Hot Girls Wanted is one of the most-talked-about documentaries of 2015, thanks in no small part to the star power of executive producer Rashida Jones and the film’s titillating tagline (“A Documentary about Porn, the Internet and the Girl Next Door”). Add a few glowing early reviews from Variety and The Hollywood Reporter into the mix, and it’s no wonder Netflix nabbed the documentary shortly after its premiere at Sundance in January.
The film takes aim at the burgeoning amateur porn industry, which is expanding as online porn consumption grows. “It just felt like it was time to maybe investigate a little deeper into the industry,” Jones told TODAY during a recent media blitz in support of the film. “It’s a totally unregulated industry.”
Hot Girls Wanted chronicles a few months in the lives of a group of young women between the ages of 18 and 25 who believe they’ve found a source of reliable income and maybe even the promise of fame in the form of a dubious agent, Riley, and his Miami-based amateur talent company, Hussie Models. If there’s one place where the film truly succeeds, it’s in making Riley look like a total ass—the exploitative 23-year-old “manager” does little more than drive the girls to shoots and mess around on the Internet, but he takes a cut of their pay in addition to collecting rent. Using frequent shots of the actresses’ Twitter accounts and YouTube views, the film chronicles their rapid rise to relative stardom in the age of the Internet and the pitfalls of the industry in which they’ve chosen to work.
But despite its ostensibly do-gooder goals, the film has caused a bit of an uproar among the porn industry’s actresses, producers, and scholars. In fact, University of Nevada, Las Vegas Gender and Sexuality Studies Associate Professor Lynn Comella, who studies media, gender, and sexual politics, says the doc lost her at its opening montage. The film opens with a barrage of media images largely unconnected to porn, including everything from Miley Cyrus’s “Adore You” video to 50 Shades of Grey to American Apparel ads to Belle Knox, “the Duke University porn star.”
“Are we supposed to see that pornography is pornifying our pop culture representations of women, and then those pornified images of women are feeding back into the desires of young women who then use pornography as a stepping stone?” Comella asks. “There wasn’t a context to interpret, and the slippage was confusing and conflating really different media forms.” The filmmakers don’t return to pop culture for the remainder of the documentary—it’s a setup for a connection that’s never fully formed.
Comella refers to the film as a reality-tv-style production rather than a fact-based documentary—she jokes that it could have justifiably been titled The Real World: Amateur Porn Miami.
That opening sequence is one of a number of choices in Hot Girls Wanted that porn scholars found irresponsible. According to its credits, the flick was researched by Debby Herbenick and Bryant Paul of the Kinsey Institute, but there are no “expert” voices in the film—no professors, no porn researchers. The only factual context to frame the girls’ experiences are black-and-white screens of text that present alarming statistics about the amateur porn industry. That’s intentional, say directors Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus. They shot the documentary in a style similar to that of their first film, a 2012 documentary about porn, social media and pop culture called Sexy Baby. “We enjoy vérité storytelling, so we really just wanted to let the people in the film speak for themselves and not have talking heads,” says Gradus. “We personally just enjoy those [other] films less as viewers.”
But Comella points out that one of the facts presented onscreen is wrong. In one still, the text reads “California recently passed a law requiring the use of condoms in pornography,” which is not exactly right—Los Angeles County passed that law. (“That’s the kind of error that I wouldn’t even let an undergraduate student get away with in an undergraduate paper,” Comella says.) Another slide posits that “more people visit porn sites each month than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined,” a claim that, when Googled, delivers promotional materials from a porn site that no longer exists, as Susan Elizabeth Shepard pointed out in a review for Vice earlier this year. And Rashida Jones’s claim that the industry is “totally unregulated” isn’t really right, either; While there are no federal regulations of the industry in the United States, porn shoots are still bound by state and local law.
“I feel like their agenda’s pretty clear. They gave the context they wanted to give, which is what documentary films do,” says Shepard, who is the cofounder of Tits and Sass, a news and culture site run by sex workers. She, too, found the fact slides questionable and wondered why the filmmakers didn’t make an effort to speak with experts in the field. “It’s not like there aren’t people out there studying pornography. There’s a whole journal for it.”
This is not to say the film is completely ineffective. The benefit of allowing the young women to speak for themselves is that the viewer identifies with them. In a particularly distressing scene, one of the aspiring actresses, Rachel, recounts a recent trip to shoot in California, where she was supposed to get $300 for a blowjob scene. When she arrived, she learned that the shoot was going to be a forced blowjob (aggressive fellatio performed with the intent of making the performer vomit). “I was scared. I was terrified,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if I could tell him no.”
