Open an academic tome analyzing the role of black women in pornography and you may expect major criticism of the industry and the women who work in it. You know, complaints of how it exploits women, perpetuates stereotypes, and how the majority of the women working in it are doing so out of desperation and limited options.
In A Taste for Brown Sugar, all of those issues are acknowledged and given their due, but author Mireille Miller-Young — an associate professor of feminist studies at the University of California — argues that despite being a minority in an already maligned industry, and having to represent many of the worst racial stereotypes around sex, black female per- formers have always given the viewer signs of agency and degrees of control, while subverting their confines in the porn industry through their individual performances.
Miller-Young shows this by analyzing pornographic film or stills featuring black actresses, searching for any interventions on the presented narrative, whether it be a knowing glance, a satirical look or a tender moment during a scene. She also interviews women who’ve performed in the industry from the 1980s to present, which is where the work really delivers its most unique insights. Many performers explained how they negotiated their radicalized portrayals even within their stereotypical roles: “If they wanted the maid, I was going to look good!” starlet Angel Kelly told the author. “I was not going to be the rundown, Aunt Jemima-looking maid.”
Beyond these revelations, Miller-Young’s work is one of the first to chronicle of the rise of the porn industry from the turn of the 20th century to the present from the African-American perspective. She moves from stag films shown in frat houses and men’s clubs to the golden age of porn in the 1970s and finally, the influence of hip-hop and gangster rap on the marketing of porn featuring black performers.
Readers may recognize a constant fluidity, as the push-pull of negotiated labour boundaries are constantly being adjusted and then readjusted even within the racist stereotypes being perpetuated. Miller-Young even begins to suggest that within the porn industry, black women have more sexual freedom and control of how bodies are used and depicted than they do in mainstream society.
If there’s one sticking point here, it’s that the language used in this work is too academic to hold one’s interest long-term. Your eyes may glaze over at certain points, which is unfortunate because there’s a valid, believable argument here that’s creatively and compellingly presented. It just may have worked better as a documentary. (Aaron Broverman)