What She Said

Shulamith Firestone is one of those super-scary 70s feminists, the kind people seem to carry with them as proof that feminists are castrating harpies. (Strawman! Drink!)  Firestone was a revolutionary, and The Dialectic of Sex (1970) calls for nothing less than dismantling the entire notion of "family" and complete freedom from biology to release women from second-class status. It hasn't happened, but you get the feeling she really thought it might.

But Firestone isn't scary at all.  Like a lot of works that go out on a limb, The Dialectic of Sex would have been threatening to a patriarchy intent on retaining power.  She was also writing from a Marxist perspective in a country that had gone on a communist witch hunt 20 years earlier.  I read about half of the book many many years ago, and the idea that women are controlled because we are the means of production, has always stayed with me.  I'm sure it informed my later choices about family. 

Firestone rejected the idea that the 60s had liberated women's sexuality, insisting that all it had done was make sex more readily available for men, who could then refuse women their only protection in a still oppressive world: marriage.  Why buy the cow?  And why are we cows anyway?

Very little has changed since Firestone wrote, and some things have gotten worse.  Female Chauvinist Pigs is a good contemporary examination of the idea that liberating women's sexuality isn't -- in many ways -- really for us.  The ideas of acceptable beauty have gotten narrower -- as have our acceptable bodies.  And with the rise of attachment parenting, women are being taught that returning home for 24/7 parenting is the ideal.

Firestone's work  is learned, serious, well-informed and solidly researched, but with the ability to imagine wildly and vividly.  She's also funny, which is unexpected.  After re-shaping Freud's Oedipal and Electra complex as a societal, rather than inbuilt unconscious phenomenon, she says:  "Really, Freud can get embarrassing." She was 25 when she wrote Dialectic.

But the point I wanted to get to, is about the chapter entitled "(Male) Culture."  It begins with an epigraph from Simone de Beauvoir:
Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.
Given the time I've spent thinking and writing about the nature of criticism (and the sometimes sexist responses that follow) over the weekend, it was significant that I'd read the following paragraph today:
We may also see a feminist Criticism, emphasizing, in order to correct, the various forms of sex bias now corrupting art.  However, [with] that art which is guilty only of reflecting the human price of a sex-divided reality, great care would have to be taken that criticism be directed, not at the artists for their (accurate) portrayal of the imperfect reality, but at the grotesqueness of that reality itself as revealed by the art.  

1 comment:

KarenB said...

Can't believe I missed this book. I think I'll track it down. You are killing it with the Smiths/Moz references. Carry on!