Emma Gruner’s Photographs and Pornhub Videos: Looking for Subversive Alternatives to Mainstream Online Pornography

Pauline Soumet
Emma Gruner, ComeSee My Show (2013). Photographic series. Image source: Emma Gruner [emmagruner.com/filter/exhibitions/COME-SEE-MY-SHOW].
Come See My Show (2013), Emma Gruner.

Three largescale close-up photographs are mounted on a wall. On the first panel, the blue-eyed and pale-skinned woman stares wide-eyed at the viewer while a transparent liquid drips from her half-open mouth. On the second panel, the same woman turns her head to look behind, her mouth opened more widely. She wears bold black eyeliner and big gold earrings. In the last image, notably lower resolution than the rest, the woman seems to have her head resting on a pillow. She stares at the viewer and bites her lip, and her arms and shoulders are bare —the first glimpse of nudity shown in this series. The featured woman is French, London-based photographer Emma Gruner. This series of self-portraits titled Come See My Show (2013), and the artist’s body of work in general, recreate the conventional environments and poses of pornographic media to address online representations of women in heterosexual male-oriented pornography.

Emma Gruner, IMG_3634.jpg + crop (2013). Photographic series. Image source: Emma Gruner [emmagruner.com/filter/exhibitions/VAULT].
Emma Gruner, IMG_3634.jpg + crop (2013). Photographic series. Image source: Emma Gruner [emmagruner.com/filter/exhibitions/VAULT].
According to Pornhub’s yearly review,[1] one of the most visited sources for online pornography, three quarters of the website’s users are cisgender men. A glance at Pornhub’s homepage shows an astounding amount of uniformity in video content and attests to this targeted male audience: multiple videos presenting heterosexual vaginal intercourse, featuring one or several thin young Caucasian female bodies.[2] My essay will prove that leading porn websites seem centered on the fantasies of straight men, dismissive of their female and Queer audiences. Using Pornhub as my main case study, this research seeks to contest male-centric pornography and its affects on binary sexualities, stereotypes and gender constructs. I will also address non-heteronormative individuals and sexualities, in order to discuss the lack of Queerness in mainstream online porn.

Mainstream porn subjugates women by legitimizing misogynistic behaviour. Author Pamela Paul claims that boys who watch pornographic content at a young age tend to correspondingly understand women in  solely sexualized terms or accordingly to traditional gender roles.[3] Moreover, women in the media, especially online pornography, are often over-sexualized —slim, big breasted, small waisted, and youthful—generating unrealistic expectations of the female body. Gruner plays with and challenges this stereotyped image of overly-sexualized women, as demonstrated in another photographic series, Vault (2013). The photographic scene mimics amateur-porn videos, set in an everyday house featuring couches and beds. The artist’s seductive gestures also resemble the performers in contemporary pornographic videos; she looks up to the viewer, recognizing our presence, her face sweaty with tousled hair, wearing very few clothes, with her buttocks boldly exposed to the camera. Gruner overidentifies with the socially inferior and objectified sexualized-female stereotype of the whore, constructed by male producers for a male audience.[4]

Emma Gruner, Untitled (cropped faces series) (detail) (2013). Photographic series. Image source: Emma Gruner [emmagruner.com/filter/self/self-1].
Emma Gruner, Untitled (cropped faces series) (detail) (2013). Photographic series. Image source: Emma Gruner [emmagruner.com/filter/self/self-1].
Interestingly, the objectification of the female subject is a recurrent motif in female-produced pornography as well, implying that some productions merely replicate male-produced pornography.[5] These representations are in turn absorbed by the viewer, similarly discussed by Gruner who claims that the art-historical tradition of the male gaze is present in pornographic videos to satisfy the ideal spectator, which is assumed to be male.[6] The artist suggests that her work reproduces this social phenomenon, whether consciously or unconsciously, subjecting herself to the same standards of sexuality culturally imposed onto women.[7] Gruner performs the signs and behaviours communicated by pornography in order to be readable by the male gaze, and subsequently critique it. Or, the artist may consciously adopt submissive or degrading poses because she enjoys role play. Submission and degradation can be a woman’s fantasy too, so long as she chooses these roles rather than them being imposed onto her by a male audience.

