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Rewriting History: Fig leaves, Stalin’s Photoshop and Sex and the City

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

What do a fig leaf, Stalin and Sex and the City have in common? They are all related to cancel culture. In this post, we travel to the past to explore forms of editing and deleting history, even before cancelling was cool.

A little bit of a disclaimer: Is not my intention here to analyse cancel culture in its totality and its multiple forms. I don’t have room to write a Summa Theologica across 10 books. I decided instead to focus on the consequences of withdrawing films, series, photographs, art and other cultural productions based on their contents alone.


Some time ago, back in the days that we went to work in person, I was chatting with a colleague about our teens. I told her how I started writing short stories when I was 12 but that everything I wrote at that time was crap. For some reason I kept using the word “crap”, to describe my stories, while my colleague uttered an uncomfortable "I'm sure they weren't that bad". Still, I couldn’t stop calling them "crap". My lifelong effort to develop a rich and refined vocabulary went down the toilet that day.

Reflecting on that exchange a few days later, an idea came to mind: Was I cancelling myself in a way? I must admit: the topic of cancelling and calling out has been on my mind for a while and it's no secret that I am a bit of an obsessive thinker. I get on a topic for a month, and during that month everything revolves around that topic.

But back to the writings: when I was a teen, it used to take enormous willpower not to delete my writings. I started writing online because it was the only way for me to stop erasing what I wrote. I wasn’t one for editing. Upon rereading my texts, I would say to myself “they suck” and delete them immediately. Hence why years later, I still have a knee-jerk reaction to a tale that I told myself a thousand times: my stories were crap. In hindsight, I regret deleting them.

And because cancel culture was in my head, I kept thinking: when we take down statues, when we cancel shows, etc. will we ever regret doing it? Don’t get me wrong, I understand the reasons why that is done, I agree with them and I believe that those reasons will continue to be valid in the future. I’m just extremely hesitant when it comes to erasing heritage (call it an occupational hazard). So this is me, going over a couple of “cancel” precedents in culture, and a more recent one, to see what they look like.

FIG LEAF CAMPAIGN: A bunch of marble penises

Deleting and editing is by no means something new. Historically, there is a record of erasing and editing what already happened. Institutions and regimes do not want to just be in control; they also need to control the narrative, writing their version of reality as they go. History is written by the victors. This explains historic examples of cancelling and is equally useful to understand why we curate our social media to project our best version of self, which is not necessarily the truer one. If you look good, you are good. Period.

Let’s set the scene. Europe 1500s: the Protestant Reformation was in full swing, criticising the excess of the Catholic Church. Protestants claimed that priests were ostentatious, uneducated and in no way role models for their congregation. The Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent happened mainly as a reaction to this criticism. The Catholic Church made some changes to improve its image. What course of action did they follow to solve their problems? they went ahead and severed some penises.

David's Fig Leaf (V&A)

One of the measures taken after the Council of Trent was erasing nudity in art. You know what I’m talking about, those marble sculptures of very fit men showing off their muscles. They were all the rage in the classic period, and then again in the Renaissance, representing the ideal beauty of the human body. Now, in the mid-1500s, the Church claimed that they were profane and morally improper.

The state of undress of these sculptures was perfectly acceptable in the Renaissance, but after the Council of Trent, it became offensive and an ode to the pleasures of the flesh. Therefore, they decided to cover the nudity using fig leaves. Fig leaves have a symbolic meaning, it is what Adam and Eve used to cover their nudity after eating the forbidden fruit.

So many marble penises were carved out, and fig leaves were affixed atop the offensive area. And imagine how many nude statues were available for mutilation in Rome circa 1500. I remember Dan Brown’s iconic character, Robert Langdon, walking through the Vatican wondering if there would be a cardboard box full of marble penises tucked away somewhere. I wonder if joining the Swiss Guard grants you access to that box. But then you have to wear that uniform. So not worth it.

My favourite anecdote regarding the fig leaf campaign, however, happened much later, in 1857. Queen Victoria was given a cast from the original Michelangelo’s David, who immediately gave it to the South Kensington Museum, now the V&A. When Queen Victoria saw the sculpture she was so shocked that a fig leaf was immediately commissioned to cover the genitals. One can imagine Queen Victoria clutching her pearls, especially because the size of the statue is so big that the fig leaf turned out to be half a metre long.

Stalin and photoshop

Joseph Stalin knew the power of the image way before social media was a thing. He had a team of censors whose job was to doctor and edit his photographs.

Imagine that you are a member of the Communist Party. You go about your life, with your socialist ideas, and happened to be photographed with your good pal Stalin. One day, you do something that Stalin doesn’t like, they call you a traitor and you must go. No problemo, besides being persecuted and neutralised, after your death you are edited out of the picture. Your fifteen minutes of fame are finished, lest someone finds out that Stalin stood next to a traitor to the regime. Changes in allies happened so often that official censors had to keep editing the pictures according to the updated list of political friends and foes.

