It’s always depressing to see attempts to get good, challenging literature out of school curricula. But the current push to get Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye removed from the federal Core Curriculum for eleventh graders as part of a larger effort to resist federal involvement in education, contains a particularly disturbing element. As The Atlantic Wire reports, some conservatives backing the attempt to ban the book are suggesting that scenes of sexual assault in the book amount to “child pornography”:
Hotzclaw told the Alabama Media Group, “The book is just completely objectionable, from language to the content.” The novel is seemingly the most controversial on the 11th grade reading list, and thus, an easy one to criticize — there have been efforts to ban it in schools and libraries since it was written in 1970. It does contain graphic scenes of forced sex (which the conservative blog Politichicks helpfully provided context-free in a post titled “(WARNING: Graphic) Common Core Approved Child Pornography”).
First, calling The Bluest Eye child pornography is a troubling thing to do because it’s not true. It’s grotesque to accuse Morrison of producing child pornography when she’s doing anything but, and it suggests the weakness of the actual case against The Bluest Eye that the novel’s detractors have to reach for this kind of hyperbole.
But even more than that, suggesting that scenes of rape are pornography erases the distinction between sexual assault and consensual sex in a way that’s all too common in our larger culture. And it plays into the idea that depiction of a bad act is always an endorsement of it, a belief that tends to circumscribe what’s possible and effective in art in a way that’s truly unfortunate. Taken together, these approaches make for ugly, but effective way, to suggest that a work of art that’s forcing a confrontation with the reality of rape is actually meant to titillate. If you drive people away from honest depictions of sexual assault because they think consuming the material makes them complicit in the sexual exploitation of children, or that it renders them sexually abnormal, you’ve found a very good way to prevent them from engaging with work that could expand their thinking and their empathy. That approach is dangerous because it’s got the potential to be very, very effective. Right now, the people using it are marginal. But that’s not a reason to take this argument seriously, and to expose it for what it is.