Albion Monitor /Commentary

The Child Porn on Your Newsstand

by Michael C. Nelson

A seemingly inexhaustible supply of glamour shots of the girl
For the second time in less than a decade, America is obsessively tuning in to a television murder mystery in which a beauty queen has become the victim of a brutal sex crime.

In 1990, David Lynch's Twin Peaks had everyone wondering "who killed Laura Palmer," the seventeen-year-old girl next door whose home-coming queen photograph appeared at the end of every episode. Now, television tabloids and network news shows regularly air the quest for who killed JonBenet Ramsey, the six-year-old Colorado beauty pageant veteran found dead in her home just after Christmas: a search accompanied by a seemingly inexhaustible supply of glamour shots of the girl.

JonBenet Ramsey has presented the tabloids with a first: a subject who comes complete with her own photo archive of shots so surreal that they require no graphic sleight-of-hand
While coverage of JonBenet's murder has certainly focused attention on the plight of the abused and vulnerable, the retrofitting of Lynch's scenario to include a child, its migration from fiction to fact, and the lurid nature of the media's reporting of the story reveal that the contempt for women that haunts American culture only grows stronger as the next century nears.

The vision of David Lynch has ascended to primacy in Hollywood in the '90s, a decade in which female bodies have littered the visual landscape. Silence of the Lambs , Presumed Innocent and The Fugitive -- to name just three (immensely popular) big- budget motion pictures -- all feature plots driven by once-alluring, now-dead women, glimpsed in grisly crime photos, in grainy verite flashbacks or in graphic autopsy scenes. Television, though more constrained in its depiction of violence, has also embraced the trend. Dead women appear with regularity on Fox's Millennium -- often via the same cinematic devices that characterize the films mentioned above.

So-called strong '90s women only underscore the phenomenon. Roles for women now seem more polarized than ever into active heroine and passive victim. In Silence of the Lambs , Jody Foster's novitiate FBI agent, Clarice Starling, is as resourceful as the serial killer's victims are defenseless.

The most dated feature of the re-released Star Wars isn't its special effects (or Mark Hamill's hair), but the behavior of Princess Leia. No swooning, no deferring, but no Ninja moves either; she simply tells the male leads what to do, and they do it . Women on screen now lead a bifurcated existence: on the one hand silent, suffering, sexual, dead; on the other super-smart, capable, active, celibate. Is there no middle ground between Agent Starling and Nell?

JonBenet Ramsey has presented the tabloids with a first: a subject who comes complete with her own photo archive of shots so surreal that they require no graphic sleight-of-hand to be rendered palatable to an audience of epicures of the bizarre. If JonBenet were alive, her image would still keep the Star and the National Enquirer flying off the check-out racks.

All editors would have to do is swap headlines. The National Enquirer cover copy for its February 18 issue, "Beauty Queen Murder Confession -- Daddy Destroyed Evidence -- So Killer Will Walk!," could just as convincingly read, "Colorado child- woman has body of a tot, head of a Vegas show-girl!"

It is not speaking ill of the dead (a six-year-old can hardly be blamed for choices made for her by parents) to draw attention to the unhealthiness of a culture in which the beauty standard for adult women grows increasingly childlike, and in which young girls are compelled to act (and dress) like adults at a tenderer age than ever before.

At least David Lynch and even Larry Flynt exercise a modicum of such reflection. and those who traffic in images of JonBenet Ramsey should follow their example
In a twist worthy of Lynch himself, images of JonBenet began flooding print and broadcast media at the same time the film-bio The People vs. Larry Flynt returned the country's most notorious purveyor of pornography to the news, engendering fresh debate over the nature and effect of the pictures published in Flynt's Hustler magazine.

Many of the conclusions drawn seem too simple. Gloria Steinem argues that Flynt's pictures incite men to violence against women. Laura Kipnis, in "Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America," says that they provide a carnivalesque satire on the upper classes, staged in solidarity with working folk. Katha Pollitt, in a recent installment of her column in The Nation, suggests that they appeal to the sexual and cultural anxieties of white men. These theories all ascribe a stable, singular meaning to images whose reception is complex, contradictory, confused.

One fine day in 1977, I came home from my suburban Cincinnati high school to find an unusual parcel waiting in the mail box. Though it wasn't addressed to me, curiosity won out and I opened it. Inside were stark, graphic photographs of casualties from Vietnam. One image was particularly gruesome: a decapitated torso, the severed neck filled with what looked like jelly. These pictures had been mailed to every residence in Hamilton county courtesy of Larry Flynt, whose magazine had recently been banned in the county as obscene. A mailing that contained images of victims of child abuse followed (my parents got to this one first, so I can't vouch for its contents).

Flynt's argument -- spelled out in the mailing, in case we couldn't figure it out on our own -- was that these images, not the pictures of nude women in his magazine, were obscene, that there is a vast difference between images that record the cost of physical violence and abuse and images that themselves allegedly constitute an affront to certain viewers. The point was well taken, even if it did come from the man who invented the scratch-n'-sniff centerfold.

But Flynt cannot so easily account for the effect of the pictures he publishes. The truth is, Hustler images probably do all of the things Flynt and his critics claim they do: entertain, provide an outlet for sexual frustration, subvert authority, encourage abuse, reveal anxiety. The inconsistent, conflicted Flynt has both contributed to and exposed the debasement of the human body -- male and female -- that has occurred in the last thirty years through war, crime and a slew of environmental or recreational toxins.

In documenting (and perhaps contributing to) these cultural casualties, Flynt himself became one. Paralyzed by an assassin's bullet, he remains the only demonstrable victim of violence brought about by the pictures in his magazine. Indeed, the paraplegic Flynt, whose fourth wife, Althea, died of AIDs, is the poster boy-man for body-anxiety. His obsession with portraying female genitalia with gynecological thoroughness signifies a paranoid's need for assurance of bodily, sexual health ("All parts present and accounted for," Hustler 's glossy pages proclaim).

Too many images of idealized female beauty keep company with images of violence. This isn't to say that either kind of picture, or the juxtaposition of both, necessarily leads to the abuse of women, but rather to point out that pictures -- like words -- have consequences, and reflection on the complicated nature of these consequences has a salutary effect. At least David Lynch and even Larry Flynt exercise a modicum of such reflection. Those who traffic in images of JonBenet Ramsey should follow their example.

This essay first appeared in the Ryder magazine

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Albion Monitor March 30, 1997 (

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