Searching for the Real: ‘Family Business,’ Pornography, and Reality Television

“Family Business,” Pornography, and Reality Television

How to Cite

Leavitt, L. (2004). Searching for the Real: ‘Family Business,’ Pornography, and Reality Television: “Family Business,” Pornography, and Reality Television. M/C Journal, 7(4).
Vol. 7 No. 4 (2004): Porn
Published 2004-10-01

Showtime’s reality TV series Family Business opens with a black screen and audio: the whirring of a 16mm projector, the home movies of a generation ago. The sound connotes nostalgia, memory, family, and film. In my childhood, the sound of the projector meant family time, a glance back at our toddler years, the years of Sunday dinners in the suburbs, when my mother and all my aunts still smoked. Later, as my sister and cousins whose childhoods are fixed in that celluloid began to date and marry, family movies were a means of introducing the soon-to-be-married other into the family; this was how we told our history. This kind of telling is one side of Family Business. The other, as Adam Glasser reports in his voiceover in the opening credits is “just one more thing. My business is entertaining adults.”

Glasser, producer, director and occasional actor, is known in the adult entertainment industry as Seymore Butts, alluding to his particular personal and professional interest in anal sex. He self-describes, in the opening credits of Family Business, as “a pretty average guy,” a single father who runs his business with help from his mother and cousin. Viewers glance over Glasser’s shoulder into his everyday life as he cooks breakfast for his son, dates women in his ongoing search for a lasting relationship, and goes about the business of producing pornography. Family Business uniquely combines two genres that trouble perceptions of reality mediated through television, pornography and reality TV. Reality television troubles the real by effectively blurring the lines between the actual and the contrived. With the genre of reality TV now firmly in place, viewers take pleasure in reading between those lines, trying to determine what aspects of the characters, contexts and events of a television program are “authentic”. Searching for the real demands the viewer suspend disbelief, conveniently forgetting the power of the camera’s presence. Scripted or not, the camera is always played to, suppressing the “real” in favor of performance.

Like reality TV, pornography blurs the line between reality and fantasy. As Elizabeth Bell points out, the difference between soft-core pornography and hard-core pornography is the difference between simulated and real sex. Hard-core porn depends on “an ironic tension between ‘real’ sexual acts within ‘faked’ sexual contexts” (181), troubling the viewer’s sense of whether such performances could “really” take place. The lingering disbelief sets porn apart from one’s personal sex life, just as questioning the authentic in reality TV keeps it from being “real.” Reality TV plays on a tension similar to Bell’s description of hard-core pornography. Manufactured contexts succinctly expose the personalities of the actors/ordinary people who are featured on reality TV programs. As a result, the audience can gain familiarity with these individuals in a neat thirty or sixty minute time slot. Inherent in any TV series is the notion that the audience forms opinions about and alliances for or against certain characters, stepping into their lives, mediated as they are, each week. Kenneth Gergen notes that “so powerful are the media in their well-wrought portrayals that their realities become more compelling than those furnished by common experience” (57). By conflating pornography with the everyday lives of its actors and directors, Family Business works to naturalize pornography by displaying it as real. When viewers are constantly sorting between the scripted and the spontaneous, where do they locate the real on Family Business? In a mediated world, the search for the real is always already fruitless: viewers and producers of reality TV recognize that the chasm between lived experience and the depiction of lived experience on television and film can’t be crossed. Reality TV and pornography both work to bring the mediated image closer to the experience of the viewer, placing “people just like you” in everyday situations that brush up against the outrageous.

Laura Kipnis argues that pornography does not reflect reality but is “mythological and hyperbolic, peopled by fictional characters. It doesn’t and never will exist.” While pornography does not try to claim itself as real, Kipnis says, it does “insist on a sanctioned space for fantasy.” Acknowledging that space, and declaring that “normal” people engage the fantasy of porn, is important cultural work for Glasser. An episode of Family Business features Glasser giving a class on ways to please your partner using methods he learned in the industry. He speaks in interviews about letters he has received, proclaiming that the Seymore Butts films have enhanced couples’ sex lives. Family Business is not only important cultural work for Glasser; it is also important professional work. Naturalizing pornography, and giving viewers a glimpse of Seymore Butts films, certainly helps his product sales. Seeing Family Business as part of the mainstreaming of pornography, Glasser says “it’s the natural course of things” for pornography to be increasingly accepted. “Sex is just so much a part of mainstream people’s lives. So it’s natural that they would be curious about sex and people who have sex for a living” (Brioux).

Adam Glasser “is” Seymore Butts, or is he? Viewers are exposed to a character-within-a-character: Glasser as father, son, and entrepreneur is difficult to separate from Glasser as Butts—adult entertainment producer and actor, porn celebrity. Glasser does not appear to distinguish between these identities, but is presented as one person seamlessly performing the everyday roles of his chosen life. He is a role model for the normalizing and mainstreaming of pornography. Family Business aspires to naturalize the integration of pornography into everyday life, naturalizing the adult entertainment industry, its producers and ultimately, its consumers. Viewers see Glasser as a fun-loving, single dad who plays baseball with his son. We look on as his Cousin Stevie, nearing 60 years old, goes to the doctor for a prostate exam (which the audience voyeuristically enjoys, is repelled by, and is compelled by to tend to health concerns). That Glasser and Cousin Stevie are also producers and distributors of adult entertainment enables the viewer to naturalize her/his own consumption of pornography.

