Cover image retrieved from Her.com. 6-minute read.
In a recently filed lawsuit, two women are making unsettling claims about Hollywood actor and producer James Franco.
The two women, Sarah Tither-Kaplan and Toni Gaal, allege that Franco used his now-defunct acting school known as Studio 4 to provide him and his male cohorts with a constant source of young female performers whom they could use and exploit. Franco and his business partner, Vince Jolivette, allegedly ran Studio 4 with an exploitative agenda.
In a new lawsuit, 2 women say James Franco and his business partners subjected them to sexually exploitative auditions and film shoots at his now-defunct acting school and that it was little more than a scheme to take advantage of young female performers https://t.co/WgIEyEUT0o
— The New York Times (@nytimes) October 3, 2019
Crossing lines for his personal enjoyment
According to The New York Times, “Mr. Franco and his partners subjected [the students] to sexually exploitative auditions and film shoots, all while promising them roles in movies that never materialized or were never released.”
With the same problematic power dynamic employed by Harvey Weinstein and Hugh Heffner, among many others in positions of influence, the lawsuit reads that Franco and his associates “engaged in widespread inappropriate and sexually charged behavior towards female students by sexualizing their power as a teacher and an employer.”
Tither-Kaplan and Gaal state that they were encouraged to push past normal limits of comfort and acceptability during class. They also had the opportunity to pay a higher monthly tuition amount to take a “sex scene master class,” for which they had to audition on video that Franco then gained rights to and reviewed at his discretion.
The women were also denied the nudity rider contracts that serve as industry-standard protection during nude scenes. During one scene for an indie film he was producing, Franco himself removed the protective plastic vaginal guards from the actresses and blurred lines of appropriate interaction.
Wanting to do well in the school, the plaintiffs felt they had to do a disproportionate amount of sex scenes and nudity work.
Porn loves power dynamics
Sexualized power dynamics are definitely problematic—thus the lawsuit, right? Much of society will see how Franco’s alleged actions are completely unacceptable. But can you guess where those exact same dynamics are thriving and profiting, right this second? In porn.
Pornography normalizes sexual exploitation that is normally completely off-limits to media and culture. In the world of porn, anything goes—and the more unacceptable in reality, the more celebrated in fantasy. Situations that are inappropriate at best and traumatizing or abusive at worst get manipulated into sexual fantasies and are marketed to online consumers on the front pages of mainstream porn sites everywhere.
Unequal power dynamics run rampant in porn, often with vulnerable women engaging in sexual relations with men in positions of authority, strength, or power. And it’s marketed as sexy, as a fantasy. Ever heard of casting couch porn?
But the problem is that in real life, these exchanges are anything but sexy. The babysitter taken advantage of by the male employer? Enticing in porn, yet extremely exploitative in reality. The female sex slaves kept in a dungeon and used by their male ringleader? Somehow, glorified in porn as hardcore and thrilling, but beyond horrifying in real life (and this does happen in real life).
These dichotomies go on and on, with real-life exploitation finding its Jekyll-and-Hyde alter-ego in porn’s dehumanizing universe, time and time again.
Franco’s actions may not be as extreme as other scenarios—remember Harvey Weinstein?—but it is still relevant that his acting school existed in a world where the theme of young women giving sex to more powerful men—with very blurry lines of consent—is normalized every single day by the porn industry.
Of course, porn did not cause the Studio 4 scenario. We’re simply pointing out that it is easier for power dynamics to be misused and for sexual exploitation to happen when one of our most influential cultural leaders continually normalizes those themes.
The new era of pornified performances in media
In addition to porn’s normalizing influence on unequal sexual power dynamics, the Studio 4 allegations speak to the nature of porn’s effect on the nature of 21st-century media work.
Many of the plaintiffs’ talking points deal with Studio 4’s sexualizing female students and improperly filming sex scenes. The acting school constantly emphasized filming sex scenes and visually exploiting sexuality (especially that of women)—something not normal for an acting school.
Gaal told NPR that “we were consistently auditioning for projects that had nudity, and we had to upload our self-tapes at home, so they were consistently getting footage of this sensitive nature of work.”
It seems that sex scenes were filmed more than they needed to be, and Tither-Kaplan and Gaal are seeking the return of that video footage as part of damages in their lawsuit.
This discomforting pornified haze over Studio 4’s programming confuses the issue of consent and turns what should be simply an opportunity to learn more about acting into a pressured sexual demonstration. Tither-Kaplan noted that she “did what seemed to be the thing that they wanted in this class, and that was to get naked and do sex scenes and not complain and, you know, push the envelope.”
And the result? She was rewarded with roles in Franco’s short films, when women who resisted such sexual performance did not receive the same opportunities.
Sexual performance is everywhere we look
This sexual pressure affects forums like acting school as well as social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook, where people feel the need to sexually sell themselves more and more in order to attract attention and income.
And despite #MeToo and the rise in public awareness about sexual assault, Hollywood seems to produce a new story of sexual exploitation every week.
Porn is absolutely not the cause of all this, though the connections and parallels are real. It is crucial that we examine porn’s influence in our larger culture honestly and thoroughly. If we want fewer problematic power dynamics and less sexual victimization as a society, we have to consider porn’s role in these normalizing trends.