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‘The People vs. Larry Flynt’ Saga, Continued : Movie Skirts Real Issue of What Hustler Represents

Judith Grant is chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Men in Society at USC. She is a USC political science professor

Regarding Jack Mathews’ “People Who Try to Put a Lid on ‘People’ ” (Calendar, Feb. 17): I am neither a personal “friend” of Gloria Steinem’s nor a “feminist soldier” who “fell in line behind her.” But I am a feminist, and I did appreciate what she wrote in her letter criticizing the film “The People vs. Larry Flynt” (“A ‘Modest Proposal’ Touches a Nerve,” Counterpunch Letters, Feb. 17).

We are protected in this country against government censorship of private media. In short, except under certain very specific circumstances that are delineated through case law by the U.S. Supreme Court, our Constitution says that the government may not tell us what to say or write. “Flynt” director Milos Forman should understand that the public discussion of his film and the issues surrounding it are not attacks on his freedom of expression or pleas for censorship. Rather, they are the result of a free press and free speech.

It is important to note that in a larger sense of the term, we “censor” ourselves all the time. For instance, Forman censored the feminist and anti-pornography viewpoint when he chose to tell Flynt’s story from a sympathetic rather than a critical perspective. It was his film, and he was certainly entitled to tell the story from whatever point of view he chose. But if he really wanted to show how complicated debates about the 1st Amendment are, he would have done very well to include the things that Hustler prints on a regular basis. Only then do feminist debates about it make sense.

It is relatively easier to say that Flynt should be protected when he defames one public figure whom many dislike (televangelist Jerry Falwell) than it is to defend Hustler’s nastiest and most brutal depictions of women. In other words, showing what Hustler actually prints on a regular basis would have made the case for the 1st Amendment that much more powerful, provocative and interesting. By ignoring these issues, Forman’s film poses a straw person and cheats us out of the real public debate. Steinem was merely pointing out that Forman’s film doesn’t show the true Hustler and therefore poses the debate about the magazine falsely.

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I am sorry if Forman is as “depressed” as Mathews indicates. But he should know that just because a large number of people have simultaneously been offended by a film, and have expressed that outrage in feminist terms, does not mean that there has been an orchestrated attack on it.

Finally, Mathews writes that “there is no evidence of Hustler’s disgraceful tastes leading to anyone’s actual harm.” This misses the point entirely. No one is griping about poor taste here. Nor has Steinem claimed that this film might lead to “actual harm.” Instead, she is claiming that both the film and Hustler constitute actual harm in and of themselves. They contribute to a cultural presumption that negative representations of women in pornography (and subsequently the “pornographic” representation of them in advertising and all the rest) is acceptable, even heroic.

People like Steinem are simply pointing out that mass-produced fantasy must affect the way all women are viewed and treated in our day-to-day lives. To my knowledge, no one in the feminist movement or on the “left” in general is arguing that Hustler exemplifies the kind of harm that should permit government censorship. Note that Steinem didn’t sue Hustler; Falwell did.

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Though I am a feminist, I am not an anti-pornography feminist. But the debate around this film may turn me into one.


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