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Hypocritical History: Censoring a Film about Censorship -- The Impossible Task of Portraying the Problem

By Stephanie McElroy, with comment by Brendan Feeney

[1] The People vs. Larry Flynt celebrates America for "being the strongest country in the world today only because we are the freest," as Flynt once said. The problem is, that while the film triumphantly exhibits the (seemingly obvious) "evils of censorship," it hypocritically censors out the most controversial parts. The film champions free speech yet is not able to visually depict the potentially harmful material that the First Amendment defends. The content in Flynt's Hustler magazine absolutely, positively, requires the protection of the First Amendment. The film does not show you why. For how do you expose to mainstream society something that cannot legally be seen in an R-rated film? Director Milos Forman, incapable of surmounting this problem, needed to make changes. He removed the most obscene aspects of the "real" Hustler and Flynt, and fabricated the "reel" socially acceptable, laughable (and even likable) depictions. Consequently, in the process of telling this story that Forman wished to dedicate to his hero, the U.S. Justice system, he both sanitizes and canonizes Flynt and Hustler magazine.

[2] In this issue essay I will first discuss the history of pornography in America and the emergence of Hustler. I will then show how the movie makes the viewer feel proud of the country without letting the viewer choose if he or she is really pleased with what is being protected, pointing out the impossibility of portraying the obscene images in an R-rated film. After that, I will discuss the possible ramifications of pornography, including violence against women and children. I will then address the moral implications of a complete freedom of expression and the possible effects of promoting ignorance about pornography through the movie. Finally, I will comment on my views regarding pornography and censorship in our society.

The Sexual Revolution in America

[3] Since the 1950's, a sexual revolution has spawned in America, accordingly downgrading previous anathemas in society, like pre-martial sex, masturbation, and homosexuality. For example, according to an article describing the sexual revolution, "In the 1950s, less than 25 percent of Americans thought premarital sex was acceptable; by the 1970s, more than 75 percent found it acceptable" (Stossel 74). Norman Podhoretz recounts how in the early 1950's obtaining pornography was like trying to buy illegal drugs. But Playboy changed all of that, as it emerged as an "acceptable" form of pornography in 1953. It was targeted toward the upper-middle class, "respectable" man, featuring articles on expensive cars, fashion, and up-scale audio equipment. Many historical commentators say that Playboy, while displaying nude pictures of women, also placed them on a pedestal. After the success of Playboy, several other pornographic magazines emerged, increasing the acceptance level in America. These magazines -- Hustler, Playboy, and Penthouse -- are the "big three" that enormously revolutionized contemporary sexuality. Today, the pornography industry is unambiguous in our society and yields billions of dollars each year.

Breaking Taboos

[4] While the movie displays that Hustler was distinctive from Playboy, it does so in a way that sugarcoats Flynt. He is portrayed as the crusader who finally does a service to the "working-class" male, whom Playboy is mocking! He nobly creates Hustler for this new market that is more interested in attainable women and offensive political parodies. The disparity that the movie does not emphasize is the differences in how women are regarded.

[5] If there is one thing that Hustler is infamous for, it is breaking taboos. As the movie demonstrates, it was the first to show the female genitalia. It was also the first to show a picture of a couple having sex, and to put pubic hair on the cover. By today's standards, all of these things seem harmless (at least to the college-age generation). However, the movie does not show the blatant violence against, contempt toward, and mortification of women.

[6] As a result of the violent and objectionable material, Flynt was constantly immersed in legal battles dealing with obscenity charges. Each time, he steadfastly proclaimed that the First Amendment gives him the right to be offensive and print what he chooses. Today, Hustler portrays several images that are, for the most part, still considered shocking or taboo in our society like scatology, bestiality, and molestation. Has America reached its limit on what it will accept? If one extrapolates based on historical trends, the answer is an emphatic and alarming NO.

