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Sex Machines: The Disciplining Apparatuses of Lucy Kirkwood's Adult Material (2020)

Updated: Nov 5, 2021

I've been taking a break from writing since finishing my latest piece (a contribution to The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Politics, on the legacy of second-wave feminism on late 1990s feminist fiction). My new book's out on the 4th of November, so technically I'm "done" with appliances, but my eBay purchase history and the mounting piles of vintage appliances, appliance ads, and appliance pamphlets in my living room and campus office and the myriad Twitter threads I've written about appliances in Lunatics (here), Dear White People (here), YOU (here), The Missing, Maid, and The Flight Attendant (here), as well as the neoliberal politics of portable refrigerators (here), retro appliances (here and here), contemporary male grooming devices (here), and mid-century appliance advertising merchandise (here), tell a different story! Put simply, I can't stop thinking about gadgets, and now that my attention isn't focused on their role in literature, I'm seeing them... just about everywhere else.

And for the last 48 hours, I've been thinking about their role in the 2020 four-part British drama, Adult Material, written by Lucy Kirkwood and directed by Dawn Shadforth for Channel 4. I'm really interested in the relationship between home, workplace, and self in this show, in the objects and digital apparatuses that connect these (not just smart phones and the Internet, but corporate-owned social media, shopping, and adult content sites), and, finally, in the subtle force the domestic gadgets in the show exert. And I'm especially interested in the way appliances on the surface appear to draw our attention away from the central themes of the show (the online porn industry, rape, consent, class exploitation) while actually linking them all together. Bear with me, but the electric iron and washing machine in this show act in concert with the vibrators, anal irrigation kit, and smart phone in important ways that bear thinking about. Attending to the relationship between these objects, and the relationship between these objects and the female characters who find themselves treated as objects, helps reveal the show's nuanced gender and class politics. I'll be veering off into lots of other tangents, however, because that's the joy of blogging. And I'll be talking as well about objects beyond appliances.

Adult Material follows the trajectory of a successful porn star in her thirties, Hayley Burrows, (stage name: Jolene Dollar), played by Hayley Squire, as she seeks to hold her producer, Carroll Quinn (played by Rupert Everett) accountable for pressuring an 18-year-old actress to film an anal sex scene on her first day on the job, and to continue shooting after the young woman's anus prolapses. It transpires that Hayley's anger at Carroll stems in part from her own trauma: he is working with another producer, the aptly named Tom Pain, who raped Hayley years earlier, and who has a taste for violent sex with younger women and especially under-age girls. In a fit of rage, Hayley posts a series of accusations on her Instagram about Carroll's failure to protect his actresses, and then publicly quits the industry, only for Tom Pain's company, Hazewire, to sue her for defaming Carroll and bringing the corporation into disrepute (I'll come back to this but suffice to say that one of the show's strengths is its subtle attention to the ironies of corporate logic. Because the fact that an online pornography provider can sue for reputational damage is not just comical: rather, this storyline intentionally echoes the trajectory we have witnessed since #MeToo broke, and which relies on an understanding of corporations as individuals rather than institutions with vast amounts of power. This personalisation of the corporation finds its counterpoint in the objectification of workers).

Meanwhile, the young woman Hayley was protecting, Amy, stabs Tom when he attempts to have rough sex with her, only to then visit him in hospital, give him a hand job in exchange for dropping charges, move into his flat with him, and then branch out into escorting when he kicks her out. It is suggested that the prolapse was likely a result of decades of domestic abuse (it is implied, by her father), but by the end of the show she is back in her childhood bedroom, having broken both her legs jumping out of a window to avoid going through a gang bang with a dozen of her client's friends. The show makes clear that Amy's choices are not so different from those Hayley would have had to make, too, had she come of age in the 2020s--a point emphasised by the struggles of Hayley's daughter, Izzy, who is Amy's same age. At school, Izzy must contend with being the daughter of a porn star whose videos many of her classmates have seen, and whose merchandise, including a Jolene Dollar Vaginal Sex toy allegedly modelled on Hayley's own genitalia, they own and, indeed, throw around the classroom like a football. Izzy's trajectory in turn mirrors Hayley's own: just as Hayley ends up having to pay damages to a production company that stands behind a serial rapist, it is Izzy who ends up being expelled from her school for sharing a video of her boyfriend naked after he has sex with her while she's asleep and shares naked photos of her with her friends.

