“Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice”: so stated second-wave feminist Robin Morgan in 1978, and ever since, the question of whether porn is objectifying or empowering to women has been a long-running debate. From the ‘feminist porn wars’ of the 1980s to ‘raunch culture’ of the 2000s, to our current, more sex-positive landscape, many of us remain undecided.
Pleasure, Ninja Thyberg’s directorial debut, isn’t the first film about porn. But its rarity rests partly in that it centres on a female protagonist – nineteen-year-old Bella Cherry, played by newcomer Sofia Kappel – as she arrives in LA from Sweden, adamant on becoming the next biggest adult film star. At first glance, Pleasure might seem like a sleek criticism of the sex work industry, its script laboriously detailing the agencies, sets, parties and communities that Bella encounters as she works her way up to the top. But Thyberg, who began thinking about the film while studying gender studies, isn’t interested in pedalling a pious, judgemental attack on the industry. Rather, Pleasure urges its audience to ruminate on the patriarchal power structures that exist both in pornography and at large, offering a powerful depiction of consent, coercion and desire.
It’s a film bound to make waves and cause controversy with its unflinching representations of sex work, through an undeniably female gaze and set to an opera-meets-hip-hop soundtrack. But with a cast made up of real sex workers, with the exception of Kappel, and Thyberg’s years of research (which became more vigorous after the release of her 2013 short film of the same name), it’s clear that Pleasure aims to explore, rather than vilify, the intricacies of the porn world. Below, Thyberg unpicks the themes behind the work.
Hannah Holway: You first broached this subject in a short film in 2013. How much did the narrative and the core message change since then?
Ninja Thyberg: A lot, actually. I didn’t plan to keep the title, I just didn’t come up with a better one, but it wasn’t meant to be the same film or anything. With the short film, I’d done a lot of research from ‘home’, but I constantly felt I was trying to tell a story I don’t really know [well] enough; about a world I don’t have actual experience of. So [I was saying] in interviews that I wanted to portray the real people behind the porn stereotypes, but I hadn’t met them for real. When I decided to make the feature the first thing was that I had to do it completely differently, properly. I had a blank slate, and the only thing I knew was that, of course, it would be from a female perspective. I wanted to have a Swedish protagonist because, in a way, [she’s] my alter-ego, or a version of me somehow. The short film is actually in Swedish, and takes place on a porn set in Sweden, but we don’t actually have that. I thought there were porn industries everywhere, but there’s only a few places in the world, and Los Angeles… there’s nothing like Los Angeles. It’s the only place where there’s a real industry in that way, with offices and studios and people working nine-to-five.
“Something that feels very degrading for one person is not necessarily degrading for someone else.”
So, many things changed [between the short and the feature]. I think I was much more critical towards the industry before going [to LA]. There’s so much misogynistic content in porn, [I thought] it was reflecting the people working there. A big eye-opener for me was to see that a lot of people in the industry really shake their heads at us, the civilians. They see it as they’re just providing the consumers with the things they ask for. It’s not their sexual fantasies, it’s our sexual fantasies. I think I saw the women more as victims [before]. I thought I knew more about patriarchy than them, and that I was so educated in the subject… that they were maybe playing along in these very problematic stereotypes, because maybe they didn’t fully understand how problematic they were. But I realised pretty quickly that was just me being prejudiced towards them. [I was] being fooled by how the women are portrayed in the actual content of the porn, versus how they are in real life, where they are super aware of all of these things. They’re not stupid. They usually play very stupid characters, but that doesn’t mean that [they’re] unaware of these things. I learned so much about the complexity of power dynamics. Something that feels very degrading for one person is not necessarily degrading for someone else.
“I wanted to have a Swedish protagonist because, in a way, [she’s] my alter-ego, or a version of me somehow.”
Still, ‘Pleasure’ by Ninja Thyberg, 2022
HH: I heard that your choice to use opera music was because this is seen as the ‘highest’ form of art whereas porn is generally seen as the ‘lowest’. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
NT: The music plays such an important part, and I’m very grateful to Karl Frid, the composer, and for our collaboration. It took a very long time, but we lived together in the studio and developed it together; he’s so talented and we really connected. So I’ve also been very involved in every step of the music. I knew I wanted to have a very epic score, because I wanted to make a statement that this is about a human facing the big questions in life – heaven or hell, life or death. Not [making] it a ‘girly’ side story, to say, “No, these are the big questions.” And then I wanted to work with different connotations of the Madonna/whore complex. So much of femininity and womanhood is dealing with that; the Virgin Mary, woman being pure, and that’s also very present in porn. The first time, your first shoot, you get paid much more, because you’re ‘worth’ more when you’re a virgin. Then when you have your first anal [shoot], your first threesome, etc… every time, it’s [about] ‘popping the cherry’.
We were a bit inspired by the first female composer in history [Hildegard of Bingen], she was Swedish. [We wanted to] to have this kind of ‘slut-shaming’ choir, in a way. We wanted a choir that was nunnish, and then we had Caroline Gentele, who’s an amazing Swedish opera singer, she was very touched by the film and started to add a lot of things. I’ve always wanted to add as many layers as possible, like, “What happens if I put this music on this scene? What does it trigger?” [I wanted] to really challenge the audience. But it was also gut feeling, and how it resonates with the images. We wanted to use the female voice. Even the electronic bits are based on Sofia’s voice, and there’s a little bit of my voice in it as well. Also, the moaning in porn and opera can be very similar. But the way we react to it, historically comes from how it’s been used by men to reproduce images of woman.
“When you have your first anal [shoot], your first threesome, etc… every time, it’s [about] ‘popping the cherry’.”
Still, ‘Pleasure’ by Ninja Thyberg, 2022
HH: I was watching a talk with a feminist writer called Amia Srinivasan the other day, and she said something interesting about how sometimes as a woman, it can actually be easier to see yourself as an object, to simply ‘go along with’ male power. Did you want the audience to think more about this question of women being empowered versus being exploited?
NT: Definitely, because it’s so much about agency. I had this epiphany while doing research, I realised that so much of my feminist views had actually been reproducing the male gaze. Because it’s looking at women… like if you truly put yourself in her shoes, and really make her the subject and not the object, things really change. You’re oppressed by patriarchy in a way, but that doesn’t define you, and then you’re going to navigate within that, based on, “What do I benefit from?” You can use it for your own interests. And definitely when it comes to power, there’s definitely actual power in someone desiring you – erotic capital is a genuine resource. To learn how to trigger different emotions in people is a very manipulative thing. It can give you different benefits. I don’t remember the theory, but it’s this thing with the master and the slave: the slave is always going to be the smartest, because [they] have to fully understand the master. And the master doesn’t have to do that, so the master is always going to be the dumb one and the slave the smart one.
“There’s definitely actual power in someone desiring you – erotic capital is a genuine resource.”
I think that says a lot about being a woman and how we deal with men. We have to develop these more manipulative skills and ‘play along’, and the story I hear all the time, is this feeling of making yourself smaller to boost the male ego. But internally, you’re laughing at them, and you feel empowered because you’re fooling them. [These] layers of agency are very fascinating to me, and it’s important to understand. I’ve made the same mistake, of looking at the woman making herself small to please a man, and just reducing her to being the small one, the thing she’s playing, and thinking there’s nothing else to that.
Pleasure is being shown at special event screenings and will be screening via Mubi from 17th June.
Still, ‘Pleasure’ by Ninja Thyberg, 2022