Larry Flynt Dead At 78, Will Be Wrapped In Kleenex, Tossed In Toilet
Larry Flynt, the relentlessly self-promoting pornographer who liked to take credit for the entire First Amendment when he mostly just exploited it, died Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles at the age of 78. Jimmy Flynt, his brother, said he died of heart failure.
Flynt is mostly known for founding Hustler, the porn magazine that, unlike soft-focus predecessors like Playboy and Penthouse, made no pretensions to art, culture, or sophistication. Instead, Hustler was all about lurid, harshly lit, legs-spread photos of women, with gratuitous torture, rape, simulated snuff scenes, and full-on racism thrown in just in case simply being more explicit than other publications didn't manage to be shocking enough. Flynt liked to portray himself as a cultural rebel who opposed puritanism in all forms, and to be sure, he shocked plenty of puritanical souls. And if anyone pointed out that his magazine promoted contempt for and violence against women, he called those critics puritans too, and continued to be pleased with what a broad-minded guy he was.
Flynt is being remembered in some predictable corners (hello New York Times) as "an unlikely free speech hero," although his real talent was for pandering to the absolute basest tastes and then proclaiming himself a hero because, yes, the First Amendment really does protect even the most disgusting free expression that's at least not child porn, outright libel, or — worst of all in US America — copyright infringement.
The news of Flynt's death was met with a diversity of opinions, as this actual random pair of tweets illustrates:
Sometimes Flynt advanced causes adjacent to progressive ones, like opposing the death penalty for Joseph Paul Franklin, the racist who'd tried to assassinate Flynt in 1978 after being angered by Hustler's pictorials depicting interracial sex. Franklin also bombed a synagogue, and had been sentenced to death for murdering five people, including a mixed-race couple. Despite Flynt's opposition, Franklin was executed in 2013. Flynt was often lucky in being hated by people who managed to be even more awful than he was, which he pretended made him, if not a good guy, at least a scumbag who cared about important things, at least as long as they didn't get in the way of pandering to tastes that were several notches below the lowest common denominator.
You might want to leave aside the big news site obits and instead read this 2004 profile/interview by Robert Chalmers in The Independent, which reminds us that the guy sometimes lionized as a Guardian of the First Amendment made his millions by selling a magazine that treated degrading women as some kind of sexual liberation, including a feature depicting "a woman being shaved, raped, and apparently killed, in concentration-camp style surroundings," as well as "pictures of naked women trussed like turkeys and squashed in giant burger buns, or a girl being fed head-first into a mincer." Not to mention the hilarious image of "a housewife's vagina being used as a makeshift roach trap."
See? He was edgy.
And let's also not forget Hustler's casual, omnipresent racism, from the cartoons (Black men have huge cocks and like raping white women; Black women are promiscuous welfare-addicted crack whores; both are relentlessly criminal and horny) to the photo shoots. A 1998 academic paper argues that Hustler
draws from past regimes of racial representation and articulates a more contemporary myth that Black masculinity, having been allowed to run amok in the post-civil rights era, has finally rendered White men impotent, both sexually and economically.
Happily, there was no Twitter in 1998, so we'll assume there were relatively few death threats sent to the lady professor who wrote it.
Still, plenty of people were happy to treat Flynt as a free speech crusader, even though his interests were more about making money from porn than in advancing civil liberties. You gotta have free speech to publish the kind of shit he did. When Flynt was prosecuted for obscenity in 1977, Chalmers notes, a bunch of prominent liberals published a protest letter that literally compared Flynt to Soviet dissidents. The comparison wasn't entirely convincing to some.
The great American satirist Lewis Lapham originally signed the joint letter, then saw a copy of Hustler. Lapham immediately withdrew his name, saying that "I'm not sure this was quite what Jefferson had in mind."
Flynt's one concrete contribution to the cause of free speech resulted from a fake Campari ad in 1983, with a fake testimonial in which "Jerry Falwell" reminisced about losing his virginity to his mother in an outhouse, with very humorous copy like "We were drunk off our God-fearing asses on Campari, ginger ale and soda - that's called a Fire and Brimstone," and "Mom looked better than a Baptist whore with a $100 donation."
Falwell sued for defamation, and in 1988, the Supreme Court upheld Americans' right to publish even the most outrageous parodies and satire, which is pretty good law that applied equally to high quality jokes about vegan baby buttholes and to the shit Flynt liked to publish, too. That cleared the way for such other First Amendment triumphs as 2 Live Crew's beating a copyright infringement suit for their Roy Orbison parody about a "big hairy woman."
Decades later, he was still quite proud of himself. In 2012, Flynt explained that a photoshopped image of TV pundit SE Cupp with a great big dick in her face was actually not sexist at all, because for one thing, it was part of a monthly series called "What Would (celebrity) Look Like with a Cock in Her/His Mouth," which had also featured some male celebrities, and it was clearly labeled as a fake parody. Also, he Flyntsplained, don't forget Larry Flynt is an outrageous flag-diapered First Amendment hero, you puritans!
"So critics, get a life," Flynt said. "Find another horse to beat. We don't know anything about Ms. Cupp's personal life, but we do know that oral sex is practiced by the majority of adult Americans, both male and female. The fact that the picture of Ms. Cupp has generated so much flap says more about the sexual repression of the American people than it does anything else. Oral sex is a normal and healthy practice."
Bravo to Lindy West, who took Flynt's brave defense of free speech exactly as seriously as it deserved:
Dude, you could have just yelled "FIRST AMENDMENT," farted theatrically, and then left it at that. No one needs your rhapsodizing about Bill Maher's purty mouth and how blowjobbery is woven into the fabric of America. I'm not even arguing with your argument. "First Amendment" is legit. You totally have the right to be terrible, and everyone else totally has the right to be bothered by it. Everybody wins. Jeez, go outside or something.
So goodbye to a guy who made a career of creating a safe space for all the very worst speech, and pretended that was a virtue instead of just one of the things we put up with in a free society. May he eternally enjoy being a footnote in constitutional law.
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