Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Annabel Chong Story

The other day, I watched the documentary 'Sex: The Annabel Chong Story'. It has stayed with me over the past few days and I've felt the need to write about it, but I wasn't sure exactly what it was that was catching me about it. Today I think it has finally crystallized for me.

So first things first. This documentary is actually quite old. It was released in 1999. This just happened to be the first I had heard of it. I happened upon it through some web surfing - someone had mentioned it on a message board. I was familiar with Annabel Chong. She became a huge name in the mid '90's when she set out to make a world record for having sex with the largest number of men at one time. She starred in a movie called 'The World's Biggest Gang Bang' in which she participated in 251 sex acts in 10 hours. This story became a big deal even in the mainstream and Chong was on all kinds of talk shows. The story was particularly hot amongst anti-porn feminists and that's why I knew about it. (sidebar - I was a part of this movement for a short time, having been convinced that all pornography was exploitive of women before I had ever even had the opportunity to look at porn). I had not known about the documentary about Chong but when I found out about it, I wanted to watch it because of what a massive story this had been at the time. She was the subject of much debate and much derision, most of which took place without her presence. I wanted to find out more about who she actually was and how she came to do this thing that became so emblematic of trash porn.

Watching the film didn't answer any of that for me and actually made me feel that I knew even less about her than I did before. It's a confusing and troubling documentary made even more so by the fact that it is poorly made and it's obvious that the film-making had some biases and agendas in the production, although it's not entirely clear what they are.

For the first part of the movie, Annabel, who I will refer to by her real name, Grace Quek, from this point on. Is portrayed as a well-educated, bright, thoughtful young woman from a traditional Singaporean family. She is very sexually inquisitive and adventurous. She appears, at first, to have a lot of comfort, pride, and interest in her body and her sexuality. She says that she got into doing porn because she had fucked everyone there was to fuck at college and she was bored. She figured she might as well get paid to fuck some new people. There are clips of her in anthropology classes talking openly about her involvement in porn and quite eloquently about her perspective on female sexuality both in North America and Singapore. She explains that she feels her involvement in porn is a feminist act because she wants to show that women are sexual, and can be aggressively sexual, not just passive victims. This all seemed very real and convincing to me. I absolutely believe that there are women who participate in porn for these very reasons, are complete knowing agents in what they do, and are not victims in any way.

But that becomes troublesome in Grace's case during the course of the film for two reasons. First, although she talks a lot about her own empowerment and seeing herself as a dominant and strong sexual women, she still portrays herself as a bimbo in the movie clips and particularly in the TV talk show clips we see. Annabel is, of course, her porn persona and not her real self. But if she wants to portray an image of strong female sexuality, why does she act like a giggling airhead on these TV shows? On one clip for a promotion of the upcoming gang bang production, the producer of the video literally parades her around in front of the camera, telling her to take off her clothes and show her ass. She does all of this with a smile and a giggle and not a word. This certainly doesn't challenge any prevailing notions of female sexuality. Perhaps in her mind, it is empowering to her, but it doesn't come off that way in public. I don't know if this indicates that all of her talk is just her own rationalization or if she did that because she couldn't conceive of another way to behave, having never seen it modeled before, or if she was directed to do that. And this is the problem with the film - it doesn't give us any real insight into this.

The second troublesome thing about the film is that it paints this picture of Grace as a likeable, smart women, very much in control of herself and then suddenly turns the tables. After the filming of the gang bang is shown, the film then begins to portray all the darker sides of her life. Grace struggles with money - she was never paid for the gang bang video which went on to become one of the best selling porn videos of all time. She reveals that she was gang-raped in London. She is shown cutting her arms with a knife and explaining that she feels so much pain she needs to let it out. Her mother finds out about her involvement in porn and Grace cries and cries and begs her to forgive her. It's sad and disturbing. It's also extremely confusing because the film-maker does not keep a strict timeline on these events. We do not know when any of these things happened. We are led to believe that they all happened after the gang bang video. Yet when you research Grace's life, you find that she was actually raped in 1992, before she started doing porn. The suggestion that her porn career and this rape are related is quite obvious. But we don't hear from Grace herself if she believes they are connected. We only hear Grace say that she thinks porn is liberating and fun - then we see her fall to pieces talking about her rape and then cutting herself. It feels manipulative and disrespectful.

Whatever the point of view of the film, it is pretty clear that Grace was, in some respects, a victim of the porn industry. No matter who's idea the gang bang and all the publicity were and no matter how positive she felt about it, it's obvious from looking at the clips of how the event played out and how the film was made, that Grace had very little control over the whole thing. The fact that she was never actually paid the money she was promised for the video is evidence enough itself that she was not in control. I think that had this all happened 15 years later, it might have been quite different. The porn industry has changed quite a bit - mostly due to the available technology. Many women now are producing their own videos and have complete control over their own websites and careers. They are able to do this because it is so much cheaper to make videos now and so much easier to distribute them via the internet. I think that if Grace had the interest and the wherewithal to take control of her own career she would be able to do that with the technology and opportunities that are available now. She would not have needed to be dependent on these men who were clearly out just to profit from her. That would have been dependent on her being able to see that fact and wanting to do the work herself, but at least it would have been possible. Because, at that point in time, it was extremely difficult for a woman to make videos and get them promoted and sold without a fair bit of money and access to a stream of distribution, it really didn't matter one iota how she saw herself and whether she viewed her involvement as empowering. The people who owned the resources were still calling the shots about what got done and how, and most of them were not the least bit interested in showing empowered strong women. This is a complex and interesting question but the film does not explore it at all. It seems that the film-maker is interested only in portraying Grace as a victim - much like the people he portrays as her victimizers.

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