It seems that everyone this week had something to say about the word “vagina.” Last Thursday, Republicans in the Michigan House of Representatives objected to State Representative Lisa Brown’s use of the word “vagina” during a debate about birth control, prompting a global debate about the word’s use. A week later, Brown and several other politicians were on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol, performing the “The Vagina Monologues” to an audience of 2,500.
I’m not going to waste your time or insult your intelligence by arguing why I disagree with the speaking ban on Brown. I’ve been in favor of using medical terms since I learned that the phrase “beaten with a French faggot stick,” no longer meant to lose one’s nose to syphilis (as it did in the 16th century). Medical terms leave far less room for embarrassing confusion.
The sorry state of conservative attitudes to women and sexuality — particularly in relation to abortion — is a subject that has certainly enough public airing as of late. What is interesting about this instance is the response it provoked. When they barred Brown from speaking, Republicans hardly could have envisaged that their actions would license the nation’s mob of talk show hosts to gleefully drop the word into every second sentence just to test the patience of network bosses (see: “The View”). Nor could they have predicted the small army of 2500 people who gathered outside the state Capitol chanting “vagina” as legislators worked inside.
But this is hardly new. Since Socrates took a draught of hemlock for “corrupting” the youth of Athens, censoring the truth has proved as futile as it has been widespread.
As far as examples of media censorship go, my personal favourite is the Papacy’s “Index of Prohibited Books.” Kicked around for many years, the idea of publishing a list of banned books and authors finally gained traction after the idea was sanctioned by the Papacy following the Council of Trent. The list of banned books and authors, published in 1564, was the basis of Catholic censorship for the next three centuries. Printing or being found with a copy of a prohibited book was a severe crime. Of course, publishing a list of naughty books had the rather unintended (though hardly surprising) effect of turning the books on the list into overnight best sellers. Other attempts at censorship — like underlining objectionable material in books so as one would know to avoid it — also backfired, as many readers would use this rather ineffective censorship as a guide to the best bits of any given work.
Even in more contemporary times, religion often rears its head in matters of censorship. Following a series of Jazz Age controversies — including the Fatty Arbuckle scandal, in which a minor actress died under suspicious circumstances after a party at Arbuckle’s San Francisco hotel room — Hollywood studios (under the banner of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association) adopted a form of self-censorship to keep government out of the industry.
The MPPDA appointed former postmaster general and Presbyterian elder (two qualifications imminently related to the morality of cinema) William Hays to preside over this new experiment in public morality. The code he developed, which remained intact until 1968 was colloquially called the Hays Production Code.
The code had few merits other than forcing filmmakers to come up with rather inventive innuendoes to suggest acts of deviance. From a curiously phallic train penetrating a suspiciously vaginal tunnel in Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest” to Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon’s wisecracking innuendoes in “Some Like It Hot” that were eventually deemed so unabashed and salacious that the film was released without a rating.
Both these films went on to great commercial success. Contemporary producers, perhaps with an eye to the past, are keen to cash in on censorship. Harvey Weinstein, king of no-frills marketing, has made it an almost annual ritual to kick up a media storm about the censoring of at least one of his films, drawing accusations that he spuriously challenges censors’ decisions to spark media controversy. Most recently, he objected to the film “Bully” being given an R rating for exceeding the PG-13 swearing quota (one, nonsexual use of the word “fuck”).
Sadly, Michigan Republicans last week joined the long line of conservative lawmakers trying to limit a minority group’s right to free speech. Fortunately, Lisa Brown and her fellow lawmakers joined the long line of people who used arbitrary censorship as a platform for projecting their message to an even wider audience. I must confess my occasional, perverse fondness for censorship. Like Brown, belting out the lines of “The Vagina Monologues” on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol, I feel that if we are to have our right to free speech so outrageously curtailed we might as well have fun flouting it in the most exciting and rambunctious ways possible.
Comments should remain on topic, concerning the article or blog post to which they are connected. Brevity is encouraged. Posting under a pseudonym is discouraged, but permitted. The Daily Cal encourages readers to voice their opinions respectfully in regard to the readers, writers and contributors of The Daily Californian. Comments are not pre-moderated, but may be removed if deemed to be in violation of this policy. Click here to read the full comment policy.