James Deen vs. the Nebbishes
One of the constants, to date, in the media coverage of the 26-year-old pornographic performer James Deen — a wave burgeoning as the release of The Canyons, in which he’ll star opposite Lindsay Lohan, approaches — has been obligatory passing mention of Deen’s Jewishness.
Stories about Deen, whether in GQ or on ABC’s Nightline, have focused on his appeal to young women and teenagers, because of his atypical, un-porny physical features. He’s thin, unmuscled, baby-faced, cute. Noting that he’s Jewish helps to encapsulate all of this, because male Jewishness in our pop culture functions as the yin to machismo’s yang. That’s what Gaby Dunn, whose blog profile of Deen in June 2011 set the tone for all the ensuing pieces, meant when she wrote that “he was almost like a guy that you would just hang out with at Hebrew school.”
What they don’t teach in Hebrew school is that for millennia, Jewish men were understood not to be sweethearts, but sexual monsters. In the first century after Christ, Tacitus referred to the Jews as a people “prone to lust,” while St. Augustine, a little later, called them “indisputably carnal.” In the middle ages, Jewish men were sculpted out of stone on the sides of cathedrals taking pleasure in bestiality, and in the 1880s, America’s leading Jew-hating bigot published a book claiming, apropos of the “licentious Jew,” that “such is the insatiability of his carnal appetites, and to such an extent does he give rein to his lasciviousness, that his debauches only too frequently exceed the ordinary limits of lust.” Which turns out to be a spot-on description of Deen, who has performed in thousands of hardcore videos, ranging from traditional one-on-one affairs, to complicated group events, to elaborately staged pop culture parodies, to double-penetration specials, to brutal BDSM (bondage, discipline, domination, submission, sadism, masochism) numbers. In a sense, then, he’s an anti-Semite’s wet dream.
But — obviously — nobody does porn just because they’re Jewish. Jews have distinguished themselves as pornographic performers, male and female, from Nina Hartley to Ron Jeremy, sure, and as directors and producers in the business, too. But Jews have also been some of porn’s most prominent public critics, from William Kristol to Andrea Dworkin. If Deen’s Jewishness doesn’t have anything to teach us about his choice of career, though, Deen’s performances do have something to say about our culture’s current, and very different, stereotypes of Jewish sexuality.
Picture a Jewishy guy from a recent blockbuster movie, whether it’s Ben Stiller, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, or Jesse Eisenberg. He’s likely a nebbish, some clumsy man-child who wants desperately to have sex but can’t quite figure out how. This image has its history, too, of course — you can trace it back to Matthew Broderick and Jonathan Silverman discovering masturbation in Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, and before that to Dustin Hoffman, Elliott Gould, and Charles Grodin in the late 1960s and early 1970s, who seized upon Freudian sexual neurosis, by way of the stand-up of Woody Allen and Shelley Berman, and smelted it into curly-haired, American New Wave gold.
What Deen manages to do is to destroy this cliché of the sexually passive Jewish man that still pervades our popular culture, replacing it not with its anti-Semitic mirror-image, that old chestnut about insatiable Hebrew lust, but with an image of unselfconscious, upbeat, healthy male sexuality.
It’s true that Deen, whose real name is Bryan Sevilla, always appears on-screen, and even in his grisliest performances, like what he actually is: a good-looking (if short: 5-foot-7), articulate, upbeat Jewish 26-year-old who attended Jewish day school and a Labor Zionist summer camp, and remembers both of them fondly. “It was a blast,” he said of school, in an interview. Camp was even better. “It was basically a giant orgy in the woods.” (Which means a lot, given what he knows now about orgies.) “You take a bunch of kids, and the oldest person there to supervise them is, like 19, 21-years-old” — and so the kids experiment all they like. It’s at camp that Deen says he lost his virginity.
But Jewish education didn’t lead him toward porn. If anything, Deen’s upbringing encouraged him not to accept social conventions blithely. “My rabbi always really loved me,” he recalls, “because I would ask her about everything. She would always give me the little drash [interpretation] and I would be like, ‘Wait, wait, wait, I have some questions about that. Hold on! Let’s talk about this.’” He decided that porn would be his calling during his teenage years, and while some of his teachers and counselors couldn’t take those ambitions seriously, most of the authority figures he encountered were not prejudiced, a priori, against any kind of fulfilling labor. “They care about you being safe, and having independent thought, and being your own person, while at the same time being responsible,” he said. That helped him to think of porn, he says, as “something I could do.”
