5.28.2013

The pornographic canon: "Debbie Does Dallas" (1978)



Watching straight pornography as a gay man is strange but often fascinating business.  Mostly unattracted by the women who are presented as the central objects of the viewer’s gaze—and only intermittently distracted by the men, the appeal of whom varies drastically in straight hard-core—my attention is freed up to notice other aspects of these films, such as their formal qualities (their construction, generic conventions, production quality), as well as what we might call their political unconscious.  Paying attention to both of these aspects of a film like Debbie Does Dallas (dir. Jim Clark, 1978) helps us to understand its significance within the hard-core genre.  Debbie Does Dallas’ status as a classic (its popularity is arguably rivaled only by Deep Throat) rests as much on its formal components as on the logic of its sexual economy.

One has only to watch the film’s opening sequence, in which a bevy of nubile cheerleaders practice their drills on the sidelines of the football field to the sounds of up-tempo marching band music, in order to recognize that we’re in the world of a teen comedy.  Since teen comedies are almost always about sex anyway, Debbie Does Dallas could be said to make manifest the latent content of the genre it parodies.  Much of its comic pleasure lies in the cheekiness with which it conjures up the sexually charged scenarios of the teen film (the pairing of star quarterback and head cheerleader; boys in the girls’ locker room; sex in the library stacks; etc.) and takes them “all the way,” so to speak.  Where films like Porky’s (dir. Bob Clark, 1982) play such scenarios purely for laughs, and where, say, Brian de Palma’s Carrie (1976) ends up twisting them into the stuff of horror, Debbie simply lets them unfold; it provides sexual release for the kinds of set-ups that usually sublimate sexual pleasure into comedy or horror.  In its climactic scene, a sexual tête-à-tête between Debbie (Bambi Woods) and Mr. Greenfeld (Richard Bolla), the middle-aged manager of the sporting goods store where she works, the film basically admits that it has been catering to the teen sex fantasies of its audience, staging its scenarios as transparently as Mr. Greenfeld uses Debbie to stage his own private football fantasy.  This is to say that much of the appeal of Debbie Does Dallas rests on the eagerness with which it mobilizes a set of male heterosexual fantasies thought to be “classic,” and which have themselves been cemented by popular culture since the 1950s.

Mr. Greenfeld (Richard Bolla) prepares to tackle Debbie (Bambi Woods).
            
But the logic surrounding the film’s treatment of female sexuality is also a key component of its popularity.  Stocked with fresh-faced, all-American girl-next-door types who insist that they’re “good girls” even as they begin prostituting themselves in order to raise money for a trip to Texas, Debbie Does Dallas finds a way to have its cake and eat it, too.  The film thus fetishizes both female purity and female depravity in ways that speak to the contradictory messages at work in the culture at large surrounding female sexuality.  The ideal woman is both insatiable and innocent, “bad” and “good.”  This, the film suggests, is a sexual fantasy even more powerful than that of the quarterback bagging the head cheerleader.

"Good girls"?  The cast of Debbie Does Dallas.

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