The Tumescent Citizen

The Legend of Ron Jeremy

How to Cite

Russell, D. (2004). The Tumescent Citizen: The Legend of Ron Jeremy. M/C Journal, 7(4).
Vol. 7 No. 4 (2004): Porn
Published 2004-10-01

Are male porn stars full-fledged citizens? Recent political developments make this question more than rhetorical. The Bush Justice Department, led by Attorney General John Ashcroft, has targeted the porn industry, beginning with its prosecution of Extreme Associates. More recently, the President requested an increase in the FBI’s 2005 budget for prosecuting obscenity, one of the few budget increases for the Bureau outside of its anti-terrorism program (Schmitt A1).

To be sure, the concept of “citizen” is itself vexed. Citizenship, when obtained or granted, ostensibly legitimates a subject and opens up pathways to privilege: social, political, economic, etc. Yet all citizens do not seem to be created equal. “There is, in the operation of state-defined rules and in common practices an assumption of moral worth in which de facto as opposed to de jure rights of citizenship are defined as open to those who are deserving or who are capable of acting responsibly,” asserts feminist critic Linda McDowell. “The less deserving and the less responsible are defined as unworthy of or unfitted for the privileges of full citizenship” (150). Under this rubric, a citizen must measure up to a standard of “moral worth”—an individual is not a full-fledged citizen merely on the basis of birth or geographical placement. As McDowell concludes, “citizenship is not an inclusive but an exclusive concept” (150).

Thus, in figuring out how male porn stars stand in regard to the question of citizenship, we must ask who determines “moral worth,” who distinguishes the less from the more deserving, and how people have come to agree on the “common practices” of citizenship. Many critics writing about citizenship, including McDowell, Michael Warner, Lauren Berlant, Russ Castronovo, Robyn Wiegman, Michael Moon, and Cathy Davidson (to name only a few) have located the nexus of “moral worth” in the body. In particular, the ability to make the body abstract, invisible, and non-identifiable has been the most desirable quality for a citizen to possess. White men seem ideally situated for such acts of “decorporealization,” and the white male body has been installed as the norm for citizenship. Conversely, women, people of color, and the ill and disabled, groups that are frequently defined by their very embodiment, find themselves more often subject to regulation.

If the white male body is the standard, however, for “moral worth,” the white male porn star would seem to disrupt such calculations. Clearly, the profession demands that these men put their bodies very much in evidence, and the most famous porn stars, like John C. Holmes and Ron Jeremy, derive much of their popularity from their bodily excess. Jeremy’s struggle for “legitimacy,” and the tenuous position of men in the porn industry in general, demonstrate that even white males, when they cannot or will not aspire to abstraction and invisibility, will lose the privileges of citizenship. The right’s attack on pornography can thus be seen as yet another attempt to regulate and restrict citizenship, an effort that forces Jeremy and the industry that made him famous struggle for strategies of invisibility that will permit some mainstream acceptance.

In American Anatomies, Robyn Wiegman points out that the idea of democratic citizenship rested on a distinct sense of the abstract and non-particular. The more “particular” an individual was, however, the less likely s/he could pass into the realm of citizen. “For those trapped by the discipline of the particular (women, slaves, the poor),” Wiegman writes, “the unmarked and universalized particularity of the white masculine prohibited their entrance into the abstraction of personhood that democratic equality supposedly entailed” (49). The norm of the “white masculine” caused others to signify “an incontrovertible difference” (49), so people who were visibly different (or perceived as visibly different) could be tyrannized over and regulated to ensure the purity of the norm.

Like Wiegman, Lauren Berlant has written extensively about the ways in which the nation recognizes only one “official” body: “The white, male body is the relay to legitimation, but even more than that, the power to suppress that body, to cover its tracks and its traces, is the sign of real authority, according to constitutional fashion” (113). Berlant notes that “problem citizens”—most notably women of color—struggle with the problem of “surplus embodiment.” They cannot easily suppress their bodies, so they are subjected to the regulatory power of a law that defines them and consequently opens their bodies up to violation. To escape their “surplus embodiment,” those who can seek abstraction and invisibility because “sometimes a person doesn’t want to seek the dignity of an always-already-violated body, and wants to cast hers off, either for nothingness, or in a trade for some other, better model” (114).

The question of “surplus embodiment” certainly has resonance for male porn stars. Peter Lehman has argued that hardcore pornography relies on images of large penises as signifiers of strength and virility. “The genre cannot tolerate a small, unerect penis,” Lehman asserts, “because the sight of the organ must convey the symbolic weight of the phallus” (175). The “power” of male porn stars derives from their visibility, from “meat shots” and “money shots.” Far from being abstract, decorporealized “persons,” male porn stars are fully embodied. In fact, the more “surplus embodiment” they possess, the more famous they become.

Yet the very display that makes white male porn stars famous also seemingly disqualifies them from the “legitimacy” afforded the white male body. In the industry itself, male stars are losing authority to the “box-cover girls” who sell the product. One’s “surplus embodiment” might be a necessity for working in the industry, but, as Susan Faludi notes, “by choosing an erection as the proof of male utility, the male performer has hung his usefulness, as porn actor Jonathan Morgan observed, on ‘the one muscle on our body we can’t flex’” (547). When that muscle doesn’t work, a male porn star doesn’t become an abstraction—he becomes “other,” a joke, swept aside and deemed useless.

Documentary filmmaker Scott J. Gill recognizes the tenuousness of the “citizenship” of male porn stars in his treatment of Ron Jeremy, “America’s most famous porn star.” The film, Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy (2001), opens with a clear acknowledgment of Jeremy’s body, as one voiceover explains how his nickname, “the Hedgehog,” derives from the fact that Jeremy is “small, fat, and very hairy.” Then, Gill intercuts the comments of various Jeremy fans: “An idol to an entire generation,” one young man opines; “One of the greatest men this country has ever seen,” suggests another. This opening scene concludes with an image of Jeremy, smirking and dressed in a warm-up suit with a large dollar sign necklace, standing in front of an American flag (an image repeated at the end of the film). This opening few minutes posit the Hedgehog as super-citizen, embraced as few Americans are. “Everyone wants to be Ron Jeremy,” another young fan proclaims. “They want his life.”

Gill also juxtaposes “constitutional” forms of legitimacy that seemingly celebrate Jeremy’s bodily excess with the resultant discrimination that body actually engenders. In one clip, Jeremy exposes himself to comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who then sardonically comments, “All men are created equal—what bullshit!” Later, Gill employs a clip of a film in which Jeremy is dressed like Ben Franklin while in a voiceover porn director/historian Bill Margold notes that the Freeman decision “gave a birth certificate to a bastard industry—it legitimized us.” The juxtaposition thus posits Jeremy as a “founding father” of sorts, the most recognizable participant in an industry now going mainstream.

Gill, however, emphasizes the double-edged nature of Jeremy’s fame and the price of his display. Immediately after the plaudits of the opening sequence, Gill includes clips from various Jeremy talk show appearances in which he is denounced as “scum” and told “You should go to jail just for all the things that you’ve helped make worse in this country” and “You should be shot.” Gill also shows a clearly dazed Jeremy in close-up confessing, “I hate myself. I want to find a knife and slit my wrists.” Though Jeremy does not seem serious, this comment comes into better focus as the film unfolds. Jeremy’s efforts to go “legit,” to break into mainstream film and leave his porn life behind, keep going off the tracks. In the meantime, Jeremy must fulfill his obligations to his current profession, including getting a monthly HIV test. “There’ll be one good thing about eventually getting out of the porn business,” he confesses as Gill shows scenes of a clearly nervous Jeremy awaiting results in a clinic waiting room, “to be able to stop taking these things every fucking month.” Gill shows that the life so many others would love to have requires an abuse of the body that fans never see. Jeremy is seeking to cast off that life, “either for nothingness, or in a trade for some other, better model.” Behind this “legend” is unseen pain and longing.

Gill emphasizes the dichotomy between Jeremy (illegitimate) and “citizens” in his own designations. Adam Rifkin, director of Detroit Rock City, in which Jeremy has a small part, and Troy Duffy, another Jeremy pal, are referred to as “mainstream film directors.” When Jeremy returns to his home in Queens to visit his father, Arnold Hyatt is designated “physicist.” In fact, Jeremy’s father forbids his son from using the family name in his porn career. “I don’t want any confusion between myself and his line of work,” Hyatt confesses, “because I’m retired.” Denied his patronym, Jeremy is truly “illegitimate.” Despite his father’s understanding and support, Jeremy is on his own in the business he has chosen.

Jeremy’s reputation also gets in the way of his mainstream dreams. “Sometimes all this fame can hurt you,” Jeremy himself notes. Rifkin admits that “People recognize Ron as a porn actor and immediately will ask me to remove him from the final cut.” Duffy concurs that Jeremy’s porn career has made him a pariah for some mainstream producers: “Stigma attached to him, and that’s all anybody’s ever gonna see.” Jeremy’s visibility, the “stigma” that people have “seen,” namely, his large penis and fat, hairy body, denies him the abstract personhood he needs to go “legitimate.” Thus, whether through the concerted efforts of the Justice Department or the informal, personal angst of a producer fearing a backlash against a film, Jeremy, as a representative of an immoral industry, finds himself subject to regulation. Indeed, as his “legitimate” filmography indicates, Jeremy has been cut out of more than half the films he has appeared in.

The issue of “visibility” as the basis for regulation of hardcore pornography has its clearest articulation in Potter Stewart’s famous proclamation “I know it when I see it.” But as Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong report in The Brethren, Stewart was not the only Justice who used visibility as a standard. Byron White’s personal definition was “no erect penises, no intercourse, no oral or anal sodomy” (193). William Brennan, too, had what his clerks called “the limp dick standard” (194). Erection, what Lehman has identified as the conveyance of the phallus, now became the point of departure for regulation, transferring, once again, the phallus to the “law.”

When such governmental regulation failed First Amendment ratification, other forms of societal regulation kicked in. The porn industry has accommodated itself to this regulation, as Faludi observes, in its emphasis on “soft” versions of product for distribution to “legitimate” outlets like cable and hotels. “The version recut for TV would have to be entirely ‘soft,’” Faludi notes, “which meant, among other things, no erect penises and no semen” (547). The work of competent “woodsmen” like Jeremy now had to be made invisible to pass muster. Thus, even the penis could be conveyed to the viewer, a “fantasy penis,” as Katherine Frank has called it, that can be made to correlate to that viewer’s “fantasized identity” of himself (133-4).

At the beginning of Porn Star, during the various homages paid to Jeremy, one fan draws a curious comparison: “There’s Elvis, and then there’s Ron.” Elvis’s early career had certainly been plagued by criticism related to his bodily excess. Musicologist Robert Fink has recently compared Presley’s July 2, 1956, recording of “Hound Dog” to music for strip tease, suggesting that Elvis used such subtle variations to challenge the law that was constantly impinging on his performances: “The Gray Lady was sensitive to the presence of quite traditional musical erotics—formal devices that cued the performer and audience to experience their bodies sexually—but not quite hep enough to accept a male performer recycling these musical signifiers of sex back to a female audience” (99).

Eventually, though, Elvis stopped rebelling and sought respectability. Writing to President Nixon on December 21, 1970, Presley offered his services to help combat what he perceived to be a growing cultural insurgency. “The drug culture, the hippie elements, the SDS, Black Panthers, etc., do not consider me as their enemy or as they call it, The Establishment,” Presley confided. “I call it America and I love it” (Carroll 266). In short, Elvis wanted to use his icon status to help reinstate law and order, in the process demonstrating his own patriotism, his value and worth as a citizen.

At the end of Porn Star, Jeremy, too, craves legitimacy. Whereas Elvis appealed to Nixon, Jeremy concludes by appealing to Steven Spielberg. Elvis received a badge from Nixon designating him as “special assistant” for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Presumably Jeremy invests his legitimacy in a SAG card. Kenny Dollar, a Jeremy friend, unironically summarizes the final step the Hedgehog must take: “It’s time for Ron to go on and reach his full potential. Let him retire his dick.” That Jeremy must do the latter before having a chance for the former illustrates how “surplus embodiment” and “citizenship” remain inextricably entangled and mutually exclusive.

Author Biography

David Russell