Friday, September 23, 2011

Sexual Sucker Punch: A Review

Wow, it's been awhile. Anyway, I'm back for today with an analysis of the film Sucker Punch! (Hella spoilers.)

Sucker Punch is a 2011 film from director Zack Snyder. The film’s pitch line was “Alice in Wonderland with machine guns”, and it certainly delivers. It’s a movie about sanity and sexuality in which five institutionalized girls, in an unspecified but decidedly vintage time period, battle against their oppressors in a fantasy world. Their victories and failures in the imagined world translate to the real world; and so the film is less an actual supernatural action movie and more a movie about image and interpretation, where real-world monsters are explicitly framed as combat enemies.

The film has three clear layers: first, the actual mental asylum, where the girls wear dirty smocks and where the color scheme is grey and washed out. The second layer is the club/brothel: high contrast and glittering. The third layer is the combative fantasy world in which the girls fight their battles.

Each reveals something about the previous. The club imagining of the asylum reveals Blue’s sexualization of the patients; it’s implied at the end of the movie that he’s been molesting the girls. The scene where Rocket is assaulted by the cook also shows that the patients are subject to abuse from the asylum staff. The club also shows the business-like nature of the asylum. In the first layer, Blue accepts bribe money from Babydoll’s stepfather to forge Dr. Gorski’s signature and get Babydoll a lobotomy so that she can’t rat her stepfather out to the police.

The fantasy battleground maintains the sexualization of the girls via their skimpy costumes, but it also is a world in which they are powerful. The fantasy world is also on the verge of steampunk, combining old-fashioned settings such as the WWII trenches and medieval castles with high-tech weaponry. In this way, the girls take down vintage ideas of femininity and sexuality with their futuristic technology. They access this world through Babydoll’s dance sequences, which are all “gyrating, moaning and titillation” in the second layer, the club layer. The peep show exhibitionist dancing puts women in control in the hyper-sexualized club world (and, I think, the real world outside the film). In the fantasy world, that control translates to weapons and strength. They are physically invincible. They are never wounded or hurt, and rarely cornered. Even when one girl is, the other girls are there to assist. In the fantasy world, they have the bonds they are discouraged from forming in the previous two layers; bonds with each other, and with the Wise Man.

There are three main male figures in Sucker Punch: the stepfather, Blue, and the Wise Man. The film gets into some quintessential “Daddy issues.” The girls in the asylum/club have all been orphaned, abandoned, or ran away from parental figures. The three male characters represent three archetypal parent molds: the imagist, the realist, and the guide.

The Imagist
Babydoll’s stepfather is the innocent, “I did my best” parent, who claims to have been a good and nurturing father while secretly being neglectful at best and actively abusive at worst. For the stepfather, image is everything, because if Babydoll reveals that he was anything other than the image he’s put forth, he goes to jail. His re-imagining as a priest in the club layer reinforces this idea—he is pure, clean, and blameless. Except, we know he isn’t.

The Realist
Blue takes the stance of the realist, the man who knows what the big, bad world is really like. He tries to position himself as a guardian, a protector, and convinces the girls that however bad life is with him, it’s infinitely worse without him: “I try to give you all a good life. I try. I do. And all I ask for in return is just for respect.” This is of course not actual realism, but is very successfully defined that way thanks to just how bad it is in the club and how bad the girls’ experiences were before being institutionalized. What’s interesting is that Sweet Pea, the one who “never really had a problem with Mom and Dad” and who knows that Blue is a liar, is the one who is reluctant to escape. This is mostly for the safety of her sister Rocket, but perhaps she’s adapted a little too well to her new life, being the only one who really has the necessary mental ability to adapt to change.

