March 24, 2004

Unwanted sexual advances and creating a phallic mythos

Posted by shonk at 12:42 AM in Feminism | TrackBack

Laura Kipnis asks a very interesting question: “Are onetime ‘unwanted advances’ really a feminist issue?” With Naomi Wolf’s recent revelations about Harold Bloom’s advances some twenty years ago as a starting point, Kipnis wonders whether some context isn’t being dropped from this sort of story:

Is something being left out of the story, though? Do the recipients not wield just a tiny bit of power in such situations—the power to reject and humiliate the advancer, at the very least? And these days, given the moral high ground the accusers seem to occupy, there’s another form of power to consider: the power of public disgrace—available even when the accuser’s motives are ambiguous.

Certainly Wolf’s belated response to Bloom’s conduct is restricted to a single note: outrage at how it disempowered and demeaned her. But why was this strikingly unattractive but very intelligent man’s desire to get in her pants so demeaning? Did she, perhaps, accord him more power in her mind than he deserved? Kipnis certainly seems to think so:

One of the interesting contradictions of Wolf-and-Jones-style feminism is its apparent thralldom to the phallic mythos it’s also so deeply offended by. Wolf describes becoming “sick with excitement” when Bloom agreed to read her poetry. Why? Exactly because he was a charismatic and famous guy, because she wanted his approval, and wanted to be found attractive (as she relates in a thinly fictionalized account of the episode in her memoir Promiscuities). And let’s face it: The sexual privilege that accrues to Important Men accrues for exactly this reason.

Kipnis strays from this theme a bit, but I think it’s a very interesting question. One that, admittedly, I’m not completely qualified to answer. In fact, part of my reason for posting this is to try to peer-pressure Petya into responding, since she’s thought a lot more about these issues than I have.

Anyway, as for my opinion, I don’t think it’s at all improbable that, in devoting so much time and effort to denouncements of “masculine power” and the “male-dominated power structure”, some feminists have actually accorded more power to the men than the men actually have. After all, it’s one thing to have to deal with guys that are jerks, or to recognize that men tend to have better jobs and more choices than women; it’s quite another to stipulate that society is inherently masculine or that some secret male conspiracy has seized control of the world and will never relinquish it. The first scenario is one that invites action, awareness and constructive work for a positive change, whereas the second engenders fatalism, cynicism and defeatism. After all, if the men have rigged the world so that women will always be subjugated, what’s the use in fighting it?

To bring it back to Kipnis’ assertion and Wolf, if you’ve been inculcated with the notion that males have an almost mythical power for shaping and determining the world, isn’t it pretty natural to be in thrall of that power and that myth, to turn to it for validation? After all, humans seem to be innately drawn to the mythical, to that which, rightly or wrongly, they perceive as having abilities and powers beyond their own. And note that a myth need not be associated with something good or benevolent: the comic-book supervillian is as much myth as the comic-book superhero. And, come to think of it, the supervillian usually gets more women than the superhero.

My point is, I don’t think it unlikely that some feminists have, by way of their ideology, made myths of men and male power by mentally granting them more influence than they deserve and that this mythology has made those women more vulnerable to precisely that which they fight. It is, of course, not my intent to paint all feminists with this brush, as many certainly don’t fall into this category, but nor would it be reasonable to confine this analysis (assuming it’s correct, of course), to feminists alone. One would expect minority activists, environmentalists, libertarians, communists, anarchists and pretty much every other primarily single-issue dissenting group to be susceptible to the same sort of thing.

(Link courtesy John Venlet)


I note that while American and European feminists pursue more and more miniscule gains here, nary a peep of sympathy (relatively speaking) is to be heard for women in societies that do not enjoy two centuries of expansion of legal rights for women behind them. The upheavals in Iran, Afghanistan, India, etc. are passing to profound silence from women in this country, which will resound to their shame in the coming years.

Posted by: Curt at March 24, 2004 04:34 PM