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Talking to a porn star is pretty boring. At least talking to Sasha Grey is. Not asking her about sex is like interviewing a brain surgeon about methods of fly fishing, and even when you’re discussing sex, she comes at it with the sort of clinical, professional tone that you’d expect anyone to discuss their job with. Which seems fair – even with over 80 films under her garter belt, she’s still only 21 and carries herself accordingly. She speaks about acting in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience in the same borrowed phrases of any young artist who doesn’t quite know what they’re doing yet. What’s unfair is that she’s expected to know, for whatever reason, because she’s become an icon in such a short time.

There’s no need to write anything about her brief career or her status as a porn star revolutionary because you already know it. To hear some journalists and insiders talk about her, you’d imagine that they are discussing Pablo Picasso or the woman who actually invented sex. Now, people are shouting her cultural importance from the rooftops, claiming that she’s changed the face of cinema as the first major female porn star to cross over into the mainstream. And all of those people are wrong.

I realize just how absurd that idea is about five minutes into my phone call with her. She sounds calm, her voice carries a sort of robotic grace and confidence as she swears she’s sharing the real Sasha Grey with me. Nothing is an act. This is her life. Who she is, is exactly what she’s sharing with the world – whether it be while arching her back for anal or ad-libbing for an Academy Award-winning director. Even she is wise enough to realize how absurd her perceived cultural importance is:

“I don’t know if my role in The Girlfriend Experience is necessarily something that will make a huge difference, but I think these next few films coming up, if they’re received well, that’s what will be the defining mark.”

Basically, everyone has got it wrong. Her cultural importance has nothing to do with crossing over, or at least, it has little to do with it. Even if she does continue to make movies where she isn’t fellating the luckiest pizza guy on the planet, she’d need to rise into the true mainstream before any milestones are made. That could be an incredible challenge for someone who is already as famous as she is. And here lies her true importance: Sasha Grey is a constant cultural contradiction.

First of all, I feel it’s important not to skirt the issue of whether or not I knew who Sasha Grey was before she was cast as one of Steven Soderbergh’s non-actors. Of course I did. I’m a red-blooded American male with the ability to type the phrase “ball gag” into a search engine. This is where the contradictions begin. Soderbergh essentially hired a hyper-famous unknown to star in his movie. It’s true that she’s more famous than Julia Roberts was when Roberts starred in Pretty Woman, but Grey got famous in the one industry that allows you to become a major star in secret. My mother certainly doesn’t know who she is, and a decent percentage of men will feign ignorance to her existence since watching porn is still taboo for some reason. Thus, Sasha Grey is an anonymous superstar. If she starts starring in romantic comedies alongside Ashton Kutcher while filming I Wanna Bang Your Sister 2, then she’ll have achieved something. And I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

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The second major contradiction comes from the fact that she’s a product of a media-obsessed age. A time where it’s not “advertising,” it’s “marketing.” Where it’s not “marketing,” it’s “branding.” Sasha Grey may be exposing herself to the world, but it’s all rehearsed. Her answers seem genuine and honest unless you’ve read other interviews with her to prepare for speaking with her. If you did, you’d realize that she’s giving you the same things she’s given everyone else, regardless of the question. Part of this is my fault, but for my purpose here, here are the details about The Girlfriend Experience and Grey that you could glean from my talk with her or any other interview she’s done on the topic:

  • Screenwriter Brian Koppelman sought her out by sending her a myspace message. She only agreed to do the project because it was Soderbergh directing (she’s a big fan), and she assumed there would sex scenes involved (there aren’t).
  • “[Christine's] main goal is money” – The character that Grey plays in The Girlfriend Experience is first and foremost a business woman who is propelled by making the next dollar, not necessarily by her emotions.
  • “They are always looking for a bigger mirror” – Grey uses this phrase repeatedly in multiple interviews, describing the vanity of Christine and Christine’s boyfriend in the film, a personal trainer. She never describes that relationship any other way.
  • “It was great to play a non-eponymous character” – Grey uses this phrase three times during my talk with her and with every other interview I’ve read about her regarding this project. Basically, she’s expressing relief that she’s not playing herself in films or simply making cameos, but it comes off like a high school student who has learned a new word for the SATs. To list all the interviews where she uses this phrase would take too long – in fact, do a quick search for ‘non-eponymous character’ and the first items that come up are all Sasha Grey interviews.