In the end, Hayley has to return to shooting porn to pay Carroll's legal fees. More specifically, she has to do the thing she has refused for decades: an anal scene. With her rapist. And then, thanks to a drag queen whose homage to her goes viral, she enjoys a resurgence in popularity, and launches her own, ethical porn site that will allow her to make a living doing what she does best, but safely, and without being exploited. As she puts it to Carroll in the penultimate scene, "I ain't needed you since they invented the selfie stick. I stayed with you because I loved you," and, in reply to his rejoiner ("I do love you!"), "Yeah. But sooner or later it's gonna be better for you to fuck me over than to take care of me. And that ain't love, mate. That's economics":

And haven't we all felt that way about an employer at some point in our working lives?

(You could read Sarah Jaffe's Work Won't Love You Back, or you could just watch this three-minute sequence).

Happy Families, Domesticated Workers

I want to linger on what this penultimate scene of the show communicates, beyond the fact that, as Kate Stables notes in a review of Adult Material for Sight and Sound, owning the means of production is the only real way to avoid exploitation. More specifically, the scene stages Hayley's and Carroll's parting as a divorce, and echoes the language of the emancipated housewives of British and US second-wave feminist fiction and of British kitchen sink dramas--the women who ultimately realise that the price of marriage is too high, and that they are better off scrambling together a living on their own, no matter how precarious. I'm reminded especially of Nell Dunn's Up the Junction (1963) and Poor Cow (1967), Fay Weldon's Down Among the Women (1971), and Marilyn French's The Women's Room (1977). The shot of Hayley leaving the chicken shop where she and Carroll met is an obvious homage to Ken Loach's adaptation of Poor Cow, but like countless other scenes, Hayley's comportment, clothes, and accessories, show the working-class female protagonist to be both more empowered (at least, financially) and more morally compromised than her predecessors. Hayley marches out of that chicken shop wearing Louboutins.

And of course, this short scene underscores what the show has been telling us all along: that the porn industry isn't so different from any other industry in the 21st century (poor labour conditions are poor labour conditions, whether you're stacking boxes or faking orgasm), and what binds these industries, among other things, is their reproduction of the same power dynamics as those of the nuclear family. It has become a commonplace to say that children who have been abused end up being all the more vulnerable to abuse in adulthood, be it relationships or the workplace. What doesn't get stated nearly as often is that the reason why abuse in the workplace is so effective is because it involves tactics to which anyone raised in a family, even non-abusive ones, will be more vulnerable. Corporations operate via a hierarchical model that emulates that of the patriarchal nuclear family, while the distinction between work and home has been eroded by precisely the same technologies that allow Hayley's audiences to consume her content anywhere they like. (Hence the cruel irony of Hayley's remarks to Izzy's school principal: "I work in the only industry where women are paid more than men... I get home on time to put food on the table for my kids." The viewer might retort: "Yes, but at what cost?" And also: "What does it say about the state of contemporary working conditions, if this is something to vaunt??"). Point being, the legacy of domestic relations, abusive or otherwise, permeates outwards, and shapes relations far beyond. And again and again, the show communicates that the different forms of abuse Hayley, Izzy, and Amy experience cannot be isolated, while their interconnection is illustrative of the ways in which seemingly separate social norms and forms of inequity in fact mutually reinforce one another and effectively conspire to place women, and particularly working-class and minority women, in impossible situations.

What interests me is the way this permeation, or spillage, is illustrated via montage sequences whose visual vocabulary invites us to compare the interconnection of domestic abuse and gender inequality to the interconnected nature of subject-object relations in a post-digital world. Put differently: this is a show where objects matter, because its central concern is the treatment of women as objects, the ramifications of an industry that reduces sex and sexual fantasy to a commodity to the frequent detriment of the bodies involved, and the ramifications of frictionless consumption (online shopping, porn watching, influencer-following, and so on). And it is a show that uses domestic gadgets and media communication devices to explore the ramifications of interconnection more broadly--the ways in which digital networks facilitate both exploitation and empowerment in ways that, frankly, a washing machine or vacuum cleaner, the first "liberators" of women, never had a hope of doing, for all that they promised.

