Rumble in the Outhouse

The battle over "Larry Flynt" gets smellier and smellier.The opponents in the debate over Milos Forman's film deserve each other.

Published March 3, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Though the film itself has migrated to the cheap theaters, the battle over "The People vs. Larry Flynt" in the press seems to have grown even more embittered as the Academy Awards draw ever nearer.

Gloria Steinem launched the debate with a New York Times op-ed piece in early January charging that the film covered up Flynt's brutalization of women in Hustler. Ten days later, her article was reprinted as an ad in Daily Variety, paid for by an anonymous group of Hollywood women. A month after that, the American Civil Liberties Union placed a counter-ad honoring director Milos Forman with a Torch of Liberty Award "because he honors the First Amendment and the fight to defend it."

In the pages of the Los Angeles Times, the debate continues apace, and talk of Nazis and slavery abounds. In early January, Times reporter Jack Mathews wrote a profile of Forman, suggesting that "his background under the tyranny of the Nazis, in whose concentration camps his parents died," had inspired the love for "personal freedom that ... now draws him to tell the story of flamboyant porn magnate Larry Flynt." In mid-February, "Little Women" screenwriter Robin Swicord responded with a satire envisioning a film about a 19th century plantation owner who invokes the Constitution in his battle against moralistic abolitionists.

The logic of Swicord's unwitty screed equates pornography with slavery: "My movie is set on an Alabama plantation in the mid-19th century and in episodic fashion follows the rise of a crude but colorful plantation owner, Larry Skinflynt, who becomes a millionaire and then must battle his way to the Supreme Court to reaffirm our basic constitutional rights," Swicord wrote. "Being a plantation owner, Larry is, of course, a major slaveholder, which might be potentially alienating to today's audience. But you don't see his slaves doing any authentic plantation work, maybe just some light ironing. And you certainly don't see them being horsewhipped or raped or bought and sold ... People watching the film might find themselves asking, 'What's so terrible about slavery?'"

Swicord's piece drew responses of its own, including a somewhat self-righteous piece by "Larry Flynt" producer Janet Yang (who asserted her feminist bona fides and asked Swicord to "come to us in person so that we can discuss [your] opinions, woman to woman"), and a further attack by Steinem herself. In a Feb. 17 follow-up to his original piece, Mathews suggested that the feminist campaign against the film had spoiled its box-office totals and practically scotched its chances for an Oscar.

So who's right? Critics of "Flynt" make some valid points. As has been endlessly pointed out, the film prettifies every aspect of Flynt, from his physique to his marriage to Althea Leasure to his pithy characterization of the Supreme Court as "nothing but eight assholes and a token cunt!" The Feb. 17 Weekly Standard provides even more unsavory details, including Flynt's boyhood use of a chicken in a way of which neither God nor animal rights activists would approve. New York Times columnist Frank Rich, who wrote that the film "doesn't sentimentalize or airbrush Larry Flynt," should be squirming by now.

Nor have Forman and his defenders covered themselves in glory. In an appearance at the National Press Club in February, Forman dismissively said that he could have used actual images from the magazine, making audiences want to "vomit" and to shut down Hustler -- but that wasn't the message he wanted to send. But isn't the point supposed to be that the Constitution protects the most repulsive materials and the scummiest people? Is Forman saying that this point cannot be made if the person and the product are shown as they really are?

But if one side is evasive, the other is absurdly hysterical. Swicord talks about slavery, Steinem invokes Nazis and trots out the old canard that pornography causes real-life sexual violence against women. (Her evidence? A few months before a woman was gang-raped on a pool table in New Bedford, Mass., in 1983, Hustler ran a pictorial of a poolroom gang-bang.) Besides, her focus on Hustler's violent images is as disingenuous as the film's evasion. Referring to the film scene in which Flynt contrasts sex and war, she says that the real Flynt "can't tell the difference." But neither can Steinem, who has elsewhere likened Playboy to "Mein Kampf" and suggested that women who enjoy movie scenes of a heroine's sexual surrender have been molested as children.

The longer one follows this debate, the more one becomes convinced that the two sides deserve each other. After Steinem compared Hustler to the Nazis, Forman took her to task in a letter to the Times for the hyperbole. Then he compared Larry Flynt to ... Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who rescued Jews from the Nazis: Was Flynt driven by greed or a passion for freedom? Did Schindler "save lives for humane reasons or use slave labor for very profitable results"?

I don't support censorship, honestly I don't. But could we make an exception for the use of Holocaust metaphors in domestic political debates?

By Cathy Young

Cathy Young is the author of "Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality."

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