Originally published in Parallelogramme, Vol. 9, No. 3, February-March 1984
Censorship became part of my life a few years ago when I was working at the Funnel Film Centre. Although I no longer work there, censorship still affects me, partly because of what I learned about it from practical experience, and partly because I happen to be a woman, a film artist, and a feminist. I want to talk about some of the questions that censorship has raised for me as a person in these positions, as well as some of the ways that I have tried to come to terms with them.
While there are many kinds of censorship, possibly the most aggressive is film censorship. There is legislation in the Criminal Code of Canada to punish people for obscenity in all media, but on the provincial level, we also have a system of prior censorship that applies to only film and video. This law requires that before anyone exhibits any film or tape publicly, the Censor Board must approve it and may ban it outright or demand cuts to it.
Imagine a government-appointed body that has the same power over the printed word. Anything – from pamphlets and newsletters to books of poetry and textbooks – would be kept from the public until they were approved with whatever deletions this body demanded. And books considered too unsuitable would be banned altogether. Although it seems outrageous in the case of books, the Censor Board’s control over film and video amounts to legalized surveillance. As new media becomes more popular and accessible, censorship insidiously erodes the freedoms of the people using them – freedoms we took for granted with older media.
There is an underlying structure and purpose in the way censorship operates. For one thing, it is self-perpetuating. Mrs. Mary Brown, who is head of the Ontario Censor Board, recently told the Globe and Mail that “snuff” films are becoming commonplace and that’s why we need censorship. Since the films can’t be seen publically we have to take her word on this, despite her obvious vested interest. Or else we can visit the Censor Board and view their reels of horrifying out-takes. Even though this material would presumably be considered obscene by a court of law, and dangerous by the Censor Board itself, the Board seems to think it’s alright for people to watch it, providing they are in control of the situation. As a matter of fact, the reason we have film censorship at all is an issue of control. When films first appeared they were seen as a threat to the social control of authorities such as the church, which felt that their monopoly on information was being usurped, particularly in so far as movies reached women, children, and the working class.
Since 1911 there have been numerous explanations given of the need for censorship. But the constant hidden agenda has always been control.
Today, of course, censorship, investment, and other facts keep the industry more-or-less in line with the status quo. For artists, however, business considerations are generally much less important than ideas and how they are expressed in a work of art. This arrangement of priorities reduces the incentive to tow the line, and artists are often concerned with making their work as out of line with the status quo as possible. This isn’t nearly as gratuitous as it sounds. In fact, I believe that it is an extremely important way of posing questions and discovering new answers about all kinds of things. And the arts and art criticism have a lot to teach us about the3 ways that images work. Surely any discussion of censorship can benefit from insights into the nature of the material to be censored.
One of the challenges that artists working in photographic media face is trying to confront, understand and expose the reasons why people invest photographic images, particularly moving ones, with so much emotional authority, even if they know perfectly well that the event didn’t really happen.
Some important artistic and theoretical work has already been done in these questions. In the theoretical area some of the most interesting work has been done by feminists. Among other things, they have shown the role of social conditioning in the production and viewing of photographic images: for example, the presence of a kind of complex code in narrative films that echoes and capitalizes on our conscious and unconscious understanding of a sexist social system. According to this theory, we superimpose our knowledge of the world onto the film and inject meaning into it. And what’s more, because the film’s structure is so deeply rooted in these understandings, it also works to reinforce the social system.
Work by artists has tried to provide alternative ways of experiencing images so that what is merely perceptual habit is called into question and new possibilities present themselves. The art/critical world deals with images constantly, but is finding indicate that images are not nearly as fixed in their meanings as those who would censor seem to believe.
There are other reasons why there has hardly ever been a call for censorship from these quarters. For one thing, it is recognized that artistic works are produced at least partly intuitively and so they may be surprising or shocking in form, but upon inspection can reveal important ideas. The arts exist in an atmosphere of discourse that I think is a good model for us to follow in trying to come to terms with the social importance of imagery. Artistic ideas meet with aesthetic, political and other ideas, and fight it out, so to speak. Generally, the most powerful argument wins but the failed argument isn’t discarded, just set aside to be used again – even to emerge as the winner at a future time, the light of new evidence.