The Guide
The Wise Man represents the good, real father figure the girls never had. He is an older man who keeps his distance and never sexualizes them, unlike the men of comparable ages who frequent the club (such as the Mayor with his stogies). He doesn’t act as a guardian or claim to be a protector, like Blue does. The girls are beyond the age where that’s what the father should be—Babydoll’s age is said to be 20 at the beginning. What girls this age need is a guide, someone who gives them direction and then gets out of the way. The Wise Man is with them at the beginning of each of their missions to offer them advice, like “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything,” and even distinctly parental bits like, “Try and work together.” His frequent “Oh yeah, one more thing”s are also reminiscent of a dad who is constantly thinking of more things to impart.

He’s even re-garbed as a bus driver, a guide, at the end. But when it comes down to it, he still knows his fatherly duty to protect his daughter from predators: like at the very end, when he saves Sweet Pea from the troopers. To reinforce the fact that he does not sexualize them, he doesn’t even touch Sweet Pea when she gets on the bus and he comfortingly tells her to take a seat near the back and try to get some sleep.

Therapy is the treatment of a disorder. In the first layer, the asylum, Dr. Gorski uses music to help the girls evoke the memories of their abuse so that they can discuss the damage, get it out. In the second layer, that therapy becomes each girl’s dance, where Madame Gorski again provides the music. Their therapy then becomes their peep-show performances.

A frequent post-feminist claim is that women hold power through their sexuality. In the club layer, this is true. Men are transfixed by Babydoll’s “titillating” dances, which Sweet Pea calls impersonal. As I said earlier, the dance sequences become the fantasy world in which the girls hold actual, qualitative power: they are skilled with weapons and physically invincible. Even Rocket’s death takes place outside the fantasy world. The fantasy world is a place where there is no male supremacy. Babydoll is even able to cut an enemy’s sword in half in her first battle, symbolically severing the phallic weapon being used against her.

In the club layer, Gorski says to Blue, “I teach [the girls] to survive YOU.” She’s referring to the dances she teaches them and the show that she directs. She teaches them to use their sexuality, to own it, because it gives them some small vestige of control when they otherwise would have simply been the victims of the men who abuse them. In a very, very twisted way, being in touch with themselves as sexual beings allows the girls to participate in the club and keep a measure of themselves intact. Not recommended, but in certain situations I suppose you have to work with what you’ve got.

In addition to the dance/therapy issue, there’s the framing of lobotomy as paradise. A lobotomy is a procedure that consists of “cutting the connections to and from the prefrontal cortex” of the brain and was used as treatment in the first half of the 20th century for the violently or untreatably insane. In Sucker Punch, the lobotomy turns Babydoll into a vegetable, rendering her unresponsive and placid. Blue refers to that state as “paradise.” Babydoll no longer feels pain or indeed, experiences anything, This is a throwback to the idea that women are happiest when their lives are simple, when they are sheltered and restricted to the home and don’t participate in any grand or complex ideologies. It’s a farce, clearly; Babydoll’s lobotomy has rendered her effectively dead, and so are similarly sheltered women. Even in the club layer, with that weird measure of sexual ownership, Rocket says “We’re already dead,” as in dead inside and dead to the world.

Sweet Pea narrates the end with the following monologue (emphasis added by me):

“And finally. This question. The mystery of whose story it will be, of who draws the curtain. Who is it that chooses our steps in a dance? Who drives us mad, flashes us with whips, crowns us with victory when we survive the impossible? Who is it that tells all these things? Who honors those we love with the very life we live? Who sends monsters to kill us, and at the same time sings that we'll never die? Who teaches us what's real, and how to laugh at lies? Who decides why we live, and what we'll die to defend? Who chains us, and who holds the key to set us free? It's you. You have all the weapons you need. Now fight.

There are lots of things to talk about in this, but I’m focusing on the two bolded lines. The obvious reading is that humans can put themselves through ridiculous and contradictory psychological torment. This makes sense with the final line, where Sweet Pea says that “you” are wholly responsible for your experience of the world.

