February 16, 2012

This month in whitewashing and censorship



In the history of publishing, censorship scandals have usually involved the big bad government leaning on the resisting publisher.  These days it seems as if the trend has become one of self-censorship.

L. V. Anderson asks on Slate, “[d]oes Time Magazine think Americans are stupid?.”  As they have done a number of times before, Time Magazines February edition gave American audiences a feel-good cover image of two dogs, rather than the hard-hitting news story that everyone else saw.  Anderson complains,

“While readers in Asia, Europe, and the South Pacific—really, the rest of the Time-reading world—confront a serious profile about Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and his role in the euro crisis, Americans are in for a special treat: a cover story called “The Surprising Science of Animal Friendships*.” (The asterisk leads to a footnote at the bottom of the cover that says, “BFFs are not just for humans anymore.”)”

Now, Apple has decided its iPad readers cannot handle male anatomy.  Jesus Diaz reports on Gizmodo that Spanish science magazine Muy Interesante had its cover turned down on the Apple iBookstore because of the line “Myths and Truths About the Penis”.  Apple told Muy Interesante it was inappropriate for the 12+ age group the magazine is sold in.  (Diaz points out that this is the same age group in which the consistently sex-happy Cosmopolitan magazine is sold in.)

This follows from a more worrying incident in 2010, when Apple demanded the removal of male nudity from a graphic novel of Oscar Wilde‘s The Importance of Being Earnest, which depicted two men kissing.  After online uproar, Apple rescinded its demand and the novel went up complete.

As the irony of Cosmo being allowed to have “fifty best sex tips” on the cover shows, when a science magazine cannot use the word “penis”, Apple has rarely asked for any female-centric friskiness to be censored from its selection of books and magazines.  The criteria seems arbitrary, and Apple simply prudish.

Nevertheless, as Diaz wrote in an “Open Letter to Steve Jobs”,

“[y]ou just can’t dictate policies that lead to the arbitrary censorship of certain applications. For political sentiments, for foul language, for showing nipples. Why do this? You have an age control system built into all your devices. Use it and let people decide on their own. Don’t try to be my father or my mother. Instead, enable people to communicate with your devices. Make that policy clear to everyone. No holds. No barriers.”

It’s interesting to wonder what publishers and tech companies really think of their customers.  Is it about what sells or out of a sense of moral protection?  If the latter, I’m not sure they are in the position to make such a judgment call.

Many remember the 2009 uproar when Australian author Justine Larbalestier fought her publishers, Bloomsberry, over their decision to put a white girl on the cover of her American edition, rather than the original jacket, which featured a black girl.  Although that incident highlights the ‘whitewashing’ of covers as a unfortunate sales strategy, it also points out a problem that could be heightened as publishing occurs in the digital realm.  More and more, cover and content choices become subject to strange corporate criteria.  But really, are the only people that read books and magazines heterosexual white girls who like puppies more than politics?

These incidents don’t seem malicious, more misguided and unhelpful.  I’m pretty sure Americans can handle a cover about the Euro crisis.  Time can save the “The Surprising Science of Animal Friendships” for the family-friendly Apple store.


Ariel Bogle is a publicist at Melville House.