This is another reason by artistic and critical circles shun censorship: they recognize that we need time in which to build knowledge, so we can re-think and re-evaluate as we go along, and we need evidence to use in our discourse. But censorship takes away both the time and the evidence and hinders the acquisition of knowledge.
I’ve seen important issues raised by work on the nature of the media and its relation to social practice. And I’ve seen artists’ work censored and the only discussion that has resulted has been about the censorship itself. I think we would do well to adopt artistic and critical strategies as an alternative to censorship.
But so far I’ve talked mostly about art’s implications for censorship. In fact, censorship has grave implications for art and artists. Because artists’ work is necessarily public, it is we, and not pornographers, who usually face obscenity charges. The artist whose work is controversial or unusual is the one who is most likely to get into trouble, but also the one least likely to be able to solicit the support of established and accredited institutions in his or her defense. Right now federal obscenity laws are being revised. No doubt their new parameters will be tested in the courts – probably with artists as the guinea pigs. Censorship affects artists by intimidating us into silence or euphemism on the one hand, or confrontation or martyrdom on the other. Freedom of expression may seem an abstraction to some, but for the artist it is a concrete and present need.
It probably seems a little schizophrenic to approach this subject from the point of view of various persona – as a woman as an artist, and so forth, but in fact, the reason I chose to do this is that this is how censorship has affected me. At times it has been very difficult to reconcile the feelings of one part of me with those of the other parts. This is particularly true when it comes to the pornography issue which affects me as a woman. Censorship and pornography are two different issues, but they do overlap.
I think that we women have disliked porn for a long time and for various reasons which sometimes get confused by others and even by ourselves. Back when women’s only security was in their roles as wives and mothers (which wasn’t that long ago) we saw porn as a threat to our security – in the same way we saw prostitution. However, now that the security of dependence for women has been seriously questioned, I think we have a much smaller psychological investment in denying the facts of our oppression. We can start to see the ways in which prostitution and porn actually reinforce our dependency. We still don’t like porn, but now it is because we don’t like what is shows us. Porn is a graphic metaphor for our position in the real world. For instance, when I get harassed by male strangers on the street I get very angry. I feel misrepresented by the popular image of women as loving pain and ridicule. The attitude of these men makes me feel powerless because I know they see me as powerless. I don’t necessarily think these guys get their ideas from porn, but when I see porn echoing that attitude I get very angry.
And yet, like many other women, I feel ambivalent about representations of women. I enjoy reading fashion magazines, for example, but I hate violent porn, although I realize that at times they differ only in the degree to which they explicitly equate femininity with subservience. So where do we draw the line? It’s a vey difficult question. Should women cut themselves off from traditionally “feminine” pursuits that give us pleasure? And if censorship is proposed as a solution, should we ban all images of women?
At this point it becomes essential to bring in the feminist perspective, first of all clarifying a distinction that I have made in talking about myself as a women on the one hand and as a feminist on the other. As a feminist I try to look at the historical and social frameworks that inform my identity as a women in that way, and to think beyond my own situation to ways of changing women’s lives in general. A feminist perspective sheds lights on the internal conflicts that I have just mentioned, and I want to quote you an analysis that my friend Varda Burstyn once made:
“Freud said that every ego is stamped ‘made in Germany’ or ‘made in France.’ Surely we can also say that every ego also proclaims, ‘sexually formed by capitalist patriarchy,’ and from there decide two things: first to allow ourselves the pleasures of consensual play which enhances our present pleasure so long as it does not hurt others or violate our own sense of self. And second, start talking about the fact that the sexuality of a socialist, non-sexist and non-racist world would indeed be very different from the sexuality of ours in certain key respects.”
From this analysis we can start to understand that although our sexuality was formed in a sexist society, we want to discard sexism – but there is no new alternative sexuality to step into. It will obviously take time before a new and fulfilling sexuality for us will emerge. It’s difficult to envision such an alternative, and I think this is precisely why porn is so frightening. It fills this void with a vision of the future that is both concrete and horrifying. Our choice, however, it to allow ourselves to be scared back into the cloister, or to defy and replace porn’s vision with one of our own.
