Because pornography is a visual medium, it deals in representations. A representation is the use of a sign to stand in for something else — it is how we use images and symbols to share meaning. For instance, a dove can represent peace, or a maple leaf can represent Canada.
Like other entertainment products, such as romantic comedies or TV sitcoms, pornography exists to make money. To do this, it must draw in a large audience, and so it often uses simplified characters and stereotypical representations that a lot of people will recognize and understand. Producers assume that people want to be entertained without thinking, and so porn’s job is simply to offer up content that is familiar and easy to digest. After all, no one watches porn for the stories, right? What, then, is the problem?
Many opponents of pornography argue that the representations of masculinity and femininity, beauty, desire, race and sexuality in porn are problematic, because they show as “normal” certain ideas, bodies and practices that are violent, misogynistic (anti-woman), racist, heteronormative (straight), patriarchal (created for men), or simply unattainable (these ideas are discussed more below. Understanding the meaning and history of these representations — both in pornography and in everyday life — is therefore crucial to developing a healthy and realistic engagement with porn, or resisting it altogether.
By looking at the representations in pornography and asking “who made this?” “why was it made this way?” and “what does this mean?” we can begin to see that the images and ideas in pornography do not exist in their own little world, but are part of a larger cultural conversation. Let’s break down some of the most common problems with the representations in porn: