by Susan Faludi
A few years ago, if you traveled up Van Nuys Boulevard to the 4500 block, you could meditate, like Ebenezer Scrooge, on the hollow murmurings and frenzied forebodings that are the ghosts of American commerce, past and future. This particular business strip belongs to the San Fernando Valley suburbs of Los Angeles, which means it could be anywhere. The east side of the street displays the flattened state of things to come: a block-long mini-mall parking lot lined with consumer franchises—a Blockbuster Music store, a Baskin-Robbins, a Humphrey Yogart outlet, a General Cinema twoplex next to large signs announcing, coming soon, a General Cinema ‘‘Multi Theater Complex’’ offering a unique movie going experience with five more screens, bigger and better. Across the street, on the west side, is the past, and crumpled newspapers and discarded Baskin-Robbins cups skitter up and down its crud-caked sidewalks. At the boarded-up entrances to former hardware stores and shoe-repair shops, where tradesmen’s tools once clattered, clouds of gnats hover, making loitering un- pleasant. The small independent businesses have abandoned the field. On the day I first passed through here, even a thrift store bore a “for lease” sign.
Only one veteran remains open for business, tucked away on a second floor, up a well-worn set of stairs. Behind an unmarked door lies a room the size and shabby complexion of a one-man private detective agency from another era; dust-covered vertical blinds quiver in the stale air circulated by a floor fan. A frayed gray-blue carpet with a permanent crease down the middle is held down by two chipped desks, each with an over-flowing ashtray and a five-line phone, which blinks and rings ceaselessly from nine to six. The company sign with its blue globe logo has presided over the street for most of the firm’s nineteen years, an exemplar of discreet advertisement from a more decorous time: Figure Photography Films. Wanted: Figure models for immediate placement. 986-4316. Suite 203. The ad belongs to the World Modeling Talent Agency, central casting for the nation’s pornographic film, video, and magazine industries.
I began to get a glimmer of the landscape the new young men of modern porn were struggling to traverse: a treacherous terrain that had more to do with work than sex, more to do with gender identity than genital excitement. It was also a terrain more relevant to the larger working male population than most men would care to contemplate.
The agency has survived, despite the old-fashioned propriety of its sign, by accommodating the forces unleashed across Van Nuys Boulevard. In a world where desire is packaged in videocassettes or DVDs and marketed in malls, where self-worth is quantified by exposure, World Modeling has become the last-chance opportunity for a generation desperately seeking “immediate placement.” It is a backstage door to the current American dream and an emergency escape hatch for some who find themselves capsizing in a reconfiguring American economy. Which is why, by the last decade of the century, World Modeling would become a mecca beckoning not just women but men. More men, in fact, than women; more men than this industry of feminine display could even begin to absorb.