Dangerous, dirty, deviant – Taboos draw the lines of normality

Heidi Kosonen studies taboos, sexuality and death through the lens of postmodern visual culture. Visual culture and its surrounding discourse determine the limits of what can be shown, but they also rule what is considered normal, abnormal, shameful, disgusting, or even unspeakable. This framework leads Kosonen’s investigation of the taboo.

– I do not study the taboos themselves, but the more abstract construction of taboos through theory and conceptual history. My data consists of imageries of queerness and suicide, which overlap surprisingly often in our visual culture, Kosonen elaborates.

Death and sexuality are often said to be the last remaining taboos of Western society. Kosonen points them out as areas that often become the objects of body-focused power play. This is particularly evident in the cases of queer sexualities and suicide.

– The media’s handling of both topics involves an element of exclusion, which is often built through reactions of disgust and horror, Kosonen describes.

Taboos – useful and dangerous

Like Mary Douglas, Kosonen defines the taboo as part of the cultural classification system. She also utilises Franz Steiner’s view of the taboo as dangerous behaviour. The taboo is connected to the idea of dirt and anomalies that we would rather shut out of view.

– People have a natural need to classify things, and taboos can prove useful for this purpose. We need schemas with which to make sense of the world. On the other hand, the downside of taboos is that they exclude some things from the realm of normality, therefore labeling them as deviant, Kosonen muses.

Taboos are often connected with religious thought, but Kosonen points out that the taboo is also a very secular phenomenon.

– Many of the things that we now label as ‘the last taboos’ ended up in this category precisely because they were once under religious control. However, taboos and the ways we regulate them appear just as well in secular media, Kosonen points out.

Heidi Kosonen.jpg

The media constantly depicts taboos through the Douglasian concept of pollution, which means that the taboo is that which is ‘lowly’ and ‘foreign’.

– An example would be the TV show ’13 Reasons Why’, which was condemned for showing an overly graphic suicide scene, because people feared that the imagery would romanticise this type of death – instead of othering and stigmatising it in the way we are used to. This sparked a moral panic fearing contagion: people thought that this glorifying representation of suicide would make teen viewers automatically ‘catch’ suicide, Kosonen says.

Taboos alone lack shock value

Why are sexuality and death taboos in the first place? Kosonen affirms that it is difficult to grasp the historical roots of taboos from our modern perspective, and there are no easy answers. One reason for the historical need to regulate sexuality and death is that they both carry the dreaded risk of changing community structure. Both topics can also be considered psychologically frightening.

– These areas pose potential dangers towards both the individual and the community. Sexuality and death have not always been the safe topics that they are now, Kosonen says.

According to Kosonen, strong opinions and moral panic are particularly bound to spread when the person faced with sexuality or death is a child. In a situation like this, the things we find most pure – childhood and innocence – become polluted.

– The strongest reactions typically come from situations where too many contentious topics arise in the same incident. Sexuality and death are such stereotypical taboos that they often need an additional element to be truly shocking, Kosonen says.

As an example, she mentions the scandal that was sparked by Dana Schutz’s art piece Open Casket. This controversy was borne not only from death-related taboos, but also racial political reasons.

– For Open Casket, a white artist painted an abstract piece of Emmett Till, the civil rights icon who was assaulted to death in 1955. This became an enormous scandal. The horrible theme of death of a child was aggravated by the additional themes of social conflict and the dangers of change, Kosonen describes.

Kosonen sees the same fear of change in the recent rise of toxic masculinity, and in the pervasive anti-feminism rhetoric – although on a smaller scale.

– The concept of gender is at a turning point, and old social structures are bound to change. This makes people worry about their own social position, which may erupt in the form of angry reactions, Kosonen says.

Text and images: Sari Laapotti. Translation from Finnish to English: Katri Mustonen.