Required Reading: Banned Books and Black Ink
In the country where I grew up, textbooks came with thick black lines drawn over certain sentences and certain maps. Ladies' magazines, like Cosmo and Vogue, featured models with long black sleeves, long black skirts, and buttoned-up busts, all overlaid by the same inky hand.
My friends and I imagined a friendly local censor—like a postman—sorting and sanitizing the mail with a disappointed look ("The Victoria Secret catalogue at Salwa #5, again!"). Or, sometimes we thought there must be hundreds of censors, rows and rows of black markers carefully defacing the nation's mail, lengthening shorts into long skirts, giving in to sartorial fancy with a few creative black wiggles, or cutting history shorter by a few years here and there.
Censorship made my first read of Judy Blume's Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret? very confusing. Playboy. Period. Jewish. Breast. Menstruation. Kiss. Not only were words missing, but every premise of the classic American adolescent crisis (and then some) had been blacked out. I had never encountered this problem with Margaret's predecessor, Ramona Quimby. Apparently, young adult novelist Judy Blume specializes in the salacious.
Americans aren't so intimate with censorship. We expect to receive our Victoria's Secret Catalogues in full detail. But even here, books still do get banned, limited, or "challenged"; in fact, Judy Blume made it to the the top of the American Library Association's "Most Frequently Challenged Authors" list in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2010. A "challenged author" is an author whose works American lending libraries have been asked to remove or restrict. In the '90s, Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret? was one of 100 most challenged books in America.
So in the 1990s, when I was 12 or 13 and very interested in YA literature, I could have visited libraries in two different countries, thousands of miles apart, radically differentiated by dominant religions, cultures, and standards of censorship, and still met the same difficulty in finding a full copy of anything by Judy Blume, creator of smut like Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.
The universal trend of silencing adolescent girls (the majority of Judy Blume heroines) can be attributed to society feeling weird about girls as humans, about girls having three-dimensional bodies with problems, pains, pimples and hairs like the rest of the population and most of all, about girls actively thinking about or preparing for sex in markedly unsexy, awkward and un-photogenic ways. Misogyny has a big crush on censorship.
But censorship isn't all bad—at least, the will to censor makes a lot of sense. Haven't you ever wanted to take a black marker to a "sexy" ad or magazine cover? If, as feminists, we take the moral stance that women do best when they are not displayed like meat on fashion spreads, are we already halfway to the more proactive moral stance of black felt markers? Where should we go from there?
This post builds on thoughts developed in the comments of my previous post (Required Reading: Disgrace). My next post will continue along these lines—with your input about censorship, pornography, visual culture and of course, books—so please get out your Catharine MacKinnon and theorize away in the comments below! Bonus points if you have a censorship story to tell. Previously: Disgrace, Aya de Yopougon
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