“I Know It When I See It”

US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said this phrase in 1964 describing how to define obscenity. Yeah, I looked it up because I was trying to remember how/why the phrase was familiar. I seemed to remember it in relation to either the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibitions, or with the “Piss Christ” exhibition, or was it the Tipper Gore/PMRC/Moral Majority stuff back in the day? Which time did the phrase pop up, from my late high school and early college memories? All three? Probably!

It is interesting to note that Justice Stewart said this line in a ruling about a film (“The Lovers”), proclaiming it to NOT be obscene. Film, ratings, and obscene content pop up every now and then. I’m thinking most recently of the film “Blue Valentine”. Remember Ryan Gosling criticizing the MPAA over the initial NC-17 rating? He pointed out that when men receive oral sex in film, it is “acceptable”, but when it is a woman—well much gasping and pearl clutching ensued (my words, Gosling never said “pearl clutching” that I know of, but I’d love to hear him do so!). Go back about a decade and check out the documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” for an illuminating look at the sex-obsessed, secretive, MPAA board. Filmmaker Kimberly Pierce (“Boys Don’t Cry”) makes the same point as Gosling in the first few minutes of the film. Filmmakers interviewed in the film gripe the most gruesome violence merely gets an “R” rating, but too much use of the word “fuck” and too much, or ahem, “certain”, read: gay, intimacy scenes gets you a “NC-17”. There are many gripes in addition to this—such as the accusation that the MPAA serves the big studios and punishes the small independently made films—but the pearl-clutching, community standards claim is what I’m interested here. It seems the standards—if there are any—are based on personal prejudice rather than what most of America thinks. The documentary explains all this much better than I; go check it out.

Why this musing about film ratings? Well, it is an interesting reflection of puritanical American culture. Maybe considering it can provide insight into the “tee-hee boobies!” breast cancer culture. The MPAA was established so the movie industry could self-regulate or self-censor—as abhorrent as that word is for artists—so the government would not step in. The MPAA has these guidelines so parents can make a judgement call as to whether a film is appropriate for children. Has the MPAA brainwashed us to think excessive violence is permissible, but women’s bodies and pleasure is wrong?

So this brings me to (dun, dun, duuuuuuun) the Community Standards—you guessed it, the standards and constant removal of mastectomy/lumpectomy/reconstruction or non-reconstruction photos from Facebook. This has happened before, and Facebook established guidelines. Read The Sarcastic Boob’s post about her petition, her meeting with Facebook staff, and make sure to click to the Facebook policy she includes in her post. Oh hell, I’ll save you the effort—here is the text from the page you probably didn’t click:

Does Facebook allow post-mastectomy photos? Yes. We agree that undergoing a mastectomy is a life-changing experience and that sharing photos can help raise awareness about breast cancer and support the men and women facing a diagnosis, undergoing treatment or living with the scars of cancer. The vast majority of these kinds of photos are compliant with our policies.

So you see, my fuss is not with Facebook, although I agree with Beth that the staff could use some training before the removal of posts due to reporting. My fuss is with The Community, the people who report these photos. I guess they “know obscenity when they see it”?

So what is it that gets some members, but not others, of the Internet/Facebook community so up in arms about seeing photos of all stages of breast surgery? My question is rhetorical—I sure as shit don’t have the answer! I’m a pet sitter—I like animals better than humans. Perhaps some psychologist or anthropologist can tackle this topic.

But I cannot help musing on this topic. So here are my totally amateur thoughts.

My first reaction is—if someone does not like what they see, why look at it? I object to LOTS and LOTS of things, all the cancer woo woo comes to mind. I have adjusted my various social media feeds so I am less likely to run into it. I don’t “like” or follow pages of the numerous rah rah cancer organizations—if I comment about the latest nonsense, which is rare, I only found out about the latest outrage because a friend commented so it popped up in my view. Mainly, I remain blissfully unaware of stuff I find annoying. Hey, there are always cat videos I can click!!

But is simply ignoring an issue, or making my Internet world pleasing to my eyes, the equivalent of putting hands over eyes, ears, and mouth like those monkeys? Am I in, gasp, denial?! That isn’t how I want to operate. I am invested in wanting to make the world a better place, at least in some small way—tho’ I’m not convinced I have the ability to do much of anything.

That said, do people who report “offensive” images believe they are doing something worthwhile by imposing their idea of a “pleasing Internet world” onto others? Well, as my all-time favorite quote goes, “just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right,” thanks Ricky Gervais. And yes, I try to remember that quote when I get all offended at crap like the rah rah, fight like a girl cancer campaigns. I think those campaigns are damaging, but then some find solace in them, I can point out what I think is wrong, but I cannot ban those ads.

I guess my larger point is this: pictures of these scars in various stages like just after surgery, after reconstruction, or a tattoo, were helpful to me and I think they are helpful to others. An argument can, and has been, made, that these sorts of pictures should be restricted to private or closed group pages. Not sure I can get on board with that—I think I belong to only 3 cancer groups. I’m just not very social or friendly. And it took me a long time to join those pages—Hell, it took me some time to come back to Facebook, about 2 years after I began my blog! No wonder it was difficult for me to figure out what I wanted to do regarding reconstruction (I opted out)! I thought of getting a tattoo on my own, because I had not discovered groups or Pinterest boards devoted to the idea, until I really went looking. Perhaps seeing photos of others taking back control of their scars would’ve eased my time of it, who knows?

In short, what one person finds obscene another person views as something, dare I say “positive”, or at least in my case, a treasure trove of ideas, like a shopping website (although I did not use any of the tattoo ideas I saw).

