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
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
"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
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.
a founder of Ms. Magazine, is a
writer and activist against pornography