08 October 2009

Censorship and the Exploitation of Children

In The Guardian a week or so ago was this column discussing the removal recently (on fear that the museum would fall foul of obscenity laws) of a photograph from a London exhibition. The putatively offending photograph is this 1975 image by Garry Gross (who still holds the copyright) of then-10-year-old and obviously quite nude Brooke Shields. The image is entitled "Spiritual America." I thought of just letting the matter pass, as it seems clear to me that while Shields has been more or less systematically exploited by adults - including, at least, her parents, film directors and, apparently Gross - over the years, her experience is not terribly far from what other parents and photographers do to other young girls. In short, I think what's problematic here is less about sex (which is, as I noted in this post, also referring to Shields, a highly ambiguous category) than about money - the parents are venal, the photographers are like sharks at the scent of blood in the water, and the kids are exploited for adult gain. The 'gain' I would add combines monetary and psychological 'benefits' of various sorts to the adults.

Having said that, the arrest of Roman Polanski for raping (yes, that is the right word) a 13 year old in 1977 has prompted me to think about the Shields matter anew. Polanski ought to go to jail for a crime to which he has confessed. But what about the adults who exploited Brooke Shields? Surely there were pornography laws and specifically child pornography laws in the U.S. in 1975? If not, then the current exhibitions have nothing to worry about. If you are wondering about the analogy I've drawn, please recall that rape is about power and exploitation not about sex.

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Blogger Mike said...

You got the word "censorship" into the title of the post, but didn't deal with that issue in the specific case otherwise. That seems to support the museum's removal of the photograph from the exhibition by default. The implication of the position adopted by both you and Stan B. in the other post is that exploitation only becomes egregious when the clothes come off. To me, children's beauty pageants and the pictures coming from them seem equally exploitative and offensive. Yet, it seems unlikely that there will be any great clamor to ban images from that activity such as those made by Susan Anderson in her High Glitz series.

10 October, 2009 09:04  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Actually, I put the full picture of Shields into the post precisely because I think the censorship was wholly misguided. I think the museum ought to have told the authorities to stuff it. Even The Guardian story refused to put the whole photo - they used just the head shot. This is an image that has long been in the public domain - I immediately found it on line with a simple google search. The issue here is not the image, but the behavior of parents and photographers several decades ago. It shows less about the child than about the adults.

I suspect that my views on exploitation of kids for the (questionable) benefit of adults that are - including parents - covers your example of child beauty pageants, modeling for celeb magazines, and (as in the link to Mylee Cyrus) various show biz activities. In other words, I suspect you and I don't disagree much on this. (In fact, I think the same argument could be made for parents pushing sports o their kids too.)

10 October, 2009 11:22  

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