You all may have noticed that there’s been a lot–a LOT–of coverage of James Deen in the “mainstream” media lately. He’s apparently costarring with (but emphatically NOT SLEEPING WITH) Lindsay Lohan in an upcoming movie, The Canyons, and this (maybe it was this–he’s been a subject of fascination for a while now) seems to have set off a firestorm of interest in this “boy-next door” porn star in the “real” media (as opposed, here, to the “porn media,” which is not really an entity beyond a few websites these days). He was profiled in GQ this month, in a behind-the-scenes (if overwritten and somewhat snide, and full of ridiculous “oh my gosh he’s a PORN STAR” posturing) article that left the journalist both awed and creeped out by the lifestyle of one of the adult industry’s most prolific and recognizable male stars. CNN featured Deen as one of its “Porn stars use Twitter to go mainstream” targets (a whole other topic, which cracks me up) a few weeks ago. And who could forget that Nightline episode in which ABC told us all to be worried about our children because–GASP!–young women and teenage girls like Deen! And that means they like porn! Be still, my cardiac arrest! THE WORLD IS ENDING BECAUSE A YOUNG MALE PORN STAR IS GETTING POPULAR! Run for the hills, and get chastity belts on your daughters, quick! (Incidentally, in the GQ article, the journalist follows Deen to the set of a Nightline sex spoof, which cracks me up; the porn industry may be going a little overboard with the constant and terribly-made parodies, but now and then it really hits the nail on the head.) In other words, James Deen is looking more and more like porn’s next big “crossover star.”
I find this very, very interesting. Firstly because Deen really doesn’t seem to have any interest in becoming a crossover star. I may be wrong; I don’t know the guy all that well, aside from one interview and a few, “Hey, there” encounters at conventions. But the thing about James Deen, according to James Deen, is that all he’s ever wanted in life was to be a porn star. He happens to love what he does and he happens to be really good at doing it (hehe… doing it). Whereas there are a lot of adult performers who got into the business to pay bills, or who always hoped to become actors or writers or artists or whatever, Deen has no ulterior motive. He strikes me as the kind of guy who surely won’t turn down lots of media attention or acting roles, because hell, why would you not? But he doesn’t seem to have his sights set on something “above and beyond” porn. He just happens to be getting enough attention that, if he did want to move on… he really could.
And that’s where it gets even more interesting. Here’s this guy who’s a media darling, getting followed around by a reporter from (self-important “style-maker” though it may be) friggin’ GQ for a week and sitting down with network TV giants for interviews and getting tailed by paparazzos. He could make a giant leap into just about anything he wanted right now. But what’s he doing? He’s mostly continuing to have lots and lots of sex on camera, because that’s what he’s really interested in. And yet he’s still a media darling.
I hardly need to point out (at least, so it seems to me, but then again, people will still deny it) that there’s a double standard in the way our culture handles male and female sexuality. There’s the comparison often drawn between the oversexed man being seen as an icon of masculine appeal, whereas the oversexed woman gets shamed and shunned and called a slut, and while that may be changing in some ways and in some places, it’s still mostly holds up. And I’m kind of amazed at how well it’s currently being held up by all this attention for Deen. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s awesome that he’s such a big deal at the moment, and I hope he continues to do well! More power to porn stars! But what I find troubling is this: when Sasha Grey starred in that Soderbergh film, the entire Hollywood and Porn Valley communities gasped, and reeled, and freaked out over it. Everyone was all, “Wow, a porn star with a brain who can do other things?!” Then she did a stint on Entourage that was generally well-received, and she’s been up to all kinds of cool shit afterward (indie films, music, books)… But it really remains to be seen as to whether Sasha will land on the other side of the “crossover” with grace. Because, while she was profiled in FHM and Rolling Stone, and her appearances and stances continue to be controversial, do you think any monument of “femininity” in the media (I mean, an equivalent of GQ like, say, Marie Claire or Cosmo or O! or whatever), doing a seven-page-long profile of Grey that doesn’t start and end with “OMG a porn star who can do other things” instead of “what an interesting human being”? Did you see network news outlets profiling her case as troubling because it was so legitimate? Did you see Nightline doing profiles of her in 2008 or 2009 and warning parents that their teenage sons might be jerking off to her because she was so appealing? No? Hm. Wonder why.
The difference here is pretty stark, but what’s even more stark is that Sasha Grey (and many other female porn stars who have tried to cross over to mainstream media) always wanted to be more than a porn star. She tried to get into movies. She wanted to be taken “more seriously.” Did Jenna Jameson, despite all her business acumen and crossover attempts, every get much of anywhere aside from the limbo of, “Oh, look, isn’t it great that a woman who did that can clean up so well?”
I’m not saying that there’s inherent sexism in my suspicion that Deen is being treated differently just because he’s a guy. After all, it’s not as if we see Ron Jeremy making headlines for anything–anything–that doesn’t stem directly from his status as a porn legend, or make fun of that status. It’s not like there are male porn stars jumping ship to land on the ever-shifting sands of Legitimacy Beach all the time. It’s not even as if there’s that much of a clear delineation between porn stars and “other stars” at this point. These things are all in flux.
But I do think it will be really worth watching what happens in the world of James Deen over the next few months. The cute “guy next door” appeal he’s rocking might be newsorthy because men are so often seen as the afterthought in porn, and now that women (most notably young women) are starting to become more of a driving force in porn consumption, the entire world of men in straight porn may be about to change. Deen might be at the forefront of a whole new world of male representation in adult entertainment. I hope he is–there’s a lot to be said for a pretty normal kind of guy becoming a sex symbol not because he’s the next Ryan Gosling or Jake Gyllenhaal but because he can fuck and kiss and we like watching it. But if James Deen becomes the next big crossover star, gets treated with really any modicum of respect by the mainstream media, and ends up as one of the world’s first actual post-porn-stars, despite the fact that he’s not even trying… I think this might say a lot more about sexual double standards than his god-given talents.