Adler: Nude Dancing Cases Underscore Need for Feminist Analysis of the Law

January 29, 2009

Law students should be encouraged to creatively apply feminist analysis to their legal work, New York University law professor Amy Adler said Wednesday during an event hosted by the Feminist Legal Forum.

Amy Adler

Adler, who is teaching a short court on art law at Virginia this semester, presented her research on the Supreme Court's nude dancing cases, which forced the court to consider whether it is legal for state and local governments to limit what exotic dancers could reveal while dancing.

"I think basically the cases are so interesting because there's an element of madness in them. They are sort of crazy, crazy texts," Adler said. "Even the court admits they don't make much sense, and legal scholars have agreed these cases just don't make sense as a First Amendment matter."

Adler said the cases have forced the Supreme Court justices to determine whether nude dancing is a form of speech and, if so, whether it is legal for governments to limit that "speech" by imposing rules requiring the women to cover certain areas.

The court determined that stripping is a "marginal" form of speech, Adler said, but also ruled it is still permissible for state and local governments to require women to wear clothing, as female nude dancing is associated with crime, mayhem, violence and disease.

Lower courts and legal scholars have written extensively about the deeply flawed logic associated with the decisions, but Adler said her research is the first that has looked at the cases from a feminist perspective.

"What exactly is so dangerous about the nude female body?" Adler asked. "Even if we assume that the nude female body does lead to violence and criminal activity and all the things the court says, why would a G-string, this flimsy piece of fabric, be the solution to get rid of such danger?"
Adler also said nude dancing is treated differently by the court than pornography, to which the court has extended "robust First Amendment protection."

To analyze these Supreme Court's decisions, Adler applied Freudian theories of castration anxiety and fetishism, which propose that men fear castration when they see the nude female body. According to Freud, a fetish helps a man forget the horror he feels at seeing a woman's body.

"The G-string is really a perfect fetish," Adler explained. "The sight of the body is dangerous and does lead to the possibilities of violence and dismemberment, chaos and decay, if only in the unconscious mind of the viewer. This fetishistic solution of the G-string restores order in the world and, although flimsy in the real world, an urgent solution in this narrative."

Adler also analyzed the case according to the mythological story of Medusa, a female monster who could turn onlookers into stone, and Salome, a dancer in the Bible who requested the beheading of John the Baptist.

She encouraged students to pursue feminist analysis in their work to uncover cultural truths. It is an area that has been neglected by feminist scholars, Adler said, and it may be because the findings can be disturbing.

"What I am hoping to show in the kind of analysis I just quickly delineated for you is a very different vision of law as a body of knowledge weighed down with unacknowledged cultural baggage and sexual anxiety and all sorts of cultural reverberations," Adler said. "So a law that is supposed to govern culture is also governed by culture in ways we might prefer not to admit because it undermines certain claims to rationality."

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