SI Top 10 #10 – Comics and Censorship: Is It Really about You?

News broke this past Friday of an American citizen arrested by a Canadian Customs officer at the US-Canada border after manga deemed to be child pornography was discovered on his laptop. Although no real children were harmed in the creation of drawn images such as those possessed by this man in his mid-twenties, he faces a minimum of a year in prison if convicted.

The US-based Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) is currently raising funds for his legal defense. This is the second time they have rallied around the legal plight of a private US citizen caught with ‘obscene’ manga in the past five years. The CBLDF was also involved in the case of Christopher Handley, an Iowa man who ultimately pleaded guilty and was convicted for ‘possession of obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children’.

It is no secret that some Japanese manga (i.e. comic books) can be pornographic in the extreme and that adult-oriented genres such as lolicon, shotacon, and moé can feature children in sexually explicit—and sexually violent—situations. Even characters who are technically adults are sometimes drawn to look like children, for both stylistic and fetishistic reasons.

And it should likewise go without saying that obscenity laws and the ways in which they are enforced differ from country to country. What is permissible in Japan might not be permissible in the United States, and what is permissible in the United States might not be permissible in Canada (or the United Kingdom, for that matter).

I do not want to argue here about whether or not this manga should be illegal. Hopefully it goes without saying that I think we should be worrying about real children, not cartoons. But I do think that we ought to be talking a bit differently about these cases because, really, it is not about the comics.

Here’s an example of the sort of CBLDF-approved rallying cry you hear amongst fans:

If you are a fan of any manga or anime, if you are a fan of comics, if you have even one comics page, anime clip, or “dirty” picture on your computer, tablet, or phone, this is about you (my emphasis).

I do not mean to pick on this particular blogger here—similar examples have spilled from the virtual inks of the likes of writer Neil Gaiman or been published in the e-newsletters of New York publishing houses—but it’s a succinct example of the dominant discourse, which is: This man could be you. Yes, you.

If ‘you’ are a man who reads comics, then this in fact could be you. By all means, watch out. But if you aren’t, and many readers of sequential art in the Western world aren’t, then this probably isn’t you…even if you happen to read precisely the same comics he does. Over the years I have noticed a distinct pattern: The person facing jail time is always a man, and those who have already been convicted are all white men.

Why? One simple explanation is that white men are more likely to possess pornographic manga. This is possible, but I suspect that something else is also at play here. Why were they even looking through Handley’s international post or this latest man’s laptop files? Perhaps they thought they had found what they were already half-looking for. Pedophiles, after all, are known to be mostly men, and among those imprisoned for sexually assaulting children, the vast majority are Caucasian. (This, despite the underrepresentation of Caucasians in the prison system generally.)

In other words, I would argue that reading manga as a white man is rather like driving an expensive sports car as a black man. You are always already a suspect in the eyes of law enforcement authority—not because the car or the comics in themselves are necessarily a problem per se, but because your possession of said items seems to indicate, to our prejudiced little minds, far more serious criminality involving the harm of real people. Do not think for a moment that these cases are only about comics and censorship.

Interestingly, Canadian Customs has also garnered a reputation for being especially hostile to materials of interest to the LGBT community. The feminist bookstore Little Sisters endured a series of court cases over what can only be called institutionalized homophobia.

In any case, this brand of prejudice, the attendant possibility of discrimination, and the way discovery of the already-anticipated misdeed becomes a self-reinforcing cycle—these all need to be discussed at length. Furthermore, we need to talk about how our sociocultural anxieties victimize certain groups under certain circumstances. But that discussion won’t happen as long as comics fans of both genders and all stripes devolve into telling each other scare stories about how it could have been you.

Casey Brienza is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Cambridge and Sociological Imagination’s Mediated Matters columnist.

Categories: Mediated Matters

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