In January 2022 the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee, banned Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, MAUS, from its school library. At the time, it was reported that the reason the book was banned was because of its depiction of female nudity. To be fair MAUS deals with difficult subjects and contains many strong images.
The complete work tells the story of Spiegelman’s Jewish parents through the period of the second world war, including Nazi concentration camps and his mother’s suicide. It is not an easy read, but it is the record of a couple's struggle that was very real and something that we should not dismiss or be allowed to forget. The treatment of the Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis was abhorrent and for many today, unimaginable.
While I accept that some caution may be needed for texts that deal with sensitive matters, banning them does nothing to promote a healthy discussion or contemplation of difficult topics.
We need to allow books we might not like, but we also need to give them some context. We need to let them promote discussion and thinking, to let people consider the information and draw their own conclusions.
The decision to ban a book because of a single image without understanding the bigger issues feels like maybe the people banning the book were uncomfortable with it, but couldn’t identify why, so just picked one image to hang their argument on.
We need to let our young adults think. We need to let them know that the world can be a terrible place and that there have been horrific events in our history.
We also need to give them some context with which to understand the atrocities that continue to happen throughout the world today.
Understanding the ways that the Nazis treated the Jewish people helps us to understand the plight of victims in conflicts such as those in Myanmar, Rwanda and Sudan to name just a few. Rather than just seeing these as some regional skirmish or a quick headline without real consequences, an understanding of the historical horrors committed against a specific group of people can help put current events into a much clearer context.
I am generally in the camp of opposing censorship. I accept that there may be some things that people will say that will be offensive and needs to be called out. I also accept the argument that content that incites hatred or causes harm is unacceptable, but does that mean that people who think that way should not be allowed to express themselves and therefore be identified? By removing their right to express themselves are we not pushing their beliefs underground and allowing them the percolate unchallenged? If someone says something that causes harm, should that not be an opportunity to illustrate the harm, discuss the issues and attempt to build better understanding and tolerance?
Returning to the topic that triggered this week's writing, the powerful MAUS. With the exception of a few pages that reflect a previous work by Spiegelman on the death of his mother, MAUS uses animals to depict different groups in the Holocaust story. Jewish people are represented as mice, and Nazis are shown as cats.
As part of the story of the Nazi treatment of Jewish people, there are many difficult and confronting images. Beatings, shootings, hangings, the horrors of Auschwitz, and the suicide of Spiegelman’s mother.
Despite all the content of the book, the frame that got the book banned shows a man discovering his dead partner in a bath. Looking from one end of the bath we see the top of her head, but not her face. With her arm draped over the side of the bath a naked breast is visible before the edge of the frame cuts off any further detail.
While the scene is unpleasant and deals with a difficult subject matter that needs to be treated carefully, the offending part of the image that apparently tipped the scales was the naked female breast.
There are many reasons why the school board might have considered restricting the work, but to specifically call it our for its depiction of female nudity seems bizarre to say the least. Perhaps this says more about the American sensitivity to nudity and their desensitisation towards violence.
To finish up, I turn to a quote from Marie Willa, transgender woman extraordinaire.
If you are banning a book because you are afraid that it will influence the way a person thinks, then it is not the book you are afraid of, it's a person thinking that terrifies you.
Thank you for reading, have a comfortable day.
Marie Willa on TikTok.
Marie Willa on Twitter
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Steve, your penultimate statement, "Perhaps this says more about the American sensitivity to nudity and their desensitisation towards violence" is right on the money, I believe. I'm currently writing a piece on the farcical attitudes of nudity / sex / violence exhibited by Facebook and its Community Standards, based on my own recent experiences with them. Given that Meta Platforms is an American company, the execution of their standards is not surprising, but totally absurd.
As your piece illustrates, they appear to have no appreciation of what is harmful and what is innocuous.
As always, a well written and researched piece. Much appreciated!
Very thought-provoking statements.
T & K