However, it is also possible to read these lines in terms of the contradictory male reactions to femininity. I wish I still had the library’s copy of The Rise of Enlightened Sexism to quote (thanks Chels :P), but this kind of thing is easy to see in real life and extrapolate. Men seem to worship the female: her body, her charms, her love. Like Sting says, “Every little thing she does is magic.” Yet politically, female empowerment is a terrifying thing to some male leaders. Look at the recent political attacks on Planned Parenthood, the persistently lower wage earned by women for the same jobs as men, and the attempts in the media to strip female political figures of their legitimacy, either by de-feminizing them (as with Janet Reno) or by hyper-feminizing them (as with Sarah Palin). In the former case, for example, Janet Reno was allowed to be a capable political figure because she was seen as mannish. In the latter case, Sarah Palin was NOT allowed to be a capable political figure because she was seen as simultaneously sexy and motherly, not to mention her airheadedness.

So clearly, based on these and countless other examples I’m sure you can pull from your own lives, men love women but are also scared of women. So the lines, “Who drives us mad, flashes us with whips, crowns us with victory when we survive the impossible? Who sends monsters to kill us, and at the same time sings that we'll never die?” can take on a new meaning. Think about it. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011


I've been reading quite a bit in the few weeks since I last posted, though not all of it will end up here; but let's get back into things with a look at Federico Garcia Lorca's "The House of Bernarda Alba" (or, La Casa de Bernarda Alba), a "Drama about women in villages of Spain," according to the tagline.

The play, written in 1936, takes place in (surprise!) the house of Bernarda Alba, an elderly woman with five aging, unmarried daughters. After the death of her second husband, Bernarda declares that her family's mourning period will last eight years. This plot point is sort of forgotten in favor of a love hexagon between Pepe el Romano, the handsomest man in the village, and all five of Bernarda's daughters. Twenty-five year old Pepe is engaged to the eldest daughter, thirty-nine year old Angustias, because she is the only daughter with money; her dowry was left to her by her father, Bernarda's first husband. The middle three daughters lust after Pepe, but twenty-year-old Adela, the youngest, becomes his lover, sullies the family honor, and sends the family into a tailspin of crazy.

There are a number of interesting things about the play, and the first one of note is that there's not a single male character. No man is ever on stage at any point, not even Pepe, who seems to be at the center of the drama in Acts Two and Three. This brings up an intriguing point about the tagline: it's a "drama about women" in that all the characters we see are female, but it's a male character who forms the epicenter of the drama itself. So is it really about women, or about what men do to women? What women do to each other?

Whatever perspective you choose, it's clear that for Lorca, female behavior is inextricably linked to men. "Good" female behavior means staying away from men, and "bad" female behavior means fornicating with men. This isn't just Lorca's idea, though. It's an age-old mentality that persists today in the "prude or slut" dichotomy that inspired this independent study. Why is it that we can't observe a woman without relating her back to men? A female CEO: "She does/doesn't do this job as good as a man," etc. Even when we compare two women and say that one is more beautiful than the other, why is that something we notice? Because more beautiful women get more attention from men.

It's difficult to combat because it's difficult to notice. In the play, the women would rather tear each other apart than recognize that they are more than virgins who don't sleep with men and whores who do. Bernarda is obsessed with the honor of her house and her daughters. The family is a big fish in a little pond financially, which is why the daughters weren't married sooner; Bernarda didn't think there were any men in the village of their status. So, rather than marry her daughters down, she shut them up and kept them virgins. Part of this is the time period and the culture, sure; but the same thing happens today to lesser degrees.

Another main point of the play is the theme that sexuality is subversive. For the first half of the play, it's not clear what's happening. Pepe's engagement to Angustias is revealed fairly early, but is immediately followed by the explanation that it's purely financial. There's tension from the unnaturalness off the union, along with extremely subtle quips among the sisters that reveal the atmosphere of jealousy. The one who participates the least is Adela. As one sister says, "Because [Adela's] the youngest, she still has dreams" (15). She seems aloof, above the quibbling; probably because, as is later revealed, she's been with Pepe the whole time. By the end of the play, she's manic in her dedication to her idealistic romance, planning to elope rather than wait for Angustias to make a widower out of Pepe.

