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16 June 2022

Ninja Thyberg: “Instead of trying to erase the bad porn, I was like, ‘We need to do good porn!’”

The Swedish director of Pleasure was an anti-porn activist – until she saw how sex workers valued their “erotic capital”.

By Simran Hans

A few months into her first relationship, Ninja Thyberg’s boyfriend introduced her to porn. It was the year 2000, in Gothenburg, and Thyberg, 16, had recently lost her virginity. The boyfriend had borrowed the VHS tape from a friend. “I was so shocked,” says the Swedish filmmaker. “I realised the boys all watched porn, they talked about it, they exchanged cassettes. That was so different from me and my girlfriends. At that time we didn’t even admit that we were masturbating.”

“It made me so upset,” she remembers. The women were treated “like sex dolls for the men”. The experience turned her into an anti-porn activist. Twenty years later, Thyberg’s position on sex work has changed. Her audacious, fiercely intelligent debut feature, Pleasure, is set in the adult film industry in Los Angeles, and follows Linnéa (Sofia Kappel), a 19-year-old Swede who adopts the stage name Bella Cherry and sets out to become a star.

In the film’s opening scene, Bella is asked by an immigration officer at LAX Airport if she’s in town “for business, or pleasure”, a wink to a job that might combine the two. Bella discovers that the garish world of hardcore pornography is something of a Wild West. The adult film industry could be a metaphor for capitalism, or patriarchy; to navigate a broken system, Bella finds herself complicit in it.

Thyberg’s decision not to moralise or judge has angered certain feminist factions. Some even wondered if she had been “pressured to market the film for a sex-positive age”, insisting that Bella’s “empowered” choices are simply the product of coercion. Still, Pleasure impressed critics when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2021, and Thyberg was nominated for best director at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Thyberg was born in 1984 and grew up in Gothenburg to political activist parents. “Radical feminism in Sweden was very anti-porn. It wasn’t hard to find people with similar ideas,” she says. As a teenager, she was part of an activist group who did “different types of sabotage”. Occasionally they would get arrested. But looking back, Thyberg views her younger self as naive.

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Ninja Thyberg says: “I started to feel it was problematic that I was always looking at women as sexual victims.” Photo by Thomas Niedermueller/Getty Images for ZFF

“We organised this blockade outside of a strip club. We were maybe 50 to 100 people saying, ‘No one’s gonna come in here,’” she says. Then the women who worked there arrived. They assured the dancers that no men would be entering that evening. “And they were like, ‘Yeah, but we’re not gonna get any money. We’re dependent on this as our income.’” It was a lightbulb moment for Thyberg, who realised that the women she wanted to protect didn’t necessarily want her protection. She admitted to herself that many of those women were probably pretty tough. “They built other muscles, because they had to,” she says. A comfortable, middle-class girl like herself knew little about their experiences.

[See also: The Case Against the Sexual Revolution review: Louise Perry’s attack on liberal feminism]

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“I started to feel it was problematic that I was always looking at women as sexual victims,” she says. She wondered if women might gain power, or even pleasure, from participating in sex work. Thyberg became interested in directing feminist porn, crediting it as “one of the reasons why I started making films”. “Instead of trying to erase the bad porn, I was like, ‘We need to do good porn!’” she says.

Pleasure is most definitely not pornography. Though Bella is on adult film sets for much of the film, and in various states of undress, the camera never lingers on her body during sex. Thyberg refuses to induce the viewer’s gratification.

The film began as a short, Thyberg’s graduation film, which she made in 2013. The research process took her to Los Angeles, where she spent several years immersing herself in the porn industry and interviewing sex workers. Although there is a “documentary aspect” to the film, she says: “I wanted to make my film in full control. I am a control freak. I want to be able to say exactly what I want to say.”

What she wanted to say, or rather do, was to use pornography to better show “what it’s like being a woman in a male-dominated world, navigating patriarchy”. A scene involving a strap-on, for example, is used to explore a certain kind of masculinity in which “we value the penis as a domination tool”. This, she explains, has nothing to do with “our actual bodies”. Power is a costume you can put on.

“The whole point of making the film was to use a female gaze to expose the male gaze,” says Thyberg. From the outset, she knew she had to avoid using the visual language of pornography. For the audience to identify with the “young, blonde, white, thin” and scantily clad Bella, she would have to be careful not to objectify her. “It’s very easy for your first impulse to be to make her pretty, to carve her into a sculpture,” she says. She had to figure out how to make her heroine look natural, awkward, vulnerable, human. “Then you feel, ‘Oh, that’s me.’ I was always like, where do I put the camera to make sure that the audience never distance themselves?”

Thyberg’s strategy was to reverse the camera. “Literally looking back at the men, because if you go to the big sites, 99 per cent of porn is shot from a male point of view,” she says. In Pleasure a blow job, for example, is filmed from Bella’s perspective.

There is a tension between the way Thyberg shows the unglamorous, often dangerous behind-the-scenes reality of sex work, and the way Bella gets satisfaction out of “feeling sexy or controlling the viewer’s gaze” through playing a character. If Thyberg had only showed the darker aspects being a porn star, she says, “you’re just going to feel the character is stupid”. By constantly shifting view, she reveals the character to be more complex.

“You definitely have a lot of power from building erotic capital. I’ve been challenging myself to see things from new angles,” she says. It’s a big change for a woman who once picketed strip clubs to have made a film like this. “I really encourage everyone to try to see it from another perspective.”

Pleasure is streaming on MUBI from 17 June

[See also: South Korea’s new president weaponises anti-feminism to win election]

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