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To NSFW or not to NSFW? (now SFW)

May Contain Spoilers

 49969-1975-06-azizi-johari-122-46lo copy.jpgThis entry is safe for work.

I hesitated just a moment before including Miss June 1975 in my piece about Hugh Hefner. I wondered if some readers would find the nude photograph objectionable. Then I smiled at myself. Here I was, writing an article in praise of Hefner's healthy influence on American society, and I didn't know if I should show a Playmate of the Month. Wasn't I being a hypocrite? I waited to see what the reaction would be.

The Sun-Times doesn't publish nudes on its site, but my page occupies a sort of netherland: I own it in cooperation with the newspaper, but control its contents. If anyone complains, I thought, it will be the paper, and if they do I'll take it down.

You dance with the one that brung you. But no one at the newspaper said a word, even though they certainly saw the page because the same article also appeared in the Friday paper. Hefner was in town for the weekend for a nostalgic visit to his childhood home, and a screening at the Siskel Film Center of the new documentary about his life . He's a local boy who made good.

At first no one at all objected to the photo, even though the entry was getting thousands of hits. It went online early on Sunday afternoon. But Monday was a workday, and a reader asked if it had occurred to me to label it NSFW ("not suitable for work"). The thought may have crossed my mind, but come on, would anybody be surprised to find a nude somewhere during a 2,200-word piece on Hef? It wasn't like I was devoting a whole page to it; I embedded it at a prudent 300 pixels. Like this:

Sorry. After learning that the mere presence of this photograph could get you fired and my blog put on a restricted list, I have removed the "prudent 300 pixels" and linked the photograph here.    

Then other readers started wondering about a NSFW warning. They weren't objecting to the photo; indeed, no one ever did, even some readers who felt Hefner had been a pernicious influence on the world. Feminist readers, some well known and respected by me, spoke of his objectification of the female body, his misuse of the Male Gaze, and so on. But no one objected to the photo itself. No, they explained that they read the column at work ("during lunch break," of course) and were afraid a supervisor or co-worker might see a nude on their monitor. I asked one of these readers if his co-workers were adults. Snark.

As a writer, it would have offended me to preface my article with a NSFW warning. It was unsightly -- a typographical offense. It would contradict the point I was making. But others wrote me about strict rules at their companies. They faced discipline or dismissal. Co-workers seeing an offensive picture on their monitor might complain of sexual harassment, and so on. But what about the context of the photo? I wondered. Context didn't matter. A nude was a nude. The assumption was that some people might be offended by all nudes.

This was a tiny version of this photograph. When will we grow up?    

I heard what they were saying. I went in and resized the photo, reducing it by 2/3, so that it was postage-stamp 100 pixel size (above) and no passer-by was likely to notice it. This created a stylistic abomination on the page, but no matter. I had acted prudently. Then I realized: I'd still left it possible for the photo to be enlarged by clicking! An unsuspecting reader might suddenly find Miss June 1975 regarding him from his entire monitor! I jumped in again and disabled that command.

This left me feeling more responsible, but less idealistic. I knew there might be people offended by the sight of a Playmate. I disagreed with them. I understood that there were places where a nude photo was inappropriate, and indeed agree that porn has no place in the workplace. But I didn't consider the photograph pornographic. Having grown up in an America of repression and fanatic sin-mongering, I believe that Hefner's influence was largely healthy and positive. In Europe, billboards and advertisements heedlessly show nipples. There are not "topless beaches" so much as beaches everywhere where bathers remove swimsuits to get an even tan.

CannesBeach86.jpg

At Cannes you see this on the public beach, and pedestrians nearby on the Croisette don't even stop to notice. Ironically, the only time you see a mob of paparazzi is when some starlet (on the Carlton Hotel pier say), is making a show of removing her clothes. Then you have a sort of meta-event, where paparazzi are photographing other paparazzi photographing this event. It's all a ritual. The clothes come off, the photographers have a scrum, everyone understands it's over, and the paparazzi leave, sometimes while the starlet is still standing there unadorned. In Europe, people know what the human body looks like, and are rather pleased that it does.

America has a historical Puritan streak, and is currently in the midst of another upheaval of zeal from radical religionists. They know what is bad for us. They would prefer to burn us at a metaphorical stake, but make do with bizarre imprecations about the dire consequences of our sin. Let me be clear: I am not speaking of sexual behavior that is obviously evil and deserves legal attention. But definitions differ. Much of their wrath is aimed at gays. I consider homosexuality an ancient, universal and irrefutable fact of human nature. Some radicals actually blamed it for 9/11. For them the ideal society must be Saudi Arabia's, which I consider pathologically sick.

 russ-meyer_-cynthia-myers_-dolly-reed-_amp-hugh-hefner-_1970_ copy.jpg

When we were making "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," I got to know Cynthia Myers and Dolly Read (above), the two Playmates in the film, and have followed them through the years. They have good memories of the experience. I am in touch with Marcia McBroom, the actress who played the third of the movie's rock band members. She is a social activist, loves the memory of her Hollywood adventure, and recently sponsored a benefit showing of BVD for her Africa-oriented charity, the For Our Children's Sake Foundation. These women looked great in the 1970s and they look great today, and let me tell you something I am very sure of: We all want to look as great as we can.