Shiny Objects, Lovely Homes

Adult Material portrays this interconnection, and the slippage between objectified subjects and subjectified objects, from the very first scene, which opens onto a car wash. The first thing we see, in fact, is an object (Hayley's hot pink Audi), followed by the rapid juxtaposition of the car's parts being soaped and Hayley's face on her phone screen as she films herself orgasming. The soundtrack (Rose Stein's cover of The Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive") and Hayley's white suit self-consciously gesture to the opening scene of another working-class drama, Saturday Night Fever (1977). Like Hayley's stage name, which pays homage to quintessential working-class-girl-made-good Dolly Parton's most famous song, the references to John Travolta's shop-clerk-turned-disco-dancer warn us that this story won't have a straightforwardly happy ending.

As Hayley moans and gyrates, the camera hovers over the millennial pink faux fur pouf and diamante encrusted platform heel charm on her key chain, before switching, once more, to her face on the phone screen. Fake orgasm completed, she posts the video, flicks to a high-end shoe retail site, and clicks on a pair of £1,965 "La Duchessa" (Italian for "the duchess") platform boots.

In this way, the show immediately establishes the significance of objects and of seamless exchange to its storyline. The frictionless quality of end-of-millennial and postmillennial online shopping and porn discretely consumed on one's smartphone finds its counterpart in the lubed-up appendages that Hayley allows to be inserted into her body to minimise physical pain (about which more later). If on one level we might find this dismaying, the lyrics of "Stayin' Alive" oblige us to recognise that Hayley has it good: where Travolta's Tony Moreno could only aspire to nice shoes, as attested by the iconic shot of him comparing his cheap Cuban heels to the ones in the store window (see below), Hayley can get them with one click (There is of course a counterargument to be made here, that online shopping merely makes subjects such as Hayley more atomised and vulnerable to debt and exploitation, but that feels facile, frankly. Depressing Cuban heels aside, Tony Moreno lives in a cramped apartment with his parents, siblings, and grandparents and earns minimum wage clerking in a paint store. Were he a woman, being groped on the job would be an unofficial part of his [poorly-paid] job description. And for all that 1970s Brooklyn offers space for flânerie in a way that 2020s Croydon can't, and window-shopping is arguably less atomising than scrolling, none of Hayley's friends commit suicide, do they?)

Adult Material's opening scene also makes clear that the porn industry exists thanks to the limited opportunities available to working-class women on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the seductive allure of wealth for what on the face of it is a nominal amount of work and a broader culture of always-on performativity and endless, at-a-click consumption. The show ably illustrates the interrelation between these different phenomena and in particular, the ways in which smartphones act as hubs for desire, devices to facilitate the hunt for likes, for short films of bodies gyrating, squirting, and cumming, and for objects to purchase (the shots of Hayley's younger, pre-teen, daughter posting photos on social media of herself wearing clothing items she's bought for the express purpose of posting and then returning, are especially excruciating).

Throughout, the show juxtaposes the content filmed by large, male-led production companies with online shopping and social media interactions to reveal the parallels between the logic driving these various platforms' customer bases and the behaviours and states of mind they engender. And, in all of this, beautiful objects and especially beautiful domestic objects are revealed as insidious. Seductive, entrapping, and preying on the most vulnerable, they act as allegories for broader system inequalities. As the most obvious example, Hayley justifies shooting the anal scene with her rapist because otherwise she will lose her house--and to her solicitor's retort that "It's just STUFF!" she answers that it's not: "When I was Izzy's age, I never thought I'd get to live in a house like that." And to the solicitor's question, "In what world is it worth losing a bloody house, than doing that with him?" [sic], her answer is, "In my world."

This rejoinder is all the more powerful in its echoing of two scenes just prior.

