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Candida Royalle
Movie Poster from Sissy's Hot Summer, circa 1979Courtesy Candida Royalle

The pioneering female porn director who changed the industry

In the 80s, Candida Royalle fought for diversity, women’s rights and elevated porn into an art form – here’s five things you should know about her

The concept of feminism within pornography is one often overlooked. Even the term ‘feminist porn’ itself sounds oxymoronic. We constantly see accusations of exploitation and misanthropy within pornography, truly an industry made for men by men, but little do we embrace the female figures who continue to lead the way in women’s sexual empowerment and pleasure.

Earlier this week, the adult film industry lost one of its leading ladies; New York’s Candida Royalle. Born on the 15 October 1950 as Candice Marion Vadala, Royalle took the pornography scene by storm in the 1980s with her internationally acclaimed line of erotic films; filmed from a woman’s perspective. She revolutionised the concept of ‘couples erotica’, writing and producing films praised by counsellors and therapists for depicting a realistic and healthy imitation of sexual activity. After a lengthy battle with ovarian cancer, Royalle might be at peace; but her work will continue to influence the attitudes within the pornography community for generations to come. A true feminist icon, animal rights activist and sexology inspiration.

SHE TACKLED THE LACK OF DIVERSITY IN PORN

During the ‘Golden Age’ of porn, Royalle starred in over 25 adult films before retiring in 1980 with the penultimate Blue Magic; a title she also wrote. In 1984, at a time where the first feminist porn movement was at its peak, she founded her own adult film company: Femme Productions. Talking about the company, she said, “I created the line in order to put a woman’s voice to adult movies and give men something they could share with the woman in their life. You’ll find them to be less graphic and lacking in the traditional ‘money shot’, a staple of most adult films. Counsellors often prefer to use my movies in their work with couples because of their ‘women friendly’ approach and what they call ‘positive sexual role modeling’.” Her pioneering films were aimed at women and couples, praised for portraying realistic narratives; Royalle also fought hard against the lack of racial diversity in porn, producing a “Femme Chocolat” series that featured an ethnically diverse cast of performers and directors.

SHE REVOLUTIONISED ‘COUPLES EROTICA’ – AND MADE THE ‘SMART GIRL’ SEXY

Royalle’s work opened up the world of adult content to women, and made them feel comfortable to view films. Her Femme Production films were the first of their kind, portraying strong and smart female characters experiencing pleasure within a valued narrative. Commenting on how she differed from mainstream graphic pornography, Royalle said, “I set myself apart by creating movies that are high quality, genuinely erotic in a more sensual and realistic way, tell real stories or at least set up a context for the eroticism and that reflect what I think women might like to see as well as men.”

SHE FOUGHT FOR WOMEN’S RIGHTS

Royalle was a member of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists; a non profit organisation devoted to the promotion of sexual health through the development and advancement of sexual therapy and education. In 1992 Candida founded Feminists for Free Expression, a group of diverse feminists working to preserve the individual right for women to see, hear and produce material of their choice. The group opposed speech-censoring legislation and defended women’s free speech. FFE’s beliefs were that "freedom of expression is especially important for women's rights" and that by suppressing sexist messages, society "will neither reduce harm to women nor further women's goals."

Speaking of her parents’ reaction to learning of her career choice, Royalle said, “my parents were shocked when they first learned of my clandestine life as a porn star but ultimately declared their love for me, and respected what I created in terms of my production company and the businesswoman I became.”

“Even women with the best mental health will face some downsides from this work. Our culture consumes porn at record numbers, but the women who perform are still judged harshly” – Candida Royalle

SHE TURNED PORN INTO AN ART FORM

Elevating pornography as an art form, Royalle was asked in 2012 whether she believed porn still deserved a bad reputation, responding, “perhaps if we weren’t still so consumed with guilt and shame about sex, neither watching nor performing in these films would carry the weight it does. But then, perhaps we wouldn’t be so interested in them, either. If the fruit were not forbidden, would anyone care to take a bite?”

“As for whether it’s harmful or beneficial to the performers, let’s take women first. There are some who choose to perform because they like sex a lot and they consider it a great way to earn a living. Then there are those who are drawn to porn as a way of acting out subconscious psychological issues – looking for daddy’s love or punishment for being a bad girl. For many, it’s probably a little of each. Even women with the best mental health will face some downsides from this work. Our culture consumes porn at record numbers, but the women who perform are still judged harshly.”

SHE UNDERSTOOD FEMALE DESIRE

Tired of exhibiting female sexuality through the eyes of the men, Candida decided to take the reins of production and avoid the male chauvinist predictability of graphic pornography. Criticising the gender inequality in typical adult films, her Femme Production narratives explored the broader context of women’s social and emotional desires. Royalle was ultimately the driving force behind the creation of a distinct shift in the porn community, by repelling the classic voyeuristic mode and repossessing this with fantastical pleasure, which was enthusiastically received by pornography viewers, the media and the sexology community. Throughout her career Royalle was involved in 74 films, producing and directing 17 award-winners. This included her debut Femme, the “Eyes of Desire” series and The Bridal Shower, provoking a movement ready to produce porn from a female perspective.

Far from being a victim of the industry, Royalle managed to orchestrate a sexual revolution, using her ideologies to emancipate women from the historic chains attached to their representation within adult films, thus enabling and encouraging feminine access to a field which had always been dominated by men.

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