Online pornography networks such as Pornhub also perpetuate heteronormative sexualities by categorizing content according to heterosexual sex (male-female) and non-heterosexual sex (any other alternative). These binary separations maintain exclusive traditional identities and social dichotomies, ultimately discriminating against Queer sexualities and non-conforming gender identities. Viewers must be critical of what they watch and what content is reinforced, most of which negate Queerness and maintain heteronormative expectations of the pornography industry.[8]

Though Paul states that online pornography is harmful, she concludes by suggesting that online pornography should be shut down altogether[9]. The Feminist Porn Book (2013) voices the concerns of pro-porn feminists who are completely against such an idea. According to the authors, pornography is an ideal means of challenging heteronormative representations of genders and sexualities, further claiming that “sexual representations – and productions – are a site for resistance, intervention and change.”[10] Artist, former sex worker, and educator Annie Sprinkle agrees, claiming: “The answer to bad porn isn’t no porn, it’s more porn.”[11] What is needed is simply a different kind of porn containing varied imagery that realistically reflects complex desires. Gruner appropriates pornographic content to change the discourse surrounding the subject. Rather than the laptop screens and dark websites on which online porn circulates, the gallery setting provides her images with powerful context and promote serious discourses surrounding pornography, art, and history.

Emma Gruner, Untitled (cropped faces series) (detail) (2013). Photographic series. Image source: Emma Gruner [emmagruner.com/filter/self/self-1].
Emma Gruner, Untitled (cropped faces series) (detail) (2013). Photographic series. Image source: Emma Gruner [emmagruner.com/filter/self/self-1].
Pink and White Productions produce pornographic videos containing actual couples engaged in consensual sexual acts with goals of realness, variety, and involving LGBTQ audiences. The company was produced by the visionary woman Shine Louise Houston, who claims to create the types of porn that the industry lacks, or “real bodies having real sex.”[12]  Houston interviews performers about their personal experiences in order to accurately depict what turns them on, rather than encourage them to fake a performance, as is commonly done in mainstream porn videos.[13] She fittingly claims that “the performers’ experiences making the film are just as important as the final product.”[14] Pink and White Productions provides more authentic content —real orgasms and genuinely erotic content. Moreover, their mandate seeks to deliver ethically-conscious Queer porn to their diverse audiences.[15] Though Gruner reproduces the exact imagery the Pink and White Productions negates, I am inclined to consider her work as ethically-conscious as well, for the attention brought to sexual consent and representations of gender.

Thanks to the Feminist Porn Awards in Toronto over the past decade, Queer and ethical videos have been widely encouraged across the industry. In the videos presented at the awards, consent is of the utmost importance and performers are permitted to do what they want, however they would like it to be seen on screen. For example, performer Dylan Ryan claims her empowering performances provide the means “to fulfill her deepest fantasies.”[16] Lorraine Hewitt, the Feminist Porn Awards’ creative director, declares that the festival is crucial in representing realistic and varied desires and hopes to eventually hold equal status and visibility as mainstream pornography.[17] Such alternative models challenge mainstream porn’s fundamentally damaging content, imagery, and exclusivity.[18]

. Emma Gruner, Untitled (cropped faces series) (detail) (2013). Photographic series. Image source: Emma Gruner [emmagruner.com/filter/self/self-1].
. Emma Gruner, Untitled (cropped faces series) (detail) (2013). Photographic series. Image source: Emma Gruner [emmagruner.com/filter/self/self-1].
Another subversive alternative to mainstream pornography is the do-it-yourself (DIY) model. Since these home-made videos are created by people publishing their own content, rather than processed through the filters of mainstream directors, they adhere to a certain realism, diversity and educational motive. Though these performers are not necessarily paid, their self-distribution alone changes the landscape of porn.[19] Social anthropologist Shaka McGlotten claims this model can have a strong subversive impact on the industry, not only for women but also for Queer individuals.[20] For example, he discusses one Queer performer who posts videos of himself masturbating while wearing sportswear, who has received positive public responses from audiences who cannot access this specific fetishistic content on mainstream porn channels.[21] Home-made porn corresponds to the actual desires of viewers, since they are produced by viewers themselves, and therefore might offer an alternative to male-centred, heteronormative objectifying content. One can upload or watch videos that are different, and eventually find what they like and what they are. In an attempt to mimic this type of pornography, the ironically titled professional amateur porn has flourished, borrowing many scenic similarities, such as poor lighting, in an attempt to imitate authenticity. As such, this ‘authenticity’ is in high demand, commercialized by mainstream porn companies. Gruner’s work re-enacts this staged sexuality and borrows elements from do-it-yourself videos and professional amateur porn, to critique the lack of realness of the latter.