The tension builds, each woman in the house like a rubber band being slowly stretched to its limit. Bernarda feels it, but stubbornly ignores it, her obsession with honor making her blind to the sinkhole she's created in her house. Her maid, La Poncia (whose name apparently means Pontius, possibly a reference to Pontius Pilate, who ordered Jesus' crucifixion--puts an interesting spin on her role) attempts several times to force awareness on Bernarda and fails each time. Meanwhile, the daughters' un-channeled sexuality courses through the house, tearing down the order of the family. "They're women without men, that's all," Poncia says on page 42. Bernarda has intentionally suppressed the sexuality of her daughters, and that built-up energy is now threatening to overthrow her.

While it's certainly possible to read the play didactically, it's a slippery slope because Lorca doesn't show or seem to believe in a balance between virgin and whore. Again, this seems to be cultural. In the Mann translation, at least, there's no strong commentary on Adela's behavior; it's too subtle, and comes from the mouths of her jealous sisters. However, it does seem clear that nine women living together in celibacy for extended periods of time is sometimes unhealthy.

Monday, February 14, 2011


Despite saying that "Every woman has the right to maternity," (Loy's "Feminist Manifesto"), Mina Loy does not seem to have a favorable experience with it herself. Most of her poems relating to motherhood seem to be about childbirth and abortion, while there seems to be distance between her and her real children. Loy describes her nine-year-old daughter Joella as a beautiful Italian statue, a youthful Madonna: "But this small image of maternal plentitude was a temptation. "I must run away from it," Mina remembered thinking. Ambivalent feelings about mothering and being mothered--who was the parent and who was the child?--rose to the surface in a moment of panic [...] Parting may have resurrected the anguish of her first memory--of exile from home and the enchantment of beauty" (Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy, 193-194).

For Loy, motherhood seems to be both a thing of beauty and a thing of pain. Her "Feminist Manifesto" reads favorably towards maternity, saying that the "complete woman" is both the mistress and the mother, and that "it is to your interest to demolish ... the division of women into [these] two classes" (154). According to Loy, "the woman who is a poor mistress will be an incompetent mother" because "the woman who is so incompletely evolved as to be un-self-conscious in sex, will prove a restrictive influence on the temperamental expansion of the next generation" (154). Un-self-conscious may be read two ways: i.e., confident and the opposite of modern self-consciousness, or conscious of self. In Loy's case I think it's the latter.

She goes on to say that "Every woman of superior intelligence should realize her race-responsibility, in producing children in adequate proportion to the unfit or degenerate members of her sex--" (155). In other words, if you are a complete woman, you should produce as many children as the incomplete women of your generation, to balance out the bad with the good. So she appears to be a staunch believer in maternity.

Her poems reflect the darker side of her ideology, and show the pain of pregnancy and childbirth. Parturition (found all the way at the bottom of that page) is an intense depiction of not just childbirth, but creation in general:
"Locate an irritation without
It is within
Within" (4)
Two things. First, yes, she did just refer to the coming infant as an irritation. Second, this sounds to me like the itch you get when you need to write and can't find the words, and nothing inspires you because whatever you're trying to say is completely internal. So this poem is not just the parturition (which means the process of giving birth) of a child, but the parturition of itself. It follows the progress of the birth, the stanzas are ideas strung together as Loy works out what she is trying to say. They are only loosely connected, jumping around with each emotion that she feels. The connecting idea is pain and her struggle to overcome it. Some examples:
"I am the centre
Of a circle of pain
Exceeding its boundaries in every direction
Pain is no stronger than the resisting force
Pain calls up in me
The struggle is equal
I am climbing a distorted mountain of agony
Incidentally with the exhaustion of control
I reach the summit
And gradually subside into anticipation of
Which never comes" (4-5)
"Songs to Joannes" is rife with allusions and sometimes outright mentions of abortion. See these two lines from the second stanza of number XVII:
"Red a warm colour on the battle-field
Heavy on my knees as a counterpane" (60)
Or the second stanza of III:
"We might have given birth to a butterfly
With the daily news
Printed in blood on its wings" (54)
"The procreative truth of Me
Petered out
In pestilent
Tear drops" (62)
So what we have in Loy's prose versus her poetry is a dichotomy between ideology and reality. Theoretically, maternity is just as full an expression of a woman's self as sexuality, and vice versa; but the theorizing forgets the pain of pregnancy, abortion and childbirth. Loy is still favorable of maternity:
"Mother I am
With infinite Maternity
I am absorbed
The was--is--ever--shall--be
Of cosmic reproductivity" ("Parturition" 7)
But in the real world, it comes with an edge. So maternity, childbirth, is both beautiful and painful. It is infinite, but comes with a price.