Defending and Celebrating the Unknown

[7] It is not difficult to understand why Frank Rich of the New York Times hailed the movie as being the "most timely and patriotic movie of the year." In the concluding scenes, one cannot help but feel eminently proud of America when the final decision is read to Flynt, as he lies crippled on his bed, saddened by the recent loss of his wife. Alan Isaacman reads, "At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas. Freedom to speak one's own mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty, but essential to the quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole." By these words, it appears as though Flynt's case meant the difference between a democracy and a totalitarian society. In actuality, Falwell vs. Flynt was a defamation case that determined that public figures cannot sue on the grounds of emotional distress. According to scholar Louis Menand, "It would be misleading to say that Hustler vs. Falwell extended the scope of First Amendment speech protections." He explains, "What the Supreme Court did, essentially, was to preserve the scope that already existed, which it did by rejecting an effort by the Appeals Court to allow a public figure, in the absence of finding libel, to recover on a claim of emotional distress" (18). Yet, all of those "complicated" details that may interfere with the purpose of the film are overlooked--Forman is determined to celebrate the U.S. Justice system, and he will accomplish his goal! The result is a movie that skews the facts to evoke the feeling of patriotism.

[8] The proud American viewer leaves the movie satisfied. People has confirmed that America is the best country out there, because if it will protect a "scumbag" like Larry Flynt, then it will protect anyone. The problem is that it compels one to feel proud--it doesn't let the viewer choose if he or she is really pleased with what is being protected. The viewer leaves believing that the content being protected in Hustler consists of some images on a par with Playboy and a few offensive parodies depicting otherwise pompous conservative figures.

Hiding the Obscenity

[9] Director Milos Forman has stated on numerous occasions that he has never purchased Hustler magazine. After being harshly attacked for this by feminists like Gloria Steinem for being unaware of what he was defending, Forman clarifies the matter by stating that he had to look through many issues of Hustler before making the movie--he just never bought them himself. When asked if the movie could have been a lot more explicit, Forman stated, "it could have been, but. . . I wouldn't do it myself, because I find these pictures unpleasant" and also "because everybody, I mean the adult audience, they know" (McBride 4).

[10] Like Forman, I am not a customer of Hustler magazine; but, unlike the director, I had never seen an issue of the magazine before viewing the movie. Before embarking on this project, I did not understand why Hustler was singled out. In the first courtroom scene, Isaacman attempts to bring into evidence other "virtually identical" magazines and the seemingly arrogant judge (played by Flynt himself) dismisses them. Isaacman's reaction--of outrageous disbelief--encourages the ignorant (in most cases female) viewer to feel the same way.

[11] As it turns out, my ignorance of pornographic magazines is not a special case. After discussing the topic with men and women of different ages, I will present my results. I have gathered that most men (regardless of age) are aware of the explicit content in Hustler and most have even seen it. Out of all the women I talked to, most of the older ones were aware that the content was graphic but have not been exposed to much of it, while the younger (college-age) females were not aware of the differences in the content of various pornographic magazines and had never viewed Hustler. Although this informal tabulation is not scientific by any means, it at least proved to me that there were several pornographically uninformed women out there. I am not saying women do not purchase the magazine, but I believe it is safe to say that many more men have seen the magazine than women. Sales statistics about Hustler magazine are hard to come by, but a 1994 nationwide survey entitled "Sex in America" reported that 41 percent of men and 16 percent of women purchased some sort of erotic material that year (Schrof 74). Vague? Yes. But the reality about such topics is also hard to discern anyway because not everyone is open enough to tell the truth in surveys.

[12] Before this project, I was indifferent towards pornography in general but entirely unaware that some people see it as leading to abuse, rape, sadism, and snuff (the depiction of killing a woman for sexual pleasure). The only opponents that Forman depicts are the "Moral Majority," represented by Jerry Falwell and Charles Keating. Forman could have chosen to address the important feminist perspective of pornography and possible dangers, but, instead, he leaves them out completely. He also could have revealed that racism and sexual references towards children are prevalent in the magazine. Forman defends himself by saying that he did not address these issues because the movie is not about pornography--it is about the First Amendment. Ultimately, in the grand scheme of things, it does matter what Forman's interpretation of the movie is--he will one day die, while the movie will continue to live on.

Movie CAN'T Show Whole Truth

[13] Besides the fact that Forman was uncomfortable showing the more obscene pictures in Hustler, it was impossible to do so in the film anyway. In order to bring the movie to the public, it needs to receive an appropriate rating. The photographs at the heart of the dispute are clearly not appropriate under the Motion Picture Association of America guidelines. For many people, this movie could function as their basis of knowledge about pornography and specifically Hustler magazine. It shows these people that the only group who finds the material obscene are Conservatives mostly associated with the church--and what right do they have to force their morality onto others? But, in any case, even if you don't purchase pornography, you shouldn't interfere with what anyone else is doing because it has no effect on you anyway. This "knowledge" is a problem!

