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  • Kirsten Bell

Stories from the video store trenches: Part I

For much of my life, I have been a fan of movies. In fact, it was a movie (The Serpent and the Rainbow), that got me interested in anthropology at the age of 12 – not, for the record, because it was good, but because it made me aware of the existence of the profession. I would scour copies of Premiere magazine at the local library and had a virtually encyclopaedic memory for films and actors. Naturally, becoming a clerk in a video store was the logical choice when I started looking for my first ‘proper’ part-time job at the age of 15.1

I started working at a locally owned video store in 1990 and continued to work part-time in the role for the next ten years, although I moved to a national, corporate-owned chain in the late 1990s, after the local store I worked at shut down. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was already witnessing the death throes of the video store. My first boss used to reminisce about the good old days in the mid 1980s, when the shop was packed every Friday and Saturday night and they charged $8 for a new release.2 Conversely, the going rate when I started in 1990 was $6 and that remained the price of new releases when I finished my extended sojourn as a video store clerk a decade later.

Beyond its obvious benefits (namely, free movies), a video store turned out to be a fascinating place to work for a budding anthropologist, because videos, like books, are a particularly revealing consumer object: one that exposes a great deal about the habits and interests of the purchaser – habits and interests that are informed by our class, gender, ethnicity and culture.

Our taste in films thus becomes a form of ‘distinction’: the term used by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to describe the ways in which differences in taste become the basis of social judgement. As Chris Rock illustrated as host of the 2005 Oscars, the types of movies that win Oscars are rarely those that black and working class Americans find appealing.

A good example of the social judgements around taste can be found in the difference between erotic art films and porn: a distinction arguably born of their intended audience as well as their content. This is why hard and fast lines between art and porn are often hard to draw in the abstract, and how we ended up with the ‘I know it when I see it’ threshold for obscenity. For example, to the outrage of at least one customer, Last Tango in Paris was housed in the ‘adult movies’ section in the first video store I worked at, right next to Edward Penishands (like Edward Scissorhands, see, but with penises for hands).

Although anyone who has ever worked in a video store will have some familiarity with both porn films and porn film watchers, the level of exposure I received to the genre was influenced by the vast size of the porn collection at the first video store I worked at and the reluctance of most of my co-workers to clean it.3 For example, we carried 70s porn classics like Deep Throat and Debbie Does Dallas, but also a large volume of contemporary adult films like White Men Can’t Hump and Granny Does Dallas (Debbie’s septuagenarian counterpart).

To this day, my knowledge of 70s, 80s and 90s porn films – at least of the mainstream variety found in the restricted section of Australian video stores in the 90s – probably rivals that of actual connoisseurs of the genre. In fact, give me any movie or TV show from the 1990s and I can probably tell you the title of the porn version pumped out (sorry) shortly afterwards.4

As an anthropologist in the making, I found the social dynamics of porn rental fascinating. It’s even more interesting in retrospect, given that the interaction itself is now extinct, following the rise of online porn and paid streaming services, and the almost-complete demise of brick-and-mortar video stores themselves.

For example, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that it was mostly men who rented porn in the 1990s – a pattern that continues to broadly hold in the streaming era, if Pornhub’s stats are anything to go by. However, there was clearly at least a small market for porn directed at women, because we carried several films by Candida Royalle (yes, I believe she was named after a yeast infection): a former porn star who directed and produced ‘feminist’ porn films aimed at the female market.5

In fact, one of my co-workers was pretty open about the fact that she took a part-time job at the video store primarily so that she could watch porn without having to go through the embarrassment of renting it. I also had one female customer who regularly rented adult films, sometimes with her partner in tow, sometimes without. On one occasion, she actually asked for a refund on a movie because she insisted that the plot described on the back cover bore no resemblance to the film she’d watched. Although I’d sort of assumed that the plot of porn films was fairly nominal, I was impressed enough by her virtual cojones to give her a full refund.

Unlike my sole female customer, who was utterly blasé about renting porn, there was generally a slight air of embarrassment amongst male customers, who were obviously far more frequent in number.6 In general, I found that men used three strategies when renting porn – strategies I assume will be familiar to anyone who has ever felt vaguely embarrassed by the product they are purchasing, whether it be condoms, feminine hygiene products or haemorrhoid ointment.