“The movie does present some issues—some serious issues—within the adult industry,” says porn actress Casey Calvert. She actually says she knows a handful of young women who have at one point or another been employed by Riley’s Hussie Models and confirms that their experiences reflected the experiences of these young women. “But, to me, the filmmakers presented those issues without presenting any other side of the story as a way to push a specific agenda.”
And that’s the central problem with telling these young women's stories without providing any sort of larger context. Even when the film does begin to touch upon some of the overarching issues that permeate the porn industry, it doesn't go into specifics of the larger problems. Instead, critics point out, it pursues a sensationalist message about how porn is seducing “thousands” of young women from all over the country each year with the promise of wealth and fame. (The slide that says thousands of young women enter amateur porn doesn’t give a more specific number—2,000? 10,000?—another omission with which Comella and others have found fault.) In another affecting scene, Rachel is on a shoot for a flick called Virgin Manipulations, which finds her being seduced by an actor playing a much older friend of the family. “That last part, I fucking hated,” she says to the documentary crew after shooting. That’s a feeling that many porn performers have certainly experienced.
“There’s an opportunity to talk about the actual bad days at work, the actual labor issues inherent to this kind of work,” Shepard explains. “That’s sort of glossed over in favor of this narrative of the young women of America being chewed up by porn companies in Miami.”
That has left many critics, from porn scholars like Comella to Mike Hale at The New York Times to Jordan Hoffman at The Guardian, scratching their heads: What, exactly, is the point of the film? To Shine Louise Houston, founder and producer of Pink and White Productions, it’s simple: This is an anti-porn propaganda piece. She points out that every few years, almost like clockwork, a new exposé on the evils of the porn industry rears its head to alarm pundits and critics of the industry. These documentaries, she says, are not taking larger societal problems into account, and they should be.
“I think it’s really, really easy for people to scapegoat the adult industry for being the problem for everything,” Houston says. “The questions of, like, why did these girls feel like they needed to run away from their families? What was going on there? Why weren’t these girls able to talk to their families about, like, ‘Hey, I want to do this'? There are more endemic problems with this society as far as valuing women. Why aren’t there as many economic opportunities for women? Why can’t women be sexual? Why can’t women take charge of their own bodies?”
When asked what she thinks the filmmakers were hoping to achieve, UNLV’s Comella says, “I think, more than anything, it’s a cautionary tale about the potential dangers and harms awaiting your daughters and their friends.” Adopting a faux-menacing tone, she adds: “Pop culture is influencing your daughter, Craigslist is recruiting and luring her in … this could potentially be the path that your daughter could find herself walking.” She may be right—at least a few reviews of the film have adopted a troubling, hide-your-daughters tone. Here’s the problematic lede The Hollywood Reporter used in their review of Hot Girls Wanted back in January: “Parents be forewarned: After watching documentary Hot Girls Wanted, anyone with a daughter will feel an uncontrollable urge to prevent her from ever using the Internet again, or perhaps even leaving the house.”
Directors Gradus and Bauer are well aware of the criticism surrounding their film and say they’ve heard from plenty of critics who, like Houston, found the documentary to be firmly anti-porn. But they’ve also been told that their film actually wasn’t critical enough of the porn industry. “The fact that we have gotten reactions from all ends of the spectrum, to us, makes us feel like we accomplished what we wanted to, which was to really let the people in the film tell the story for themselves,” Gradus says. “If it can have that divisive of a response,” adds Bauer, “I feel like we probably got it close to right.”
The pair is firm in saying that their intent was not to make an anti-porn film but to tell a specific story about a few women in a subset of the industry who are being exploited. But the people who make a living in this business are concerned that casual viewers who aren’t well-versed in porn and don’t understand the nuances of the industry will take the documentary to mean that all porn is bad and that porn consumption in any capacity is inherently problematic.
Houston says this is exactly the reason she wishes filmmakers would try to give a more complete picture when telling stories about porn. “There are a lot of things that are questionable about the industry,” Houston admits. “We’re not all saints in this industry, and I’m not saying that there’s not room for improvement. But there needs to be a more comprehensive look at the industry—who’s in it, why they’re in it, and what the industry can do as a whole to support each other.”
Emily Cassel is a Boston-based journalist, feminist, and cyclist. You can follow her on Twitter.