The Black Box of Shame

The Black Box of Shame

The Frustrating Role of Censorship in American Visual Culture

Compared to other 1st world industrialized countries, American standards for censorship within the media are especially stringent. The most common visual means of censorship are the black box and the blurred/pixilated box. Both of these techniques involve the direct manipulation of the original image resulting in either a complete covering of the salient areas, or the distortion of these unwanted areas. While occasionally applied to obscuring the identity of a subject, this censorship method is most commonly associated with nudity on television, the internet, and in advertisements. Through this, American culture is marked by a palpable attempt to sanitize its media and to the best of its ability remove the erotic from all public representations of the body. The black box is the ultimate extension of the Puritan-inherited, American ethos, however it is simultaneously betrays the paradox of sexual obsession and sexual neurosis created by that same ethos. It is in this way that the visual forms of censorship become a fetish object; a stand in for the sexual object, that has the power to sexualize regardless of the presence of nudity and without a pornographic context.

Those in favor of censorship vary opinions in the level of restriction and access depending on the age level of the audience and which media is in question. Lynda Nead in The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality states that “obscenity is that which, at any given moment, a particular dominant group does not wish to see in the hands of another, less dominant, group.” Here the argument goes on to delineate the fundamental acting principle behind pornography as a sexual catharsis, not unlike the action of catharsis in Greek tragedy. It could be argued therefore that in denying catharsis, censorship creates a sexual frustration: a desire for a release tempted, but denied. This action then satisfies more ardently the aim of the advertiser or creator of the subject matter: by leaving the viewer with a desire for more, a psychologically lingering effect such as obsession or fixation is created by the image. However, it would accomplish a paradoxical effect for the censors, who seek to prevent or disavow the sexual from the image. While catharsis offers moving past and discharging of sexual energy, frustration manifests in neurosis or fixation. This frustration complicates the flow of sexual libido resulting in what psychoanalysis refers to as cathexis[1]. Contrary to the psychoanalytic interpretations of psychosexual dynamics, Marcus, the author presented by Nead, argues the opposite point, that the presentation of these images alone would have a lasting effect and thereby not accomplish a catharsis but instead foster a sexual obsession within the society as a whole. This logical, yet unsupported theory[2] is the primary operating principle behind censorship, and consequently is the tension used in the primary strategy for the effective use of visual products (such as advertising and television) that aim to skirt the edges of these restrictions.

In Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey refers to the “straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference, which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle.” This is the a priori assertion of Mulvey as regards the role of film, photography, and the viewer. Her stance is that images reveal sexual messages implying that all who look for the sexual can and will find it, and that with this producers and consumers can shape culture and socio-political climates accordingly. According to Lutz & Collins in The Photography as an Intersection of Gazes, the tension that Mulvey describes between the viewer and the presenter is a proxy for the tension between the presenter and the presented. However in this case it is also paralleled by the tension between the censor and the viewer, and the censor and the image. Due to this tension, the intended purpose of the black box is to diffuse that tension. Censors, while legally unable to ban sexually suggestive subject matter entirely instead enforce the restrictions outlined in contemporary policies (the bottom 2/3 of the buttocks, the nipples and 2/3 of the breast, and the actual reproductive genitalia). While censorship is arguably effective at visually blocking the salient section of the body part, it is completely unable to undo the existence of sexual desire, the body part as a whole, or the human attached to it. The compulsion to uphold these policies on the part of the censors therefore is neurotic fixation[3] because it can not accomplish that which it desires to do, yet ardently continues to pursue it as though it could. Instead what develops is cultural subversion in reaction to the culture of censorship, in which producers of the erotic or pseudo-erotic find ever more clever or “subliminal” means of effecting sexual arousal such that a connection can be made psychologically if not overtly.

The psychological connection that results from this frustration is more powerful because it creates the above stated cathexis, and generates more interest than would a straightforward alternative. Plainly, if nudity was commonplace it would be mundane. Through the act of censorship the mystique of the erotic is not merely preserved but it is amplified. Once the sexual is referenced, it is then highlighted by the censorship; the viewer is thereby teased and not protected[4]. Viewers are unable to see the censored body without imagining that which they are denied because they still retain the ability to identify with the subject of that image. Mulvey skillfully introduces the phenomena of scopophilia to explain this point. Scopophilia states that while viewers typically see a subject as an object, they must also identify with the subject as a being like themselves[5]. Therefore eroticism can then also be combined with over-identification (the subject’s nudity is like my own, the subject’s nudity is like that of my mother/sister/father/brother) and it is through this over-identification that nudity alone can become problematic. If nudity through identification suggests our own nudity or the nudity of others we do not wish to be confronted with, and not the nudity of a removed object or objectified person, we may come to wish that all nudity be censored to avoid this discomfort in the future.