He left Jewish day school in 7th grade to spend more time with friends in his hometown, Pasadena, and by now he has forgotten most of the Hebrew he learned (though it comes back to him from time to time, like when he notices a young woman’s tattoo). But read his blog and Twitter feed and you’ll find three consistent motifs: NSFW photos, descriptions of meals, and wisecracks about being a Jew.
When Deen eats a bagel, displays financial acumen, or has reason to reflect on his slim, unmuscled frame — unlike most of the men in his business, he’s not, as the performer Joanna Angel told me, that “’roided-out guy who is at the gym a hundred times a day” — he makes the exact same jokes that any group of Hebrew school bros inevitably make. In February 2011, he tweeted, “Currently editing a scene I am in and just realized… if I was normal sized instead of an emaciated jew bastard MY DICK WOULD LOOK TINY!!!” Last April, he reported on his blog that he spent the day shooting an anal scene with Sienna West, eating a Quiznos sub, and editing a few videos for Angel’s site, BurningAngel.com. “I have absolutely nothing to complain about when it comes to today,” he wrote. “Being a Jew I feel like I should always have something to complain about so this is odd.”
Men in porn, even Jewish ones, have more typically looked like somebody’s creepy uncle (see, for example, Ron Jeremy and Seymore Butts) than like a cantorial student at Hebrew Union College. (Harry Reems, of the 1972 classic Deep Throat, had some of Deen’s boyish good looks and comedy chops, but he was a whole lot clownier.) It’s this charm — Angel calls him “a really cute, smart, sarcastic, goofy kid” — that landed him starring roles in porn parodies of Scrubs and Seinfeld.
In these parodies, Deen serves a brilliant satirical function precisely because, as he told one interviewer, “I can act like that guy, but I don’t have sex like that guy. I have sex like me.” In other words, however earnest his impressions of Seinfeld or Zach Braff’s J.D., Deen’s sexual confidence aligns him opposite to the Jewish men of mainstream pop culture. Typically, these characters on TV and in movies relate to sex like prepubescent boys, talking about it a lot, comically, but only in extraordinary circumstances actually getting laid. Recall Neil Simon’s Eugene Jerome, peeking in on his sexy cousin and having to be told, at the age of 14, what a wet dream is, or Ben Stiller’s character inThere’s Something about Mary, stumbling toward Cameron Diaz. Andy Samberg embodies this tradition, knowingly, when he channels a 13-year-old to boast, in the 2010 pop hit, “I Just Had Sex.”
Deen, on the other hand, can’t be believable, even for an instant, as a guy pining to get laid. In Scrubs XXX, Deen-as-J.D. propositions Ashlynn Brooke-as-Reid for some “at-work sex.” She turns him down, and, gazing around the hospital, he concludes that “life would be much better if we all got more sex,” which could almost pass for an actual plot line for a Scrubs episode. But by this point the audience has already witnessed 20 minutes of Deen’s sexual adventures with Angel and Alexis Texas, two comely young women who have clamored to fellate him, to be penetrated by him both vaginally and anally, and finally to share his ejaculate, passing it back and forth between their mouths in a sloppy kiss.
Throughout this entire adventure — much racier, by the way, than Alexander Portnoy’s filthiest moment — Deen remains perfectly calm and in control. He directs the women quietly but surely into each change of position, even as he continues to thrust rhythmically into them, as if to make the audience understand that this sort of thing happens to him every day. Which it does.
These performances send up not just sitcom formulas, then, but more generally the way that mainstream culture deploys sex — as a tease, a utopia, a Shangri-La often on characters’ minds but always off-screen — as well as the role of the nebbish within those narratives. A performer like Braff becomes a cultural icon by serving as sexual everyman, a guy who embodies the anxiety and awkwardness and fear of rejection drilled into so many American men during their teenage years, and then by demonstrating that there’s some hope of overcoming all of that. Jewishy guys achieve coitus at the end of movies (see Adventureland, American Pie, and so on) for the same reason women get married at the end of Jane Austen novels: to resolve the tension that has driven the story and, in so doing, to allow each guy in the audience to hope that one day he too will find fulfillment.
