Created by Lucy Kirkwood (the super successful, 36-year-old playwright behind The Children and Chimerica), Adult Material has been in the works for a while. Originally meant to air back in spring, it is only now that all four episodes are finally hitting our screens — and it was certainly worth the wait.
The main character is Hayley Burrows, stage name 'Jolene Dollar', played by the fantastic Hayley Squires. Jolene is the UK's most successful adult film star and one of the biggest names in the global porn industry. She's been around since her teens and now, at the ripe old age of 34, she finds herself with three kids in private school, a nice house, nice husband, a rather striking car (Barbie pink Audi? Yes please) and a career that’s just tipped over neatly into the ‘MILF’ category, much to Jolene’s chagrin.
But the world of adult entertainment is not the same world Jolene signed up for all those years ago. As well as the big shoots filmed on a set in an industrial estate in the suburbs, Jolene now has to keep up-to-date with her social media presence, messaging her sugar daddies while getting her car washed and recording personalised videos for foot fetishists while her kids are downstairs eating pesto pasta. It’s exhausting.
If all this sounds like Adult Material is a light romp through the adult film world though, don’t be fooled. Yes, Adult Material is darkly humorous (chlamydia in the eye anyone?), but it throws up some incredibly uncomfortable questions about the power structure within the industry. Take new performer Amy (played by Siena Kelly), her painfully tender age amplified by her perky bunches tied up in ribbons. Her bright-eyed, bushy-tailed excitement at making her first film belies a treacherous naivety. Subsequent events remind us that just because they're both women in porn Amy and veteran Jolene, no matter how much the latter tries to look out for the new recruit, do not exist on the same level of this complicated power structure.
Which was Kirkwood’s intention. “Jolene is at once a victim of a culture, but also a perpetrator,” she said. How much help can someone like Jolene, indoctrinated in and profiting from this industry that was originally built by men, for men, on the backs of young women, be to vulnerable young women like Amy and her own teenage daughter? “A proper examination of women’s agency in the Me Too era, demands that we look at the ways we have power as well as the ways in which we still don’t,” Kirkwood notes.
There are of course, many IRL women like Jolene who have made good out of the porn industry since the explosion of big-name female stars in the late 1970s. One, Rebecca More, a prominent performer today and fellow MILF, consulted on the show. "Does she present a difficult challenge to some of my most fundamental feminist beliefs?" Kirkwood says of Rebecca. "Absolutely. Do I deeply admire her? Absolutely. And that’s the contradiction I wanted to thread through the whole show, so that the 'problem' of Jolene Dollar keeps becoming more complex."
There is a whole host of problematic men in Adult Material, from Phil Daniels' director who doesn't dare cross Jolene but has no shame at coercing newbie Amy into uncomfortable situations. Then there's production company boss Rupert Everett playing a Hugh Heffner-via-Essex character named Carroll. In the context of his interactions with Jolene, a woman who's 'earned' her place a seat at the table, he comes across to viewers as a silly old man. But put in a scene with the vulnerable Amy, he becomes predatory.
Kirkwood is hesitant to dictate who holds the power in porn, but she does have reservations, "My hunch is that it will always be a world in which abuses of power are liable to take place, and more often than not those abuses will be perpetuated by men to women." She continues: "On one hand, it’s the only industry in the world where women can make more money than their male counterparts across the board. Yet if you spend any time in the porn world, what you basically see is a lot of is many women in their early twenties and many men in their late fifties. Which I think tells you a lot."
That’s not to say she thinks this is the way it always will be. From filmmakers like Erica Lust and Vex Ashley, to platforms like OnlyFans which put content creation and economic independence into the hands of the performers themselves, she's hopeful for the future. “It’s the old story of controlling the means of production - technology is midwifing more power for women, because they can produce their own material. I think that will create deep and enduring change for the better in many ways.”
Adult Material is as complicated as the industry itself and viewers won't find any conclusions here. Instead what we see are snapshots of the different ways women use and are used within the system. Scenes of female wealth and success are intersected with scenes of sexual assault (and a huge red flag here for people who may find scenes of this nature triggering, they are extremely difficult to watch). The victims are always women, the men always enabled by the industry they operate within.
It will be interesting to see how the more progressive areas of the porn industry perceive Adult Material. From economically independent camgirls (putting to one side their reliance on the male-owned platforms) to those who work for female-owned film companies, Adult Material may portray a world they've largely been able to bypass. But with an estimated 4-20% of internet traffic accounting for porn, most women in the industry won't have been so lucky and Adult Material certainly isn't pretending that's the case. Funny and insightful, deeply disturbing and thought provoking, Adult Material is a definite must-watch.