Both Mulvey and Nead focus on the model where there is a sexualized/sexually oppressed female as the viewed and a separate sexualizing and decidedly male viewer[6]. Similar to that model, censorship and the production of images to be censored are polarized, however not necessarily along gender lines. This censorship may be applied more frequently to female images, for the same reasons that Mulvey is able to reference more female subjects in film- because there is more of it, and a longer tradition of producing it- however censorship is not necessarily applied solely by men or solely by women, nor applied solely to materials with male or solely to materials with female subjects. This polar opposition, much like the aforementioned tension, can be witnessed between the creators of sexually charged materials, and those who oppose displays of flagrant sexuality. However, the viewers are also polarized in this way, and furthermore can either be conscious of the sexual programming or unconscious of the sexual programming before the censorship and after. This leads the laws in the United States to the “assumption of moral consensus” described by Nead.

Albeit an intentionally loose and vague method of establishing a legal basis for obscenity, “community standards” is frequently mentioned in the legal restrictions of many countries. Further complicated by this vague verbiage are the distinctions that must inevitably follow such as distinctions between pornography and artwork. Nead, paraphrasing legal definitions, defines pornography as “the explicit and illicit representation of sex and sexual bodies for the sole purpose of arousal.” This legal definition is inherently flawed because advertisements have a clear intended purpose beyond mere arousal. By definition if whatever was in question were made legal it could not be considered “illicit” regardless of how explicit.

However self-defeating the law, there is a valid analogy drawn comparing the similarities of ‘promiscuousness’ in pornography and advertising. The new distinction is created to separate and further defend the need for strict distinction between pornography and acceptable products containing nudity, such as art, and is summarized by the maxim “Art is not on sale; it is reserved for the contemplative viewing of its sole owner.” In this case, the argument for censorship is that pornography is “offering pleasure and desire beyond boundaries” whereas art “re-invokes the boundaries of the body”[7]. So in essence, the transcendent ability of pornography defies the natural limitations of the body, and must be curtailed in order to prevent it from flooding our “city streets” and that becomes the new supporting argument for censorship. This argument however, is utterly complicated by Pop Art, and really any body of artwork made after the onset of the “Age of Mechanical Reproduction”[8] where clear distinctions between art and mass produced objects can no longer be made.

A nude woman is not inherently erotic. “Erotic” is an interpretation based on several cues, some cultural and some biological, and therefore interpretations often have as much to do with the viewer as with the viewed. In certain cultures, American culture specifically, it is considered indecent and even obscene[9] for certain sexual cues and images ranging in explicitness to be displayed publicly and/or to persons under the age of 18. The black box is a testament to American sexual ambivalence- for while it may cover the sexual part of the body, it can not block the idea, suggestion, or sexuality of the body from the eye or mind. In fact, just the opposite is achieved. By attempting to block out, the eye is drawn to the area, and the viewer made more aware of the presence of sexual tension where otherwise an anatomical or featureless presence may have otherwise been viewed. Thus, the aim of those seeking to present and produce the sexually charged is fulfilled more strongly because the sexual-made-taboo becomes either the mystery that needs to be solved or the elephant in the room. By drawing attention to an object that otherwise may have been ignored, censorship instead prolongs the gaze causing us to wonder what was covered, what was not covered, who covered it, and why.


[1] http://www.cla.purdue.edu/academic/engl/theory/psychoanalysis/definitions/cathexis.html (this argument is sometimes used to explain rape, pedophilia and other sexually based deviant behaviors especially in violent, non-consensual situations)

[2] Arguably clinically disproved by contemporary psychologists, too.

[4] Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen 16.3 Autumn 1975 pp. 6-18

“…torn in his memory by a sense of loss, by the terror of potential lack in phantasy came nearer to finding a glimpse of satisfaction” p. 8

[5] Immanuel Kant also argues this point in Grounding for the Metaphysic of Morals, one the more influential bases for modern ethical sentiment.

[6] “..woman as image, man as bearer of the look….” Mulvey, p. 11

[7] Nead, Lynda. The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality. Routledge Press, 1992. Page 487.

~ by Klawdya Rothschild on November 5, 2008.

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