And speaking of that price, interestingly, at the end of the "Manifesto," Loy says this: "Women must destroy in themselves, the desire to be loved--" by men. In other words, they must focus more on their children than their husbands. While a complete woman must be both a mistress and a mother, as discussed earlier, these two states are apparently not concurrent for Loy.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

XXXIV: Love -- -- -- the preeminent litterateur

I know this entry looks long, but don't worry; it just quoted poetry, which takes up a lot of space. This week, we're moving from theoretical texts to poetry: the poetry of Mina Loy. Another contemporary of Gertrude Stein, Loy is practically impossible to place within any of the literary and artistic movements of the early 20th century. She just skips among them all intermittently. She is most obviously a feminist, but even that title is questionable based on her reverence for virgins and mothers, both states of being typically rejected by the feminists of the age.

For this entry, I'm going to focus on a set of short poems collectively entitled "Songs to Joannes" or "Love Songs," generally understood to be the disjointed narrative of Loy's relationship(s), especially with a man named Giovanni Papini. A number of the fragments/stanzas are reproduced here, though without Loy's spacing and mostly mis-numbered; I also read this essay, which is a very interesting close reading of the poem.

Thematically, it's sort of difficult to understand "Songs" because Loy uses extremely ambiguous language. Interpretations may be plausible but rarely concrete. Yet, in anticipation of the young adult literature I'll read at the end of the semester, I will venture to consider the adolescence of the poem's speaker and subject. Mina Loy was 33 when she began writing "Songs," but there is throughout the fragments the feeling of hesitance and disillusion that comes with young love and young sex.

The first fragment (I, found at the "Primitive Modern" link) sets this up, citing such typical romance stand-bys as Cupid and "Once upon a time":
"Spawn of Fantasies
Silting the appraisable
Pig Cupid his rosy snout
Rooting erotic garbage
"Once upon a time"
Pulls a weed white star-topped
Among wild oats sown in mucous-membrane"
The speaker is the weed, a virgin "white star-topped" which Pig Cupid pulls "Among wild oats": men. She is lured by the fantasies, the once-upon-a-time, into the sexual world. The next stanza shows the cosmic attraction of this world, open, expansive, starry; but Loy says "These are suspect places/I must live in my lantern/Trimming subliminal flicker/Virginal to the bellows/Of Experience". So the speaker determines to remain virginal.

But not for long. See fragment IX:
"When we lifted
Our eye-lids on Love
A cosmos
Of coloured voices
And laughing honey

And spermatozoa
At the core of Nothing
in the milk of the Moon"
Again, there's the cosmic imagery of a Love fantasy which then shifts in the second stanza to become the sarcastic reality of insemination: "And spermatozoa/at the core of Nothing/in the milk of the Moon". The fantasy has ended in pregnancy, and the speaker is disillusioned. Interestingly, this comes after fragment VIII, which seems to show the speaker's state of mind post-impregnation:
"I am the jealous store-house of the candle-ends
That lit your adolescent learning
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
Behind God's eyes
There might
Be other lights"
This fragment features some bitterness on the part of the speaker for her involvement in the young man's "adolescent learning", for which she pays the price and for which she is the "store-house," the pregnant uterus. The last three lines also speak to the disillusionment in the cosmic love fantasy: "Behind God's eyes/There might/Be other lights".