So with these extremely opposing views within The Community, who has the right to create The Community Standards? What is obscene? Who defines it, and how much can it be regulated? How can the tee-hee, sexy times, save the boobies images that pop up so frequently, especially you-know-when, be acceptable and images like the ones being removed be deemed unacceptable? Why aren’t the “donate now” scantily clad women with strategically placed arms ads being removed? See, this is where I think the film industry/MPAA has maybe screwed up our views about what is “R” versus “NC-17”. I’m not saying breasts are not sexual organs, but there is something truly messed up about the display of them. It seems as long as breasts are pictured in one of these sexy ways, it is OK, but when women take control of what happened to their breasts, documenting via pictures the process—well, that just cannot be allowed!!

Again, I am not a social critic, a psychiatrist, or other professional qualified to analyze these things. I am merely a member of The Community—a community I joined NOT by choice, because Hell’s Bells, I would’ve chosen to NOT get cancer. I am a member trying to navigate these standards, but I don’t understand the rules.

Like I said, I don’t have the answer. I don’t know why this happens, or how to fix it. I just think our “Community”, both within CancerLand, and among those who may have to relocate here (as in, everyone else, since everyone is a potential cancer patient), might reconsider our definitions of obscene material. The “I know it when I see it” guideline differs from person to person. For me, I “know” obscenity when I see it too. Here is my definition: every time I see another post announcing yet another death from metastatic breast cancer.

Author: Cancer Curmudgeon

Oct 2010 diagnosed with Stage 3, HER2+ Breast Cancer. Completed treatment Jan 2012. Waaaaaay over pink. Applying punk rock sensibility to how I do cancer.

10 thoughts on ““I Know It When I See It””

  1. Here, here. I’m perplexed that nipples seem to drive some people around the bend, enough to consider pictures of them obscene. Maybe someone should offer a therapy page on Facebook for people with an obsessive belief that nipples are obscene. What gets me is why are these people even seeing these pix? Because by and large, they’d have to be friends, or friends of friends, with the breast cancer patients and advocates who post them. I’m with you. The real obscenity is how many people keep dying of breast cancer. Oy. xo, Kathi


    1. I guess I just think, this is so childish, are we not beyond this yet? But I guess not. And yeah, why or how are people seeing these things. Luckily, I have never been reported–but then, I’m not as widely read or have as many likes–I guess that is a good thing! xoxoxWendi


  2. You are right, people can choose not to see these images. I am no longer following a few organizations and some people because I don’t want to be exposed to things that makes me uncomfortable/angry/annoyed. I have never reported anyone though, even when their actions were done to intentionally hurt me (something happened to me recently on facebook). I am not sure what makes people act so aggressively. All I can think of is what we always say, society doesn’t feel comfortable with truth. It doesn’t matter if the information can make a difference for someone else (ah! I just thought these people are selfish too!). Until it happens to them or someone they love, they’ll continue to ignore/report. But like you said, there are other options and these do not involve attacking the messenger.


    1. You bring up a good point, what is it that makes people act so aggressively? To try to make others do their will? Wish I knew. And what if we tried to manage the behaviors of others for OTHER things too–where does it end. Ugh, I don’t wanna think about it really. Thanks xo!


  3. Hi CC<
    Well this is a very well-articulated post that really gets me thinking. Censorship of any sort is potentially dangerous and makes me nervous, but of course, I understand that the movie industry (and some others too, even Facebook) has to have some guidelines for parents and such. I remember when my parents went to see Midnight Cowboy and Last Tango in Paris when those movies were rated X. I remember thinking at the time it seemed quite scandalous to have "that kind of parents". I grew up in a small town, so everyone probably knew my parents went to those movies. I was almost proud of them for going. Come to think of it, I still haven't seen either of those movies. As far as community standards within our bc community, I don't understand why anyone would report stuff just because they don't like it as being offensive. Pictures of reconstructed breasts, nipples, areolas, tattoos or whatever… come on. Personally, I never took pics of my breasts, wouldn't share them if I had, and I probably won't be getting a tattoo, other than my areolas, but to call out such things as offensive and report to the Facebook police seems like a big waste of time. Like you said, just opt out of looking at things you don't like or don't approve of. It's not that hard. And your last sentence of your post says everything. Thanks for writing this.


    1. Thanks–ha ha, I thought it was a bit rambling–I was definitely overwhelmed with thoughts and it all came pouring out here.
      Whew, kudos to your parents! Funny thing is, some older films–not necessarily ones with sexual themes, would probably not get made now, because of the prudishness of our culture, or helicopter parenting, or whatever. Heathers comes to mind. Anyway, I digress, rambling about films, old habits die hard.
      I’ve found it interesting that as this pointless little war rages on FB, one argument against posting such pictures is that it doesn’t contribute to finding a cure/ending deaths, etc. That may be true, but I still think such photos serve a purpose–as I’ve said here and other times: such photos might have lessened the trauma I had. But also, I think, overall, this little war is a microcosm, a representation of the bigger picture about breast cancer: covering up the parts people are afraid of. Hmmmm.
      Anyway, thanks for the conversation! xo


  4. I agree with (almost all) of the sentiments expressed here. But I must say there are posts that I would report to FB as obscene or inappropriate. I have not seen them and I don’t go lookin’ either. They might involve exploitation of children or abuse of animals. Never say never and always stay vigilant of either exploitation OR censorship. Oh, and well written Curmudgeon!


    1. Thanks karenc2014. VERY good point about the animals! Just before all this happened there was a post–this woman put duct tape around her dog’s mouth and yep, she was reported. I challenged myself, and still do, on my “look away” policy regarding animal abuse. Ignoring it won’t make people stop abusing animals, a crime I think is one of the most heinous. I admit, this is a quandary for me–and now I could get into issues of passion fatigue or advocacy fatigue–whatever it’s called.
      Just a terrible reminder that stuff like this, efforts to change the culture around cancer, just never ends! 😦


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