, though, it perhaps tells us something about the point of these magazines. While there’s been a fair amount of concern over these magazines as part of a “pornification” of society, I’m not sure that they quite function as “porn,” at least if by porn we mean something intended in a fairly causal way to get people off.
I read somewhere that, when Hugh Heffner first set up Playboy, he intended it solely as a lifestyle magazine, introducing men to fashion, interior design, culture, and other signifiers of the high life. The naked women, supposedly, were added when publishers were worried that a magazine about clothes and furniture would be perceived as too gay to sell. In a somewhat similar way, the pictures of women in lads mags are intended to signify heterosexuality, but to remain solely at the level of signification.
It would be odd, if lads mags were directly porn, for them to have arrived at about the same time that the infinite pornography of the internet was becoming universally available. Where the consumption of internet pornography takes place in private (I assume this is even more true than with pornography on video tapes?), the lads mag is enjoyed in public; it’s function, that is, is homosocial rather than erotic, or homosocial by virtue of being erotic, allowing for bonding via the shared objectification of women. Now, to fulfill this function, lads mags don’t actually need to be arousing, indeed, it’s probably better if they’re not; actual boners would make the homosocial too homoerotic.
So, lads mags are the heir to a long tradition of putting sexy, as it were, in quotation marks, of saying arousing without actually being arousing. It’s an interesting form of performative that is intended to fail; a little like drag, perhaps, although “failure” of the gender performance in drag is more explicit and acknowledged. What, perhaps, made this seem so odd to me in the case of Katy Perry is the move of this kind of porn-in-quotes outside of its traditional location in softcore pornography. Perhaps the increased visibility of pornography with the rise of the internet created an increased space for a discourse that signified porn without quite being it (this would be the sense in which lads mags represent pornification). Is this space now itself becoming oversaturated, leading quote-marks-“porn” to move into different domains, with Katy Perry as its vanguard (there’d be something to be said, here, about her 50s cheesecake aesthetic, and the Cronenbergian horror that is the “California Girls” video) ?