I agree with Varda when she says that in the meantime we have to allow ourselves our pleasures so long as they don’t hurt anyone. For a woman this might include the pleasure of reading a fashion magazine, but with the knowledge that part of the enjoyment is in the pretty lies it tells about how women live. Unfortunately, the situation of men consuming pornography is a little different because many people think that it presents a danger to women. As an artist I really can’t agree with people who say porn is harmless because it is only an image. I believe that images can influence people. But, as I explained earlier when I was talking about film theory, I also believe that images get their power and their meaning from the real world; porn exploits sexism, but it doesn’t invent it.
One of the best arguments against porn that I have heard comes from an analysis of research on pornography done by Thelma McCormack, a sociologist at York University. She suggests that porn’s harm might lie in its ability to disinhibit feelings of hatred towards women that all men carry at an unconscious level, as a necessary result of their socialization as males in a sexist society. Yet she also notes that experiments show that normal males have a high resistance to disinhibition, whereas men inclined to rape are different. Nevertheless, it is a frightening thought that perhaps sufficient amounts of disinhibition could increase the population of rapists. But even if this is true, I still don’t think that censorship is the answer.
To use censorship to inhibit misogynist feelings in men is to imply that there is no way that individuals or society can change – either at a deep unconscious level, or through conscious choice and work. Censorship enshrines the present inequality of the sexes in the law. If our laws imply that women are weak, acquiescent, and need protection from men who are violent and aggressive towards women, this is truly paradoxical, since it is these aggressors who would be in charge of doing the protecting. And if we point to sex as somehow being the same as, or the cause of, sexism, we will continue to regard women’s gender as a liability.
Some feminists have suggested that censorship deals with violence and not sex, but this idea really just glosses over the misogyny, which is the problem we presumably want to correct. What’s more, it doesn’t analyze violence. Focusing on violence distracts from power – which is how misogyny usually operates, frequently with no violence at all. Besides, can you imagine a Censor Board censoring hockey games, boxing matches, war movies, or westerns? Of course not, because men fighting men, for whatever kind of pleasure they get out of it, is perfectly okay in this society. But imagine a film in which a feminist filmmaker is working through the depth of her rage and horror against men through explicit and graphic imagery. This would be a flagrant violation of the status quo, and I can’t imagine the Censors putting up with it. Unlike equal pay laws, censorship laws can be used against women.
Porn and censorship serve the status quo. The Ontario Censor Board actually protects pornographers from obscenity prosecution – and it certainly doesn’t stop women from being abused in the making of porn films. The people who get hurt by censorship are artists and people looking for a new kind of sexuality. Censorship might drive porn underground, but it won’t get rid of it. I think we stand a much better chance of fighting it if it’s out in the open where we can see it. And strangely enough, I think there have been some very interesting and positive things coming out of women looking at porn. Women are having the courage to face the presence of violence, sexuality and power – in the world, and even in ourselves.
The more we can confront and understand these powerful forces, the better we will be able to take the actions that will have the best results for us. From the point of view of someone who works with images, I think we can fight fire with fire. We can inform and educate ourselves and one another, and we can confound and confront sexism, through our work. The possibilities are limitless. We can discredit porn with work that reveals its hidden subtext, or by juxtaposing it with images that challenge its usual meaning, or by satirizing it. We can also use our art to discover new kinds of sexual representation for our own pleasure. Most of all we can name the real forces that oppress women and speak out against them. But in an atmosphere of censorship, our voices may well be silenced.
It is sexism in the real world that is the enemy of women. Censoring porn is like killing the messenger of bad news. But I think the messenger also brings a challenge, namely, that if this society really wants to end the harm that misogyny does to women, cloistering is no answer. Instead it must provide women with the means to refute porn’s message with messages of our own, and it must provide programmes to ensure us equal opportunities socially and economically so that we can stand up for ourselves.