Book review – Media Matrix: Sexing the New Reality

Barbara Creed. Media Matrix: Sexing the New Reality. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2003

Film critic, academic and media commentator Barbara Creed’s latest book Media Matrix: Sexing the New Reality is a collection of essays that argue that the growth of various forms of contemporary media have significantly shifted the boundaries between the traditional separate public and private spheres to herald visible shifts in morality. The various essays explore the many new forms of media (such as cyberfilm, reality TV, the woman’s romance, virtual pornography, crisis TV, the Internet, queermedia, cybersex and virtual reality) to argue that the spectator is no longer distanced but actively seeking to play with traditional notions of reality and fixed identities. This interplay with the media’s representations and explorations of sexuality and identity have led to the emergence of a new fluid, hybrid and multisexed global self that is not constrained by classical oppositions such as male/female or gay/straight.

A key central argument in Creed’s essays is that the meaning generated by these new media texts is not actually generated by the text itself but by the reader or spectator as they actively engage with the text. By drawing on Freud’s theories of the perverse gaze and screen memories Creed situates the modern subject as an active participant in their own encounters with the media and argues that it is this active participation with the media that generates notions of what is taboo and what is morally acceptable. This in itself is a refreshing attitude in an age where social and cultural theorists from both sides of politics are increasingly accusing the media of transforming people into killer psychopaths, bleeding heart leftists or war mongering right-wingers; without any accountability actually being placed on the individual and the way they respond and interact with media texts.

Indeed, each individual person who reads Media Matrix will react differently to each essay depending on their own attitudes and cultural baggage. For example, I found the analysis in the chapter “Women and post-porn”, of the female exploration of pornography in films such as Romance (Catherine Breillat, 1999) and Baise-moi (Virginie Despentes and Coralie, 2000), to be a compelling and convincing examination of how such female produced texts radically strip away the meaning of ‘pornographic’ and threaten established male notions of female desire. However, the chapter ultimately frustrated me when it concluded with an exploration of self-described ‘post-porn-feminist’ Annie Sprinkle, who for me has about as much relevance as Marilyn Manson; that is, a mildly interesting blip on the cultural radar screen whose brief impact on culture and politics is dwarfed by how rapidly their obscurity and irrelevance set in.

I was also extremely puzzled and a little annoyed with the discussion of the money-shot (the shot in porn films when the man ejaculates). Creed mentions that the money-shot is, although often faked, used to show that the sex is real and used to signal the climax of the explicit sex scene. But she does not mention that the money-shot usually occurs onto the face of the woman in the porn film. This demeaning and degrading act, which is a staple of pornography, is in my opinion surely worth at least some discussion in an essay exploring how some women are taking ownership of the pornographic image.

Likewise, I had significant problems with the “Television and taboo” chapter, which argues that Sex and the City may use traditional romantic narrative patterns to lure an audience but it is ultimately challenging sexual taboos and the traditional role of women in society. Despite Creed’s compelling examination of the taboos the series explores, I cannot help but disagree with the notion of Sex and the City as a progressive text. For me the mechanisms of Sex and the City work the opposite way – it attracts viewers with provocative themes and fantasies of sexual freedom only to constantly reinforce conservative notions of romantic love with narratives that conclude with the various characters admitting that all they really want is a good man to look after them.

I would assume that Creed would argue that regardless of the intent, the fact is that a widely watched mainstream television series portrayed sexuality in a way never seen before on commercial television. Maybe so but then again The Sopranos also portrays moral taboos (sexual or otherwise) in abundance but does not construct its entire narrative and how it promotes itself around the fact. For me Sex and the City ultimately failed to break any taboos because it was always culturally situated as ‘that show about sex’ and therefore always possessed a sense of otherness, which never really explored anything that was more provocative than what has already been done before in decades worth of men’s and women’s magazines.

Nevertheless, I found many of the other essays in Media Matrix extremely compelling and fascinating to engage with. In “Queering the media” Creed brilliantly articulates how, although queerness is something that is still largely unacceptable in the actual world, images of queerness do increasingly have a presence in the media as an enjoyably transforming and invigorating outlet for the dichotomised straight world. In other words, obvious images of queerness in the guise of, for example, five fun-loving and camp homosexual men giving a heterosexual man a make-over, is good fun and healthy viewing as long as the clearly defined gay men stay on television and do not overstep their bounds. Frankly, I would love to see Queer Guys Seducing a Straight Guy but that is one taboo that I can’t see being pursued in the current political climate.

Other highlights for me include Creed’s often hilarious examination of the images of the male romantic hero as a beast in Mills & Boon novels and her extremely thorough analysis of the alarming on-going failure in the media to confront issues of masculinity and male power. Creed identifies the current situation where men are now not only still wielding power over women but are also claiming that they are in fact the ones being victimised by gender inequality.

However, for me the most powerful essay is the second last one in the book where Creed explores the media’s response to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the USA. Creed defines the media coverage of such an event as ‘crisis TV’ and discusses how it functions by mimicking a conventional narrative and by editing out images that might be too confronting or too real. Unlike reality TV, which people watch for entertainment, crisis TV is watched to allow people to make sense of a tragedy through the power of the ever prevalent image that they feel compelled to watch. Nevertheless, the cynic in me still feels that many people still ‘enjoy’ watching footage of the World Trade Centre attacks for the righteous sense of horror and disgust that it allows them to feel.

Media Matrix is a refreshingly accessible book and unlike a lot of academia Creed does not assume knowledge from the reader of either the predominantly psychoanalytic theories or the cultural phenomenon being discussed. Creed carefully constructs her arguments with evidence, opinion, theory and often a wonderfully dry sense of humour that could be missed if the reader is not paying attention. Media Matrix will fascinate anybody ‘jacked’ into the real word with its continuous shifting attitudes regarding morality.

Originally appeared here on Screening the Past Issue 18, 2005

© Thomas Caldwell, 2002