The most common technique men used was to try to disguise the fact that they were renting porn by selecting several innocuous movies and burying the culprit in the middle, being sure to fiddle for their wallet or glance distractedly at their watch at the exact moment I was scanning said film and placing it a bag. These were generally the same types who would start by perusing the thriller section, which was geographically closest to the adult section, and then sidle their way over to it when no else was nearby.7

The second category consisted of men who would try to brazen it out by acting like they weren’t remotely embarrassed by what they were renting, but would nevertheless provide nonverbal cues that suggested a degree of personal discomfort: red ears, red face, eye avoidance, etc. (For the record, this is my exact strategy when purchasing treatment for my very own ‘Candida Royalles’ from the chemist.)

The least common (but most entertaining) strategy consisted of men who would hire a couple of films and produce a look of utter bewilderment when I picked up the adult movie to scan. ‘How on earth did that get in my basket?’, their expression clearly conveyed. Then, they’d sort of shrug as if to say, ‘Look, that clearly isn’t mine, but it’s in my basket and I don’t want to make a fuss, so, what the hell, you may as well just go ahead and throw it in with my purchase’.

While I saw these strategies used on countless occasions throughout my career as a video store clerk, there was one notable exception:8 an old guy I shall call ‘Sleazy McPervy’. A kindly-looking pensioner in his late 60s, McPervy would come in every Thursday to take advantage of our ‘Five movies for $5’ deal. However, the only type of movie McPervy was interested in watching was porn. Every Thursday, during my afternoon shift, he would come into the shop and make a beeline straight for the blue movies. After a few minutes of thoughtful perusal, he’d select his five videos and make his way over to the counter, and then the fun would begin.

You see, not only was McPervy not embarrassed by his porn habit, he’d make a point of drawing my attention to the cover of every video he was renting via a continuous running commentary. For example, I’d pick up Deep Throat to scan and he’d leer and say, ‘Aw, that’d clear up your head cold, wouldn’t it, love!’ I’d scan Granny Does Dallas and he’d respond, ‘Do you reckon she’s up for it, love? I know I am, heh, heh, heh’, and so on and so forth in what he clearly deemed ‘jocular banter’, but always left me feeling vaguely like I’d just thrown up in my own mouth. Then, for an encore, he’d try to tickle my palm as he handed over his $5.

Still, that horny old bastard did teach me one valuable lesson, which was not to make any assumptions about people’s film watching habits (pornographic or otherwise) based on their appearance. Just as you can’t judge a book, or a film, by its cover,9 you can’t judge, with any degree of accuracy, what movies a person will watch based on how they look – well, except for mothers renting videos for their children, but to hear more about that you’ll need to stay tuned for Part II next week.



1 Prior to that, I had a cash-in-hand job as a cleaner at a local gym, where I learned that men are liable to piss in bins if the toilets are currently occupied. Video store clerk was an upgrade on every level.

2 Although I think that was primarily for Betamax videos. The sorry souls who bet on Betamax over VHS at the height of the videotape format wars generally had about ten videos to choose from in the entire store and were at the mercy of store managers in terms of pricing because their viewing options were so limited. Interestingly, although there are various theories on why VHS ultimately beat out Betamax, despite being inferior in numerous respects, one view is that it was due to the greater availability of porn on VHS.

3 ‘They’re sticky’, my over-imaginative co-workers would complain.

4 Star Trek: The Next Generation? That’d be Sex Trek: The Next Penetration. Ace Venture: Pet Detective? It’s Ass Ventura: Crack Detective for the win. Nightmare on Elm Street? You’re looking for Nightmare on Porn Street, good sir. Good Will Hunting? With a name like that, it’s clearly begging for its own porn version, which can be nothing other than Good Will Humping.

5 As these films had covers that were basically indistinguishable from ‘glamour’ photographs in the eighties, with their soft focus, fuzzy lighting and requisite boudoir shots, they mostly languished on the shelves of the adult section, being avoided by male customers on the grounds of their lack of visible signifiers of porniness and by female customers presumably too embarrassed to purchase them.

6 This embarrassment would probably have been reduced if I was male. But in one of life’s cruel ironies, the video store with arguably the best stock of mainstream porn in Townsville was staffed exclusively by women (by intent; my boss refused to hire males on the premise that customers want to be served by females).

7 On days where I was bored and could see this strategy unfold, I would often decide to start cleaning the adult movie section just to see how they would respond.* This would rattle some men so much that they would give up and leave empty-handed; for others, I added a good 15 minutes to their video store trip while they worked up the courage to visit the adult section while I was cleaning the video cases. *Yes, in case you haven’t figured it out already, I’m kind of an arsehole.

8 Well, two, actually, if I include the time a guy rang up and asked if I could read out the blurbs and describe the covers of the latest adult new releases. Still, I never actually saw him, so I figure it doesn’t count.

9 Like Mute Witness, a horror movie that is markedly better than its god-awful cover suggests.

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