Watching Deen, on the other hand, demonstrates how false, even pernicious, that myth is. The very same audience members, if they took sex seriously — if they listened to Dr. Ruth and Dan Savage, worked diligently to please their partners and to shunt aside their insecurities — could be performing more confidently. Deen plays a rabbi in Nice Jewish Girls, a 2009 film in which Louisa Lanewood concludes a recitation of a Hanukkah candle blessing, in her Israeli accent, by dripping hot wax onto one of Nikki Lamont’s nipples, and in which another scene ends with Deen ejaculating onto a sheet of matzah clenched in two women’s teeth. His rabbi is no celibate cleric nor anti-Semitic monster, but the same guy Deen always, inevitably, is: A confident, kinky, charismatic young Jewish man who has worked diligently since he was a teenager to be as proficient a sexual performer as he can.
Not surprisingly, Deen doesn’t have much patience for the sexual representations of our sanitized popular culture. He and Angel went to see Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up together, he told me, and they were appalled (as were some feminists) that in the film “no one even mentions the fact that abortion is allowed, or adoption. […] They’re stuck together, even though she hates him. It sends a horrible message. Who wrote this thing?” And what about Superbad? “Everyone tells me it’s this amazing movie and it’s so hilarious. I started watching it, and I couldn’t sit through it.” When you make pornography for a living, you don’t need the R-rated prudery of Zack and Miri Make a Porno.
While Deen refutes the Jewish-man-as-perpetual-teenager trope, he also avoids the lecherous, muscled or flabby masculinity that is an equally widespread cliché within porn. One sees this best in Joanna Angel and James Deen’s European Vacation, a 2009 feature with some of Deen’s finest performances, both sexual and comic. Deen and Angel won an XRCO Award for “Best On-Screen Chemistry” for it, quite deservedly. If the Internet proves anything, it’s that any two morons can fuck on video. But it takes intelligence and talent to have sex as fun, savvy, and playful as Deen and Angel do.
While not a parody per se, Joanna Angel and James Deen’s European Vacation satirizes the gender dynamics of mainstream porn, without, at the same time, subverting them so much as to vitiate its appeal to its likely audience of eager masturbators. The plot is simple: Deen and Angel fly together to Paris, where they enjoy a romp in a public park only to discover, post-coitus, that they’ve lost their passports and all their money. They decide that they’ll earn their passage back to the United States by prostituting Deen. “We should sell your cock,” Angel decides. “I’m going to be your pimp.”
Already, this is a reversal: In innumerable porn videos, women play prostitutes, performing sexual acts for money that is exchanged on camera. Here, Deen plays against type, and camps it up as a mindless ditz, speaking terrible Spanish to Parisians and drawing up silly business cards for himself. After turning his first trick — an outdoor encounter with a gorgeous British punk girl calling herself Holly D, near a Parisian statue of Madonna with child — Angel discovers him in the tub back in their hotel room, dejected. “I’m a whore, a worthless whore. I feel so used.” It’s a surreal, hilarious moment, not just because we know that Deen has been a professional sex worker for all of his adult life, but also because, in our pop culture, men aren’t supposed to be able to feel that kind of sexual shame.
The relations between Angel and Deen in the film reflect what seem to be the real dynamics between them. Half a decade older than him, and a Rutgers alumna rather than a community college dropout, Angel’s much more established in the business. She owns a company and has made herself into a national spokeswoman for the subgenre referred to as alt-porn. Angel’s level of prominence allows her some genuine power, too: after she first met Deen at the AVN Awards, she wanted to get to know him better, so she decided to cast him in one of her movies. “The fortunate thing about being a porn director,” she reports, “is that you get to hire whoever you want.” Angel’s relationship with Deen might not be exactly pimp-whore, as in the film, but it’s at least mentor-protégé, and — as in his childhood — Deen evinces nothing but comfort with having a female rabbi. That in itself is noteworthy in an industry in which the decisions are typically made by and for the benefit of male producers.
Deen knows that he has less in common with the nebbishes who retail sexual clumsiness so successfully in Hollywood than he does with sexual radicals of previous eras. The Canyons notwithstanding, his greatest potential as a performer has nothing to do with mainstream pop culture and the ways it packages and exploits sex. Asked what parody he would most want to make, given the funding, he doesn’t choose The Social Network, orArrested Development, or Bridesmaids, or really a parody at all. What he says, sensibly, is, “I always wanted to do a Marquis de Sade movie.”
[Originally published in the Los Angeles Review of Books.]