From the justly earnest to the fanatical crank, objecting to challenging art has a long and difficult history.
If nothing else, 2020 has been the year of protest. You name it, someone has been using it as an excuse to get out of the house during lockdowns (if lockdowns weren’t the things being protested against). But missing, for the most part, have been the moral panics against various art forms that used to regularly bring sign-carrying cranks onto the streets in an effort to close down movies, music, publications, theatrical performances or whatnot.
Now, we’re not saying that every protester against assorted art forms hasn’t had a point – after all, art can be as bigoted or hateful as anything else, and those who found Birth of a Nation objectionable certainly have a strong argument that few could disagree with. But there is a point between finding something unsavoury and demanding that it not be allowed, and most protesters plump for the latter argument. The problem is that if we capitulate to one group, why not the other? Where is a line drawn? You can sympathise with a cause without agreeing that works of art – even bad art – should be suppressed.
What’s interesting in these old images is to see how issues we think of as being fairly modern – namely the racist content of once-beloved films like Gone With The Wind and Song of the South – were upsetting people even at the time that the films were first released. In fact, all these protests would still find supporters today.
For this collection, we’ve stuck with protests against specific works of art – or at least collections of art – rather than venues, individual artists or wider political issues. Though of course, where one ends and another begins is sometimes hard to define.
Deep Throat was the most high-profile porn film of the 1970s, and also the first hardcore movie to get any sort of national attention, so it was no wonder that it pulled out the cranks, including actress Valerie Harper, here looking like a deranged surgeon.
New York saw protests against porn theatres, video stores and, well, porn in general from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s.
The mid-210s saw a return to Radical Feminist protests about movies, specifically the Fifty Shades series. For the RadFem, consent in BDSM relationships is impossible – it must always be about coercion. The huge popularity with women of these novels and movies was their worst nightmare come true.
Strip clubs of whatever variety have also been a regular target for both religious and RadFem protesters. God bless the unnamed stripper showing the street protesters what she thinks of them with an impromptu signpost performance.
Playboy has, of course, long brought out the cranks, but these particular images are from the brand’s return to British club and casino land.
We’re not quite sure what Ronnie Bell is protesting here, but for once, it seems an objection that we can all get behind.
Given the outrage, it’s odd how few images have emerges of Monty Python’s Life of Brian protests, but here’s a first-rate pair. Everything is here: the self-importance, the point-missing, a fantastic Biblical stretch and the sheer waste of time for all involved.
The Last Temptation of Christ also attracted the lunatic fringe, along with racist lunatics. Younger readers (assuming that we actually have any younger readers) will be astonished to know what a big deal this was, with genuine threats of violence. Small potatoes, in retrospect, compared to other protests that we’ll shortly come to, but extreme at the time.
Weirdly, The Da Vinci Code also drew out the religious fanatics, though by this time, no one was taking any notice of them.
In Britain, while both The Last Temptation of Christ and The Da Vinci Code slipped past with little protest, fundamentalist Christians went apeshit over Jerry Springer: The Opera, as ever misunderstanding things like context and satire. This protest was especially nasty, possibly because the fanatics behind it had watched and learned from…
…The Satanic Verses/Salman Rushdie protests, which set a new low globally – at least until the Charlie Hebdo ones, which switched protest for murder. Not that the Rushdie protests didn’t involve people being killed for the audacity of publishing a book, and the author forced into hiding. Which he is still in.
And most recently, Christians in America have protested screenings of the Hail Satan? documentary, perhaps taking the title rather too literally. But they didn’t kill anyone, so that’s something.
It’s hard to criticise black Americans appalled at the bigotry and stereotyping of Birth of a Nation – as close to a genuinely dangerous film as you can get, especially in a country still steeped in racism – Gone with the Wind and Song of the South. Perhaps too late for them to appreciate it, but these protesters have arguably won the day; Song of the South is effectively buried, while the other two – too important to confine to the dustbin of history – now come with extensive contextual warnings when shown.
A lesser-known case – though not a unique one – was the protests against comedy Asians and yellowface in Disney’s One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing. Similar protests against Charlie Chan and the Dragon Lady finally made the habitual casting of Western actors as Japanese and Chinese characters a thing of the past.
“Santa is NOT a murderer!!”. Well, no, unless he’s in Silent Night Deadly Night, which caused some manipulated protests on its original release. Great signs, including the curious “Destroy This Christmas!’, which seems oddly off-message.
The romantic film Me Before You came and went before anyone except disability activists noticed. These protests probably had the effect of boosting its profile, though anyone excited by the claims that it was a snuff movie was going to be very disappointed.
War, Nuclear Power and Animal Rights
The self-publicists at PETA taking advantage of new movies to get a bit more attention. Dead horses (being flogged or otherwise) are one thing, keeping pet dogs quite another, but what the hey…
Stern-faced anti-nuclear power fans upset by The China Syndrome, which is a film about the dangers of nuclear power.
We can’t help but think that this Vietnam Vet left it a bit late to protest about Jane Fonda films, given that he is here picketing 2013 film The Butler. But who knows, maybe he’s been doing this for every film that she has made since the early 1970s and no one has noticed before.
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