Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Perversion, Prohibition, and Abercrombie and Fitch

Recognizing the absence of something points to its very existence, or, to follow Butler’s use of the Lacanian theory of desire, to deny something is to reference it.  Butler relates this theory in The Force of Fantasy: Feminism, Mapplethorpe, and Discursive Excess to censorship and prohibition by looking at the line between what is fantasy and what is real.  Butler connects her critique of Helm’s censorship of Mapplethorpe’s photographs to feminist efforts for the censorship and prohibition of pornography stating that, “prohibition appears to precede fantasy and to structure it essentially” (p.190).  According to her argument, the feminist claim that pornography subjugates and objectifies women, in fact, ignores the possibility of women identifying with other aspects of the pornographic text/scene as either the subjugator or with the entire scene itself.  Butler states that, “the possibility of a cross-identification spells a kind of gender trouble that the anti-pornography analysis fully suppresses” (p.193).

This essay reminded me of a conversation that I had over the summer with a friend about the representation of children in art.  My friend had an art show in Los Angeles, which received a glowing review in a respected newspaper.  On congratulating him, my friend pointed out that the critic had referred to the possible homoeroticism he found in the collection of paintings.  My friend was upset by this comment, as he had not intended that to be a message people took away.  He was further concerned by what the critic had said because the subjects of several paintings were adolescent boys playing together.  While he was trying to capture the innocence and electric energy of children, he now recognized that there was the potential for the public’s misreading of “homoeroticism” in the paintings which can be translated, as Butler suggests, to the idea that “homosexuality becomes thinkable only as the forbidden and sadomasochistic exchange between intergenerational male partners” (197).  My friend feared that the comment by the critic may have undermined the work he was doing by pointing to another more socially accessible theme which establishes perversion as the centerpiece to representations of children in art created by homosexual men as Butler examines in her notes on Mapplethorpe’s work.

My friend and I went on to discuss the hypersexualization of gay men and of children in American social consciousness as evidenced in the media.  When these two populations intersect the relationship lends itself to further reading of an innate perversion of this relationship that, perhaps, the critic was pointing to.

My friend told me that the last time he was in Italy, children’s bathing suits were sold primarily as just bottoms since children typically do not wear tops to the beach or swimming pools, and sometimes neither do the women.  I find it interesting that we sell tops to two-piece bathing suits for very young girls in America.  The indecency implied by the covering up reveals both the eroticism and the subsequent desire society is attempting to control but is in fact creating.  As some of us remember, even the retail clothing company Abercrombie and Fitch designed and sold padded bikini tops to children as young as 7 years old http://jezebel.com/5786039/abercrombie–fitch-introduces-padded-bikini-top-for-girls.

By covering up the torsos of young girls whose breasts have not developed, we are, in fact, pointing to their sexualization.  What are the societal impacts of socializing young girls to experience themselves as potential sexual objects?  This message then becomes internalized, and creates a scenario in which they are seen as objects of desire.  This form of censorship or covering up leads to the very perversion that it hopes to prevent.  Butler challenges the very terms that shape arguments in favor of prohibition and censorship, and argues not to solve the “crisis of identity politics” but to expand representations and states that,

“if prohibitions invariably produce and proliferate the representations that they seek to control, then the political task is to promote a proliferation of representations, sites of discursive production, which might then contest the authoritative production produced by the prohibitive law” (p.197).

Comments are closed.