Mainstream pornography tends to exploit women and exclude Queer individuals. Feminist and ethical porn movements are helping to counter the status quo, however they do not receive the same popularity as the mainstream pornography industry. Gruner’s  photographs call attention to the underlying misogyny in mainstream pornography by re-enacting the visual codes commonly seen in online porn videos. Her work suggests that such videos are redundant in their solely heteronormative focus, negating the alternative desires and identities of their diverse audiences. Above all, her artworks ask us to be conscious and critical of what one watches online. Her images are but one example of subversive content that enable female and Queer performers and audiences, and offer an alternative to destructive online pornography. Gruner does not simply reproduce the stereotypical pornographic images of online videos, but goes further by showing off a body that does not correspond to the stereotypical female ideal. She addresses the possibilities that DIY porn offers by appropriating the aesthetics of home-made videos. Porn is a useful and powerful political tool that may be harnessed to address complex matters of gender and sexuality.



[1] “Pornhub 2015 year in review,” Pornhub, last modified January 6, 2016, [pornhub.com/insights/pornhub-2015-year-in-review].

[2] Based on Pornhub’s home page in November 2015.

[3] Pamela Paul, “The Porn Factor,” Time 163.3 (2004): 99-101.

[4] Shim Jae Woong, Kwon Mahnwoo and Cheng Hong-In, “Analysis of Representation of Sexuality on Women’s and Men’s Pornographic Websites,” Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal 43.1(2015): 55.

[5] Ibid. 60.

[6] “Emma Gruner,” The British Journal of Photography 07 (2014): 22.

[7] Ibid., 23.

[8] Some diversity apparent nowadays in regards to body type, ethnicity and sexuality. For the latter however, I hesitate to consider the increased number of presumed lesbian women performing for a male audience as an advancement in Queer pornographic representation.

[9] Pamela Paul, “The Porn Factor,” Time 163.3 (2004): 101.

[10] Tristan Taormino et al., The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure (New York, NY: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2013), 10.

[11] Tina Vasquez, “Ethical Pornography,” Herizons 25.4 (2012): 34.

[12] Ibid., 35.

[13] Ibid., 34.

[14] Ibid., 33.

[15] Ibid., 34.

[16] Ibid., 33.

[17] Ibid., 35.

[18] Unfortunately, I find these videos difficult to locate on mainstream online networks.

[19] Vasquez, “Ethical Pornography,” 34.

[20] Shaka McGlotten, “The Élan Vital of DIY Porn,” Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies 11.1 (2015): 1-20.

[21] Ibid., 9-10.



“Emma Gruner.” The British Journal of Photography 07 (2014): 22-23.

Jae Woong, Shim, Kwon Mahnwoo, and Cheng Hong-In. “Analysis of Representation of Sexuality on Women’s and Men’s Pornographic Websites.” Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal 43.1(2015): 53-62.

McGlotten, Shaka. “The Élan Vital of DIY Porn.” Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies 11.1 (2015): 1-20.

Paul, Pamela. “The Porn Factor.” Time 163.3 (2004): 99-101.

Taormino, Tristan. The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure. New York, NY: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2013.

Vargas-Cooper, Natasha. “Hard Core: The New World of Porn is Revealing Eternal Truths About Men and Women.” Atlantic 307.1 (2011): 97-106.

Vasquez, Tina. “Ethical Pornography.” Herizons 25.4 (2012): 32-36.

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