Sexing up Australian media studies?

Christy Newman reviews Barbara Creed’s Media Matrix: Sexing the New Reality

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The latest book from film and media critic Barbara Creed examines a stable of sexy texts, from reality to crisis TV, and from cyberstars to ‘post-porn’ cinema. Marketed as a generalist review of sex and the media, Media Matrix attempts to balance critical theory with consumer practice. The introductory chapter constructs a theoretical position linking the Freudian perversity of filmic spectatorship to the active audience of media and cultural studies. The remaining ten chapters then trek through both familiar and unusual media terrain, in an exploration of the intertextuality of contemporary notions of gender and sexuality.

Chapter three’s analysis of Sex and the City is timely, as the final series of this remarkably enduring program goes to air in Australia after many years of marketing the ideal model of taboo-busting girl-about-town. Chapter five counters the still common neglect of masculinity in studies of gender and popular culture by focusing on cinematic representations of men’s sexuality, from cross-dressing to ultra-plastic hyper-masculine action heroes. And in chapter six, Creed skillfully examines the function of the ‘man-beast’ hero of the Mills and Boon genre of women’s romance fiction, a trope that enables the reader to traverse ‘the proper and the pornographic’ (100).

Chapter four extends this critique of the public culture of gender roles, applauding women filmmakers for creating a new genre of ‘arthouse porn’, typified by films such as Romance andBaise-Moi. Although this is a fascinating investigation, some of Creed’s claims about the mainstream resistance to women’s sexuality are exceedingly bold: ‘[T]he real reason why some critics have acted with such hostility to Baise-Moi [is because t]he film argues that women’s pleasure is not bound up with the phallus, men are basically irrelevant to the bloody but exhilarating journey of the two women’ (68). Since Creed is elsewhere clearly committed to the idea of multiple audience positions, reducing these complex cultural and political machinations to a simplistic model of patriarchal intolerance is unsatisfying, and might have been improved with a greater focus on the complex ethics of ‘sex as consumption’ (71).

The eleventh and final chapter ties together the major themes of the book, and is principally concerned with promoting a model of contemporary subjectivity that Creed terms the global self: ‘a virtual, transformative and empowered self with a global political and social agenda’ (194). Evidence of the productive potential of new media industries is offered in the form of internet and other communication technologies’ capacity to facilitate proactive and engaged social activism at both global and local levels. This is an important point, and one that might be used to defend media technologies from the familiar and forceful accusation that they are ‘corrupting’ of social norms. And indeed, my own interests in the cultural dynamics between popular and alternative media were piqued by Creed’s reminder that the internet is not the only technology through which the media-citizen operates, since, ‘the global self thinks and acts in a global sphere not just in relation to the virtual world, but also in relation to other avenues of political action offered by alternative media’ (200). However, this argument is unconvincing in the context of Media Matrix, which reviews predominantly mainstream and perhaps even anti-activist media industries, such as pulp fiction, reality television and arthouse cinema.

Creed’s rendering of the metaphor of a global self draws upon familiar constructs: the fluid and fragmented character of identity formation, the refraction of the local in the context of global multiplicities, the active and empowered character of media audiences, the potential democratization of the internet. And so although any attempt to make media and cultural criticism more accessible should be applauded, I suspect that this particular project doesn’t quite work for any of its potential audiences. Non-academic readers are unlikely to be swept away by the heavy use of cinematic and cultural theory, and certainly won’t be turned on by the use of quickly dating filmic metaphors like media ‘Matrix’. And overstating the nationality of cited authors, particularly those of local scholars – e.g., ‘Australian media theorist Kath Albury’ (74) – is likely to irritate academic audiences, who will already take some convincing that this material is particularly unique. Nonetheless, there will be something in this book for anyone with a generalist interest in popular media, and particularly those with little prior knowledge of supposedly ‘new’ cultural phenomena such as cybersex, TV taboos and queer cool. The overall contribution of Media Matrix seems to be its preliminary exploration of some important new forums for the development of contemporary sexual ethics, even though it does little to shore up the transient ‘sexiness’ of much recent media studies.

Barbara Creed’s Media Matrix: Sexing the New Reality was published by Allen and Unwin, Sydney in 2003.

Christy Newman is a media researcher who has recently completed a PhD on Australian health magazines. She is currently a Research Associate at the National Centre in HIV Social Research, based at the University of New South Wales.

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