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.