Images and Ideas

Performer Kyrsten Ritter,
seemingly topless in an ABC show.
The hot new trend on TV is apparently pixelated nudity. Pixelation is a newer and less obvious approach to covering up naughty bits than the traditional black box, so it allows the appearance of nudity without violating broadcast standards. In other words, the idea of nudity can be effectively communicated without the image of nudity. The logic behind this, which has driven visual censorship for decades, is that while certain images are not permitted, any idea is permitted. 

This notion was quite explicitly stated by Mary Brown, the chair of the Ontario Film Review Board, in 1985, when she explained that Board cuts to films were not censorship. Censorship, she claimed, is the suppression of ideas, and “you can communicate ideas without screwdrivers up a vagina.” Artists, not surprisingly, claim that specific imagery is essential to communicating an idea. The film Baise-moi includes a sexually explicit rape scene with a close up of penetration. Co-director Virginie Despentes said in defense of the image, “That’s what rape is. It’s not about the eyes and mouths or looks or anything else. It’s about a d… going in a hole [censored in the source article].”  Perhaps, but the general consensus is that rape is not about sex, it is about power, and therefore to focus on the sexual component risks taking the act out of the power context and distorting the meaning. 

Film academic Linda Williams, writing about Not a Love Story, notes that persons opposed to explicit sex films tend the confuse the image of the penis with the idea of the phallus, and forget that the source of female oppression is the socially constructed concept of the phallus, not the physiological features of men. Reducing the explicitness of a sex scene may do nothing to decrease phallic display.

There is no doubt that it is easier to censor an image than an idea. The image is concrete, and a simple pixelated blur over the offending body part satisfies legal requirements. But the real potential for harm is in ideas. Pictures of body parts cannot hurt anyone, but using nudity (or apparent nudity) as a sight gag commodifies individuals. For censorship to be truly effective, it needs to be paying more attention to ideas, and less to images.





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