Voyou Désœuvré

Katy Perry's 50s cheesecake aesthetic cites a particular construal of pornography. 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; its 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) ?


  1. Jonathan M, 2:17 am, October 5, 2010

    It’s social semiotics isn’t it?

    Lads mags are for people who don’t necessarily buy porn but like to think that they’re the kind of person who would buy porn and read it on the tube. It’s all about broadcasting a sense of self, which is kind of what consumerism is all about.

    Agree with you about Perry being asexual though. Much like Gaga except where Gaga is kind of a manifestation of the dehumanised nature of fashion, Perry’s more like a riff on Amelie: whimsical prettiness.

  2. wedge, 11:25 am, October 6, 2010

    Perry – and lad mags – are for those who feel they should participate in our ‘hyper-sexualised’ culture, but probably wouldn’t if left to their own ‘unmarketed’ devices. What really engages their libido are the articles about football, gangsters and war. I’m sure many lad mag readers would feel somewhat queasy at the variety of vaginas, or indeed mention of erections, in hard/softcore magazines.

    In earlier generations, these men could find an identity or social space that actively ignored the ‘sexualised’. However, now the market penetrates everything, they have to participate. ‘Boobs’ are the safe option.

  3. echeneida, 4:32 pm, October 6, 2010

    Wedge, I’m sort of baffled by your assertion that people consume lad mags INSTEAD OF BangBus videos. I guess I’ll take your word for it, but it’s sort of surprising if true.

  4. zstc, 5:32 am, October 8, 2010

    Great analysis and KP’s strangely antiseptic and unerotic sexiness is brilliantly described. But I wonder if there’s something missing here to do with age… Nuts/Zoo present themselves as the magazine of the young adult male, but aren’t they really aimed at and consumed by, young adolescent males? Same way that Just 17’s readership was typically younger, 14-15yo? Not every 12-15yo boy has unfettered access to internet & its porn mines, so Nuts/Zoo represent a more easily available soft version. Might also be something in performance (without substance) of porn for that age group – buying it, reading it visibly signifying a state of post-pubescence… in a more acceptable form than sitting on a bus to school studying the pages of Hustler.

  5. wedge, 5:48 pm, October 8, 2010

    I reckon there’s very different ‘libidinal’ urges in consuming them. Porn is to alienate readers/viewers via personal arousal, lad mags are to make their readers belong via an assumed consensus of ‘what men want’.

  6. wedge, 2:31 pm, October 10, 2010

    This is definitely the case with those ridiculous ‘Sexiest women in the world’ lists, which easily-named (and marketed) ‘brands’ like Perry usually top.

    I heard that many of these lists are compiled mainly by gay male staff, but that could just be a rumour.

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