[14] The prosecuting attorney, Simon Leis, declares that women have been portrayed in a "lewd and shameful manner." The movie gives innocuous examples like "Santa Claus has been portrayed in a lewd and shameful manner." As I stated previously, this downplays the actual material in the magazine. So what would the movie need to show to accurately portray the magazine? WARNING: I will now present some content in Hustler in order to provide examples of the real obscenity in the magazine--several that I have read about and some that I have viewed. Bob Herbert describes some cartoons that have portrayed little girls naked, sometimes blind and in compromising situations. Black women have been shown with huge lips and butts, with crab lice-infested genital areas and infected with venereal disease. It has displayed women being raped, beaten, burned, threatened, and mutilated. Women have been shown covered in feces and vermin. A naked woman in handcuffs is shown in a concentration-camp-like setting, shaved, raped, and apparently killed by guards. In the June 1990 issue, four photographs of women's bodies in various stages of mutilation are shown attached to charred human skin with razor blades sprawled out. Nipples and clitorises are attached to the skin with fishhooks and safety pins. The May 1984 issue exhibits a naked woman outstretched on a cross on the cover and nude pictures with biblical quotes as captions. One of the cartoons shows a frightened black family moving into a house where Ku Klux Klan members take down the "Sold" sign and replace it with a "Dead" sign. The current issue of Hustler (June 2003) features ads of young girls (who appear to be under 18) with captions such as "Squeeze my tiny tits and play with my virgin pussy," "My parents will be home soon. Give it to me. . . QUICK!" and "Is this where you put it?" Drum sticks are shown sticking out of a woman's anus. The appalling contents in every issue of the magazine are endless. So this is the type of content that the First Amendment protects. Flynt claims in the movie, " if you don't like Hustler--don't read it!" This argument seems fair on the surface, but the underlying issue that many Americans do not realize is that pornography may indirectly affect themselves or their loved-ones. I will now explain how it can be potentially harmful to society.

Violence Against Women

[15] All of the women in the movie see pornography as acceptable. Althea is more thrilled about posing nude and stripping than anyone, the models and dancers are all having a blast, and all women that surround the wealthy Flynt are happy, agreeable, and couldn't ask for anything more. Even evangelist Ruth Carter-Stapleton seemingly accepts Flynt's enterprise to free people from sexual repression! One would never speculate that any of these women could possibly be raped or assaulted due to the material in the magazine.

[16] The possible negative effects of pornography have been contemplated since its emergence into our society. Several famous cases have been documented. Serial killer Ted Bundy admitted, immediately preceding his death, that addiction to pornography had consistently stimulated his criminal impulses. He stated that hard-core pornography shaped what he became and intensified his craving for a greater sense of excitement. In Britain, a serial rapist known as Leighton Buzzard Fox was also discovered to be a connoisseur of pornography. Many other cases have been documented that link pornography and violence, but, collectively, scientists claim that they cannot prove a definite link. The movie "Understanding the Harmful Effects of Pornography" attempts refute that claim, equating pornography to an addictive drug. It illustrates how men build a tolerance to it and need harder core materials to produce the same effects as time goes on. Men in the film admit that pornography sexualizes violence against women, so it becomes hard for them to perceive actual violence. A sex offender states that pornography made him a different person. Pornography teaches men to feel pleasure in areas other than they would have explored on their own, according to the film. Research indicates that sex crimes and violent crimes increase significantly in areas near sex shops. According to Russell's Against Pornography, one study found that 86 percent of convicted rapists confessed to regular use of pornography, with 57 percent acknowledging that they tried to reenact a pornographic scene during the rape (147).

