<i>Girls Gone Wild </i>and the Voyeuristic Allure of 'Ordinary Girls'

Girls Gone Wild and the Voyeuristic Allure of 'Ordinary Girls'

Graphic: Angelica Alzona

In 1997 Joe Francis was working as a production assistant in reality television when he realized that most of the footage being submitted for the show he was working on was extreme. There were suicides, video of a woman getting hit by a train, another woman having her legs bitten off by a shark. Ever the visionary, Francis thought people might pay to see these things, so he used his credit card to license the videos for a successful compilation he named “Banned from Television.” In 1998 he’d move from shark bites to boobs, advertising sales of the first “Girls Gone Wild” tape on late-night cable television, created from clips Francis had found of girls at Mardi Gras lifting their shirts up. A monstrous franchise was born.

The Girls Gone Wild tapes were softcore porn compilations, sold primarily through infomercials, promising the nudity and soft sexual antics of sorority girls, campus co-eds, and spring break virgins, who would appear flashing their breasts or performing erotic scenes for the camera. Cameramen would approach drunken college students in the streets of Panama City or New Orleans, and for a glimpse at their boobs the girls might receive some beads or a pair of GWW-branded shorts. Francis was capitalizing on the increasingly wild Floridian phenomenon of spring break, boosted by MTV’s annual broadcast that showcased the week’s hedonism to all of America. The allure was heightened by the series’ late-night infomercials, where viewers could sample the censored compilations before buying. By 2004 Francis would brag that it was a $100 million dollar a year business; by 2013 it would be bankrupt, a relic of an era when people had to purchase porn over the phone, rather than access it instantly online.

But the advertised draw of Girls Gone Wild was its stars: just regular girls, approached out of the blue to become softcore porn stars in a matter of seconds. They were “the ones you wouldn’t expect to do it,” a 25-year-old production manager told The New York Times. “The attainability factor is what makes ‘Girls Gone Wild’ successful, ‘cause these really are, as much as other videos and magazines will say, these are the girls next door,” Francis told Asbury Park Press in 2002. “It’s not the girls who look like the girls next door...that’s what comes across, and that’s what makes the series work.”

Critics and fascinated analysts tended to zoom in on girls’ participation in Girls Gone Wild as being indicative of a troubling cultural shift, not the exploitative ethos of the show. Newscasters and concerned parents wondered why college girls were “going wild” in the first place, and journalists expressed confusion as to how being in the videos could be “empowering” for women involved. Francis and participants of Girls Gone Wild frequently celebrated and framed the naked appearances of girls on-camera as liberating, a testament to their individual freedom and empowerment. “It’s a very freeing feeling,’’ one 19-year-old woman told The New York Times after lifting up her shirt for the camera. But viewed in hindsight, Girls Gone Wild’s digital decoupage of flashing co-eds and spring breakers, regular girls just dipping into debauchery for a few minutes of R-rated fame, plays like a precursor to the casual accessibility of porn online and how far an image of a woman can travel without her informed consent. And while many critics tended to focus on the girls being filmed, what deserved more focus were the dynamics happening behind the camera.

When Girls Gone Wild started gaining traction, some feminist critics seemed baffled by what inspired women to flash themselves for the camera in the first place. “The women who populate this alternative reality are not strippers or paid performers, they are middle-class college kids on vacation, they are the mainstream,” Ariel Levy wrote in 2005's Female Chauvinist Pigs, which criticized the idea that emblems of “raunch culture” like GGW were the result of feminism’s gains and women’s sexual empowerment. “For some women this is liberating, for some women this is something they do on a goof or for a lark to show friends they can, for some it’s a way of flirting with the cameramen,” a sociologist told The Los Angeles Times. Others were blunter: “They’re sluts and whores,” a 22-year-old at a shoot told Entertainment Weekly. “They have no respect for their bodies. They feel good because all these guys are hootin’ and hollerin.”

But as Girls Gone Wild became a household name, its advertisements blaring on television in the late hours of the night, reality began to puncture the idea that every woman who appeared on these tapes did so enthusiastically. While producers stressed that they were simply there to film what was already happening, it became clear that not all women included on the tapes really consented to being put in these videos—or if they were even old enough to consent.

