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Prurient Interests: Gender, Democracy, and Obscenity in New York City, 1909-1945

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Debate about what constitutes obscenity and how -if at all -it should be regulated has been at the center of the "culture wars" of the past two decades. While literature abounds on the contemporary politics of obscenity, there has been little inquiry into the historic origins of these issues. Focusing on New York City in the first half of the twentieth century, Andrea Friedman´s Prurient Interests considers the ways in which the evolution of obscenity debates in decades past has significantly affected today´s ...
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Overview

Debate about what constitutes obscenity and how -if at all -it should be regulated has been at the center of the "culture wars" of the past two decades. While literature abounds on the contemporary politics of obscenity, there has been little inquiry into the historic origins of these issues. Focusing on New York City in the first half of the twentieth century, Andrea Friedman´s Prurient Interests considers the ways in which the evolution of obscenity debates in decades past has significantly affected today´s controversies.Exploring motion pictures, burlesque, and Broadway theater -three forms of entertainment that were regularly condemned by anti-obscenity activists in the early 1900s -Friedman traces the creation of a modern system of obscenity regulation in New York City. Friedman also shows how the rise of the concept of "democratic moral authority" -the idea that obscenity should be regulated according to the standards of the "average person" and that the mechanisms of regulation should themselves be controlled by the people -displaced middle-class women as anti-obscenity crusaders. At the same time, it offered inroads to male religious figures who were able to portray themselves as representatives of the people. As Prurient Interests vividly illustrates, many of the elemental arguments that censorship advocates still employ today were first delineated in this period: the capacity of certain forms of entertainment to encourage violence against women, to corrupt the minds of young audiences, and to spread homosexuality. Friedman´s innovative study enriches our understanding of the obscenity debates still raging at the close of the millennium.
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Editorial Reviews

Frank Couvares
Andrea Friedman´s Prurient Interests is a marvel. It combines deep research, complex argument, clear writing, and subtle judgment to produce the best account we have of anti-obscenity movements in modern America. Her account of the tension between 'democratic moral authority´ and 'female moral authority´ is unrivalled. Narrating the history of campaigns to censor stage and screen in New York in the first half of the twentieth century, Friedman successfully integrates themes that others treat separately: sexual panic, religious activism, the 'masculinization´ of reform, the commercialization of popular culture. The result is a rich and compelling story of modern American 'culture war´ at the grassroots.
Leigh Ann Wheeler
An. . . insightful and gracefully written monograph that makes a significant contribution to the field and helps us think about censorship, democracy, and gender in more complex and nuanced ways.
American Studies - Richard Haw

By providing a historical, intellectual and cultural lineage, [Friedman] is able to clarify contemporary debates about regulation and cultural authority. Equally important is the study's relevance to the New York question: how can consensus be achieved in a city with so many competing voices? That Friedman is able to reexamine such a familiar question within new parameters is an achievement in itself.

Theater Journal

The intrictae tapestry of social, sexual, political, moral, economic, and myriad other variables that in no small way comprise the censorship quandaries of our own time is greatly illuminated as a result of Friedman's scholarship.

American Studies
By providing a historical, intellectual and cultural lineage, [Friedman] is able to clarify contemporary debates about regulation and cultural authority. Equally important is the study's relevance to the New York question: how can consensus be achieved in a city with so many competing voices? That Friedman is able to reexamine such a familiar question within new parameters is an achievement in itself.

— Richard Haw

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Andrea Friedman is assistant professor of history and women's studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents

Introduction
I: Moral Panics and Moral Panaceas
1. ``To Protect the Morals of Young People'': Regulating Motion Pictures
2. ``The Habitats of Sex-Crazed Perverts'': Campaigns Against Burlesque
3. ``In the Clutches of Lesbians'': Legitimating Regulation on Broadway
II: Moral Authorities
4. The Shifting Contours of Anti-Obscenity Activism
5. Doing Things the American Way: Gendering Democratic Moral Authority
Conclusion


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