In the decade preceding her death, Andrea Dworkin's critique of pornography and the objectification of women was largely confined to college women studies classes. Her fate parallels that of Catherine McKinnon, Kate Millet, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and even Susan Faludi, all of whose feminist analyses have shifted from the center of mainstream debate to the periphery. It would be nice to think that Dworkin's death would revive mainstream interest in feminism, but questioning male power remains off-limits in America today.
Andrea Dworkin was too angry and unphotogenic to be a mainstream media spokesperson for feminism, but she became widely known in an era in which counter-cultural analyses penetrated national debates. Dworkin's equation of intercourse with rape, her link between pornography and violence, and her challenge to the prevailing wisdom regarding women's progress were widely discussed in the 1980's but have even disappeared from progressive debate today.
While Ronald Reagan's economic and social policies have lived on in the Bush Administration, and now dominate the national political agenda, the feminist critique of American culture that emerged during the same era has been largely erased from progressive politics. Today, anyone claiming that "The Personal is Political" reveals themselves to be at least over fifty years of age.
In the early 1970's, the alternative weekly, the Berkeley Barb, saw its staff split in a vicious dispute over the paper's decision to run pornography advertisements. Female writers and their supporters saw such ads as degrading to women, and contrary to the feminism the paper allegedly espoused.
Today, few think twice about the San Francisco Bay Guardian's heavy reliance on pornography ads, and on strippers and escort service layouts showing semi-nude women in positions far beyond what appeared in the Barb. Industries that Dworkin and others saw as degrading and antithetical to a feminist agenda now subsidize alternative weeklies with a progressive, pro-choice, pro-equal pay editorial slant.
In the Bay Area in particular, pornography and stripping is seen by many as part of the late-80's, early-90's "sex-positive" feminism promoted by Naomi Wolf and others. Wolf's belief that feminism should move beyond Dworkin's "woman as victim" analysis may or may not have been correct; but it is unfortunate that mainstream America, including progressives, has abandoned the entire debate over pornography and the commercial objectification of women.
Stripping is so politically correct that Berkeley High School boys from progressive families think nothing about going to strip clubs as a right of passage when they turn 18. The official silence among Bay Area progressives regarding stripping ensures that the women are more likely to be seen as union activists-at least at Lusty Lady-than as victims of child abuse and drug addictions.
During the 1980's, McKinnon and Dworkin toured the country to build support for an anti-pornography ordinance that nearly became law in Minneapolis. The sponsors' claim of a porn-violence link was challenged by many feminists, but the ordinance raised important questions about the social impact of sexist imagery that now only occurs-in a twisted and repressive context---among the religious right.
The issue is not whether one agrees with Dworkin's often radical views on gender dynamics; rather, it is the lack of any societal debate on even the most egregious examples of gender bias.
For example, it was recently noted that the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Time each have one female columnist and eight-ten men in that role. The Times' Maureen Dowd wrote a column about this, a few other media outlets discussed it, and then the issue quietly disappeared.
Similarly, once a year, around Oscar time, the media notes the paucity of female directors of studio-financed films. The only woman ever nominated for Best Director was Francis Ford Coppola's daughter, and few believe she would be directing major films if she were not related to a multiple Oscar-winner.
The lack of female directors, the killing of actresses' careers once they hit forty, the ability of Danny De Vito to get acting roles when a short, overweight woman would not get an audition---these are the type of issues that Dworkin, Faludi and others once forced society to address but which are now off the table.
Violence against women, Dworkin's longtime focus, is about as far removed from the mainstream media debate as any subject. No matter how many Scott Peterson trials occur, the media reduces each case to its individual facts and avoids asking why the most likely way for an American woman under 50 to die is murder by a man---and typically a man she knows.
The fundamental "problem" with feminist theory was that it ran headfirst into the demands of capitalism. The capitalist economy depends on women spending their disposable income on clothes, make-up, body creams, and other products. Feminist theory questioned the advertising industry's creation of a trillion-dollar female "insecurity" market, so feminism had to be marginalized.
Gloria Steinem has noted that when Ms. Magazine had 500,000 subscribers (more than double The Nation's current total), even advertisers with no connection to cosmetics or any product criticized in Ms. resisted placing ads. Corporate America did not want Ms. to succeed, and they succeeded in marginalizing what was America's most successful progressive publication of the past three decades.
In contrast, the next issue of Oprah Winfrey's women's magazine will have 404 pages, half of them advertising. Subscribers will receive a free book of Oprah's maxims along with the mammoth issue, and the book's cost is being underwritten by an exclusive advertising agreement with the Dove soap company.
It's hard to imagine Dworkin, Friedan, Faludi or even Steinem peddling soap, and you can be sure that no feminist will asked for their view of Oprah's latest promotion.