This theme continues in XI: "Dear one at your mercy/Our Universe/Is only/ A colorless onion/You derobe/Sheath by sheath/ Remaining/A disheartening odour/About your nervy hands". The cosmic love universe is an onion, the boy smells funny, and his hands shake. The last stanzas of fragment XIII show a conflict between the cosmic love fantasy and the patriarchal realities as the two young lovers struggle to understand what they're doing:
"Where two or three are welded together
They shall become god
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- ---
Oh that's right
Keep away from me Please give me a push
Don't let me understand you Don't realise me
Or we might tumble together
Into the terrific Nirvana
Me you -- you -- me"
The third possible person for welding refers to the fetus, the child. In the last stanza there's this fear of depersonalization, of losing identity. Pietroiusti argues that this fear is the man's fear rather than the female speaker's, based on the conversational rhetoric: "Oh that's right" (34). This is supported by the "Please give me a push," which seems to indicate that the female speaker is unwilling to keep this barrier between them. Like Dworkin, the speaker sees sex in which two bodies become one as ideal: "Where two or three are welded together/They shall become god".

I had trouble identifying themes in the beginning, but the more I read "Songs" the more there is. There is so much more to discuss, and if I were writing a paper on this set of poems (which I very well might) I could go on forever; but for the sake of this post I'll start to wrap things up. There are multiple references to the abortion of the unplanned pregnancy, which features in the linear story but which really deserves its own examination. One of the last fragments, XXIX, appears to look back remorsefully and plea for the prevention of young love.
"Let them clash together
From their incognitoes
In seismic orgasm

For far further
Rather than watch
Own-self distortion
Wince in the alien ego"
The fragment pleas against the merging, welding love earlier favored--probably because in this instance, it failed, and the speaker's disillusionment with the cosmic love fantasy is complete. The last fragment is the title of this entry: "Love -- -- -- the preeminent litterateur". The speaker is resigned to the idea that all of this has resulted in a good story.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


So tonight, we're moving on to some chapters from Luce Irigaray's This Sex Which Is Not One. The book is primarily a critique of Freud's psychoanalysis by Irigaray as a modern psychoanalyst. I'm not terribly interested in psychoanalysis personally, though the intellectual relationship between Freud and Irigaray is interesting. That aside, as I read more, a pattern emerges that's also consistent with Dworkin's work. This pattern is two-fold:

1. Female sexuality is constructed in terms of male sexuality.

We talked in the last entry about how women's bodies are designed to be entered by the penis, thus giving men irrefutable dominance. For Dworkin, this biological arrangement of intercourse created the basis for women's status as inferior to men. Irigaray takes a psychological approach, characterizing the penis as "active" and the vagina as "passive." Even the "activity" of the clitoris is attributed to its status as a little penis.
"In these terms, woman's erogenous zones never amount to anything but a clitoris-sex that is not comparable to the noble phallic organ, or a hole-envelope that serves to sheathe and massage the penis in intercourse: a non-sex, or a masculine organ turned back upon itself, self-embracing" (23).
Fairly self-explanatory. We've all heard this argument before.

2. Male pleasure precludes female pleasure.

Irigaray addresses the above problem of phallomorphism with the concept of female autoeroticism: "Woman "touches herself" all the time, and moreover no one can forbid her to do so, for her genitals are formed of two lips in continuous contact" (24). So, far from being passive, the labia and vaginal walls participate in constant self-caress. Now, obviously we're not all in a constant state of arousal because of this perpetual touch; rather it represents the plurality and fullness of female sexuality and being. When Irigaray chose the title C'est sexe qui n'en pas un, she meant that women have more than one sexual organ; a biological truth often neglected in phallocentric discourse.

