The rise of, and long-term success of exploitation cinema (primarily for our purposes pornography and the ultra-gory horror genre) owed its existence to the wide gap between what the audience wanted to see and what mainstream media was willing, or even just permitted, to distribute. The gap wasn’t there because of any moral qualms of the mainstream entertainment industry, it’s just that satisfying their audience’s most prurient desires was a bad financial bet: if you spend $40 million making a film, you’re likely to lose your shirt if the only place you can sell tickets for it is a small group of theaters on 42nd street.
The point being that the mainstream entertainment industry is perfectly willing to plumb the depths of its audience’s cravings as long as there’s money in it. Which brings us to the state of media as we know it today, where the line between exploitation and the mainstream has all but vanished. It’s only a matter of time (probably weeks) before explicit unsimulated, unsafe sex, and incredibly well simulated bloody, sadistic murder become so common in mainstream entertainment that we’ll all be bored with it, to the point that even our Red Wedding-themed Christmas cards stop being funny. (Goddammit.)
Given that there’s no content-specific legal restrictions (barring one) on the kind of material that can be shown on cable and streaming services, and given that, as an aggregate, the entertainment-consuming public’s desire for gore and sex has no limit (whatsoever), the original need for a (legally viable) exploitation media industry no longer exists.
In many ways this is a good thing. When all media become exploitation media, some of the stigma regarding the things exploitation media tended to depict will drop away. We will at last be willing to admit, boldly and without shame, that human beings desperately want to see the most terrible things, and are generally just terrible in and of themselves, which is an idea I’ve been spouting — without traction — for more than a decade.
My own personal vindication aside however, I feel as though the wholesale adoption of exploitation’s ethos into the mainstream has resulted in a great loss for our culture. Exploitation used to be the realm of talented weirdos that no multinational corporation would trust enough to hire, weirdos who made insane, incredible things. Not good things in an artistic sense usually, but that’s the point. There are some things worth seeing that could only come from unprofessional mad people with little money and no time, who nevertheless managed to feed themselves via the fruits of their creative expression. Where are these people supposed to go now?
Well, YouTube, I guess, if they want a chance to be seen. But YouTube is the new bastion of puritan restriction, where any video that even includes a single utterance of the word “fuck” will end up being demonetized, hidden behind an explicit content filter, and sunk to the bottom of the search results by a relentless, implacable algorithm that can’t be bargained with, can’t be reasoned with, and absolutely will not stop. It is hard to imagine an independent, guerilla media movement that has to be squeaky clean in order to survive. It’s so weird that the counter-movement is being forced by corporate interests to operate in a more restrictive context, sex-and-gore-wise, than the mainstream — but that’s kind of what’s happening. Sort of.
But this still leaves out the weird, the hideous, the fringe artists who can make interesting shit, but can’t manage a social media strategy or the consistent, daily output that YouTube’s algorithms require in order to actually move you up the ranks of “recommended” videos.
I don’t know. In the end, maybe it’s not better or worse, just different. The world’s changed, man.