I've started to review this book a couple times, and just could not get a grip on it. It's a hard book to review, because it's so piecemeal. Instead o...moreI've started to review this book a couple times, and just could not get a grip on it. It's a hard book to review, because it's so piecemeal. Instead of a single argument or thesis given a book-length treatment, Feminism Unmodified is a series of transcribed speeches grouped by theme. Each one can stand alone, but they overlap a lot with one another in terms of subject matter and the argument they are making. You can read through them all, cover to cover, or you can flip through the book and read them as they pique your interest.
I knew of Catharine MacKinnon before I got this book --- indeed, having heard of her was the reason I got it; the book itself isn't terribly inviting. (Neither is the other book I have of hers, Toward A Feminist Theory of the State. I probably wouldn't have bought either one if I hadn't been introduced to MacKinnon first, through a philosophy class.) I knew that her primary goal in her legal and theoretical writing is to point out that the abstract "person" is a man, and that there are gaps in law and philosophy where the laws and theories that fit around this theorized man don't work as well for women. (There are tons of other kinds of people who don't fit the mold either, and thus are also ill served by existing laws and social theories, but this book only deals with women. Indeed, probably the book's biggest failing is its supposition that women are all failed in the same way by male-dominated, male-defined laws and social structures --- that's where it is most apparent just how old this book is! There's a big difference between, say, a white, middle-class married woman and how the law fails to protect her interests and, say, an undocumented immigrant woman or a transsexual woman or a lesbian or a woman with disabilities whose caregivers live with her or are a party to her major life decisions. The law fails all of these people, and more, some more than others and all in different ways. The study of those differences is called intersectionality*, and it's a pretty big deal in feminism.)
Anyway, on to a more specific discussion of what this book is about. The essays are grouped in three categories --- Approaches, Applications and Pornography --- but it seems to me that there's a lot of cross-pollination across categories, especially the first two. I don't know that MacKinnon ever talks about her approach to achieving equality between the sexes without bringing in specific examples, or discusses a particular application of her ideas without rehashing the general theory. The third section of the book stands out a little more from the others, since it has a much more specific aim: making the case that pornography isn't speech, but actual violence against women. (This is another thing that most feminists today seem to consider dated and wrong, but I find it persuasive.)
In the first part, Approaches, there are five essays. The first one is a defense of the Equal Rights Amendment (which still hasn't passed, a generation later) given as part of a debate with Phyllis Schlafly. The second talks about how MacKinnon sees the relationship between the sexes: to her, "gender" is not the social roles built on top of naturally occurring sex differences, but is instead a violently imposed hierarchy of male over female. The third piece covers similar ground, but it does so differently, in more philosophical terms. It was derived from a talk she gave at a Marxist conference, so there's a lot of reference to the Marxist doctrine of class struggle, which she uses to describe her understanding of the relation between the sexes. Man is capital, woman is labor, and they are in conflict over the means of (re)production. The last two essays are a bit random; one of them could fit just as easily in the second part, as it is an analysis of one particular court case, and the other deals with what it's like being a woman in the male-dominated legal profession, and how the success of a few women in male-dominated fields doesn't change anything for women as a whole.
The essays in the second part, Applications, are less theoretical and more concrete and specific. They also deal more with specific points of law than they do with any broad philosophical framework. The first one talks about rape, and why so few women report their rapes; the second one (which is actually pretty philosophical; it could fit in just as easily in the first section) about areas of overlap between sex and violence (MacKinnon, unlike some, sees rape, sexual harassment and sexual assault as both violent and sexual acts); the third is a long dissertation on Roe v. Wade and why MacKinnon thinks it was a bad idea to base Roe on the right to privacy rather than on the right to equal protection under the law; the fourth is about sexual harassment, and looking back on how sexual harassment has been prosecuted since it was first defined as a crime; and the last one is about Title IX and the importance of sports in helping women understand that their bodies are their own.
