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Hollywood Cleans Up Hustler
by Gloria Steinem

New York Times Op-Ed
January 7th, 1997

Larry Flynt the Movie is even more cynical than Larry Flynt the Man. "The People vs. Larry Flynt" claims that the creator of Hustler magazine is a champion of the First Amendment, deserving our respect. That isn't true.

Let's be clear: a pornographer is not a hero, no more than a publisher of Ku Klux Klan books or a Nazi on the Internet, no matter what constitutional protection he secures. And Mr. Flynt didn't secure much.

The Reverend Jerry Falwell sued him over a Hustler parody that depicted Mr. Falwell in a drunken, incestuous encounter with his mother. Mr. Flynt's victory only confirmed the right to parody public figures (if the result can't be taken as fact) and prevented plaintiffs from doing an end run around the First Amendment by claiming they suffered "emotional distress."

In fact, the Nazis who marched in Skokie, Ill., and the Klansman who advocated violence in Ohio achieved more substantive First Amendment victories than did Mr. Flynt. Yet no Hollywood movie would glamorize a Klansman or a Nazi as a champion of free speech, much less describe him in studio press releases as "the era's last crusader," which is how Columbia Pictures describes Mr. Flynt.

In this film, produced by Oliver Stone and directed by Milos Forman, Hustler is depicted as tacky at worst, and maybe even honest for showing full nudity. What's left out are the magazine's images of women being beaten, tortured and raped, women subject to degradations from bestiality to sexual slavery.

Filmgoers don't see such Hustler features as "Dirty Pool," which in January 1983 depicted a woman being gang-raped on a pool table. A few months after those pictures were published, a woman was gang-raped on a pool table in New Bedford, Mass. Mr. Flynt's response to the crime was to publish a postcard of another nude woman on a pool table, this time with the inscription, "Greetings from New Bedford, Mass. The Portuguese Gang-Rape Capital of America."

Nor do you see such typical Hustler photo stories as a naked woman in handcuffs who is shaved, raped, and apparently killed by guards in a concentration-camp-like setting ("The Naked and the Dead"). You won't even meet "Chester the Molester," the famous Hustler cartoon character who sexually stalks girls.

You certainly don't see such Hustler illustrations as a charred expanse of what looks like human skin, with photos of dead and dismembered women pinned to it.

On the contrary, the Hollywood version of Larry Flynt, played by the charming Woody Harrelson is opposed to violence. At an anti-censorship rally, he stands against a backdrop of beautiful images of nude women that are intercut with scenes of Hiroshima, marching Nazis, and the My Lai Massacre. "Which is more obscene," the Flynt character asks, "sex or war?" Viewers who know Hustler's real content might ask, "Why can't Larry Flynt tell the difference?"

Mr. Flynt's daughter Tonya, 31, is so alarmed by this film's dishonesty that she joined women who picketed its opening in San Francisco. She also publicly accused Mr. Flynt of having sexually abused her when she was a child, a charge he vehemently denies, and attributes to her "mental problems."

"I'm upset about this film because it supports my dad's argument that pornography does no harm," she said. "If you want to see a victim of pornography, just look at me."

Unlike his film character, the real Mr. Flynt is hardly an unwavering advocate of free speech. Indeed other feminists and I have been attacked in Hustler for using our First Amendment rights to protest pornography. In my case, that meant calling me dangerous and putting my picture on a "Most Wanted" poster. I was also depicted as the main character in a photo story that ended in my sexual mutilation. Given the number of crimes that seem to imitate pornography, this kind of attack does tend to get your attention.

So, no, I am not grateful to Mr. Flynt for protecting my freedom, as the film and its enthusiasts suggest I should be. No more than I would be to a racist or fascist publisher whose speech is protected by the Constitution.

My question is: Would men be portrayed as inviting, deserving, and even enjoying their own pain and degradation--as women are in Mr. Flynt's life work?

Suppose Mr. Flynt specialized in such images as a young African American man trussed up like a deer, and tied to the luggage rack of a white hunter's car. Or a nude white man fed into a meat grinder? (Those are some of the milder ways in which Hustler portrays women.)

Would Oliver Stone--who rarely lets powerful men emerge unscathed--bowdlerize and flatter that kind of man, too? Would Woody Harrelson--who supports animal rights and protests the cutting of trees--pose happily next to that Larry Flynt? Would Milos Forman defend that film by citing his memories of censorship under the Nazis?

What if the film praised an anti-Semitic publisher? Would it be nominated for five Golden Globes? Would there be cameos by Donna Hanover Giuliani, the wife of New York City's Mayor; Burt Neuborne, a New York University law professor; Judge D'Army Bailey of the Memphis Circuit Court or James Carville, President Clinton's former political consultant? I don't think so.

The truth is, if Larry Flynt had published the same cruel images even of animals, this movie would never have been made. Fortunately, each of us has the First Amendment right to protest.


Gloria Steinem, a founder of Ms. Magazine, is a writer and activist against pornography and censorship.  

 

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