April 14, 2014

This week in French nudity


La Femme

Apple has reinstated  in the iTunes Store a French book with a cover that raised flags last month, after protests from the publisher, the French press, and other organizations. The book in question, La Femme by Bénédicte Martin, has a cover, designed by artist Stéphane Rozencwajg, that shows a topless woman whose body merges into a knife blade. It’s quite a disturbing image, but Apple wasn’t interested in the implications of the surrealistic combination and what it might say about flesh and violence: they focused on the breasts.

And they were just too much for the Apple wonks: too big, too, too… breasty. “Inappropriate,” they called the cover and took the book down from their online store in mid-March, just before its official pub date.

The response from the publishers, Les Editions des Equateurs, was swift and furious. Quoted in an article on the controversy in the Register, the director of the publishing house, Olivier Frébourg, said that the ban was “a clear act of censorship” and an “affront to creative freedom.”

Apple is not censoring this book because of its content, which is in fact a literary and poetic story about feminism, but because there is a naked woman on the cover.

This is both absurd and serious. It’s a disturbing example of the excesses of American prudishness.

Frébourg called on French Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti, the National Publisher’s Union, and the European Commission to come out against the ban. He did find support from the International Publishers Association which issued a statement:

IPA Freedom to Publish Chairman Ola Wallin described Apple’s decision as “absurd and dangerous. It’s one thing to have a code of morals, another to try and impose it on the rest of the world.”  IPA Policy Director José Borghino commented that given the limited number of online distribution channels (Apple controls 20% of the French e-book market), “Apple creates real problems for publishers by censoring their work. Their approach is misguided, inconsistent and wrong.”

This comes just a few months after a furor erupted within France over an incredibly charming children’s book Tous à Poil (Everybody Gets Naked), in which a whole range of characters do exactly what the title says. After the leader of the main opposition party, Jean-François Copé, appeared on television reviling the book, French booksellers protested in the only logical way:  by getting and posing naked. As my colleague Alex Shephard wrote at the time, Copé’s objections and the larger right-wing movement they are part of appear to be especially (deliberately) tone-deaf to France’s general feelings on nudity.

But in this case, it’s just American prudes involved in the decision, or rather the legacy of one American, Steve Jobs, who once famously responded to a customer’s query about the moral judgments Apple made in deciding what or what not to sell in the iTunes Store by saying “Folks who want porn can buy an Android phone.” Legions of users have in the years following have pointed out the inconsistencies in Apple’s approach: Frébourg, for instance, points out that E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey is available on iTunes, suggesting that these decisions are more about demand and appearance than a principled stand against risqué material.

And though in the Guardian this weekend Anna Baddeley urges readers not to take this all too seriously, arguing that “Apple getting its knickers in a twist over some provocative cover art is hardly the same as the British government banning The Well of Loneliness in 1928 or still not being able to buy an unexpurgated version of Animal Farm in China,” I’d argue that this is still censorship, and still troubling. Apple didn’t, as far we know, ask Les Editions des Equateurs if they’d be willing to provide a different cover to meet the company’s standards, they just yanked the book itself. Therefore depriving readers of a fundamental right: deciding for themselves whether this “literary and poetic story about feminism” (a description that I have to say gives me serious pause) has value or not.

So it’s good news that Apple has reversed their position, and La Femme —creepy knife-lady and all —is back on shelves.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.