This week’s New Yorker contains a cartoon showing a man looking at Internet porn as a way of celebrating the online filing of his income taxes. The drawing includes a computer monitor with a naked woman on all fours looking behind her as if for the partner who is standing just off the screen. It’s a pretty explicit drawing, and the caption makes it as clear as it needs to be. And this is not exceptionally racy for The New Yorker, in that naked women, and couples in bed seem to be staples of New Yorker cartoonists, but it is interesting that this one actually depicts pornography itself. And I think it raises some interesting questions.
When it comes to all things sexual-thus-potentially-dangerous-to-unsuspecting-readers-or-children, is it the things in themselves that are presumed to the be danger, or is it the representations of the things? In other words, is it the woman having sex for money and an audience, or is it the representation of the woman having sex for money and an audience that is understood to be the danger?
Because if it is the thing itself, then one would imagine that any representation that does not condemn the dangerous thing, or warn against it, would be equally harmful.
And if it is the representation that we claim is harmful, how important is the context to deciding whether or not harm is likely? For example, if the New Yorker cartoon was not in The New Yorker but was instead in Playboy, would it be seen as more harmful for being located in a context that is more overtly sexual? (I can’t tell you how many cartoons in The New Yorker include naked people, especially women, and especially showing their nipples, these days.) Does being in The New Yorker make the cartoon safer, or does the cartoon make The New Yorker potentially more dangerous? Certainly The New Yorker hangs out in many doctors office waiting rooms and other places where children could accidentally see the cartoon. And then, too, there it is right online, where any unsuspecting child could happen upon it.
I don’t raise this because I want to see The New Yorker begin to censor its cartoonists. Far from it! I want to see less censorship around all things sexual. I raise it only to point out that when it comes to portraying sex in the mainstream media — or media in general — there is a system of privilege. And as with so many systems of privilege, I think this one needs to be examined and, perhaps, dismantled.
I wonder what the Terms of Service of The New Yorker’s ISP say about nudity and sexually explicit content!