In the first scene, Hayley visits Amy in her parents' house, and confirms for herself that this young woman didn't end up in porn due to economic necessity. She grew up in precisely the "house like that" that Hayley "never thought" she could own. But to Hayley's offer to help Amy leave the industry, Amy merely points to the ostrich skin handbag the gang bang client gave her and asks if she likes it. She broke her legs to avoid being penetrated by twelve men, but look at that leather! In revealing Amy’s hunger for beautiful things to stem from abuse rather than financial precarity, and likening that hunger to Hayley’s, the show also indicates the remarkable similarities between the psychological effects of domestic abuse and of childhood poverty. Class inequality is itself a form of abuse (that in turn renders the less economically secure vulnerable to further abuse).

The second scene, an exchange between Hayley and Amy's mother, underscores a whole other aspect to the class issues the show has been elaborating: "You house is like, so lovely," Hayley tells Amy's mother, only for the latter to reply, "It all needs re-doing, we're ripping the kitchen out." Where Hayley is willing to do an anal scene to hold onto the beautiful house someone like her was never meant to have, Amy's mother is more concerned with performing the role of the good middle-class housewife (not only does the kitchen need replacing, but she is "not happy" with the cake she has just baked) over acknowledging that her husband has been raping their daughter for years.

Together, the three back-to-back scenes reinforce the perniciousness of a consumer capitalism that renders middle-class women, too, compliant, and indeed more likely to treat domestic abuse as an aesthetic aberration like an outdated kitchen than an injustice to be rectified. In both instances, real estate, luxury goods, interior design, and the performance of domesticity are revealed to matter vastly more than the people who they are nominally intended to assist--and in the case of houses, protect.

Plus, the viewer knows that while Hayley and her children love her house, she hasn't been happy there for a very long time--and her children haven't lived there in months. We have watched its interior deteriorate in parallel with its owner, the accumulating pile of empty vodka bottles and dirty dishes mirroring her under-eye circles, bruises, smudged makeup, and dark roots. This is particularly apparent in an earlier scene of the same episode, after Hayley rings her ex to ask if the children can stay with him, as she doesn't feel able to:

The angle of the lingering shot of Hayley sitting on the sofa after the phone call places the mauve velvet mid-century repro dining chairs and pink pedal rubbish bin behind her prominently in view, forcing us to notice the similarity between their hues and Hayley's own halter top, bra straps, and skin tone. Apart from disturbing the distinction between accessory and accessorised (do the bin and chairs match her, or does she match them?), the shot confronts the viewer with the uselessness of of-the-moment objets in a crisis.

Again and again, then, the home operates as an imprisoning structure, a co-conspirator with the workplace, just as expensive shoes and dresses on online shopping platforms operate in tandem with the pornography platforms that pay for them.

Washing machines, Anal irrigation kits, and Third Shifts

I'm interested in all of this, as ever, because of the way the show enlists gadgets -- vibrators on the one hand, domestic appliances on the other -- to play out the limited opportunities available to Hayley, and to tell her story. The things this show does with vibrators, electric irons, and a washing machine that shows up with alarming frequency and seems to act as a silent witness to Hayley's unravelling and as an active participant in her self-reconstruction, are fascinating. They extend the tropes I discuss in my book -- the longstanding interrelation of domestic gadgets' social function and that of the women historically tasked with using them -- in important ways.

In particular, I see parallels between the machines of the home and the disciplining apparatus that lies beyond it -- from a porn industry increasingly reliant on social media and smartphones, to an archaic legal system that fails victims and a patriarchal culture that finds ever more sophisticated ways to shame women into subservience. And at times, it's hard to tell the apparatus apart from the woman being disciplined (this whole post, I should mention, is indebted to Olivia Stowell's piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books blog on The Sopranos, Adriana's ab roller, and early noughties fat-shaming).

