As a college professor and a resident of Durham, NC, I have been following the stories in the local, national, and even international press about the Duke University student known as “Belle Knox” (or “Lauren” in some articles) who has been performing in pornography to pay her tuition. If you’re interested in reading along, you can check out these articles from The Duke Chronicle, WNCN, The News and Observer, The Washington Post blog, The Huffington Post, Gawker.com, and UK’s Independent.
I am fascinated by the articles written about and by this, shall I say “candid,” young woman, who declares her rights to own and display her sexuality. She is repeatedly quoted as saying she does the work to make money to pay for her $60,000+ per year tuition to Duke.
She wrote this blog about her experiences for XOJane, and as a follow-up article, she addresses the responses she received from the first article. In these pieces, Belle Knox asserts her rights to participate in pornography and to own her sexuality. She also responds to the criticism and harassment she has received in response to her story, saying that no one has the right to judge or vilify her.
In Photography, we study the work of Cindy Sherman, who photographs herself in the guises of stereotypical film characters (the housewife, the femme fatale, and the victimized girl of horror movies, for examples), women in art historical portraiture, and mythological, monstrous female forms to critique and parody the representation of a “Woman” across visual culture, specifically as a fantasy persona constructed through the male gaze. Sherman’s strategic role playing in the images articulates the artificiality of her staging and asserts ideas that identity is a performance.
Sherman also makes works that critique the pornography industry specifically. She photographs herself in excessive compositions or uses prosthetic or mannequin bodies to recreate explicit porn-like poses. Her images attempt to frame how these images are staged and strategically non-lifelike.
In Representing Women, we analyze the work of Renee Cox, who also photographs herself in the poses and costumes of various dubious roles for woman. These works satirize and critique the ways women, particularly black women, have been objectified in visual culture historically.
These classes debate how effective Sherman and Cox are in their postmodern parodies. Many students feel these artists are simply contributing to the profusion of visual culture that objectifies women’s bodies. I wondered about the Duke student’s actions and whether they could be thought of as performative acts. Maybe she is working within the system of pornography to expose its problematic history. Perhaps she is acting in the traditions of Feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who was employed as a Playboy Bunny in New York’s Playboy Club in 1963. Steinem then wrote a two part article for Show Magazine exposing how women were treated in the clubs. Here are links to a scanned PDF copy of her essay on the subject and an article about her acts in the New York Times from 1985.
Is Belle Knox doing research for an exposé? Is she gaining experience for the future career goals that she claimed on ABC’s The View, where she stated that she plans to pursue a law degree to advocate for Civil Rights, and particularly women’s rights? Is she a Feminist?
I still have these questions, and found this provocative article, written by Duke professor Robin Kirk, which raises more issues.
In the article, Kirk underscores the role pornography has played in the objectification and abuse of women, historically and specifically on the Duke campus. Pointing to more distinctly Feminist forms of pornography, she questions what is Feminist or even avant-garde about the student’s performance in this media.
My questions mount! I was particularly moved by seeing Belle Knox speak on ABC’s The View on Monday March 17, as she was interviewed by Whoopi Goldberg, Sherry Shepherd, Jenny McCarthy, and Barbara Walters. I was disappointed that no one on the show spoke of Barbara Walters’ own experiences with pornography, or the display of women’s bodies. In 1962, in an act similar to Gloria Steinem’s, Walters was a Playboy Bunny for a day and reported for NBC’s Today Show. Here is an article about the event with a clip of the story.
On The View, the 18 year old student reported that she has made 25-30 films, for which she was paid $1000-$1500 each, and that her parents supported her positions. She also spoke about the hostile reactions of others when her story was exposed: People have declared she should be expelled from Duke, or even raped; she has received thrash thrown at her and numerous death threats. I found her to be very intelligent and eloquent in speaking about her beliefs and defending her actions, as well as every woman’s right to ownership of her sexuality.
The co-hosts were varied in their reactions. Whoopi Goldberg said she understood why the student has said she felt “empowered” by doing the films. Sherry Shepherd, who tends to be the most morally conservative of the group, was almost in tears as she said that her heart broke for the girl and expressed how she would feel if any of her female family members “sold” their sexuality. And although I respect and support many of the Duke student’s positions, I shared Shepherd’s sadness, not from personal or familial experiences of my own, but from thinking about the woman (as well as men, AND children) who have been and continue to be exploited, degraded, and abused in venues of pornography. I would advocate the rights of the Duke student’s and other artists’ and Feminists’ participation in these venues, most especially when their projects intervene on and critique the traditions within they work. And as an educator, I see these acts as stimulating material for conversations and debates about key contemporary issues.
* Update: Condé Nast’s The Scene has produced a 25-minute web documentary about Miriam Weeks and her alter-ego Belle Knox that may be worth a watch: