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“Aroused at the Signs of Empire”: Fantasies of the Middle East in Stag Film
As one-reel, illegally made and exhibited pornographic films, early 20th century American stag films have been the subject of numerous scholarship on the historical and technological developments of moving-image sexual encounter. Authors like Linda Williams (1999) have attended to the visual means by which the technology of porn filmmaking articulated the hidden mechanisms of sexual functioning for audiences at the same time that it provided sexual arousal. While Williams’s intervention is useful for linking the cinematic apparatus to the development of modern discourses around sexuality as delineated by Foucault’s scientia sexualis, simultaneous attention to how racial science and empire were concurrently central to such technological developments reveals a productive set of questions regarding race in/and silent film pornography – especially as we consider the imagined Middle East as the site of sexual encounter. Attending to scholarly claims that the development of cinema cannot be delinked from its colonial and imperial operation in the marking of racial difference (Rony 1996; Behdad 2016), this presentation explores the construction of racial/sexual difference in early U.S. stag films that explicitly center imagined Middle Eastern subjects. By looking to case study films, including the 1920 ​A Country Stud Horse​ (which stars a woman dressed in a costume similar to that of ‘Fatima’ in the World’s Columbian Exposition), early stag films employed varying techniques to emphasize racialized sexual difference that reflected fantasies of imperial contact with the Middle East in the early 20th century. In their use of costume, Orientalist objects, and imagery of the imagined Middle East, I argue that early stag films provide a productive site for analyzing cinema as making simultaneously visible both sexual contact and racial difference through arousing sexual performance onscreen. Attending to the strategies of fantasizing the Middle East in these pornographic productions reveals both how racial difference was marked as a cinematic endeavor in the U.S. at the turn of the century and how it further translates within the realm of racialized sexuality in the product of the stag film. In so doing, I not only bridge scholarship on cinema as a technology of colonial encounter in the Middle East and as an apparatus that intended to make sex visible at the turn of the century, but further posit stag films (and pornography in general) as a useful site of analysis in the study of empire, U.S. fantasies of the Middle East, and racialized sexuality.
Media Arts
Geographic Area
North America
Sub Area