Fans posting on Showtime’s Family Business message board question whether the show authentically depicts the “real” lives of its characters, with discussions about what scenes are staged and scripted. Media consumption is seldom a passive practice, and one of the pleasures of reality TV is the audience’s resistance to what is presented as “real.” While the everyday lives of the characters are hotly debated on the message board, there is little discussion of pornography, beyond assertions of support for and the rare protest against adult entertainment on cable television. The Seymore Butts movies are rarely mentioned. What Family Business gives viewers access to is a soft-porn version of the staging of Seymore Butts films, as much as censors allow for MA cable programming. According to Bell, “all theoretical treatments of hard-core pornography…begin with the declaration that the performers are engaged in real sexual activity” (183). Glasser categorizes his porn as hard-core, but should fans believe it is authentically real, not just real sex acts but also a reflection of real life? He claims that it is: “My adult movies that I’ve made for the last 12 years have been what you would call reality based,” Glasser says. “They’re basically a documentation of my life, my relationships, good and bad.” (Haffenreffer). Glasser’s documentary of his life and relationships, however, is mediated through the lens of his camera and work in the editing room, presented in such a way to be compelling to its audience. Whether there is something intrinsically real in the Seymore Butts films, the contexts of the films are certainly contrived. Viewers of Family Business see Glasser describe fantasy scenarios to the actors preparing for a scene. While the situations are more mundane than fantastic, the implausibility of a group of people spontaneously having sex while waiting for friends to come back from lunch, for example, places Glasser’s pornography in a liminal space between fantasy and the real.

What renders these films different from other pornography and makes them somewhat more believable is precisely the mundane scenarios in which they occur. The conflation of pornography and the everyday is reinforced spatially on Family Business: viewers see Glasser shoot a porn film in his living room, where sexual acts are performed on the same sofa where, in another scene, Glasser’s mother Lila plays with his son, Brady. After a comment about this was posted on the show’s message board, Flower, one of Glasser’s “Tushy Girls” posted a response: “But in defence [sic] of Semyore, He has his furniture steam cleaned after every shoot. Have you ever heard of kids laying or sitting on their parents [sic] bed? Don’t parents have sex too? I’m sure plenty of kids have sat where people have had sex before. So I don’t find it strange.” What Flower asks of message board readers is the normalization of pornography, a blending of porn and private sex acts into the same category. Family Business works to eradicate the perceptions of pornography that Kipnis describes as “all the nervous stereotypes of pimply teenagers, furtive perverts in raincoats, and anti-social compulsively masturbating misfits.” Pornography is not situated in the world of the outcast, Kipnis argues. Rather, it is “central to our culture,” simultaneously revealing our mostly deeply felt desires and fears.

The series functions to relieve its viewers of the sense of guilty indiscretion. It typically airs on Friday nights at 11:00 p.m., the opening of Mature Adult-rated programming on cable television. Family Business is not only pornography, it also presents itself as a family sitcom. The show provides a neat segue from prime-time programming to after-hours, commingling the two genres for viewers to seamlessly make that shift themselves. Week after week, viewers of Family Business find the conflation of pornography and everyday life more acceptable. In sharp contrast to the sordid, sad life stories of Linda Lovelace, the Mitchell brothers and organized crime that are stitched into the history of pornography, Adam Glasser is presented as a respectable public figure, a free speech activist with a solid moral foundation. The morality or immorality of adult entertainment is not questioned here: inherent in Family Business is the idea that “they” have rendered sexual expression immoral where “we” (the characters in the series and the viewers at home) are accepting of, and even committed to, the pleasures of sex. As presented on Family Business, Glasser’s lifestyle is rather morally sound. There is no drug use, not even cigarette smoking, and although a pack of Merits appears occasionally in the pocket of Cousin Stevie’s stylish shirt, he does not smoke on camera. Safe sex is a priority, and the actors are presented as celebrating and enjoying their sexuality. The viewer is encouraged to do the same.

The everyday behavior of the cast of Family Business is far from extraordinary, as Glasser takes pains to point out. Comparing Family Business to The Osbournes, he says “they are outrageous people in a normal world, and we’re normal people in an outrageous world” (Hooper). We’ve come to tolerate the Osbournes, perhaps even pitying them at times as if they have no control over their own outrageousness. Can viewers accept the outrageous in Family Business? Certainly the mundane lives of Adam and Lila—a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn and his dear, doting mom—indicate that normal people can accept the outrageous world of pornography, so why should we not accept it as well? Tolerating Family Business is, essentially, tolerating pornography.

Bringing the backstage of the adult entertainment industry into the frontstage of cable television programming marks a desire to shift the uses of pornography. Rather than being an underground outlet for sexual deviance, Family Business works to make porn a reflection of our everyday personal and sexual lives. Kipnis notes there is “virtually no discussion of pornography as an expressive medium in the positive sense—the only expressing it’s presumed to do is of misogyny or social decay.” Viewers can openly chat about Family Business and the glimpse it offers into the world of pornography, without the shame or embarrassment that would run alongside a discussion of porn itself. When sexual pleasure enters the public discourse through mainstream entertainment, there is power for those who fight against conservative voices wishing to suppress not just pornography but also sexual pleasure.

Author Biography

Linda Leavitt