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The smiley face as censor? January 16, 2011

Posted by Samuel Snoek-Brown in Smiley, Web smileys.
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Cartoon by R.J. Matson, printed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, shared online at Politicalcartoons.com

For the record, I am a writer and an academic in the humanities.  So I think it should go without saying that I stand firmly against the decision to remove the “n word” from Mark Twain‘s work.  I agree that it is an offensive word (which is why I don’t use it here), but I also believe that Twain’s use of that word points to the offense rather than celebrates it, and I believe that removing it from Twain’s novel damages the cultural and historical significance of that text so much as to render it not merely “harmless,” but pointless.

Which is why I love the satire in this political cartoon.

But why use the smiley face as a representative of censorship?  I get that the gist here is to suggest that the editor of the forthcoming censored edition has, shall we say, a much happier view of Twain’s world or even our own than Twain would himself have endorsed.  Or perhaps it’s suggesting that the editor is trying to ram false happiness down our throats through the replacement of the offensive word with the (inaccurate!) word “slave.”  Or maybe, as I often do in texts and online comments, the smiley face is simply a signal for us all to relax, because this is just a joke, folks.

Whatever the case, this issue isn’t the first to use the smiley face as a kind of censor bar.  I’ve seen the sticker or the graphic used to cover genitals (because they don’t look at all like pasties), pop up to obscure cursing lips on TV and movies (because we wouldn’t want the lip-readers to giggle), and so on.  Back in 1998, Todd Gitlin wrote an editorial on censorship in the LA Times and titled it “The New Censorship: Controversy in a ‘Smiley Face’ Culture.”

But where did we first get the idea to use the smiley in this capacity?  It’s been around for less than fifty years, so finding out can’t be that hard.  I’ll keep digging, gang, but in the meantime, if you have any good tips, chime in with a comment!

The New Censorship: Controversy in a ‘Smiley Face’ Culture

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1. BONUS: a smiley face not smiling « Smile! - April 20, 2012

[…] creeps into politics, usually in cartoons. That was the case when I posted about the censorship of Mark Twain, and it was the case this past week, when political cartoonist Mike Luckovich included a smiley in […]


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