The controversy surrounding a photographic exhibition by an Australian artist has revealed a disturbing aspect of the way girls are regarded in contemporary culture. Bill Henson is renowned internationally for his photography, and is particularly known for his images of adolescent bodies. This is not the first time that he has exhibited work that features "children" unclothed. Yet this is the first time that the idea of obscenity charges have been raised and whipped the nation into a tut-tutting frenzy. It is also the first time that an Australian Prime Minister has seen fit to make judgement on where the line between art and pornography is drawn. Kevin Rudd did not simply suggest that we must tread carefully when exhibiting images of underage girls, but declared that the photographs in Henson's present--and now censored-- exhibition are "revolting".
Henson's current works are not new in their subject matter. What then has provoked this random outrage? Is it perhaps our own guilt at the overt sexualisation of girls projecting sex into every naked image we see? I heard discussion on talkback radio last week that called for footage of babies and toddlers scampering about on lambswool rugs in TV advertisements for nappies to be scrapped because paedophiles could find the content arousing. If every nude image of a child is viewed from within a context of paedophilic fear then we inadvertantly sexualise children ourselves. Of course the internet has allowed the worldwide trade of paedophilic images, to the horror of us all, but we adopt indiscriminate moral outrage and paranoia in return. This may be entirely understandable if it was not for the competing, accepted representation of highly sexualised girls and young women in men's magazines, pornography and advertising generally.
On the one hand, we can find dozens of DVDs and magazines in chain sexshops with titles like Barely Legal that play up the youth of the girls featured for the excitement of what we would define as "normal" heterosexual men, but when an artist features a non-sexualised naked girl in the context of an exhibition we culturally define it as paedophilic fodder. A girl bending over in a schoolgirl's uniform displaying her genitalia is an accepted, although X-rated, cultural norm. A naked girl's body when photographed for display in a gallery, however, is "un-Australian" according to Australia's opposition leader, Dr Brendan Nelson. Does a year or two difference in a girl's age really explain why sexy "barely legal" girls are ok, but a basic artistic nude is not? Perhaps we need to invest in some strategically-placed fig leaves?