FCC: Federal Censorship Commission Kimberly Springer
By now, there are as many outraged or bored perspectives on the Timberlake-Jackson Super Bowl incident as there are nipple shields in the whole of New York and Los Angeles. Short of speaking as Janet’s breast itself (“What is everyone looking at? My pretty silver hat?”), the gender, race, celebrity politics are clear, if debatable: the vilification of Jackson as temptress Jezebel to Justin’s good Southern boy led astray; the implications for sexual assault; the shortening cycle of our insatiable desire to build up celebrities and tear them down; and the cool pose of “so what?”
Carla Williams, co-editor of the fabulous The Black Female Body: a Photographic History, concisely contextualized the over-the-top responses to the Super Bowl incident in an article for New York Newsday, noting the issues of the historical exploitative photography of African-Americans and the modern-day ramifications for control over black women’s bodies. In addition to this historical use and abuse of the black body, we might also consider the role of the state and regulation in deciding which representations of black bodies are acceptable. Two cases come to mind. Both are mired in the inappropriate religious interference in the affairs of the state, the historical silencing of black women’s sexual subjectivity, willful ignorance of political-social-cultural contexts, and, capitalism’s continued imperialist trek.
In 1999, community-run radio station KBOO Portland played Russian DJ Vadim’s remix of Sarah Jones’ poem “Your Revolution.” The poem, an homage to Gil Scot Heron’s 1974 poem/rap “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” voices the frustrations of many young, black women coming to contemporary feminist consciousness who’ve often found themselves driven from the dance floor by hateful lyrics, but still head-bobbin’ on the sidelines. In the evolution of the emerging hiphop feminist movement, Jones’s poem is an early anthem. Imagine Jones and KBOO’s surprise when, in 2001, the FCC fined the station $7000 for indecency in her song. Jones’ song is an anti-misogynistic song that masterfully uses the words of rappers against them to assert a forceful black female sexuality undetermined by male objectification and accountable only to her female desire. The nature of the alleged indecency would not be revealed until later, when the FCC repealed their indecency verdict in 2003---after Jones filed her own lawsuit against the FCC for impinging on her first amendment right to freedom of expression and after ignoring Jones’ FCC appeal well past the FCC’s own self-imposed deadline for considering such matters.
Of primary importance are changes in the FCC that are currently speeding along media consolidation---thereby homogenizing what we hear on the radio, see on television, and read in newspapers---but also bowing to the religious right’s influence in the higher echelons of US government. Key to this shift is the ascension of a George W. Bush-appointed head to the FCC. While the initial complaint against Jones & KBOO languished from 1999 to 2001, Michael C. Powell (yep, Colin’s boy) became FCC chair and investigations into indecency stepped up considerably. The problem with Powell, aside from everything, is his arrogant attitude toward his post, what that means for independent media, and the progressive expressions of sexuality that may be found there. Established by the 1934 Communications Act to regulate the media and protect the public interest, Powell is noted for publicly stating that “My religion is the market,” disclaiming any knowledge of the meaning of the term “public interest” (though it appears in the FCC’s remit 103 times), and after watching the Super Bowl halftime show lord knows how many times, stating, “TIVO is god’s machine.” Powell’ continual merging of religion and commerce indicates his not-so-hidden agenda of using his FCC position as merely a stepping stone to other desirable posts within conservative Washington, DC machinery.
Similarly, in the murky pre-9/11 past, many seem to have forgotten then-New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s rampage against what he considered indecency in art. Anything that dared represent a cross or Christ that didn’t have “™ Vatican” was deemed anti-Catholic and, therefore, unworthy of taxpayers’ money. Rudy launched his attack first, in 1999, against the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s (BAM) display of Chris Ofili’s rendering of the Virgin Mary, partially in elephant dung. His outrage was so great that he froze about a third of the museum’s budget and launched a state lawsuit to have the museum evicted from its space. By the time BAM launched an exhibit of black photography that featured Cox’s photo “Yo Mama’s Last Supper” one can only imagine the frenzy Rudy worked himself into at the site of, not only the disciplines being black men, but a stunningly nude Cox as Christ. Having been sent to his room by the courts in the Ofili case, this time the Crazy G made noise about appointing a city-wide “decency commission.” Care for a side salad of McCarthyism with that hysteria entrée? Nothing came of this threat and along came a couple of planes across the New York skyline to transform Rudy from mayor to father-martyr.
Attempts by the state to clamp down on Jones’ and Cox’s expressions of an independent black female sexuality highlights capitalism’s interest in only those representations that are within the bounds of the Queen/Ho paradigm and profitable. Thus, when Jones and Cox defined themselves they are labeled indecent. It is perhaps in the failure of these attempts at censorship that we can take hope that the next time Janet Jackson or anyone else decides to express their sexuality, that they can do so in ways that actually move black women from objectified silence to an incredibly sexy, badmamajamma affirmation of “yes.”