Project XXX | Sydney University Dramatic Society

Image by Matthew Miceli

Depending on who you talk to, women’s sexuality can be threatening, empowering, dangerous, deviant, or irrelevant. Even after the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the sex positive movement of the 21st century, women’s relationship with sex continues to be a contentious taboo. Project XXX focuses on the realm of pornography and asks whether the industry is a hindrance or a tool for women’s sexual autonomy.

Amy (Danielle Cabubas) has been exiled to a nowhere country town over the summer to avoid the fallout of her boyfriend Josh (Sam Martin) posting an explicit video of her online. While working for her uncle, Amy re-meets Callum (Spencer Clark), a budding film maker with ambitions of reaching the big time like his favourite pornography star Jenna (Abi Coffey). In an effort to reclaim the control over her sexuality that she feels Josh took from her, 15-year-old Amy cooks up a plan to film her first time with 25-year-old Callum and post it online. Unfortunately, her plan to stick it to the patriarchy falls apart as Callum’s vision of his first real adult film overtakes Amy’s original intentions.

Ostensibly Kim Wilshire and Paul Hines’s 2014 script is about pornography. Callum is portrayed as the prime target for the industry; a lonely man with the time and money to foster an obsession with a fantasy facilitated by multi-billion dollar production companies. Jenna features as a character in Callum’s imagination but is afforded opportunity to address the audience directly and explain her feelings of self-doubt about her position at the top and possible exploitation she endures in her work. But this exploration of pornography as an exploitative industry that perpetuates negative attitudes towards women and other minorities remains surface-level throughout the narrative, failing to engage with the nuance of consumer capitalism, entertainment, and the sale of eroticism. What the script does do is conflate pornography with revenge porn, two very different things.

The central issue of Project XXX is that Amy is a teenager and a survivor of a sex crime (not everywhere; revenge porn is a criminal offence in Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia) but she vehemently rejects the label of “victim” because it makes her feel further disempowered by the experience. Instead, she wants to reclaim her sexuality by doing what was done to her but on her own terms. Amy’s plan is framed much like Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita with Amy seducing a pliable older man to fulfil her own desires. But the tricky thing is that as much as the characters try to use Amy’s feminism and narrative of empowerment to grey out the boundaries of her relationship with Callum, they don’t. So as charming as the banter and burgeoning relationship between Callum and Amy is meant to be, we are watching the set-up for child rape. No amount of shrugging or quirky quips about “Is this weird?”, while a 25-year-old shows a 15-year-old his favourite porn, makes that acceptable.

Direction from Margaret Thanos attempts to recast the atmosphere of this production as sexy and cool, prioritising the normalisation of frank conversations about pornography by acknowledging porn as a part of cyberspace akin to vloggers. An extended choreographed dance at the beginning of the show made the intentions clear: this will be a bit naughty but ultimately fun. And the cast maintained that high energy throughout, especially Clark and Martin who committed admirably to the physical humour of the show.

Set design by Thanos and lighting design by Alice Stafford are playful and retro with the majority of the three-part set dedicated to an elaborate DVD rental store complete with hundreds of DVDs. Thanos integrates technology well into the staging with television screens included to show video footage of Jenna (videography by Charlie Hollands) and a clever square projector beam to recreate the appearance of a YouTube video in real-life.

Cabubas plays Amy with a stubborn zeal that is both cringy and highly relatable for those that remember their teenage years. Her selfishness and dogged determination to get her way, even employing underhanded manipulation tactics, is believable and entertaining. It would be easy to see this character in a context like Lizzie Maguire or Hannah Montana, a girl whose vision falls just short of the consequences of her dastardly plans. Alternately Callum’s character will be recognisable to the 20-somethings who almost certainly have suffered a lecture from a similar film bro. Though Clark brings out the vulnerability of Callum as a man with complicated needs, living in a small town and caring for his mum.

The taboo placed on women’s sexuality means teenage girls and their relationship with their bodies and sex remains an under-explored area for rich and powerful stories. It is shameful that so many teenage girls, like Amy, come to understand their sexuality through trauma, sexual assault, betrayal, and rape. Unfortunately, Project XXX takes a half-hearted approach to its subject matter and the real-world context for girls’ sexualities, failing to subvert public perceptions of either pornography or women’s sexuality. Despite the distraction of some dazzling gold hot pants, the story leaves a disappointingly sour aftertaste.

Project XXX is running at the Cellar Theatre from November 4th – 14th

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