Home » Ninja Thyberg on ‘Pleasure’, the Porn Industry and Ending Stigmas – Exclusive Interview

Ninja Thyberg on ‘Pleasure’, the Porn Industry and Ending Stigmas – Exclusive Interview

by Nicolás Delgadillo
Sofia Kappel and Zelda Morrison take a crude selfie while sticking their tongues in between their fingers holding the V sign in PLEASURE written and directed by Ninja Thyberg.

Mild Spoilers for Pleasure follow!

Few films are as unflinchingly honest about R-rated subject matter and unwaveringly committed to portraying it without restraint as Pleasure, the feature debut of Swedish director Ninja Thyberg. In fact, the film’s content soars past the R-rating, which led to a swapping of distribution rights from A24, who wanted to release an edited theatrical cut, to Neon, who agreed to release the film in its proper uncensored version. 

What’s so crazy about Thyberg’s film that it stirred up all this fuss? There’s plenty of outrageous violence, gore, and gratuitous nudity in R-rated films (including those of A24), but Pleasure – set in the porn industry of Los Angeles – can feel like its characters are naked onscreen more often than not. And naturally, there’s a lot of sex going on. 

That all may seem purposefully provocative and titillating, but consider how backwards it actually is where movies can blow up heads and engage in all sorts of insane graphic imagery for horror and action with little restriction, though anything to do with sex – a normal, everyday thing – has to merely be suggested. As Thyberg says, “It’s not like people don’t see these images.” Yet there remains an obvious double standard when it comes to violent imagery versus sexual content.

This is only one of the various ideas that Thyberg explores in her film. Pleasure tells the story of Linnéa (Sofia Kappel), a young woman from Sweden who arrives in Los Angeles with aspirations of becoming the next big porn star. Going under the name Bella Cherry, she navigates the fascinating and cutthroat business of the porn industry – a world of misogyny, racism, constantly shifting power dynamics, and fierce competition. 

It’s a world not much different from our own, which makes the film all the more universal despite its setting. It’s a compelling story and an eye-opening look inside the most public (yet no less stigmatized) area of sex work. Ninja Thyberg has spent years researching the porn industry and has directed several short films that deal with sexuality while probing at social themes, including the original Pleasure she made as a short in 2013.

In honor of Pleasure finally hitting a Blu-ray release from Neon, we sat down with Ninja Thyberg to break down the controversial, daring nature of the film, the female perspective, censorship, and how we can all help end the stigma around sex and sex workers.

How do you think porn consumption affects men versus women?

Ninja Thyberg: I think it really divides us. There are all types of porn, you can find anything. But most of it falls under the same pattern where it’s about, you know, the man being dominant, hard, big, active, and doing things with the woman who’s being small, cute, beautiful, or is the sexual object. That’s the normal gender role. That increases the dividing of men and women into these different categories, where women are supposed to be the sexual object, we are the ones who think of sex as something where we’re supposed to be the sexy one and being looked at, and that our body is something that the man can do things with. And that man is supposed to be always in charge, strong, competent, hard, and big. It’s a very obvious imbalance in power and most porn influences that power imbalance.

Sofia Kappel practices how to perform a blowjob for a porn audition using a banana while a friend records her on an iPhone in PLEASURE written and directed by Ninja Thyberg.
Sofia Kappel in ‘Pleasure’ courtesy of NEON

What differences have you noticed between women’s reactions to the film versus men’s?

Ninja Thyberg: I mainly made [Pleasure] for women because that’s what I feel passionate about, the filming perspective and all of that. I really hope that men are going to watch it and also feel empathy and identify with Bella. I was expecting to get a lot of critical reactions from men, but I received countless messages and so many men have been writing to me and thanking me for the film and are really, really touched and moved.

For women watching it, this is just your life as a woman, you know this. It’s about being a woman in a male-dominated world. I think most women can relate to a lot of the things that Bella is going through. It’s actually been a little bit of an eye opener for a lot of men, which I didn’t really expect but, of course, that’s fantastic. It’s also an age thing, where a younger generation understands the film better and younger women understand the film better. The older generation who maybe isn’t that used to watching porn has a tendency to interpret her as just being a victim, being unable to also see how taking control of being sexual objects can be empowering and all of those aspects. It’s not only a story about someone who is an underdog. There’s this whole spectrum of pros and cons of being a sexual object.

I love that this film is so honest about its content and doesn’t shy away from the more graphic portions of it. It’s funny that this comes out at a time where in the U.S., we’re sliding backward as far as censorship goes or what audiences can seemingly tolerate. How do you feel about the current state of what we can and what we can’t show audiences?

Ninja Thyberg: It’s just so strange and totally hypocritical. If you just look at the statistics, people are consuming so much porn. It’s not like people don’t see these images. But then we’re going to pretend like it doesn’t exist and that only comes with really negative consequences. If there are problems with it, we need to address them and we need to deal with them. We can only do that if we acknowledge it. We need to talk about it.

This whole idea of making sex something bad or dangerous is also really weird. It’s the source of life. Sex is a very good thing. It’s about human beings connecting to each other, embracing each other’s bodies and emotions. Sex can be such a good and therapeutic thing. Power play and play with submission and dominance doesn’t have to be a bad thing if you do it in a healthy and consensual way. But we need to talk about that and we also need to process it collectively. It can really be so many different things to people but when we have this stigma around it… sex that we don’t understand, we call it weird or perverted, and that’s just keeping people separated and stigmatized. There are so many really negative consequences from that.

A close up of pornstar Bella Cherry played by Sofia Kappel applying golden eye make up as she gets ready for a shoot in PLEASURE written and directed by Ninja Thyberg.
Sofia Kappel in ‘Pleasure’ courtesy of NEON

The film explores power dynamics in various ways, including the role that gender plays in them. But as we see with Bella, women can just as easily become the aggressor themselves in these situations, even if they were the subjugated ones before. With the porn industry slowly shifting towards more women in charge, more women behind the camera, what do you do to stop the same kind of abuses of power from happening?

Ninja Thyberg: First of all, it really matters for female performers to have more women behind the camera. The people who are in charge, the people who have the power should also be who are in front of the camera. I think what is really important is to listen to people in the industry and take them seriously. Because the industry is getting so criticized by mainstream society, they have a tendency to need to have each other’s backs because they feel like this left-out group. So then it becomes like, you don’t want to speak badly about your community, because everyone is already suffering from all the stigma.

Even if there are problems, people don’t really want to speak up about them. Publicly, you want to say that everything is great and there are no problems here because you are under such pressure already. But if we could get that pressure taken away, and listen, and create a climate where performers would be able to speak up about injustices without risking people just saying like, “You can’t be raped if you already are a porn star and like getting undressed in front of strangers” and all of that. That’s also really, really important.

You’ve been studying the industry for years and years now. Is this something that you want to continue to be involved with and research or is Pleasure kind of the culmination of all that?

Ninja Thyberg: No, I will always work with the same themes. I don’t think I’m ready to leave it. I’m going to continue working with it.

Pleasure is now available on Blu-ray!

Follow Senior Film Critic Nicolás Delgadillo on Twitter: @NickyD715

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