By Denise Liu
What is it exactly about porn that makes it seem repulsive? Is it necessarily vulgar and is it always misogynistic? Okay, these might appear to be some really stupid questions but bear with me, MONDO readers – I know that at least half of you are just as degenerate as myself (and that it’s safe to presume that most of our staff have stashes high enough to become another nightstand, amirite?)
Such questions can be very polarizing, in the way that for some personalities the answer is a clear-cut “heck yeah!” or a definite “heck no!” For the sake of our discussion, let’s begin by loosely defining porn (print format) as any literature that graphically or textually concentrates on the activity of erotic, sexual acts to affect arousal. Yes, that is a pretty broad description but I’d like to think that 1) there are a lot of works out there that could qualify as softcore, despite not being marketed or intended as such, and 2) if writing Peanuts fanfic makes you happy in freaky ways, then so be it. In writing this review (I’ll get to the book eventually, I swear) a few questions had to be addressed, but at the centre of them all was: why does it feel as though I’ve been dared to write a piece about porn? It’s just another graphic novel, right?
I mean, intelligent thought on the topic of pornography already exists; articles from academics, cultural critics, aficionados and film theorists — thoughts that are in favour, in disgust, in intensely analytical form. What I aim to do here, as per usual, is to simply edutain. In this case, however, I feel as though the question of reading pornography as entertainment should be looked at with some speculation, not just for the sake of anyone hesitant to do enjoy it, but especially for those who do and have never bothered to ask themselves what exactly is great about it.
Porn is, almost by necessity, vulgar. Part of its allure is fueled by a forbidden/naughty/NSFW factor. If it wasn’t something that’s expected to be kept discrete from certain people in your life (partners, parents, other subway passengers), then it might not be as exciting. There is, let’s say, the created “occasion” of porn which is not so much about the frequency of reading it but the rituals and locale that are set aside for its enjoyment. Is porn necessarily misogynistic or exploitative of women or anti-feminist? Well, sure, there is a lot of such shit-headed sentiment in porn (and maybe moreso in hetero porn?). There’s also a lot of crazy ideas being promoted about women as simple-minded, second-class human beings in chick-lit [shudder] – and yet that crap’s featured on commercial bookshelves. While there is no genre in literature that exactly dictates the negative portrayal of women, it means that you are pleasantly surprised when you find something decent where you might not have expected it. Case in point: Aude Picault’s Comtesse.
The Jist: A young countess’ (“comtesse”) desires are unrequited by her much older husband, who seems more interested in work than play. While he’s away on business, she indulges some idyllic fantasies with a male house servant. Yep, that’s some 18th century French lovin’.
This novel is just different in many ways, but what strikes me most about it is that it’s the most elegant piece of pornography I’ve ever read (and only partly because it’s French). It’s not a ground-breaking, third-wave feminist piece, but it is far from smutty and far from skittish its status as a softcore porn. Picault’s portfolio includes other “Cul” (literally arse) type books, but also children’s books, illustrations, travelogues and an autobiography. Her style is accessible and lends itself to these works quite well. Its friendly and precise but sketchy lines also provide a peculiar frame for erotic fiction; it’s nearly ligne-claire so I can’t help but be reminded of Tintin at times.
There is a lightness in tone and aesthetic throughout the entire story, from the single shade of indigo ink to the wispy drawings of frilly, poofy garments. The lack of bordered panels, text and speech bubbles leave her pages completely uncluttered and lovely. Speaking of not speaking, I’m somewhat grateful for a softcore without words – I mean, regardless of whatever carnality is happening, the expression of awful grunts, unless played for laughs, is so very awkward to read.
Instead, a different kind of dialogue occurs between the characters as the result of sheer body language, uh literally. Not that the Countess and Mr. Servant constantly throw each other coy looks like some bad rom-com, but rather we are presented with unabashed daydreams that begin to blur into her reality. Yep, it’s pretty much as though you were reading a deftly illustrated how-to guide. It’s charming because of the Countess’ earnest approach and the occasional injections of humour. Our female protagonist does however exploit her position of authority in order to solve her dilemma; this arrangement being both consensual and a sort of used fantasy trope, will likely get hand-waved by readers. Ditto for the fact that it’s an extramarital affair (make that two).
Yes, you can pull up your pants now.