Jennifer Lyon Bell is most literally a first among equals in the world of feminist erotica; one of the first and best to capture female fantasies on film–and to great cinematic effect, as every film released through her signature production company Blue Artichoke Films is a work of sensual art.
The Feminist Sexpert is proud to interview a feminist sex industry pioneer: Ms. Jennifer Lyon Bell.
1. For the past decade, you’ve been bringing us beautiful feminist porn films, featuring tenderness, arty visuals and compelling storylines. Tell us about your newest release, Wild Card!
Wild Card is the second in a series of “erotic game films” I’ve been making. It’s really fun. The first one, Adorn, was such a nice surprise that I wanted to make a new one with a new cast and a new game. So, in Wild Card, Bishop Black and Kali Sudhra come together in a room that has cards hidden all over it. Each card has a not-typically-sexual body part listed, like elbow. Their game is to do as much as they can with or to that body part, for as long as it’s fun, and then move onto the next card. I made sure they know they had freedom to be goofy, rough, loving, erotic —whatever they felt in the moment. And they could talk and communicate as much as they liked, in whatever way they liked. What I like about these two game films is that the performers have to get really creative about foreplay and sex itself, because they can’t just launch into the typical list of activities in a certain order that we’ve been taught to expect from mainstream films and porn movies alike. I think this is a great message — sex is creative, and as long as you and your partner feel free to be honest with each other, you can craft a sexual experience together that’s maximally enjoyable for both of you. As a bonus, Kali and Bishop are friends — not partners, just good friends — outside of the film, so they have a fondness for each other that you can sense. It’s a perfect combination of comfortableness and electric-charged clumsiness, as they find their way towards getting aroused and climaxing! (Climaxing many times, in Kali’s case).
See a preview of one of her films (Second Date VR):
2. What first inspired you to make erotic films from a woman’s point of view?
I liked porn when I first saw it, but I wished that it was a better fit for my own sexuality. As a cisgender woman myself, I felt that porn was missing some of the activities that my friends and I most enjoyed in real life, like fingering. I wanted to integrate those back in. And, although I personally like looking at people in all different gender combinations, I really missed seeing the face and body of men in mainstream porn. I think that’s why so many women watch gay porn, to really enjoy the faces and bodies of men. So I wanted to bring that back into movies as well. I expected that it was mainly women who would enjoy the films I was making. To my surprise, it became immediately clear that just as many men liked it too. They even wrote me letters about it. I’m glad that so many different kinds of viewers share my view on what’s sexy.
3. What do you feel that are the ingredients or elements of a good feminist porn film?
I think a feminist porn film involves the vision, the production practices, and the message.
Vision: the film reflects the erotic vision of a woman —or somebody who’s in a sexual minority not usually represented in mainstream porn, like trans folx
2) Production practices: the director creates on-set labor practices that are fair for cast and crew, especially including women and sexual minorities. Fair pay, time for breaks, good food, safer sex materials.
3) Message: The overall message of the film contributes positively to sexual culture. Maybe it shows gender relationships in a healthier way, or lends visibility to sexual practices we don’t often see on film, or even brings attention to an underrepresented fantasy.
4. You explored Virtual Reality in your release, Second Date. What special challenges did this present?
I loved shooting Second Date! Shooting VR, particularly 360° VR, is wholly different than shooting regular cinema. For one, the cinematic language is different. You can’t cut back-and-forth between characters, or it would make the audience disoriented and nauseated! You have to embrace that the viewer can choose to look anywhere they want. You can guide their choices, but you can’t force them. And the physical shooting situation is so different. For 360° video, you plan and light the whole set, and direct the performers, and then when shooting starts, the entire crew has to physically leave the set. You have to trust the performers intensely. Luckily for me, that’s already the way I shoot. We do a lot of advance preparation and then I very much trust the performers to do what they feel is right in the moment. VR came naturally for me. What I liked about applying virtual reality to erotic moments is that the movie gets a very real-time feel. Second date is actually a real second date between the two performers, and you can see how the real intimacy builds slowly between them, as if you were literally standing right next to them. It’s organic and intense.
5. Your films hold great crossover appeal on the indie and adult film circuits. Do you find that your work is popular with people who generally don’t enjoy porn?
Absolutely! It’s fair that there are many people who wanted to find something arousing, tried some random porn, and didn’t care for it because it didn’t meet their needs. That’s part of why I sometimes try to use alternative wording when I can, like “explicit erotic film,“ or “adult cinema,” to communicate that you might get a different experience than you would expect from a sex movie. I think the reason that I’ve been lucky to have my films run at art/indie film theaters and cinemas, as well as in more traditional porn channels, is that I’m trying to integrate emotion with sexuality, and, if possible, in a surprising way. Folks that are into art films are interested in that. There’s so much great filmmaking that we can still do that fits in between the traditional porn and traditional arthouse film genres!
That’s one reason I felt it was important to build our own Blue Artichoke Films platform. While some of my films are available on other ethical porn platforms, I wanted to create a fresh space for people who didn’t feel that it was necessarily porn. And then, at the same time, I could use the platform to open up doors for them to all kinds of sex-positive culture they might like: events like play parties and screenings nights, blog posts chatting about TV shows and sexual culture, and then of course the films themselves. It’s like an erotic community.
6. Tell me more about your public lecturing regarding film and women’s issues.
I really enjoy public speaking and I try to use my platform as a filmmaker to draw attention to issues I think are important. For one, I teach classes about erotic filmmaking to film professionals and students. They tell me that it’s very rare anyone offers them tools and suggestions for how to approach writing or directing a sex scene. No wonder there are so many sexual representations out there that are clichéd and boring! It’s gratifying to help the next generation of filmmakers with building that toolkit. I do the same when I teach my erotic filmmaking workshop, “From Fantasy To Film: Design Your Own Erotic Film.” It gives you ideas of how to dive into the emotional core of what you find personally sexy in a scene, so that you can bring it out and do it justice. In many cases, the people that take my workshop are just everyday folks who feel inspired to explore their sexuality, and the workshop becomes a space for them to get in touch with what they truly like. It’s empowering to be honest with yourself about your desires. People seem to get a lot of enjoyment and relief from these workshops.
I also do quite a bit of speaking where I show filmclips and educate folks about the wide variety of erotic ethical film that’s already out there! Most people have no idea, and I am pleased to evangelize for this genre of film.
And because feminism is the underpinning of all my filmmaking work, I’m always happy to talk about the relationship between feminism and porn, or the ways in which we as a culture could do a better job improving sexual culture by changing the way we represent sexuality in porn, mainstream movies, and advertisements.
7. What’s next for Jennifer Lyon Bell and Blue Artichoke Films?
Now that the pandemic is ending, I can’t wait to start shooting again! Fiction, experimental – the sky is the limit.