Date of Completion


Embargo Period



Obscenity, Sexuality, Supreme Court, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, Dead Kennedys Kathy Acker, Alice Walker, Bret Easton Ellis, Tom Wolfe, Tony Kushner, Philadelphia

Major Advisor

Cathy J. Schlund-Vials

Associate Advisor

Martha J. Cutter

Associate Advisor

Katherine Capshaw

Associate Advisor

Chris Vials

Associate Advisor

Josh Lambert

Field of Study



Doctor of Philosophy

Open Access

Campus Access


Tracing a cultural history from the 1970s to the 1990s, Obscene Gestures places popular and legal notions of obscenity in conversation with anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist resistance movements, women of color feminism, and LGBTQ activism. Since the 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. California, obscenity discourse has policed the shape of the nation by marking non-normative bodies as objectionable. The dissertation’s study of the cultural artifacts this discourse concerns opens by situating the history of literary obscenity alongside the key theories of sexuality, power, race, and knowledge. The first body chapter links the Miller ruling with 1970s-era neoconservative policies by considering some of the decade’s major novels, including Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), revealing a home-front cultural politics that stymied dissent by classing as out of bounds many forms of political speech, including Huynh Cong Ut’s 1972 photo The Terror of War. Chapter Two builds upon the polarization this moment caused via an analysis of the feminist battles over pornography in the early 1980s. I juxtapose figures on both sides of this debate with works by women of color, such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1983), that address the histories of embodiment that this debate tended to obscure. The occlusion of race in organizing around pornography parallels the role of possessive individualism in justifying racial wealth disparities during the Reagan administration, which the third chapter highlights. Working in the shadow of the 1986 Meese Commission report, this chapter interprets neoliberal economic policies as an enactment of racial indifference through the metaphors of sex and violence in The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) and American Psycho (1990). Finally, Chapter Four addresses the transformation of these politics during the AIDS crisis, when a family-values rhetoric asserting middle-class social norms as the basis for civic participation was both appropriated and resisted by LGBTQ activists. This final chapter teases the tension arising between mainstreaming and resistive visibility demonstrated in such works as the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1993).

Available for download on Saturday, May 02, 2026