Recently, I re-watched Mr. Enter’s documentary mini-series Technocracy. If you have not seen it, it’s a seven part series about modern tech companies and how they rule our lives. While I disagree with some of his proposed solutions to this issue, the series is well documented and overall an amazing watch I cannot recommend highly enough.
Episode four is about Tumblr, focusing on its now infamous “porn ban” from late 2018. When Tumblr set up these standards, they said “artistic nudity” would still be allowed, but regular nudity would not be, even in the form of a drawing. Erotic stories would also be allowed, however video where said stories were acted out would not be.
Easily the most infamous part of this was Tumblr banning “female presenting nipples.” Of course, the fact that men are allowed to walk around shirtless on mainstream television and women aren’t has been joked about for years. However, the issue came regarding what Tumblr’s culture determined to mean “presenting.”
Tumblr, for those who don’t know, had a very socially liberal culture. This was a place where transgenderism was not tolerated, but accepted. This was a place where non-binary identities, or the idea that someone was neither a male or a female but instead some third thing (which can include being both a male and a female), were seen as normal among users long before they became heard of in mainstream culture.
This was not even the oddest of it. Tumblr also had a culture of people called “Otherkin” who believed they were the reincarnation of something other than humans. This does not just mean dogs or cats, it also included vampires, ghosts, angels, dragons, and even, by their own admission, fictional characters.
With this kind of culture, Tumblr honestly thought they could ban (human) female nipples.
To give you an example, take someone who identifies as gender fluid, which was seen as normal on Tumblr. A gender fluid person could identify as either male, female, or non-binary depending on the day. Would they be allowed to post their nipples on days where they present themselves as male but not as female? Considering that is the language Tumblr used, I guess that would be the case.
This is a story I think about regarding just how arbitrary censorship can be-and often is. In 1964, Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart said the following about what counts as “hard-core pornography,” which violated obscenity laws:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.
The issue with this should be obvious, standards of what is considered “obscene” changes overtime. One infamous example is the Merrie Melodies short Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs, a parody of Snow White that imagines all the characters as African American. This short is considered racist, and is part of the infamous “censored eleven.”
However, this was not always considered hateful. The short was directed by Bob Clampett, who got the idea after composer Duke Ellington recommended he make a cartoon about African American music, which, at the time, was Jazz. Clampett even sent his crew to black clubs in Los Angeles to better understand the music, and wanted an all black band to score the cartoon.
If you saw this cartoon, you could, knowing racism when you see it, declare the cartoon to be racist. However, you can not see the intentions a man puts into his work through simply watching it, especially decades later.
For that matter, what about things that were once considered obscene but are no longer so? For instance, in 1970 Mississippi’s PBS station temporarily banned Sesame Street for its multi-racial cast. The novel Ulysses was banned in the United States for twelve years due to a section where a character masturbates. And who could forget when Pinball was banned in many states for the first half of the 20th century?
Even when formal standards are introduced, the arbitrary nature is still clearly at play. For example, if your film swears 400 times or more, the MPAA gives your movie gets an NC-17 rating, which most theaters will not show. South Park: Bigger, Long, And Uncut only cursed 399 however, and as such it was allowed to get by with an R.
Michael Moore’s first film, Roger And Me, was also hit with an R rating. Why? Because of a scene where someone in Flint sells rabbits for either “pets or meat,” and a white woman beats the rabbit to death with a club so he could be “meat.” Less then two minutes later, a black men wearing a superhero cape is shot dead by the police, and the MPAA did not seem to have an issue with that.
One idea I’ve heard, especially from the anti-pornography crowd, is that only political speech is protected by the First Amendment. I can’t help but remember the case where a judge determined it was legal for women to walk around topless, as long as they’re protesting the fact that it’s illegal for them to walk around topless.
Here’s a question, is using metaphor to talk about politics or culture also considered “political speech”? Most would say yes, so, to those who want this rule, I want to introduce you to A Serbian Film. This is a disgusting film, one I would not recommend anyone watch, and breaks every single taboo they can think of, up to and including United States law.
Any human being would use this film as an argument for obscenity laws. But wait, to those who say “political speech” is always protected, the writer and director Srđan Spasojević informed everyone the point of the film was to lampoon the politically correct film industry in Serbia. Making it political speech, and as such, it would be okay. Am I the only one who sees an issue here?
No matter how you feel about censorship, the fact remains that all “standards” are highly arbitrary. To be blunt, censorship is not only an evil ideology, but a nonsensical and hypocritical one.