In 2001 a Florida State University student sued Girls Gone Wild after her friends saw her topless in commercials for one of the videos, which had used footage taken of her at a Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans. According to her friends, she was also pictured topless on a billboard in Florence, Italy, for the series. The student’s lawyers argued that her privacy rights were violated when Francis’s company used footage of her and that she had no idea she was being filmed, but GGW argued that because Mardi Gras is a newsworthy event, the student forfeited her right to privacy. “She made a stupid move,” a legal expert said, commenting on the case at the time. “The question is: Does she have to pay for it for the rest of her life?” Both parties ultimately settled and the company stopped distributing the video.

But the lawsuits would keep coming. In 2002 Veronica Lane sued GGW for violating her privacy rights and for casting her in a false light after she flashed a cameraman in 1999 who then used the footage in a video. Lane, who was 17 years old at the time of the filming and consented to the footage being used, said she had no idea her image would be used in a commercial video. A judge ultimately found the video hadn’t violated her privacy, rejecting the arguments that she was too young or intoxicated to consent to filming. Again and again and again Francis and GGW were hit with lawsuits from women who argued they had not consented to footage of themselves appearing in Girls Gone Wild videos, or that they had been coerced into doing so, or that they were minors and could not consent. In 2003, the GGW staff was found to have filmed 35 minors in Panama City, with Francis later going to jail for losing his temper in later settlement negotiations with some of the girls filmed. In 2006 Francis plead guilty to exploiting minors and even admitted in a separate case that he didn’t keep track of the ages of the women and girls he captured in his videos.

Many, if not most, GGW participants did appear to wholeheartedly want to participate in the series, though sometimes with the caveat that their appearance in these videos was out of character for them. “It’s like a one thing only. We’re going to do it just to have fun just this one time,” one participant told CBS News in 2002. As Karen C. Pitcher notes in “The Staging of Agency in Girls Gone Wild,” most scenes of a GGW video include a consent process on camera for girls included, in which participants claim to be over 18—even if the girls included sometimes appeared to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. But the general popular perception that Girls Gone Wild’s participants all appeared in the videos because they felt “empowered” to take their top off simplified the blurred dynamics of consent that were happening on and off camera.

In Levy’s report trailing the camera crew, she quotes a producer who says women are “begging to be on camera,” yet in the next scene describes a group of 40 beach-goers screaming at a hesitant girl to take her bikini bottoms off for the camera. “I caught myself hoping the crowd would not start throwing rocks at the girls if they decided to keep their clothes on,” she writes. In Los Angeles Times reporter Claire Hoffman’s infamous profile of Francis, she describes a scene in which Francis plucks an 18-year-old Jannel Szyszka off the dance floor of a nightclub and takes her back to a GGW tour bus. Drunk, Szyszka filmed an explicit scene for Girls Gone Wild, but tells Hoffman later she didn’t realize she was being filmed. When the cameras stopped rolling, Szyszka says that Francis raped her. “She says she never would have undressed for the cameras if she hadn’t been completely drunk,” Hoffman writes. “And she is adamant that she said ‘no’ to Francis.”

It’s hard to deny that what Francis was doing was scummy and in many cases illegal, but across numerous lawsuits, most judges and juries sided with GGW. That’s partly due to the perception of the women who landed in these videos in the first place. A jury in 2010 rejected a Jane Doe’s claim that her reputation was damaged in a Girls Gone Wild video in which another person pulled down her top, even though the footage showed her explicitly saying no when first asked to pull it down herself. “Through her actions, she gave implied consent,” the jury foreman said at the time. “She was really playing to the camera. She knew what she was doing.” “These are women. They’re knowingly going out. They’re getting drunk. They know what they’re doing,” defense attorney Michelle Suskauer said on an episode of Hannity & Colmes.

