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By Steven | July 2, 2008

The Society for the Promotion of Community Standards was angered by this T-shirt (scroll down a bit). So they asked the censor to ban it. He did.

You might be surprised that T-shirts can be censored. But they can, just like books, films, papers, billboards, or material on a website.

Why did he ban it? Well, it’s got “Jesus is a cunt” on the back, for one thing. The censor’s office can age-restrict “highly offensive language”. But that doesn’t authorise a complete ban.

The office can ban material that describes, depicts, expresses or otherwise deals with matters such as sex, horror, crime, cruelty or violence, if its availability is injurious to the public good. The law sets out a list of criteria to help him determine that.

Well, the picture on the front (a near-naked, masturbating nun captioned “vestal masturbation”) is certainly a “matter such as sex”. But is the T-shirt injurious to the public good?

The decision points to two particular statutory criteria:

1. The extent and degree to which, and the manner in which, the publication degrades, dehumanises or demeans any person.

2. The extent and degree to which, and the manner in which, the publication represents (whether directly or by implication) that members of any particular class of the public are inherently inferior to other members of the public by reason of any characteristic of members of that class, being a characteristic that is a prohibited ground of discrimination [including religious belief].

The office sort off rolls these up. Here’s the guts of the decision:

The publication degrades and demeans the woman pictured, and by extension all women, and also degrades and demeans the beliefs and values of Christian people, and in particular those who follow the Catholic doctrine, to a high extent and degree by firstly presenting an image of a partially naked, traditionally clad non involved in implied sexual activity, and secondly by using a highly offensive word to describe Jesus Christ. The image and text are possibly intended as satirical and anti-religious humour, but overall the t-shirt has a crude, objectifying and vulgar tone.

The image of the nun is sexualised. It encourages an attitude that sexually inexperienced women, and women who have decided to be sexually inactive or celebate, are to be mocked for their choice, and implies that even though they have made this choice, these women are sexually insatiable.

Additionally, the publication degrades and demeans the Roman Catholic women with a subtext that denigrates Mary, the mother of Jesus, by presenting a woman, particularly a nun, in this way. There is a deliberate intention to strip away the respect, honour and status given to women by this belief system. This is also evident in the simplistic play with words in the title of the image, which reads “Vestal Masturbation”, using the word “vestal”, which is normally followed by the word “virgin”, together denoting service, scared purity and chastity to describe a sexual activity.

The text on the t-shirt, “Jesus is a cunt”, uses a word regarded by society in general as highly offensive, to insult a revered Christian figure. This use of the word “cunt” has been chosen to be abusive and insulting to those who have beliefs which hold Jesus Christ in high regard. It also denigrates women by using a term used for a woman’s vagina as a derogatory slur. the word is also frequently used in some contexts as the ultimate vilification for a person one dislikes, or finds extremely disagreeable or unpleasant. In this respect, the word as it is used in the sentence “Jesus is a cunt” can be said to invite hatred and ridicule of Christians.

The decision also describes the T-shirt as:

Gotta say, this smacks to me of the censor’s office going “yuck” and looking for reasons to justify their gut feeling.

A lot of this reasoning just doesn’t stand up. Does the image demean the woman depicted? Looks like she posed for it to me. Does it demean women generally? I don’t read the T-shirt to suggest that all women are sexually insatiable. Anyway, this interpretation goes against the recent attitude of the Film and Literature Board of Review. Does it denigrate the Virgin Mary? Um, I’m not sure that the Virgin Mary was the sort of “person” Parliament had in mind when it passed the statutory criteria. Does it use a term for a woman’s vagina as a derogatory slur? Yep. Like calling someone a prick or a cock. (Okay, but worse).

The office really has no place deciding that something is “blasphemous”, and using that to support a ban. That’s not part of its statutory criteria. It should also be careful about how it throws around the word “offensive” except in the context of the provision dealing with swearing, which does use the word “offensive”. So the T-shirt is “crude” and “vulgar”. What of it?

The censor’s office plays right down any message the T-shirt might be conveying. I would have thought it is satirically pointing up the way Christianity sexually represses women. It might also be suggesting that even the most morally upright of us can have secret fantasies.  

Maybe these lyrics (which seem to have inspired the T-shirt) shed some light on the message:

Even a man who is pure in the heart
And speaks in prayer by night
May become a wolf when the wolf’s bane bloom
And the winter moon is bright…

Queen of Winter, throned
The murderess lurked in vulgar caresses
Vestal masturbation
(Purity) Overthrown

Does the T-shirt “demean the beliefs and values of Christian people”? Well, maybe. But it’s allowed to. The question is: does it present Christians themselves as inherently inferior by reason of those beliefs? There’s a fine line here, but it has to be a carefully drawn one, in order to give proper room for people to advance religious criticisms. The T-shirt is more extreme than South Park, but it’s in a similar vein, and the censor’s office decision can be contrasted with the decisions of the BSA and the High Court to protect religious satire.

Similarly, it’s hard for me to see that the t-shirt has no cultural or artistic merit or importance. It challenges stereotypes, it confronts our notions of offensiveness, it does display some artistic flair, it reflects the politics of a particular subculture, it encapsulates the attitude, brand and message of a particular heavy metal band – it even contains (on the censor’s own reasoning!) a visual reference to Pan, a Greek god associated with fertility. These may not be compelling considerations at the end of the day, but they shouldn’t just be ignored.

The intimidation and aggression stuff seems a long bow, too.  Yes, some people may be intimidated by the T-shirt. But it’s not clear how many would be, or how reasonable it is, and it’s a long leap from that to a ban.

In addition, the decision does little more than pay lip service to the Bill of Rights Act, which might be seen to offer some protection to religious criticism and to be leery of restrictions based on taste.

I think at the end of the day, silly as this may sound, this is a T-shirt that deserved an age restriction, not a ban. The censor has pointed out that it’s really hard to do that to a T-shirt. But I don’t think the law permits any more stringent restriction – or at least, the justification advanced by the office doesn’t seem to me to get it there. But perhaps that’s the right solution: age restrict it – then the heat is on the wearer not to expose anyone under 18 to it.

Topics: Censorship, NZ Bill of Rights Act | 9 Comments »

9 Responses to “T-shirty”

  1. IdiotSavant Says:
    July 2nd, 2008 at 7:55 pm

    So, can the decision be challenged? And if so, is there any ability to bring a BORA challenge in the public interest, or is freedom of speech only for those rich enough to defend it?

  2. Andrew Geddis Says:
    July 3rd, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    Yes, it could be … as the Office’s own website points out, “anyone who disagrees with a decision made by the Office can apply to have a publication reviewed under section 47 of the Act by the Film and Literature Board of Review, in the same way as films.”

    If the Board of Review upholds the Office’s ruling, then you can appeal to the High Court – but only on a matter of law (i.e. you can’t ask the Court to make its own determination as to whether the T-Shirt is/isn’t “offensive”, you can only argue that the censor made a legal error during its consideration of the matter). Problem here might be that the censor always pays lip-service to the NZBORA in its decisions … so it would be difficult to claim it ignored this consideration altogether.

  3. Captiver Says:
    July 5th, 2008 at 11:52 am

    A different kind of T-shirt was banned last year in the U.S. It was an anti-war shirt that listed the names of soldiers killed in Iraq.

    As far as I know, sexually explicit Tees don’t upset Americans as much as those that are perceived as unpatriotic and/or as not supporting the troops. Different countries’ differing “pornographies” are interesting. Though I expect in the U.S. case, the new T-shirt laws would ultimately fall to the First Amendment. Wish we had one of those.

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