Here I'm thinking of the gadgets Hayley has to insert inside herself to prepare her body for the anal shoot, and which the show unwaveringly documents: the lubricated irrigation pipe to give herself an enema as she lies supine on the bathroom floor and the anal plug to loosen her sphincter, which leaves her doubled over in pain, but will make the shoot less excruciating. The sequence doesn't just contribute to the show's overarching efforts to reveal the distance between the stuff on screen and its toll on the bodies involved: it portrays the body as a machine, a gadget to be primed, lubed up, and serviced, while drawing attention to the consummate professionalism of the woman who owns that body. That dualism is intended to startle. The viewer is confronted with both the degrading nature of the prepping procedure and Hayley's skilful handling of it, which demonstrates, yet again, how good she is at her job. And that feels allegorical. For I suspect many can identify with the feeling of being very, very good at a job that is humiliating, demoralising, and has required them to sacrifice parts of themselves they never thought they would. This is not to draw a direct link between the physical pain (and more) of agreeing to be filmed having anal sex with other forms of workplace injustice and exploitation, I should mention, but rather to suggest that the richness of this show derives in part by the comparisons scenes like this invite. And without wishing to replicate the homophobia implicit to the original meaning of the expressions "I'm buggered" or "I've been f*cked up the ass" (both of which imply that anal sex is inherently wrong, violent, and unpleasant), the anal storyline does rather neatly summarise what many would describe as their experience of employer-employee relations.

And then there are the actual appliances.

Early on in Adult Material's first episode, we see Hayley shooting a scene on set, only for her mumbled list, to herself, of chores to do when she gets home to give way to a rapid interplay of her shooting the scene and of her at home ironing and loading washing into the washing machine. This interplay is followed by a series of split screens, wherein her bottom half is being f*cked on set while her top half is ironing and loading the machine. The montage conveys that sex work is just a job, and workers daydream; that as with women in every other industry, there is a "third shift" when they get home; that this is a mechanical, mindless job; and, finally, that there is very little difference between porn acting and being a wife, if the woman in question happens to be in a loveless marriage, or to not get pleasure from having sex with her husband. The only difference is that the porn actress gets paid for her labour: the housewife has sex and does laundry for free. This message is reinforced a couple of scenes later, when we see her at home, looking exhausted, finally doing the chores. While the imagined washing machine-loading drew attention to the mundaneity of the work involved in creating sexual fantasies for others' consumption, the shot of Hayley actually loading the machine draws attention to the myriad other mundane things that vie for her attention. Having spent her day satiating the sexual desires of strangers, she comes home to the boring stuff of domestic labour. In both cases, she is operating mechanically, going through the motions of performing her role.

These two sequences set the tone for the rest of the show, which continuously disrupts easy moralising and stance-taking. And, crucially, the washing machine plays a pivotal role not only in these first ten minutes, but in a climactic scene in the final episode, and, again, in the very last scene, before fading into the background and allowing Hayley to once more take up the whole frame.

Let's take a look.

After her fall from grace, a montage in the last episode shows Hayley first working as a domestic cleaner (specifically, vacuuming). This is then followed by a heartbreaking scene in which a parody video of her and Tom Pain having sex leads her to drink herself into a stupor.

The next scene opens onto her passed out on the kitchen floor next to the washing machine, surrounded by the droppings of the family's pet rabbit, to the tune of Sinéad O'Connor's cover of Nirvana's "All Apologies."

The camera lingers over her crumpled body. And it makes us bear witness.

The case has broken her: and here she is, a woman who cannot even do laundry, reduced to a cliché of a drunken mad housewife (a point underscored by the lyrics, "What else could I write? / I don't have the right," which when uttered by a woman's voice imbue Cobain's words with an unexpected feminism).

That the show isn't interested in recycling the cliché of the mad housewife is made apparent by what comes next: her phone buzzes, and her solicitor informs her she has lost the defamation case. Hayley collapses onto the ground and crawls on all fours to the corner of the kitchen where she had been sleeping. "All Apologies" starts up again. She slumps against the kitchen cabinets next to the washing machine and pink rubbish bin and guzzles boxed wine, before the sight of her children's muddy boots snaps her out of it.

