There’s a Metaphor in Here Somewhere

In January, British porn producer Johnny Rockard released a film that was largely shot on the Frenchay Campus of the University of the West of England in Bristol. The film focuses on Rockard’s supposed search for a new porn star, a search that ends when he finds a “psychology major,” played by established porn actress Xzena, who agrees to do several “screen tests” at various identifiable locations around the campus.

Of course, when the university discovered that its campus was being featured in a porn film, its administration expressed outrage. UWE Vice Chancellor Steve West stated: “”I am appalled that the university should be subject to such behaviour from someone with no connection to the university, resulting in a false and misleading representation of the university. We have worked with the Students’ Union, staff, our on-campus security, have involved the police to investigate and have taken legal action.”

The British tabloids, of course, had a field day, referring to the controversy in a number of headlines as the “Frenchay Kiss.”

In response, Rockard has stated that the campus is a public space and that because he never entered the university’s buildings but shot the film entirely outside, he did not break any laws. In fact, in several lengthier news reports on the controversy, Rockard has described Bristol’s rise as a major center in the British “porn industry,” a claim that no doubt has delighted the local business community and tourism board. (By the way, I recognize that there is a bad double-entendre in that sentence, but, after just a couple of paragraphs, I am giving up on trying to avoid them.)

I have no expertise in British law, never mind local British laws. But it seems a strange distinction that the campus grounds are public property but the buildings are not. Also, even assuming that this porn producer got a permit to shoot a film in the public space, would that permit make him immune from at least misdemeanor charges of performing lewd acts in public?

In addition, the tabloids have also focused on the fact that students at the campus became “unsuspecting extras” in the film when they were included in the background of shots of the campus. One wonders whether they would not have had to sign some sort of release and perhaps have been paid in some nominal way, which would mean that they might have been unsuspecting to begin with but would hardly have been “shocked” by the news that they were included in the film.

But what I find most astonishing about the whole incident is that the filming of this sort of film on the campus in the “middle of the day” apparently did not attract a sizable crowd of onlookers or even any complaints that would have alerted the campus police to the fact that it was occurring on campus.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the University of Iowa’s refusal to allow Girls to be filmed on campus, ostensibly because of the “disruption” that the filming would cause. My focus in that post, which was a sort of addendum to an earlier post on the fifteen minutes of notoriety of “Vodka Sam,” was largely on the university administration’s (mis)handling of the two incidents.

I am assuming that most of the readers of this blog were as completely unaware of the University of West England, never mind its Frenchay Campus in Bristol, before reading this post, as I was before coming across one of the tabloid news items, reported somewhere under the heading “Weird News.”

In these cases on both sides of the Atlantic, it seems to me that the universities’ handling of the incidents ended up intensifying the negative institutional publicity that they ostensibly wished to avoid: that is, even if, in both cases, the media attention may have been simply unavoidable, the university administrators’ public statements gave the stories extra dimensions and longevity by adding the element of official outrage and the promise of official investigations.

In the case of the incident in Great Britain, the university spokesperson probably should have stated simply, “We are obviously not happy about this. We are checking, as anyone in the media can check, to see if what reportedly occurred would have broken any laws.”

But beyond the immediate issues in how universities handle—or mishandled—these kinds of incidents, there is, I think, a broader issue.

My own university administration has just allocated several million dollars in its 2014-2015 budget to hire a firm specializing in “branding campaigns.” I am not sure whether the allocation is simply for that firm to produce a “branding” plan or both to produce such a plan and at least to initiate it, if not carry it to some conclusion.

The premise is that “branding” is essential to our being able to “compete,” but one wonders about the ramifications of this further illustration of the deepening corporatization of our institutions if one very inebriated young woman at an off-campus party or a porn film somehow shot surreptitiously on campus can so threaten—so damage–the “brand.”

And, although much of this obsession with “branding” might seem to be much ado about very little of any lasting consequence, it very clearly has some much broader and much more serious manifestations. Notably, the perceived need to reduce the damage to institutional (and individual administrative) reputations seems very clearly to have been behind much of the minimization of the sexual assault cases on university campuses across the U.S.

So I don’t think that it is an exaggeration to say that we are becoming so focused on “branding” that we are losing not just our sense of proportion but also our moral compass. “Doing the right thing” is becoming tantamount to doing whatever is necessary to protect the “brand.” That is the corporate model at work–and at its very worst.

The consternation over the salacious incidents involving “Vodka Sam” and Johnny Rockard is indicative of a much more serious issue. The long-term cost to our institutions of these “deals with the devil” is as clear as it was for Faustus, but the short-term gain for our institutions is much more ambiguous and dubious.

P.S. Don’t be surprised if someone somewhere decides that hosting porn films may be a means of “maximizing space usage” and university revenues during the summer months.



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