Now back to the woman in the photograph. Her name is Azizi Johari. She went on after her centerfold to have some small success in motion pictures, most notably in John Cassavetes' "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie." Today she would be in her 50s and I hope is pleased that such a beautiful portrait of her was taken. A reader sent me a link to Titian's 16th century painting "Venus of Urbino" (below), and suggested to me that this was art and Miss Johari's photograph was not. I studied them side by side. Both women are unclothed, and regard the viewer from similar reclining postures on carefully-draped divans. I looked at them with the Male Gaze, which I gather that (as a male) is my default Gaze. I want to be as honest as I can be about how these two representations affect me.

Venus of Urbino Tiziano Titian Vecellio.jpg

Let us assume that the purpose of both artworks is to depict the female form attractively. Both the photographer and the painter worked from live models. Titian required great skill and technique in his artistry. So did the photographer, Ken Marcus, because neither of these portraits pretends to realism. Great attention went to the lighting, art direction and composition of the photograph, and makeup was possibly used to accent the glowing sheen of Miss Johari's skin. I would argue that both artworks are largely the expressions of imagination.

For me, Miss Johari is more beautiful than Venus. She strikes me as more human. She looks at me. Her full lips are open as if just having said something. Her skin is lustrous and warm. Venus, on the other hand, seems to have her attention directed inward. She is self-satisfied. She seems narcissistic, passive, different. Johari is present. She seems quietly pleased to suggest, "Here I am. This is me." Wisely she avoids the inviting smile I find so artificial in "pin up" photography. She is full of her beauty, aware of it, it is a fact we share. Venus is filled by her beauty, cooled by it, indifferent to our Gaze. If you were to ask me which is the better representation of the fullness of life, I would choose Johari.

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Of course abstract artistic qualities are not the point of either work. The pictures intend to inspire a response among their viewers. For men, I assume that is erotic feeling. Women readers will inform me of the responses they feel. Homosexuals of both sexes may respond differently. They will tell me.

For me? Miss June is immediately erotic. I regard first of all her face, her eyes, her full lips and then her breasts, for I am a man and that is my nature. I prefer full lips in women, and hers are wonderful. I admire full breasts. Hers are generous but manifestly natural. The female breast is one of the most pleasing forms in all of nature, no doubt because of our earliest associations. I dislike surgical enhancements. As my friend Russ Meyer complained in the early days of silicone, "It misses the whole principle of the matter."

Miss Johari's arms and legs are long and healthy, she is trim but not skinny, she is not necessarily posing with her left arm but perhaps adjusting a strand of hair. I find the dark hue of her skin beautiful. Photographs like this (she was the fifth African-American Playmate) helped men of all races to understand that Black is Beautiful at a time when that phrase came as news to a lot of people. In a blog about her, I find she was "the first black Playmate to have distinctly African features." Another entry could be written about that sentence.

25Venus.jpg

As for Venus of Urbino, she has no mystery at all. I look at her and feel I know everything, and she thinks she does too. She gives no hint of pleasure or camaraderie. If you tickled her with a feather, she would be annoyed. Miss Johari, I imagine, would burst into laughter and slap the feather. I can see myself having dinner with her. To have dinner with Venus would be a torment. My parting words would be, "This bill is outrageous! I wouldn't pay it if I were you!"

Of course these are all fantasies. I know nothing about either model. That is what we do with visual representations of humans; we bring our imaginations to them. It's the same with movies. The meaning is a collaboration between the object and the viewer. That is how we look at pictures, and how we should. If it seems impertinent of my to compare the photograph with the painting, the best I can do i quote e. e. cummings:

mr youse needn't be so spry

concernin questions arty

each has his tastes but as for i i likes a certain party

gimme the he-man's solid bliss for youse ideas i'll match youse

a pretty girl who naked is is worth a million statues

Now as to the problem of the workplace. I understand there will be pictures on a computer screen that will be offensive. I get that. Why will they be offensive? Perhaps because they foreground a worker's sexual desires, and imply similar thoughts about co-workers. Is that what's happening with the blog entry on Hefner? Is anyone reading it for sexual gratification? I doubt it. That's what bothers me about so many of the New Puritans. They think I have a dirty mind, but I think I have a healthy mind. It takes a dirty mind to see one, which is why so many of these types are valued as censors or online police.

boticelli-venus.jpg

The wrong photographs on a screen might also suggest a blanket rejection of the values of the company. Some corporations require an adherence to company standards that is almost military. Sex has a way of slicing through all the layers of protocol and custom and revealing us as human beings. But lip service must be paid to convention.

We now learn that the recent Wall Street debacle was fueled in part by millions spent on prostitution and drugs. We have seen one sanctimonious politician and preacher after another exposed as a secret adulterer or homosexual. I don't have to ask, because I guess I know: If an employee in the office of one of those bankers, ministers or congressman had Azizi Johari on his screen, he would be hustled off to the HR people.

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I haven't worked in an office for awhile. Is there a danger of porn surfing in the workplace? Somehow I doubt it. There is a greater danger, perhaps, of singling out workers for punishment based on the zeal of the enforcers. And of course there is always this: Supervisors of employee web use, like all employees, must be seen performing their jobs in order to keep them.

There is also this: Perfectly reasonable people, well-adjusted in every respect, might justifiably object to an erotic photograph on the computer monitor of a coworker. A degree of aggression might be sensed. It violates the decorum of the workplace. (So does online gaming, but never mind.) You have the right to look at anything on your computer that can be legally looked at, but give me a break! I don't want to know! I also understand that the threat of discipline or dismissal is real and frightening.

I've made it through two years on the blog with only this single NSFW incident. In the future I will avoid NSFW content in general, and label it when appropriate. What a long way around I've taken to say I apologize.

venus.jpg

 

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