The third part, Pornography, is about ... you know what it's about. More specifically, it's about Deep Throat, and what it means that Linda Lovelace has said she was forced to perform in it. (MacKinnon says it means that Deep Throat is not mere speech, but the record of a crime, and itself an act of violence against its unwilling star). It's also about Playboy, and why MacKinnon thinks feminist organizations need to stop taking money from the Playboy Foundation. Another essay, "Not a Moral Issue," revisits in broader, more philosophical terms the same points made in the brief discussion of Deep Throat: pornography is not just speech, and obscenity law is irrelevant to what MacKinnon sees as the central harms of pornography, which are 1) direct harms done to the performers themselves, who may, like Linda Lovelace, have been forced to perform; and 2) indirect harms to all other women who have to deal with men who watch pornography and think of all women in pornographic terms. She explores this latter idea more in another long essay, "Francis Biddle's Sister," in which she riffs on Virginia Woolf's conception of Shakespeare's sister, talking about all the ways that rape culture hems women in and makes them divert energy that could be used to do great things into simple survival, and into trying to avoid being victimized. Another essay deals with the ordinance MacKinnon wrote with Andrea Dworkin, which would enable women to sue for damages if they thought they'd been victimized by pornography, and the last one addresses the Supreme Court decision that found that ordinance unconstitutional because it violated the First Amendment. MacKinnon is not a First Amendment absolutist, and she thinks it's wrong that one person's freedom to make pornography should supercede another person's right to be compensated for wrongs that she can attribute to the first person's exercise of said freedom. For the longest time I thought I was a First Amendment absolutist, that words were only words and they ought to be protected because they can't really hurt you and they are the one thing the least powerful people can use as effectively as the most powerful, so they deserve to be as unrestricted as possible, but lately I've been reconsidering the part about how they can't really hurt anyone. MacKinnon's writing is one of the first things that made me start to question that.
*There is one essay where she deals with this: "Whose Culture?", where she talks about a 1978 court case involving a Native American woman who was trying to get her children recognized as members of her tribe --- a right that, at the time (I don't know how it stands now), only applied to men who married outside the tribe.(less)
In the introduction to this collection of essays, Susan Bordo names Foucault as the primary influence on her thought, and on the ideas she explores he...moreIn the introduction to this collection of essays, Susan Bordo names Foucault as the primary influence on her thought, and on the ideas she explores here. As soon as I read that, I said "Oh, no. That's a bad sign," fearing that the book would be too postmodern for me. Happily, it's not. The writing is clear, engaging and fairly accessible (it can still be slow going, especially in the final three essays which deal specifically with postmodernism), and she does actually make recognizable, clearly-stated arguments in every one of her essays, as opposed to much of postmodernist writing, which spends most of its time studiously avoiding argument. (Harrumph!)
Anyway, most of the book has little to do with postmodernism at all; it's a discussion of the body in Western culture, particularly at the time the book was written (early 1990s), though it also makes reference to earlier historical periods. Much time is spent discussing eating disorders as logical outgrowths of contemporary society's conflicting attitudes toward appetites --- we still honor the Protestant work ethic of delayed gratification and self-denial, but our economy has shifted to one dependent on lots of consumer spending. Until recently, we solved that problem by making men the producers and (middle- and upper-class) women the consumers (in the housewife role), but with the second wave of feminism that dichotomy collapsed. Bordo also draws a connection between historical periods of greater social and political freedom for women and more-restrictive beauty standards.
What I liked most about her cultural explanations for eating disorders and the thin ideal is her refusal to limit herself to one "reading" of thinness. She prioritizes the different readings, of course --- she would have to, in order to avoid incoherence --- but she recognizes that beauty ideals say a lot of different things about the culture from which they come. To women who embrace the thin ideal, it's not just about looking like the models in the ads; it's also about repudiating maternity as the only destiny a woman can have, and claiming historically "masculine" virtues (those aforementioned traits of self-denial and striving) as one's own. She emphasizes, however, that these are just another aspect of the still-rigid, and still-unequal gender binary: extreme thinness is about repudiating what makes the body characteristically feminine, just as much female success is (still) achieved at the cost of uncritically accepting, and forcing oneself into, the masculine mold.(less)