She then attempts to throw the wine box in the garbage, can't bring herself to do it, and, apropos of nothing, opens the laundry machine, sticks her head inside, and screams (that this action appears almost propelled by the lyrics, "and married / buried," is beautifully on-the-nose. I'll have to think more about this, but suffice to say that there is something brilliantly disorientating about a female cover of a 90s hit juxtaposed with a woman in 2021 enacting a trope straight out of a 1970s feminist novel. The story hasn't changed, it's just being voiced in a different way, and with different technologies. Married and buried, indeed).

The camera lingers over Hayley's curved body bent into the washing machine, uncannily echoing the afore-mentioned split screen from the first episode. It then pans out slightly as she slowly, slowly, pulls her head out, before focusing on her hands, holding on to the top of the washing machine to balance her as she re-emerges:

Where the scream into the washing machine corrects the stoicism of her facial expression in in the split screen sequence, belatedly revealing the emotional cost of her job, the shot of Hayley's scratched, bruised arm, white-knuckled hand, and unpainted nails subtly references the disembodied manicured hands that glance and caress appliances and cleaning products in mid-century ads. Where these served to portray housework as effortless, and the appliance advertised as facilitating the conservation of the housewife's beauty--enabling her to remain a pristine, untouched, object--the portrayal of Hayley's clenched hand and scratched arm force us to see the toll her labours as actress, mother, wife, and rape victim have taken on her, and the effort required to face challenges far greater than achieving whiter-than-white whites. Rather than alleviating effort, the washing machine is subsumed by Hayley's grief and becomes an extension of her bruised, cirrhosis-ridden body.

More importantly, Hayley's emergence from the washing machine is a rebirth (and this wouldn't be the first time a television show, film, or novel portrays a washing machine as a womb or pregnant belly). Head out, she puts the wine box purposefully into the bin and gets up. She has given herself a second chance, and has decided, we realise in the subsequent scene, to stop drinking and do what it takes to pay the legal fees she's been saddled with: agree to shoot the anal scene. The messy home and the objects that are her only companions underscore the sacrifice that leaving the porn industry has entailed, while the laundry machine is enlisted to highlight the lack of options available to working-class women like her. This, the scene suggests, is the alternative. And it's not so much that the laundry machine baptises her in its welcoming of her scream within its cavernous mouth, but consumes her and spits her out. This rebirth is ugly, un-airbrushed. There is no idealisation, there is no adulation: change will be difficult, and it's not a choice. It's the only option, apart from death.

Crucially, the washing machine comes to the fore again in the show's final moments, when her ex-husband comes by to fix it (he now works as a plumber) and reveals that he is longer seeing the woman he was dating. The scene makes playful reference to porn (the plumber and housewife being the oldest story of the genre) while gesturing back to the trajectory Hayley has followed over the course of the season, including her quip to her solicitor that porn is the only alternative to "never shopping again for anything other than yellow-sticker items, and having a panic attack anytime I need to call the plumber."

The laundry machine in need of servicing is an on-the-nose metaphor, and, aptly, we don't end up seeing him actually fix it. Instead, he and Hayley have sex, and for the first time in four episodes, we see Hayley enjoy it. Where her earlier quip about the need for a plumber inducing a panic attack countered porn movies' idealisation of the plumber's capacity to satisfy hungry housewives in the umpteenth reminder of the grimness of the domestic day-to-day from which porn offers an escape, the sex she and her ex have instead of getting the washing machine fixed offers Hayley her first escape. For a few minutes at least, she gets to experience the fantasy rather than just be it for others. Reality turns into the stuff of pornographic fantasy and romantic eros.

I've not fully worked out these ideas, but sometimes one has to throw things out into the ether and see what sticks. I'll add more as and when I have time. For now, I'll just reiterate that Adult Material is, indeed, concerned with materiality, and with what happens when we treat human beings and social relations as immaterial. It's concerned with mystification, reification, and the status of objects, people, and capital under what Zygmunt Bauman termed "liquid capitalism." But it's also concerned with pushing back against facile assumptions and revealing its viewers' own complicity in the systems they oppose--as attested by Hayley's quip, to Carroll, that the market for her new, organic, porn is "Anyone who reads the Guardian and likes wanking. There's a lot of them. They're very conflicted."

To be continued!

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