PUNCH: Kanye’s twisted fantasy is art, not filth
There is a great moment in The Simpsons where, after mounting a successful grassroots crusade against the violent Itchy and Scratchy cartoons, Marge is called upon to lead a group of concerned citizens who feel that Michelangelo’s statue of David is also not suitable for children (due to his exposed genitalia) and should not be displayed in Springfield during a nationwide tour.
Much to the frustration of Helen Lovejoy – the gossipy, ultra-conservative Reverend’s wife famous for the phrase “won’t somebody think of the children!?” – Marge does not want to participate in this campaign, because she thinks the statue is a renaissance masterpiece that all children should be encouraged to see.
It is a clever plot twist that highlights how slippery the slope of censorship really is, and how inconsistent we as a society tend to be when assessing the relative merits of art and popular culture: that one person’s art is very often another’s filth.
As it turns out, Australia has its very own version of Helen Lovejoy – Melinda Tankard Reist – who, among her usual rants about sexualisation of the media, has devoted much fury of late to the film clip for Kanye West’s song Monster.
In recent weeks, she has equated this music video to torture porn and snuff films, suggested that Kanye himself must therefore be “a fan of raping dead women”, and called for outraged citizens to join a social media campaign trying to get the video banned.
OK, I admit I’ve never seen torture porn or snuff films, and never want to, so I can’t really comment on that comparison. But, where was the rape scene? I certainly didn’t see one, so I can only assume I missed it.
In one article focussing on the opening scene of the video where (presumably dead) lingerie-clad women hang from the ceiling via chains around their necks, Tankard Reist claimed “Limp, floppy, rendered powerless these doll-like bodies retain their seductive, sexual allure.”
Sorry, what? Dead bodies are sexually alluring? For whom, exactly?
Not me, that’s for sure.
I agree that the film clip is confronting, and fully agree that it is in no way appropriate for children, but who says we can’t view these dangling women as a graphic critique of post-feminist female sexuality, rather than objects designed to arouse devious sexual thoughts?
From what I can make out, the song itself is a reflection on the negative public backlash to Kanye’s stunt at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, not an open expression of his enduring love of corpses. In it, he repeats the lyrics “Everybody know I’m a muthaf**king monster”, which, like the song’s title, is encouraging viewers to interpret the video content as ‘monstrous’, not ‘seductive’.
People can view and interpret things in lots of different ways, and they have the ability to respond maturely to provocative material – that’s the reason why we tend not to worry about full frontal nudity at art galleries.
Saying that anyone would become a raging necrophile after seeing some scantily-clad corpses in a highly stylised music video is like saying that someone is in danger of become a serial killer after watching a few episodes of Dexter. I’ve seen lots of violence and semi-nude dead bodies on CSI, but I’ve never heard anyone compare that show to a snuff film or suggest that its creators must be fans of raping dead women.
On her blog, Tankard Reist calls herself “an advocate for women and girls”. And, while her motives are admirable and undoubtedly sincere, I personally think her methods are actually doing a real disservice to our women and girls.
Why? Because, perhaps for the sake of media attention, she seeks out and highlights the most negative possible interpretation (however contrived) in everything she comes across, and implies (without any evidence) that everyone else naturally thinks along the same lines. This then encourages young women to view even the most mildly sexual piece of popular culture in the worst possible way, which thereby limits their ability to think about sex in a positive, healthy light.
It makes girls more inclined to view sex – and sexual decisions – as a source of negativity and fear, rather than a natural part of life in which they can have power and autonomy. And by suggesting at every turn that women and girls need ‘protection’ from sexual media images (created by devious men), she is arguably just reinforcing the old stereotype that girls are weaker and more fragile than their dominant male counterparts.
I think Tankard Reist would instead be much better off encouraging girls to read and re-imagine (perhaps even remix) sexual media messages they encounter in unique and creative ways, and helping them find ways of constructing their own empowering or liberating meanings.
As a parent myself, I just want a calm, vigorous, well-informed debate about what is appropriate for children to be exposed to, not a hysterical moral crusade to censor sex wherever and whenever it presents itself in popular culture.
There’s no way that I would allow my three year old to see this particular music video, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily want it banned along with anything else which happens to offend the Helen Lovejoys of the world.
As The Simpsons taught me all those years ago, the line between filth and art is very often a fine one and, unlike Melinda Tankard Reist, I don’t think I have any right to tell other people which is which.
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