Issue 94, Summer 2004


Amy Jenkins
Video Still From “The Audrey Samsara” 2004
Courtesy of Artist


Last year, a Texas grand jury indicted Jaqueline Mercado for the ‘lewd exhibition’ of her breast and for inducing a child to engage in ‘sexual conduct and sexual performance.’ The occasion? A photograph of Mercado breast-feeding her one-year old son. Charges were later dropped, after Mercado’s lawyer called attention to the Lucca Madonna, a 1436 painting by Jan van Eyck of Mary suckling the baby Jesus.

The centuries-old tradition of representing a mother—be it an ancient goddess, the Virgin Mary, or a 17th century Dutch housewife—nursing a child did not stop officials at an airport outside Newburgh, NY, from removing a painting of a nursing mother by Shawn Dell Joyce. An airport spokeswoman, responding to passengers’ complaints, proclaimed that breast-feeding is “a controversial issue all over the world.”

Hardly “all over the world,” but certainly in the U.S., where federal legislation has been required to protect women’s right to breast-feed (however only on federal property). States have also enacted legislation clarifying that breast-feeding is not an “obscene act,” “lewd touching,” or “immoral conduct.” Such legislation is necessary because, in the U.S., the public apparently associates the female breast almost exclusively with sex and lewd behavior.

The flash of Janet Jackson’s breast on television earlier this year catalyzed a tellingly disproportionate decency panic: Congress immediately debated increasing FCC indecency fines; to play it safe, NBC cut a glimpse of an elderly patient’s chest from an ER episode; and all TV networks introduced a delay in the airing of live events so that no more unruly breasts could traumatize sensitive viewers.

Surely an overreaction, but with a logic. For one, it is so much easier for government to tackle breasts and four-letter words than serious social problems, like the mounting human costs of war. As a bonus, the outrage around indecency efficiently diverts political debate from thornier problems, which perhaps explains renewed efforts to pass decency legislation every time an election is on the horizon. And finally, indecency also has economic uses:

Take the fashion industry. Fashion is neither particularly interested in mechanisms of political distraction, nor averse to the provocations of the female body. However, Amy Jenkins’ video installation—in which the Brooklyn artist nurses her 18-month-old daughter—was recently removed from an art exhibition at designer Salvatore Ferragamo’s store in New York. Someone within the company found it ‘distasteful.’ No matter that the work, inspired by the Italian Renaissance, is beautifully composed; the female body of high fashion is the young seductive body, which avoids reminders of motherhood or the messier aspects of female existence.

The contradictory boundaries of acceptability in our cultural-corporate context highlight the interdependence between censorship and titillation. As former top model and media activist Ann Simonton stated in 1984, “If women’s breasts weren’t hidden in shame or seen as obscene and wicked, how could Madison Avenue, pornographers, movies and television profit from their exposure?” Which brings us back to Jackson—her Super Bowl performance constituted a perfect media event: a blend of scandal, sensation and sexual excitement in the guise of a news report. With the endless replay of the ‘breast-revealing’ scene, bare breasts have officially joined the seven dirty words—the more they are banned and bleeped, the more they titillate.