Cosmo Woman ensures SA is safe for 'Sex': John Carlin reports from Pretoria on a legal appeal to censors against a ban on photographs from the Madonna bestseller
Thursday 10 December 1992
At page 143 he paused. A naked blonde woman was lying on her back masturbating with a high- heeled shoe. The professor peered in wonder, in astonishment, in confusion. His was no solitary sport. He had a question to answer, a weighty social responsibility to discharge. Was this picture calculated, in the legal definition, 'to excite lust'?
Sitting in a row alongside Professor A P Grove, whose works are used as set texts for Afrikaner schoolchildren, were four other men and two women, all engaged in the same task. The Publications Appeal Board was sitting to determine whether to uphold a ban imposed on the December issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, which carried photographs from Madonna's book Sex.
Facing the board were two lawyers, one acting for the state, the other for Cosmopolitan. Three hours later a new phenomenon on the South African political landscape, Cosmo Woman, had emerged victorious.
Cosmo Woman, the magazine's editor Jane Raphaely explained to the board, had once been Cosmo Girl, 'someone who knew that life was short and there to be enjoyed'. Cosmo Woman was an altogether more formidable specimen who knew that life was hard and who battled to establish herself in the world.
Ms Raphaely's lawyer was Cosmo Woman at her best. Lauren Jacobson, Madonna's age or slightly younger, runs a small but prodigiously successful law firm. Standing there before the board, she showed why. Erect, blonde and sure-voiced, a dash of red lipstick and an elegant hint of decolletage underlined a confident, intimidating femininity.
Like mesmerised schoolboys, the five men - Prof Grove, Willie Botha, Dan Morkel, Mike Hough and Kotie de Jager, a dominee (minister) of the Dutch Reformed Church - followed her every gesture, her every inflection, her every pause.
'If the committee seeks to ban this publication because here and there a breast, a nipple or buttocks are on view, it is misguided,' she chided. 'Body parts are not the focus and emphasis of these photographs.'
Cosmopolitan in taste as in demeanour, she quoted - to much shifting of male buttocks - from the New York Times Review of Books: 'When she (Madonna) challenges patriarchy, heterosexuality and white men, she strikes at power where it lives.'
As to the aesthetic qualities of the pictures in question, Cosmo Woman said these were beyond dispute. To prove the point she called as witness a university fine arts professor by the name of Bob Cnoops. Would he elaborate on the artistic merits of the first picture, Madonna tugging with her teeth at a ring attached to the left nipple of a bald black man? 'The light, the texture,' Prof Cnoops enthused, 'the unique silvery effect.' She nodded, glanced at Prof Grove, found he was suitably bemused, and turned the page.
The picture of Madonna standing before a mirror squeezing her breasts betokened what, would he say? 'Innocence,' affirmed Prof Cnoops. 'Yes, a beautiful image of innocence.' 'Good boy,' her eyes said.
And the one in which Madonna holds a bottle of suntan oil between her legs and squeezes its contents on to Naomi Campbell's bare abdomen? 'Humour.' Correct again. And the high-heeled shoe between the legs? 'Innocence, again . . . ' he muttered, turning to the goddess for approval. Ve-ry good.
Mr Trumpie, acting for the state, never had a chance. He stood, hands on hips. There was one question he wanted to ask the professor. Yes. One question. 'Would he agree that the picture on page 143 depicted an ogsm?'
Mr Trumpie fidgeted. His assistant stood up and, with a copy of the magazine under his arm, bolted out of the chamber. Mr Trumpie, himself repressing the urge to flee, took a deep breath. Cosmo Woman fixed him with one of Madonna's innocent stares.
'Would you say that that picture uh . . . uh . . . uh?' 'Oh, you mean does it convey a sense of orgasm?' 'Yes, yes, yes . . . that's what I mean.' 'Well yes, I would say so. But she's turning conventional sexual icons upside down, tongue in cheek.' 'No further questions,' said Mr Trumpie, collapsing into his chair.
But the ordeal was not over. He stood up again and, like a man desperate to go to the lavatory, he rushed through his prepared text: 'The reasonable reader will be shocked . . . and will not only regard this as a blatantly shameless intrusion upon the privacy of the sex act and the nude female body, but also as calculated to excite lust . . . The publication is therefore undesirable.'
'Not undesirable]' rang back the verdict half-an-hour later. Prof Grove had caved in, the citadels of white male power had been stormed, the patriarchal order had been annihilated. One of Madonna's poems, one which Cosmopolitan reproduced, captured the moment best: She did it to remind everybody/that she could bring happiness/or she could bring danger/kind of like the lone ranger. Cosmo Woman rode home triumphant to the poem's beat.
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