Violence Against Children

[17] Pornography may increase violence against children as well. The movie makes no mention of the way in which Hustler sexualizes children. In addition to the instances described above, for many years the magazine featured a cartoon entitled "Chester the Molester," illustrated by Dwaine Tinsley, which demonstrated strategies for stalking children. Pornography depicting women may be legal, but child pornography is not. Many believe that men become aroused by and sexually drawn to children in pornography the same way that they are fascinated with women. Russell's study revealed that 87 percent of molesters of girls and 77 percent of molesters of boys regularly used hard-core pornography (147). Arthur Gary Bishop, who was executed in Utah in 1985 for killing five young boys, stated, "Pornography was a determining factor in my downfall. Somehow, I became sexually attracted to young boys and I would fantasize them naked. . . . Some of the materials I received were shocking and disgusting at first, but it shortly became commonplace and acceptable." A 2001 Newsweek article describes the network of child abusers proliferating worldwide through the Internet, which hosts rings with millions of child pornographic pictures and chat groups where pedophiles can interact. The article states that "Many law-enforcement officers worry that the spread of child pornography, as well as the easy access to like-minded people via the Internet, has a 'legitimizing effect'--making the pedophile believe that his own impulses are OK, because they are shared by so many others" (Nordland 44).

[18] Although Hustler claims it does not portray images of anyone under the age of eighteen, it does sexualize young children. These pictures may, in turn, serve as a "gateway" to that type of material.

Moral Implications of Complete Freedom of Expression and Breaking Taboos

[19] I have just presented ways in which pornography may be harmful to women and children. That means that even if you choose to pretend hard-core magazines like Hustler do not exist, someone else viewing them may potentially rape or even kill you or someone you know. Should material like this be protected? Flynt declares that it is absolutely vital to protect to free speech, even if you object to it.

[20] Censorship can, mentally, obstruct someone's right to knowledge. But I believe that there should be a line between limiting someone's potential intellectually and threatening their life physically. So what is the greater harm in this issue--censorship or free speech? Forman obviously thinks that censorship is the greater harm. He stated in an interview that "what is more important is that the law should not regulate taste. . . . For Communists, Jesus Christ was a pervert. When the doors are open to censorship, it always boils down to the fact that the laws are formulated in a way that only what's comfortable for the ruling party is acceptable" (McBride 3).

[21] Obviously, not everyone is going to go out and rape someone after seeing it in a film and maybe even becoming aroused by it. Individuals' own morals come into play. But will the increasing role of pornography in our society work to wither away morals? The sexual revolution has transformed previous taboos into socially acceptable practices. I believe that this is beneficial in terms of women and gay rights, but what does the future hold? Will gender roles disappear as we know it? Will sexualization of children one day be viewed as acceptable?

The Effect of The People vs. Larry Flynt on History

[22] The People vs. Larry Flynt will indefinitely show that, in the latter part of the twentieth century, Flynt did America the noble service of protecting our country from individuals that were trying to inhibit the content showed in the film. By not depicting the true nature of the material, the movie encourages ignorance about the content of Hustler because people think they are seeing the truth. The movie portrays that everyone has different definitions of what constitutes "obscene"--but imposes the notion that Hustler deserves protecting without revealing its contents.

[23] Forman uses the movie to assert that, although some people consider the pornography in Hustler to be obscene, it should nonetheless be protected by the First Amendment. The movie does not allow debate on whether the First Amendment should protect potentially harmful material because it censors out the material that presents the possible dangers to society. Would most people, after viewing the contents of Hustler and learning of possible effects still support protecting it? We may never know.

Conclusions

[24] Before conducting research on this film, I fell into Forman's trap and chanted right along with "Flynt's" notion of freedom of expression because I am in favor of the character Woody Harrelson's plays and his magazine. In the movie, pornography did not lead to violence against women or children--the only opponents were the uptight Conservatives. But as I have demonstrated in this essay, the movie is inherently dishonest about the real Flynt and Hustler.

[25] I agree with Isaacman in the movie, who stated that we must tolerate things that we don't necessarily like in order to be free. But must we tolerate things that can cause harm? Is the erotic arousal that many people enjoy worth possibly hurting innocent women and children of our society? Weighing the pros and cons of pornography, I believe that the harmful effects largely outweigh the positive ones. I fear what the future holds if our society's tolerance exceeds the (relatively few) taboos we still hold today. If it were my decision, I would favor censoring blatantly violent pornography for the good of society. But I realize, as someone who does not utilize pornographic materials, that I cannot make that decision for anyone who supports them. Besides, it is virtually impossible to conjure a universal definition of "violent" or "good for the society" for that matter.