Male pleasure is that phallocentric discourse: its focus is penetration, the envelopment of the penis. As we discussed before, penetration for Dworkin represents the invasion of the female body. For Irigaray, penetration disrupts the autoeroticism described above:
"the brutal separation of the two lips by a violating penis, an intrusion that distracts and deflects the woman from this "self-caressing" she needs if she is not to incur the disappearance of her own pleasure in sexual relations" (24).
For both authors, male pleasure, derived from the penetration of women, precludes female sexual pleasure by depriving her of self-caress, by invading her inner being as experienced through her body--or often by simply not lasting long enough.

Like I said, psychoanalysis isn't really my thing, but these two ideas can be related to other discourses. The first one still seems like a hot topic; the second one is perhaps a little less relevant by today's standards, what with the expansion of sexual positions that give women more control and by the growing societal acceptance of female masturbation. Ah, well; take it for what you will.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Violation and the Power of the Female Orgasm

"Violation is a synonym for intercourse" (154).

So says Andrea Dworkin in today's chapter from Intercourse, "Occupation/Collaboration." In this chapter, she begins her discussion of the body by saying that it is inviolate. Women, however, are penetrated during intercourse, and that "The discourse of male truth--literature, science, philosophy, pornography--calls that penetration violation. [...] At the same time, the penetration is taken to be a use, not an abuse; a normal use; it is appropriate to enter her, to push into ("violate") the boundaries of her body" (154). Women's bodies are designed to be entered; the vagina is like a curtain, which, even when closed, can be easily pushed open.

Female roles, social and biological, have been built around this assumption that penetration/violation of women is "normal" and "appropriate." If we think of it in the basest terms, it is only through penetration of women that the human race can continue; therefore, it is necessary to some degree. For hundreds of years, into the present even, women are defined by their childbearing ability, but the reproductive power has only in the last few decades been given to women. Previous to widespread birth control and pro-choice laws, it was men who controlled which women they penetrated and impregnated. Marriages and pregnancies were economic. A woman's purpose was fulfilled by the penetration of her by a man.
"There is a deep recognition in culture and in experience that intercourse is both the normal use of a woman, her human potentiality affirmed by it, and a violative abuse, her privacy irredeemably compromised, her selfhood changed in a way that is irrevocable, unrecoverable. And it is recognized that the use and abuse are not distinct phenomena but somehow a synthesized reality: both are true at the same time as if they were one harmonious truth instead of mutually exclusive contradictions" (154).
Yet, as Dworkin points out in the above, society also recognizes that penetration changes a woman. There are psychological components to having something inside oneself. Sometimes they're positive, with feelings of welcoming, trust, fulfillment, satisfaction, intimacy. Sometimes, they're negative: violation, pain, invasion, betrayal, derogation, humiliation. As modern women, we tend to think of the distinction as clear, with laws of consent and such; but is it? Remember the "Hazards of Duke" article: Karen Owen was humiliated by a one-night stand she consented to. Even with a partner one trusts, some positions and methods of intercourse are considered more derogatory to women than others by society.
"...that slit that means entry into her--intercourse--appears to be the key to women's lower human status" (155).
As I said earlier, women are designed to be entered, occupied, as it were--and Dworkin likens the situation to occupied countries, dominated by a foreign army. Out in the world, it's all political, superficial even, but when used metaphorically to describe the situation of women it is intrinsic. Unlike an occupied country or subjected race/ethnicity, women can't throw off male occupation, refuse male penetration, without being viewed as deviant. "Intercourse is a particular reality for women as an inferior class; and it has in it, as part of it, violation of boundaries, taking over, occupation, destruction of privacy, all of which are constructed to be normal and also fundamental to continuing human existence" (156).

So what can we do about this? If women are biologically made to be dominated, how can we be free, equal? Dworkin quotes another feminist and sex researcher Shere Hite, who argues that it's through orgasm: "the ability to orgasm when we want, to be in charge of our stimulation, represents owning our bodies, being strong, free, and autonomous human beings" (158). Interestingly, Dworkin does not discuss this quote--I guess she's more interesting in doom-and-glooming--but I find it to be one of the most important things in this chapter.

