Sexual Shakespeare: The 'Boob Tube' Remediated

Curator's Note

Let me set the scene. The idea is this: female American porn stars, recruited nationwide, journey to Hollywood for the chance of a lifetime—to audition for a trip to London with the intention of becoming trained Shakespeareans.

I know, what could possibly go wrong?

An obvious play on My Fair Lady, in Fox Reality’s short-run series My Bare Lady female sex workers posit as modern-day Eliza Doolittles, awaiting transformation from their perceived “low” status to the proposed opposite extreme—Shakespeareans, and British-trained ones at that. After an arduous audition process which requires them to perform Juliet’s balcony scene as well as demonstrate an orgasm, the four winners travel to London and enter an intensive, three-week training program featuring specialist coaches in Shakespearean acting, language, and movement. This endeavor promises to remediate their very identities: to change them from American to British, illegitimate film stars to legitimate stage performers; literally, from “trash” to class.

Only one contestant, Sasha Knox, claims familiarity with Shakespeare and “real acting.” She sees this experience as one that will fulfill her true self, Jenna, and derides her porn identity, Sasha, as “just a performer.” Yet, in a literal combination of sex and Shakespeare, she recites the balcony scene to her erstwhile Romeo, Daniel, while giving him a lap dance. The women do not seem to be able to separate Shakespeare from sex acts, and the reality show itself underscores that notion through constant voiceovers containing sexual innuendo. As vocal coach Kay explains the importance of attaining a British accent, the smarmy (American) male voiceover explains her job thusly: “to wrap their tongues around thick English diction and help them define their oral skills.” Yikes. This sleazy retort is typical of the show’s tenor.

Hegemonic relationships abound in this scenario: men and women, sex workers and Shakespeareans, students and teachers, as well as the mediatized hierarchy of text, theatre, film, television, and interactivity. In the end, the reclamation of Shakespeare in the name of Empire suggests that a return to the status quo is necessary in order to properly situate and codify the Bard. Ultimately, Shakespeare may be read as a redemptive force who remediates the women’s film identities through a further mediatization, the reality television show. Or not. 


What a fascinating -- and bewildering -- use of Shakespeare as a signifier of high culture! The pornographic adaptations of Shakespeare's plays have been explored (by Richard Burt and others) in discussions of mass culture, but I'm curious to hear whether you think that reality television (and its characteristic features) are somehow better able to commodify Shakespeare-the-brand? Building on Britta's post from Wednesday, I wonder if there is something in reality TV's explicit use of meta-commentary/editing that particularly resonates with Shakespeare's dramaturgy?

Sarah, thanks so much for your comments. Strangely, my idea is that Shakespearean insertion into reality television, unlike other TV genres, leads ultimately to Shakespearean erasure. My Bare Lady begins with auditions utilizing R&J text, and the women are shown rehearsing and studying only Shakespearean text; Shakespeare retains centrality onscreen at first, even as other authors are studied. It is not immediately apparent, but the women’s monologues and duologues consist of other authors as well, notably Oscar Wilde and John “’Tis Pity She’s a Whore” Ford—the work of these other authors transmitting sexual overtones of love, adultery, and incest. As the series progresses, the sexual aspects overtake the Shakespearean, and Shakespeare is expunged from the advertisements, which feature the porn stars posed sexily in front of various London landmarks. Reality television itself may act as a mediator between the grim reality of the porn industry (itself arguably a parody of theatre), and illusion (whore to saint conversion). The “real” in reality demonstrates a particularly interesting misnomer; obviously the disruptive surveillance of the camera’s gaze forces the participants to contrive an obliviousness that further separates them from the real. This dialectical conundrum really fascinates me.

Sarah's comment makes me wonder if producers chose Shakespeare because of audience familiarity, because the monologues provided "high culture"-sounding audio for the TV show, or simply because Shakespearean texts allowed them to continue to highlight the selling point of the show -- sex. Either way, I'm sorry I missed the show's original run. It seems painfully, awkwardly hilarious.

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