[26] Perhaps I am, like the people of the past, afraid of change. I feel like taboos such as child pornography should not be broken. One of Flynt's magazines, Barely Legal, boasts the youngest flesh available. I fear that if this material leads to a society that becomes desensitized by child pornography and violence against women, I am not going to like it. But many people do not like where our society is now, and there is nothing they can do about it. I can only hope that the future America takes morality into consideration when (re)constructing what constitutes the "good of society." (see comment by Brendan Feeney)

Comments

Brendan Feeney (Feb. 2009)

It's very difficult to take the side of Larry Flynt in this particular debate. His magazine is extremely vulgar and, being a male that has viewed it before, absolutely tasteless. However, I don't think it is fair to call for censorship based on the fact that a few sick individuals mentioned that they had an addiction to pornography. I don't mean to protect the vulgarity of the magazine -- it's disgusting. But even violent and disgusting material such as Hustler magazine deserves its market. After all, it has a market, or else it would no longer be in circulation. It is convenient to list a few sex offenders and relate the fact that they admit to frequently viewing bizarre pornography and fetish materials. Some may say that these materials caused the aforementioned individuals to act out in a violent or sexually abnormal way. However, this argument has circulated before under different circumstances, and it never holds much water. For instance, whenever a student goes to school with a gun and starts firing, people immediately want to attribute it to other factors -- such as the kind of music they listen to or the types of programs they watch. But time and again this has proven to be inadequate. Also, if we list the few people who claim they were adversely effected by pornography, should we not also list the thousands -- perhaps even millions -- of men who consistently viewed pornography yet went on to live normal, healthy, non-violent, non sexually aggressive lives?

There is also the issue of taboos and abnormal behavior one day becoming the norm. I'm not sure I buy into this theory either. True, the sexual revolution brought things to light that were previously considered taboo. But it's not as if these things didn't exist. People have been having sex in some capacity since the beginning of time. The sexual revolution merely shoved it in everyone's face, especially those who were in denial about the fact that it was going on. Until child molestation -- or any other perverse behavior depicted in Hustler -- becomes a societal norm, there is no threat of it being revolutionized. And I don't see it becoming a norm any time soon. I believe Hustler prints these things to push boundaries. The real crime is that people actually buy it.

Herbert, Bob. "Naked Truth." New York Times 3 February 1997: A17.

McBride, Joseph. "Director Milos Forman Defends The People vs. Larry Flynt Against Charges that it's Porn-Friendly." Industry Central 9 Apr. 2003. http://industrycentral.net/director_interviews/MIFO01.HTM

McElroy, Wendy. "A Feminist Defense of Pornography." Free Inquiry Magazine Fall 1997.

Menard, Louis. "Preaching Pornography." The Australian 12 Mar. 1997, B18+.

Nordland, Rod, and Jeffrey Bartholet. "The Web's Dark Secret." Newsweek 19 Mar. 2001: 44+.

Podhoretz, Norman. "Lolita, My Mother-in-Law, the Marquis de Sade, and Larry Flynt." The Best of 1998: The Anchor Essay Annual. Ed. Phillip Lopate. New York: Anchor Books, 1998. 366-95.

Reynolds, Barbara. "Crime & Porn; Bundy Told the Truth About Pornography." USA TODAY 26 Jan. 1989: 9A.

Rich, Frank. "Larry Flynt, Patriot." New York Times 12 October 1996: 1.23.

Russell, Diana. The Harmful Effects of Pornography. Berkeley: Russell Publications, 1994.

Schrof, Joanie M., and Betsy Wagner. "Sex in America." U.S. News & World Report 17 Oct. 1994: 74+.

Steinem, Gloria. "Pornographers the Likes of Flynt Should Not Be Made into Heroes." Buffalo News 19 January 1997: 5J.

Stossel, Scott. "The Sexual Counterrevolution." American Prospect Jul.1997: 74.

Understanding the Harmful Effects of Pornography. Prod. Jonathan Schneider. Dir. Jonathon Schneider. Perf. Martin Kove, Craig Counard, and Ray Wadsworth. Videocassette. United Broadcast Group, 2000.