The female orgasm is a strange and mysterious thing. It seems impossible to quantify; you just know when it happens. These days it seems to be sought by men and women alike ("Was it good for you, babe?" You know what I mean), but in the past it was largely ignored, passed over, or diagnosed as hysteria. Remember Lady Chatterley's Lover, and the modern women who had to be "active" if they wanted to achieve orgasm. Connie (at least in the beginning of the novel, before she submits to rough male domination) seems like someone Dworkin would approve of: a woman who keeps herself aloof from sexual submission and who takes charge of her own stimulation when the man falls limp.

Fundamentally, female orgasm means that we're getting something out of sex too; it's not just the man invading and taking what he wants. It becomes two people working together so that both can be satisfied. In terms of give and take, female orgasm means that we're taking something from the man/he's giving us something too. It creates balance. So I agree with Hite: orgasm returns our bodies to us--so go ye forth and be satisfied, ladies.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


This week, we're reading selections from Intercourse, by Andrea Dworkin (referenced in at least one, if not both, of the Atlantic articles from last week), This Sex Which Is Not One, by Luce Irigaray, and if we have time, the last chapter of James Joyce's Ulysses.

The first chapter we're reading from Intercourse is called "Skinless," which is needless to say an attractive image to start off with. Dworkin's powerfully sensual style lends itself to descriptions of how the skin dissolves in the act of sex. The skin represents physical boundaries and personal identity, both of which are lost during intercourse: "The skin is separation, individuality, the basis for corporeal privacy and also the point of contact for everything outside the self" (26-27).

So that's the title of the chapter. As it relates to sex and sexuality, nakedness reduces us to our most basic humanity: "Sex is the dim echo of that original nakedness, primal, before anything else that is also human" (27). According to Dworkin, men and women respond differently to nakedness:
"The men are tortured in their minds by the meaning of being naked, especially by the literal nakedness of women but also by their own nakedness: what it means to be seen and to be vulnerable. [...] The women are at ease being naked. ...being naked does not unnerve or expose her. [...] Men's nakedness is unbearable to them without the nakedness of a woman; men need women to survive their own nakedness" (40-41).
Dworkin maintains that men's inability to reconcile their nakedness is due to their obsession with identity. Men are self-absorbed; therefore, their sex is wrapped up in abstraction, in looking without touching, in thinking rather than feeling. Men can't really touch because touch is real, and what is real may not be what the man wants. Since men can't really touch, they can never really dissolve their skin, lose their boundaries, and fuse with another person. Throughout the chapter Dworkin examines these ideas in the work of author Kobo Abe, and one of her examples is a man who barricaded a woman in a house with him and shut off the electricity so that in the dark, as long as he didn't touch her, he could pretend she was naked and be comforted, because:
"The women are the escape route from mental self-absorption into reality: they are the world, connection, contact, touch, feeling, what is real, the physical, what is true outside the frenetic self-involvement of the men, the convulsions of their passionate self-regard" (42).
So female sexuality, female nakedness, is earthly and corporeal. Women live in the body while men live in the mind, according to Dworkin. This is interesting to consider because depending on the context, this is either in keeping or in opposition to the widely held belief. Our modern romantic ideas perpetuate the image of women being the aloof lover, the abstracting lover. Women relent to men's demands of physicality indifferently, reluctantly, and only partially. Men require touch and body and often don't think beyond it. However, in religious stories like that of Eve, Lilith, and Mary Magdalene, and in historical perceptions of women, the idea that females were constantly at risk of falling off a sexual precipice prevails. Men were enlightened, rational, leading "the mental life," while women were emotional, subject to fits of hysteria (in other words, excessively physical) and had to be chaperoned whenever men were present lest they abandon themselves to passion.