University of Georgia
Terry College of Business
What’s Wrong With This Picture?
Q: "You are someone who cares deeply about . . . animal rights. . . . If Hustler magazine made its reputation . . . publishing pictures of animals strapped to the bumpers of hunters’ cars, would you still have wanted to do this role?"
A: "Well, you know, certainly not."
The interviewer was Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today show. the interviewee was Woody Harrleson, star of The People vs. Larry Flynt. His answer said it all: if Larry Flynt published a magazine that portrayed animals in pain, bound and in chains, with objects shoved up their genitals, being tortured and even murdered - which is how Hustler has portrayed women - this movie would almost certainly never have been made.
And make no mistake, images like these are the specialties of Hustler, the biggest mass-distributed hard-core pornographic magazine in the world. It also includes such racist ones as muscular black men with small heads and huge penises having sex with eager or terrified white women; or a man forcing his wife to sit spread-legged while her genitals are invaded by marching cockroaches. There are photo stories like the one in which a handcuffed women is raped and apparently killed by guards in a concentration camp like setting.
Of course, Hollywood’s glamorized, sanitized biopic shows none of this. As written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, produced by Oliver Stone, and directed by Milos Forman, Hustler is all about sex and nudity, not violence and humiliation. The movie doesn’t deal with Hustler features like "Dirty Pool," which, in January 1983, depicted a woman being gang-raped on a pool table. Months later a woman was gang-raped on a pool table in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Flynt’s response was to publish a postcard, of another nude woman on a pool table, inscribed "Greetings from New Bedford, Mass., the Portuguese Gang-Rape Capital of America."
I’m sorry to bring you these Hustler images, but many of us avert your eyes from the $10 billion a year pornography industry, if only to preserve some sense of dignity and safety. That’s why this prestigious film, expected at press time to be nominated for more than one Academy Award, has been able to con many moviegoers and media critics into believing that Flynt is a tacky but charming rebel who deserves our gratitude for strengthening free speech.
That last idea hangs on the slender thread of Flynt’s legal victory against Jerry Falwell, who sued over a Hustler parody in which he "confessed" to having sex with his mother. The Supreme Court, in an easy, unanimous ruling, upheld long-standing case law that allowed public figures to be parodied, if the result can’t be taken as fact.
In fact, the Nazis who marched in Skokie, Illinois, and the Klansmen who advocated violence in Ohio achieved more substantive First Amendment victories than did Flynt. Yet no Hollywood movie would have glamorized a Klan or Nazi publisher as a champion of free speech, much less described him as "the era’s last crusader," which is the way Columbia Pictures described Flynt.
Several people who know Flynt are angered by the long lie of this movie. The sister of Althea Leasure, Flynt’s fourth wife, says that rather than being the abiding soul mate depicted in the movie, Leasure tried to escape from Flynt several times, but couldn’t because he controlled her finances. His oldest daughter, Tonya, 31, joined picketers at the movie’s San Francisco opening. "Freedom of speech wasn’t used when he was violating me," she reportedly said. "He just told me this is what little girls do with their fathers." Flynt denies all the charges.
Perhaps worst of all, Larry Flynt is presented in the movie as a man who lives women. In reality, Flynt is like a lesser, but more influential version of the serial killer who sees all women as prostitutes deserving death; he seems to see all women as deserving the humiliation and violence he depicts.
So we must consider some questions: Would Milos Forman, a refugee from the Nazis, make a movie glorifying an anti-Semitic publisher? He defends himself by pointing out that the nazis censored pornography, but doesn’t seem to remember that they also created pornography of Jewish women as prostitutes, and of Jewish men as rapists of Aryan women to justify violence - much as Flynt does.
Why can feminists speak against everything from wars and presidents to tobacco companies, yet if we use our free speech against pornography, we are accused, in Orwellian, fashion, of being against free speech?
Why do images of violence and bigotry that would be specially condemned, even though legally protected, become off limits when disguised as sexuality?
I think much of the answer lies in the power of the multibillion dollar inter national pornography industry. We’ve made progress in explaining that rape is violence, not sex; that sexual harassment is power, not sex but not in explaining that pornography from the Greek word pornoi, is about female slaves - the women who were considered the lowest of the low among prostitutes - while erotica, from eros, is about sexuality and pleasure.
Fortunately, each of us has the First Amendment right to protest. We don’t have to let hate masquerade as love, violence as sex, or Larry Flynt as a defendant of our freedom.
Gloria Steinem is consulting editor and cofounder of "Ms."
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Dawn D. Bennett-Alexander