Disturbing and amusing moments abounded the Sunday afternoon I spent with Nina Schwanse. She dolled herself up in a clusterfuck of clichéd fetish outfits based on characters from her Babe-Rental.com website, wrapped an old telephone around her torso, grabbed her black plastic Glock, and headed for Bourbon Street. The gay guys at the corner of St. Ann posed her for pictures like some demented Lady Gaga doll. She toyed with the bouncer in front of Rick's Cabaret, asking, if not at the door, where she could stand to pass out cards advertising her “services” (he directed her to the gutter). Frat boys gawked in excitement and made comments like, “Dude, she's fucked up! That's awesome!” And a snaggle-toothed hillbilly holding a “3 for 1” sign in front of the House of the Rising Sun bar lamented that “dirty Mexicans” would not be far behind, referencing the men who line the Las Vegas Strip flapping escort cards across their knuckles.
I trailed Schwanse at a discreet distance that day to watch her implement what she called her “community outreach” marketing strategy. Beaded and boozed-up tourists shook their heads in baffled bemusement at the “Only-in-New-Orleans” spectacle she created, staggering in stripper heels and introducing herself to potential “clients”: “I'm Shima. S-H-I-M-A. And I'm Carmen for you. C-A-R-M-E-N.” Her act mirrored the videos on Babe-Rental.com, in which a cast of sultry yet absurd characters, all played by Schwanse, advertise themselves to be “rented.” Shifting around in awkward positions against a black backdrop, they repeat and spell out their names while playing with their respective props (a book for the sexy student, a broom for the sexy maid, a plastic baseball bat for the sexy American Gladiator, a cat for the sexy ... cat lady?). Not every persona is carefully defined, but their ambiguity is in line with the ambiguous nature of the website. Its intent seems clear enough at first glance, from the provocative URL to the official-seeming “WARNING: ADULT CONTENT” disclaimer to the lewd barrage of animated GIFs that entice users to click through to the videos. But eventually one realizes that there is no information on how to actually go about “renting” the babes—there are only links to send them emails—and that, in their unwieldy movements, over-the-top gestures, and insistent repetition of their names, the girls seem kind of brain dead. All of this intends to funnel the user to the intrinsic question at the center of Schwanse's Babe Rental project: This is supposed to be sexy, right?
The male gaze has been the target of feminist art and critical theory for decades, since artists and theorists like Cindy Sherman and Laura Mulvey began to pick apart female representations, analyze them in a psychoanalytic context, and respond by creating work that, at once, articulates the patriarchal nature of mainstream culture and functions to undermine it. In her landmark 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Mulvey describes the way in which the structures of Hollywood films almost without fail involve female characters whose function as objects of visual pleasure provokes actions by their male counterparts that drive the narrative. The active/male and passive/female power imbalance is reinforced by cinematic elements that position women, as Mulvey writes, in “their traditional exhibitionist role, [in which] women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to striptease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.” Schwanse knowingly crafts her characters to accentuate qualities that play to and signify male desire. She casts her camera as the male gaze itself, manipulating it with her performances while also controlling what it sees. In doing so, she draws forth the visual relationship between men and women as famously stated by critic John Berger: “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”
Babe Rental presents images that are highly sexualized according to standard erotic conventions, but that are uncomfortable, nearing impossible, to interact with in a sexual way. The women's rigid mannerisms, their detached utterances, and the degree to which Schwanse has amplified hackneyed sexual stereotypes render the characters strangely grotesque despite the bared cleavage, crotch shots, pouting lips, exposed curves, suggestive tugging at clothes, etc. Schwanse’s exploitation of her own body and its intrinsic appeal could be compared to that of art-world darling Laurel Nakadate, who also makes a spectacle of herself through costume and sexual stereotype to highlight and mock the male gaze. But while Nakadate's work ostensibly delves into intimate personal territory—either her own or her subjects'—Schwanse's project looks outward, into the dirty world of internet sex.
Babe Rental creates a dialogue with two major components of the online sex industry—online pornography and online escort services—by mimicking and subverting the aesthetics and narratives of the websites that offer them. As the primary components of the project, Babe-Rental.com's videos are not so outlandish as to completely negate desire, but each video sets up a number of obstacles that prevent its easy digestion as an erotic object. The videos relay a series of basic clues that indicate the viewer should be sexually stimulated, but then cross into territory that is at once confusing, unsettling, and a major buzzkill. Take, for instance, the video that features Carmen, the sexy maid. She's dressed in lacy black panties with white ribbon-ties up each side, red stockings, white high heels, and a cheap, tight polo shirt, the bottom of which she tucks up between her breasts to expose her midriff. She dons a pair of red rubber gloves that match her stockings and rubs a broomstick between her legs like a phallus she's dying to worship. Drawn-out close-ups of her mouth and feet play to respective fetishes and function as static respites from the rest of her performance—which smacks of a clumsy amateur stripper trying too hard—but not from the maddening voiceover repeatedly stating and spelling her name. After fondling the broom handle, she begins to rub the fibers of the broom across her body in what is perhaps the most strikingly unsexy of her gestures—though her prop appears to be clean, it's tough to imagine something less desirable in its filth and pedestrian nature to be rubbed across skin than the business end of a broom, or something less scintillating than a butt crack full of floor lint.
The awkwardness of Schwanse's characters and their purposefully pseudo-erotic gestures only compound the element of the videos that truly drains them of erotic appeal—their radical lack of narrative. Just as film depends on narrative to evoke emotion and stimulate the viewer, pornography regularly depends on narrative—either explicit or implicit—to evoke erotic stimulation. Pornography that involves characters, like a hotel guest and a maid or a teacher and a student, particularly relies on narrative to establish the power roles that create the erotic fantasy. In scenarios that involve female characters in traditionally dominant social positions, like a female boss and her male underling or a female prison guard and a male inmate, the reversal of power roles when the characters engage in sex creates a clear narrative arc—typically, the penis, rather than the empowered female, becomes the driving force of the action.
Websites that advertise online escorts, live webcams, or other forms of interactive sex also often invoke implied narratives to create appeal. Whether it's a pop-up window featuring an image of a seductive woman who wants to “meet you” or a prostitute discreetly posing on Craigslist as a masseuse, advertisements plant the seed of a narrative they encourage viewers to help enact. In fact, as Christian Salmon points out in his book Storytelling (2010), denizens of the modern age have become so susceptible to the lure of narrative that PR experts from politics to advertising have largely scrapped 20th-century forms of brand identity in favor of persuading their audiences by presenting them with stories.
Schwanse's cast of characters includes women in a range of social positions, but their roles are signified almost exclusively by their costumes, and nothing else. The homogeneity of their facial expressions, their contrived, strange gestures, and their incessant repetition of their names makes them appear essentially without personality, or even—to an extent—personhood. The black backdrop against which the characters are shot enhances this effect. Even a mere setting for sex—outdoors, in a motel room, in an S&M dungeon—can help create narrative effect in pornography, adding layers of depth to the fantasy it evokes. The absence of setting and personality in the Babe Rental videos leaves a viewer with a dispossessed female body, dressed provocatively and squirming around. The videos therefore demand of the viewer—if s/he wishes to attain visual pleasure—a degree of objectification beyond that which normal pornography requires. The viewer must consciously ignore the videos' aural and visual dissonance, concentrate as much as possible on Schwanse's body as a sexual object, and essentially construct a narrative from scratch to achieve a sufficient erotic fantasy. It's quite a bit of work—and this, of course, is the point.