Amy Adler


In this Article, I attempt to solve a First Amendment puzzle by turning to a surprising source. Here is the puzzle: why would the Supreme Court offer robust First Amendment protection to non-obscene pornographic film, while relegating live erotic dance, far less sexually explicit, to the very "perimeter" of First Amendment protection?

I suggest that one way to understand this puzzle can be found in the ancient myth of Medusa, the monster Freud interpreted as standing for the castrated female genitals. A direct confrontation with Medusa's stare was deadly. But Perseus slew Medusa by outsmarting her: he looked at her only in the reflection of his shield, thereby transforming her into the passive object of his gaze. I interpret Perseus's shield as a precursor of pornographic film. In my view, live erotic performance, in which the dancer interacts with the audience and claims her own role as a First Amendment speaker, conjures up some of the threat of the unmediated stare of Medusa. In contrast, pornographic film, like Perseus's shield, tames the monstrous threat of the woman's direct stare. Ultimately, I read the Court's puzzling distinction between live and filmed performance as bound up in anxieties about castration, the female gaze, and the possibility of female agency and speech that the gaze symbolizes.