What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?
No matter which male-dominated industry women have infiltrated, we’ve all encountered some version of this. Much like mainstream media, the adult entertainment industry can be particularly patronizing toward the women behind the camera, not just in front of it. To make things even more difficult, women weren’t typically seen as porn producers capable of creating a product palatable to men, historically considered porn’s “primary” consumer. Since the 80’s, when porn star turned director Candida Royalle broke ground, setting a precedent for female-produced content, numerous women have chipped away at those stereotypes. Unfortunately their work hasn’t always been recognized.
Nominations for the annual XBIZ and AVN Awards—essentially considered the Golden Globes and Oscars of porn, respectively—Director of the Year categories have been male-dominated fields despite the growing number of women pornographers. On average, women account for less than 20 percent of the nominated directors over the past decade. Fortunately, that’s about to change.
Given the recent nominations, 2019 might just be the year of women in porn. Eight of the fifteen XBIZ Director of the Year - Feature nominees are well-known and widely-respected women within the industry. Additionally, the same can be said for nearly half of AVN’s 2019 nominees for best director. Hollywood, by contrast, has only nominated five women for the Best Director Oscar in its entire history, with just one emerging victorious: Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker.
Whereas women looking to perform in front of the camera encounter few barriers to entry, the same cannot be said for those interested in producing and directing (excluding the DIY model, where technically anyone with a smart phone can direct porn and sell his or her own content online). Building fame and credibility as a female performer before launching into directing and producing is a fairly standard—and widely accepted—business model, and is quite different from the typical male trajectory, as plenty of male directors have never been performers, or only became performers after the fact.
Though Howard Stern used the term “porn star,” author Tristan Taormino may be best described as a sex educator who launched her career as a XXX director by personally transforming her “Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women” from print to video, in a very a hands-on way.
Taormino didn’t come up through the usual channels, and in the late ‘90s was pitching an almost foreign concept to adult companies: educational porn aimed at women. Then in 2007, Taormino won the AVN Award for Best Gonzo Film (i.e. sex scenes without a scripted story). “I was the first woman to win in that category because gonzo had up until then primarily been dominated by male directors and male producers,” says Taormino. “No woman had cracked gonzo at that point.”
Despite the volume of work being produced, it was another eight years of token nominations before the next wave of women began to receive much-deserved recognition. As Taormino observed, “It varies by years. Sometimes it feels like a list of dudes and one or two women but it’s changing. More women are creating their own content, so I can see the possibility of parity.”
Last year, Bree Mills took home the prized XBIZ Director of the Year and AVN’s Movie of the Year awards. Known for some of the more taboo fare, Mills’ creations are anything but the stereotypical pretty-but-boring “female” content. Mills says adult films were missing something when she got into the business. “The quality had become secondary to generating impressions and pushing traffic,” she explains. And that drove her focus, which has been to “go outside of the traditional porn box.”
Unlike the majority of male pornographers, who also handle the camera, it’s fairly rare to see a one-woman crew. Mike Quaser, an award-winning veteran director in his own right, works closely with many of today’s prominent women producers as the lead videographer and a trustworthy staple on set. Watching the industry grow in unprecedented directions over the past two decades, Quaser feels the more female directors are represented in the adult industry, the better it’s become. “Pornography directed by stereotypical horny males, there’s a lot of that, and a lot of it’s not that good. To bring in a female perspective, even if it’s an incredibly perverse female perspective, someone like Bree Mills comes to mind, is good,” says Quaser. “For some reason, as creepy as some of the stuff that’s being done for Pure Taboo, which is like her brain child, I find it far less creepy than if it were similar content by male directors.”
Women directors not only have to skirt stereotypes but must target a wider audience to compete with their male counterparts. Performer/director Kayden Kross has managed to become one of the more frequently-nominated women directors since shifting her career’s focus. Working to add what was missing, and improve upon the quality, Kross says, “The stories were dumb and the angles were invariably either gross or disinterested.”
That is not without its own set of obstacles. “We are faced with the challenge of producing content that appeals to all genders and their preferences. Heterosexual male directors are only expected to appeal to their fellow heterosexual males,” says Kross. “I remember the day I saw my first edit that made me think I’d nailed it. I’ve never stopped chasing that high.”