Right & Wrong

Have American conservatives taken over transgression?

Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely and Per Olov Ultvedt, Hon - En Kathedral (She - Cathedral), 1966, installation view, Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Courtesy Moderna Museet, Stockholm, and Niki Charitable Art Foundation

Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely and Per Olov Ultvedt, Hon - En Kathedral (She - Cathedral), 1966, installation view, Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Courtesy Moderna Museet, Stockholm, and Niki Charitable Art Foundation

I’m kinda confused. Republicans used to be about families, picnics, waving flags and maybe even eating hotdogs – although without the raw onions, because nothing bad should come out of a Republican’s mouth, be it foul breath or foul language. But these days Republicans seem to be interested not only in swearing but also in watching porn movies and looking inside vaginas. If they used to indulge in such illicit activities, they would do so privately (and blame them publicly on loose Democratic morals). Now we all have to listen to arch-conservatives besmirching traditional Republican ideals.

You’ve likely heard of the right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh’s take on the Georgetown University student Sandra Fluke. She testified to a congressional committee to support President Obama’s health care reform law, which calls for insurance plans at religiously affiliated institutions, such as the Jesuit Georgetown, to cover contraceptives for women. Limbaugh called Fluke a ‘slut’ because: ‘She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.’ His logical conclusion: ‘If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.’ Wow. I could imagine Limbaugh being pro-life but pro-prostitution and pro-porn? Plus, the idea of us all watching Fluke together sounds like a cross between a virtual gang-bang and socialist television.

And you’ve probably also heard about the Texas abortion law, signed off by Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, among other arch-conservatives. If a Texan wants an abortion, she must submit to a trans-vaginal sonogram (guys: that means sticking a 25cm wand into the vagina). The logical conclusion: to see the foetus and to think twice about aborting it. Like Limbaugh, the Texan lawmakers are into visualizing the female body, if not transforming women’s reproductive organs and their sexuality into a spectacle. In short: more pussy pictures. Some critics, including the Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, call the compulsory wand insertion ‘state rape’.

Like I said, I’m confused because swearing, watching porn and looking inside vaginas belong to my rebellious feminist youth, oh so many years ago. I remember the artist Karen Finley yelling obscenities (and sticking foodstuffs up her ass). I remember looking inside the sex educator Annie Sprinkle’s vagina, during one of her public performances with a speculum and a flashlight. And I remember reading porn by Susie Bright, Pat Califia or Kathy Acker, who made me proud to call myself a slut and to embrace any misogynist epithet thrown my way. I’ll never forget the opening chapter on ‘Porn in the Service of Women’ in Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History (1979). Or Caught Looking: Feminism, Pornography and Censorship (1986), with a wealth of pussy and penis pictures! Or the re/Search edition on Angry Women (1991), which was pro-choice but also as pro-sex and pro-porn as Limbaugh. Of course, ‘herstory’ offered more heroines of bad behaviour, albeit with a softer touch, like Valie Export, who allowed the public to fondle her breasts without seeing them in Tapp- und Tast-Kino (Tap and Touch Cinema, 1968–71). Or Niki de Saint Phalle’s walk-in vagina Hon – En Kathedral (She – A Cathedral, 1966), although my gal-pals always called her ‘Niki de Saint Phallus’.

As this stroll down memory lane suggests, feminist weapons for fighting oppression are being usurped by conservatives. Republicans are taking over not only women’s health care but also transgression. To control women and their bodies, conservatives used to invoke morality and to evoke shame; to fight conservatives, you had to shock them; flaunting your body and sexuality was the best way to demonstrate that these domains belonged to you alone. While some feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine Mackinnon fought porn, others became pro-porn after realizing that censoring sex could restrict women’s sexuality. But today, transgression has become a reactionary gesture as conservatives use shock tactics to create media spectacles which advance their agenda, even if the tactics go against their morals. Angry women have been replaced by angry men like Limbaugh, who shocks while confounding ethical with economic values. Misogynist epithets, porn and even rape are used to enforce family values.

Two logical conclusions: firstly, I finally get Beyoncé’s ‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)’ (2011) although I’m from the generation of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ (1983), who saw marriage as oppressive. But who wants to have what has become Republican fun? Secondly, we could use some racy Republicans over here in Germany. The country responsible for rescuing the euro has the highest death rate from breast cancer in Europe. Although many women die in their 40s, German public health insurance plans cover mammograms requested by patients only if they are 50 or older. Limbaugh would suggest paying for them only if the results were posted on YouTube. Maybe I’m an old-fashioned feminist, but, hey, I’d be happy to comply.

Issue 147

First published in Issue 147

May 2012

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

September 2019

frieze magazine

October 2019

frieze magazine

November - December 2019