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The New Yorker’s Visit Just a Blip to Valley

The caller was an acquaintance named Alan, an attorney who is a Valley boy through and through.

“Have you seen the New Yorker?” he said, a little breathless. “You’ve got to pick up the New Yorker!”

Alan’s tone was an odd blend of dismay, urgency, amusement and, well, titillation.

Yes, I told him, I had seen the New Yorker. (He meant the Oct. 30 edition, with a cover depicting a witch flying over Manhattan on a skateboard.) Yes, I had read “The Money Shot” by Susan Faludi. Most of it, anyway.

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“Well, don’t you think it makes the Valley look pretty seamy? Or seemly. Unseemly? What’s the word?”

Either seamy or unseemly will do. Seamy means “unpleasant, squalid or sordid.” Unseemly means “not seemly; not decent or proper.”

I can understand why Alan felt like saying: Shame on you, New Yorker Editor Tina Brown, for parachuting (or skateboarding) Ms. Faludi into this land of tax revolters, quake survivors and champion Little Leaguers and making our Valley look like a den of iniquity.

Yes, the New Yorker, that bastion of snooty sophistication, has discovered that the San Fernando Valley is the capital of America’s $3-billion-a-year pornography industry. It’s a dirty job, but . . .

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Truth is, Valley-bashing isn’t Faludi’s objective. Rather, the author of “Backlash,” a feminist call-to-arms, looks to the porn industry as a crucible of American manhood. Here’s how “The Money Shot” is summarized in a subhead: “American manhood has always defined itself in the workplace. But nowhere is men’s job performance more literally about masculine prowess that in the San Fernando Valley’s porn industry, where for increasing numbers of disenfranchised men, the competition is all about ‘waiting for wood.’ ”

Ahem. But what really bugged Alan was the way she began her article, describing the neighborhood in which he happens to live:

“If you turn south off the Ventura Freeway at the Van Nuys Boulevard exit and go to the 4500 block, you can meditate, like Ebenezer Scrooge, on the hollow murmurings and frenzied forebodings that are the ghosts of American commerce, past and future.” Huh? “This particular business strip is in the San Fernando Valley suburbs of Los Angeles, which means it could be anywhere.” Which means: There’s no there there. “Look to the east side of the street and you can see the flattened state of things to come: a block-long mini-mall parking lot lined with placeless consumer franchises--a Blockbuster Music store, a Baskin-Robbins, a Humphrey Yogart outlet . . . " Hey, what about Solley’s Delicatessen?

“Across the street, on the west side, is the past, and crumpled newspapers and discarded Baskin-Robbins cups skitter up and down its crud-caked sidewalks.” Yuk. “At the boarded-up entrances to former hardware stores and shoe-repair shops, where tradesmen’s tools once clattered, clouds of gnats hover, making loitering unpleasant.”

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Double yuk. Who’s eating ice cream with all those gnats flying around?

Well, it must be those increasing numbers of disenfranchised American men who want to be porn stars. The scene-setter leads us “up a well-worn set of stairs” to the “well-worn World Modeling Talent Agency,” which is not merely “central casting for the nation’s pornographic film, video and magazine industries,” but, in Faludi’s analysis, much more:

“It is both the backstage door to the current American dream and an emergency-escape hatch for a capsizing American economy.” Attention laid-off aerospace engineers! “Which is why World Modeling these days lures not just women but men. More men, in fact, than women. More men than this industry of feminine glamour can begin to absorb.”

For some reason I don’t think men would find this particularly surprising. A colleague who’s written extensively about the porn industry says it has always been turning men away.

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All in all, Faludi’s piece is a rambling, sad, for-adults-only story from the fringes of society. This tale of the exploitation of men in the porn industry is largely built around the saga of a former porn star who went by the stage name Cal Jammer. He committed suicide last January after growing desperate and despondent over his own struggles to perform on camera and his jealousy over his wife’s success as a porn queen.

What Faludi makes of all this is interesting as far as it goes, which isn’t as far as she thinks. For all the talk of disenfranchised men trying to get into the porn industry, Faludi’s own reporting shows that “the reliable ‘male talent’. . . amounts to fewer than 30 regulars.”

*

Given her talk of “a capsizing American economy,” she makes much of the fact that performers who go by names likT. Boy and Julian St. Jox “have all bailed out of sinking occupational work that used to confer upon working men a measure of dignity and a masculine mantle but now offer only uncertainty.” In other words, most had blue-collar jobs; a couple were in the armed forces. Did she expect to find doctors, stock brokers and college professors?

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Alan and I didn’t chat long, but he seemed more bothered and bemused by the way the New Yorker dissed the Valley than the way a couple of dozen porn stars are proffered as case studies of “American manhood.” But hey, we American guys are tough. We can take it. The Valley, however, can be a tad sensitive.

Think of it this way: The San Fernando Valley may be image-conscious, but at least it has an image. Bing Crosby did not sing: “I’m gonna settle down and never more roam, and make the San Gabriel Valley my home.” And Frank Zappa’s “Valley Girl,” as sung by daughter Moon Unit, wasn’t set in the Santa Clarita Valley. The New Yorker’s visit is just a little blip in the evolution of the Valley’s image. It’s no secret that John Wayne Bobbitt came here to make an X-rated video, even if the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn. didn’t host a reception.

Besides, Valleyites may be heartened by Newsweek’s take on Faludi’s effort in its “Conventional Wisdom Watch” feature in the Nov. 6 issue.

Under the heading “Missed Manners Edition,” the New Yorker got a down arrow, with this tart comment: “Male-porn article uses fem sociology as fig leaf for endless erection talk. Brown bag it.”

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Scott Harris’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.


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