[because a week later, the net really needs another obit.]
Sorry friends, I’ve been away… surgery and recovery requiring the watching of a full season of 24 to bring me back to health.
Anyway, A. wrote me last week to ask if I was going to blog about Andrea Dworkin. Until then I hadn’t really thought about it, even though twenty years ago I would have named Dworkin (and even more so radical feminists Catharine Mackinnon and Audre Lorde) as having inspired me to read feminism and identify as a feminist. I’m not sure who first called her the Malcolm X of the women’s movement, but it was a great line — Malcolm X said the problem was "white people" — Dworkin said the problem was "men." She was able to inspire and bluntly name names.
More than that though, as Susie Bright writes in her own blog entry about Dworkin, as someone coming of age in the 1980s, Andrea Dworkin and Catharine Mackinnon were the first women to look at pornography and erotica (not that they would have made a fine distinction between the two) with a critical eye. It existed for them — they showed clips in classes. True, they showed it as examples of women being degraded by men (and they frequently were) and exploited, but they showed it. I found it brilliant and so clear when they wrote (and said, for I heard both speak live several times in the 1980s when I was an undergraduate) that one of the reasons men were able to rape women and get away with it was that (heterosexual) sex was always assumed to be consensual. They then posed the opposite question — what if it was assumed to be rape until the man proved otherwise (quotes that were so often misused to claim both women saw all sex as rape). Then, they argued, rape trials could be about the man’s actions rather than the women’s history.
I broke intellectually with both as I tried to make sense of my own desires (especially the ones connected to BDSM) and found the framework both writers created to be limiting — in the manner of a young girl thinking about her heroes and wanting their approval, I would imagine sometimes how horrified they’d be (especially Dworkin with her history as an abused wife) with my embracing masochism. I went on to discover Dorothy Allison and found a new way to think about my sexuality and desires. And slowly over the last decade I’ve come to see these first feminist writers of mine as part of an earlier, more naive feminism. Something I’ve outgrown.
But of course, what’s been lost in this more subtle, nuanced feminism is the ability to hear someone bold. My favorite Dworkin moment was the story of her longtime rivalry with Allen Ginsberg, who apparently said (I’ve always imagined) pompously "you know, the Right wants me in jail." Dworkin supposedly responded, "yes, I know. They’re so sentimental. I’d kill you." Where are the women now pointing out sexism? I feel sometimes like we’ve all become so timid. Afraid, perhaps, of being labeled naive ourselves.
When I’d listen to people (actually, mainly male professors and their students) raging against Mackinnon and Dworkin’s writings (and, as often, things neither had actually written, but thoughts that were attributed to them anyway), it was horrifying how often Dworkin’s appearance was used to explain her being "anti-male". She was "fat" and "hairy" and so interested in rape because no man would ever want her. I remember pointing out to a male undergrad who commented that Dworkin was utterly undesirable and that it was impossible to imagine any man might be attracted to her, that (at the time) she’d lived with the same man for close to 20 years, he refused to believe me until what I’d told him was confirmed by one of our professors. Mackinnon, on the other hand, was considered "almost pretty" by our classmates and that seemed, somehow, to make her support of Dworkin’s theories incomprehensible.
I’ve wondered sometimes how much fear of being called feminist that vilification of Dworkin created. interestingly, Dworkin is blamed for that too — basically for daring to be fat and ungroomed in the public eye. For being an icon of feminism and not being beautiful. Who are we left with? Naomi Wolfe? Camila Paglia? Feh!
I know who I’d rather read or listen to, however much her inflexibility might anger me.
For all that they might well have disagreed with where my feminism has led me, and even more so for the choices I’ve embraced in my sexuality, I mourn the passing of Andrea Dworkin as I did that of Audre Lorde. There is a beauty in the radical. And, Andrea had something far more important than a perfect body. She had a brilliant mind and a quick wit and the world is poorer for her loss.