These bitches are cancelled

Stalin also wanted to look cute (I’m not even joking) and so his subordinates edited his images to make him look younger, with fuller hair and flawless skin. I guess “cute” doesn’t translate well to the 1930s Soviet Union. Let’s say that Stalin wanted to be portrayed as youthful, so his image could be associated with strength and power.

Magic what they could do without Photoshop

But he also had his smallpox scars removed! Not too far off from Snapchat filtres, are we, Stalin?

70 years' glow up challenge

Manipulating information and building a brand that conveyed strength and power was one of the landmarks of totalitarian regimes in the last century. The fascinating fascism, as Susan Sontag called it, was not just about editing photos: it was one of the biggest marketing campaigns in history.

One can’t help but compare it to George Orwell’s 1984. In this iconic novel, the protagonist, Winston Smith, works at the Ministry of Truth, where his job is to rewrite newspapers according to the most updated version of the history that his totalitarian regime supports at the moment.

In 1984 three big states rule the world, and when the novel starts Oceania (Winston’s home) is at war with Eurasia. One day, their enemy changes to Eastasia and no one comments on this shift, as if there was no change to talk about. They are now at war with Eastasia. They have always been at war with Eastasia. When the enemy changes, every record of history has to be rewritten, and Winston is called into work.

To admit the change of enemy could be seen as a crack in the all-knowing Party. No God changes their mind. A change in direction could be a sign of weakness, leaving room for dissent. And in a totalitarian regime, any opportunity for critical thinking has to be annihilated.

We are not in the Soviet Union anymore, and still, it seems equally difficult for some to change their minds or confess their errors. Truth be told, it's easier to delete and forget our mistakes than to face them, because facing mistakes is like picking up a mirror already knowing that you're not gonna like what you see. Still, change is good because is a sign of growth. Examining our mistakes is an instructive experience: We know how far we’ve come and how much farther we still need to go.

Sex and the city

The same critique can be applied to a more contemporary setting. The biggest difference between cancelling in history and cancelling now is who makes the decisions. In the past, it was the Church and decisions were called "censorship". Today, it comes from the masses, from anybody with a smartphone and internet access. And it’s called cancel culture. The good thing is that they together can ostracise very powerful people that were using their position and status to do evil. The bad thing is that there is no measuring tape for “evil”.

An example of this could be Sex and the city. The iconic HBO series was active from 1998 to 2004, just before feminism became nuanced in mainstream culture. The show has received harsh criticism in the past few years because while it used to be considered a feminist and aspirational series, today is seen as anything but.

Look! We have a gay friend! We cool!

SATC just barely passes the Bechdel test, and although the lesson that we are supposed to take home is that female friendship is more important than romantic relationships, the characters don’t act like they really think so. The series revolves around men most of the time and none of the main characters end the series as single women, giving off the idea that attaining a committed relationship was the prize and, ultimately, the finish line of the show.

That's not even the worst part. Sex and the City treats the LGBTQ+ community pretty poorly. Bisexuality is, according to Carrie “a layover on the way to gay town”. In one episode, she refuses to date a bisexual man and she's shocked by how openly he discloses his sexuality (she is a sex columnist, why is she asking if bisexuality exists?). Trans people are no better represented. The one time trans people appear in the series, they're depicted as uneducated, coarse and annoying sexual workers, disturbing Samantha’s sleep when she moves to a new neighbourhood. Likewise, races other than white are depicted as secondary or servant characters, unless they're there to fit a stereotype - such as the over-sexualised black lover, the feisty Latina or the Filipino housemaid. They give the message that everyone who matters is white.

It’s important to highlight the issues of the series because the more we think about the misrepresentation of those secondary characters, the more aware we will be of all the work that we still need to do towards inclusion and diversity. SATC, again, shows us how history is written by the victors. Back then, writers didn’t realise the kind of messages they were passing on or the impact that they’d have on the audience. Awareness is education, especially for future generations.

So Sex and the City hasn’t stood the test of time. Does it deserve cancelling or to be ruled out altogether? No. Because SATC still has value for what it did in its time. It paved the way for more female-led series, and it showed women openly talking about sex for the first time, from their own perspective, awkwardness included. It's easier for Gen Z to overlook that SATC showed women taking ownership of their sexual interactions because nowadays, that's not something new or surprising. But it was back then. The show deserves credit for its contribution to the normalisation of female promiscuity. Before SATC only 42% of Americans believed that premarital sex was not immoral. Post- SATC that number increased by 16%.

That’s why is so important to write stories that take into account diversity and acceptance today. Because when these narratives come to light, they are the first step towards normalisation. Fiction blends with reality, as Stalin knew so well.

So let’s never stop looking at our mistakes. We don’t need to erase the past to move forward because looking at the past is what helps us. The past shames us into becoming what we are supposed to be: better versions of ourselves.


Image Credits

David King/Kontact-Kultura Press.

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1 Comment

Rafael Gonzalez
Rafael Gonzalez
Jan 30, 2021

Ni siquiera la presión para ser siempre mejores debe usarse como disculpa para ocultar o no aceptar lo que éramos antes.

Cada peldaño que dejamos atrás nos sirvió para colocarnos donde estamos.

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