Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Filthy minds

Thanks to GK for pointing this out: The Second Circuit has an interesting bit of cultural commentary in its decision striking down the FCC's anti-fleeting-obscenity policy as too vague to satisfy the First Amendment:
Take, for example, the disparate treatment of “Saving Private Ryan” and the documentary, “The Blues.” The FCC decided that the words “fuck” and “shit” were integral to the “realism and immediacy of the film experience for viewers” in “Saving Private Ryan,” but not in “The Blues.” We query how fleeting expletives could be more essential to the “realism” of a fictional movie than to the “realism” of interviews with real people about real life events, and it is hard not to speculate that the FCC was simply more comfortable with the themes in “Saving Private Ryan,” a mainstream movie with a familiar cultural milieu, than it was with “The Blues,” which largely profiled an outsider genre of musical experience.
The FCC, perhaps, was acting on an expectation that soldiers--real men--can legitimately curse, and the horrors of war include cursing. Realism was more important than reality, because reality is full of people who sometimes curse, and especially if they're people who lack cultural power, the court recognized, that can be threatening. Some of the examples of self-censorship by broadcasters in the opinion are also pretty striking.

Also, GK made the excellent point that bleeping the fleeting obscenity is a terrible way to avoid exposing us to it or to preserve the cause of civility. The bleep simply recruits us to supply the nasty word for ourselves, a phenomenon The Daily Show uses to good effect. The bleep constructs the obscenity, much as Amy Adler has argued that modern child pornography law forces us to think with a pornographic mind.

Here, let the Count from Sesame Street show you.

2 comments:

Ann Bartow said...

Hi Rebecca,
I've always wondered how a single word can be "obscene" or an "obscenity." Any theories?

best,
Ann

Rebecca Tushnet said...

I don't think it can be in the constitutional sense. In fact I don't think that anything that's just words can be obscene, with the possible exception of child pornography (see the Red Rose prosecution).