But complicated laws also let GGW’s transgressions slip through the cracks. After Lindsay Bullard flashed unidentified cameramen in 2000 when she was just 14 years old, she found her topless image on the VHS cover of a Girls Gone Wild video and filed a lawsuit against GGW’s marketing company. You’d think that case would be cut and dry, using the photo of a naked minor to sell a soft porn video, but Georgia law didn’t allow Bullard to sue as a private citizen for violating the state’s child exploitation laws, and the judge sided with GGW’s claim that they didn’t know she was a minor at the time. “That plaintiff behaved foolishly and recklessly by baring herself to a stranger with a camera is an obvious fact,” the judge wrote. The only recourse Bullard had was to sue for misappropriating her likeness and making money off of her image. To this, the court ruled in her favor. “One little decision could follow you for the rest of your life and have a huge impact on your life,” Bullard said in 2012, a year before the case was decided.

In 2013 the company would file for bankruptcy, the result of multiple lawsuits against Francis and a debt of millions of dollars to Las Vegas entrepreneur Steve Wynn, and in 2014 the Girls Gone Wild franchise was scooped up by investor group Liquidity Capital, its future for the most part unclear. In the late 1990s and early 2000s Girls Gone Wild was a spectacle, the videos treated like little snowglobes encapsulating young women’s newfound willingness to expose themselves for 15 seconds of fame, and the normalization of that perceived debasement as a mainstream cultural product. But in Girls Gone Wild’s rotating montage of “real girls” there are flashes of pornography’s verité digital future, where women’s bodies and intimate images can be repurposed into commodities for the masses even without consenting to that repurposing.

In 2000, Italian writer Sergio Messina coined the term “realcore” to describe amateur Internet pornography, born out of the popularity of digital cameras and web spaces. Where hardcore pornography, he writes, makes use of traditional sets, cameras, and professional performers, realcore “based its unique appeal on the reality, spontaneity and enthusiasm of the people involved.” Girls Gone Wild existed somewhere between hardcore and realcore: a well-recognized franchise with professional camera crews and heavy advertising that, despite this, sold the “realness” and initially tepid, off-the-cuff appearances of the girls at its center. In a 2003 interview with The Arizona Republic, Francis explains that part of the popularity was in the push and pull between the cameramen and girls who insist they’re not the kind who’d take their top off for a video camera. “If I just showed body part after body part, there’s nothing special about that,” he says.

As personal cameras and the Internet began to disrupt amateur pornography, the market was flooded with content of “girls you wouldn’t expect to do it,” to borrow the words of GGW’s producer. The early aughts would bring the sex tapes of Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, both of which were first leaked online, though critics have disputed the reality of those leaks. Before “revenge porn” and “nonconsensual pornography” would become popularized, websites like IKnowthatGirl.com and RealExGirlfriends.com would offer a mix of real user-submitted porn and staged versions. In 2010 Hunter Moore launched IsAnyoneUp, a website that posted women’s private nude photos that Moore and his collaborator procured through hacking strangers’ email accounts. Many were submitted by jilted exes, an early example of revenge porn, but some were submitted by women themselves. When it shut down in 2012, it reportedly received 300,000 to 350,000 visitors a day. “Imagine a sort of consent-free, extra-malign Girls Gone Wild for the Tumblr set,” John Herrman wrote of the site. In 2021, young women dance on TikTok underneath filters that obscure their bodies, only to have those filters removed by savvy users. Today women don’t even have to film or photograph themselves naked to become unwitting stars in porn thanks to creepily accurate deepfake technology.

Most writing on the Girls Gone Wild phenomenon at the time expresses confusion over why girls would bare their breasts for the camera and what such exhibitionism says about feminism, about our culture. But less focus is placed on the male consumers who’d rather see anonymous strangers reveal their bodies for the camera over professional, adequately paid performers, even in the aftermath of stories from women who said they did not know or want to be included in GGW videos. Now men don’t need a Girls Gone Wild camera crew to troll Florida beaches looking for subjects. The internet recreates Francis’s voyeuristic cruising: capturing the bodies of girls next door and packaging them as porn for consumers, whether or not they enthusiastically consented.

Pop Culture Reporter, Jezebel

DISCUSSION

Is it really that hard to figure out? It’s a power trip. Paid porn actors are getting paid for what they’re doing, and the “girl next door” isn’t. but you get to see her boobs anyway. The not very well kept secret that she’s doing it because she’s drunk, or in return for something dumb like a pair of shorts, is part of the selling point; you got one over on her.