The word-for-word repetition of these facts not only makes for boring interviews, it exposes another odd contradiction. She’s selling herself, but it feels fake. She speaks like a publicist-controlled version of herself even if she’s sharing what she really feels. As if she’s truthfully giving the fake version of her real self for public consumption. It’s likely that she really is being herself, but she’s so self-aware (and knowledgeable about framing her image) that it’s frustratingly false-seeming. I won’t even begin to dig into the mind-bending convolution of a person going by a stage name giving the real version of herself.

Talking to her reminds me of a piece Chuck Klosterman wrote about Britney Spears for Esquire Magazine. In it, he describes her as “the naughtiest good girl” and marvels at how either Spears was completely non-self-aware or the savviest marketer of all time or both. If that’s true, Grey is like the anti-Spears. While Spears was selling herself as the embodiment of a sexual virgin, Grey was being filmed getting punched in the stomach during oral sex. But talking to Grey, she seems like the most innocent naughty girl. It’s all par for the course for her – a woman that is not going to be shocked by anything.

Yet, in a major way, the two are the same because you’ll never have what they are selling. If Spears was being coy about her sexuality, Grey is doing the hide-in-plain sight camouflage version by showing you everything and giving you nothing.

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That reality extends to the contradiction of the true (yet molded) personality she’s offering. Just like there are several details that keep getting repeated about her role as an “indie darling,” there are details about her life that keep getting repeated. She shocked her co-stars during her first porn shoot when she was 18. She views sex as performance art. She has a band. She’s into Godard. Her stage name is literary. She’s into existentialism. All of these details are both entrenched with personality and devoid of meaning. They are just interesting enough to define her while just generic enough so that people can still place whatever meaning they want onto her. The average person doesn’t know what Existentialism is let alone what it means to be “into it.”

Even Grey seems to understand that. In the interview where that detail of her life first surfaced, she asked, “how many 18-year old porn stars are existentialist?” as if to wink to the world that she realizes that, even if it is an honest interest of hers, it’s still the kind of detail that makes feature-writers drool. Something that sets her apart or makes her seem just interesting enough while still being accessible because 1) she’s using a big word while most porn stars are giggling and 2) we have no idea what the fuck she’s talking about. Does that mean she cares about interpersonal connections? Does she read Kierkegaard off-camera while waiting to get DP’ed? We’ll never know, and because of that, it means something and nothing at the same time. She’s able to give of herself while not stealing our chance to make her what we want her to be. The fact that she realizes this is her true cultural impact.

Porn revolutionary. Indie film muse. Performance artist. Cross-over pioneer. Musician. Philosopher. Orgy queen.

Ultimately though, she’s really just a young woman who has sex on camera for money. She makes a living having sex – and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially since she’s very good at what she does. But so far she hasn’t done much of anything to earn the sort of attention she’s getting.

Still, it seems odd to boil her down that way. Even if she isn’t really the icon that everyone makes her out to be, she’s still influenced everyone into thinking that she is, and that’s no easy feat. Talking to her for fifteen minutes, I feel like I’m on the outside, like she’s the star of a film called The Emperor’s No Clothes, and I don’t quite see what everyone else is seeing. I don’t think it’s manipulative or that she has ulterior motives. Grey is a savvy woman who understands how to achieve her goals, and that’s admirable. But I think if everyone stood back a moment to see exactly what she’s being labeled as, they’d notice that they’re a long way off. Or at least premature. The potential is there, but she hasn’t yet fulfilled it.

To me, she’ll continue to be a wildly famous unknown, a media entity selling her true self as an image, and one of the most boring exciting personalities I’ve ever spoken to. A cultural contradiction. And that’s a good thing, I think.


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