In​ 1987, when Andrea Dworkin appeared on the Phil Donahue Show to promote the publication of her book Intercourse, a woman in the audience asked her, with a mixture of incredulity, concern and contempt: ‘What tragic thing happened in your life that made you feel this way?’ The audience hooted with laughter. Dworkin laughed for a moment too, in exasperation, and then turned serious:

When we read the work of male writers they can have had terrible and tragic lives and we read their books for what they give us. And I want you to read my book for what it can give you. And forget about me and just read the book, because the book matters.

Dworkin’s books do matter. They contain certain truths, of the kind many women recognise as they hear them, about the bewildering ubiquity of sexual violence, the lie this violence gives to the promise of women’s equality, and the continuities between the most grotesque aspects of women’s treatment at the hands of men and the more quotidian assaults on dignity with which nearly all women are intimately familiar. Dworkin’s books speak in a singularly powerful voice: she is one of the more under-appreciated prose stylists in postwar American writing. Her books matter too in the more straightforward sense that they have been of real material consequence. Through them, Dworkin helped shape the trajectory of American feminism, giving definitive expression to the radical feminist tenet that sexual domination was the beating heart of patriarchy, and placing the legal battle against rape, domestic violence, sex work and above all pornography at the top of the feminist agenda.

Since the rise of Trump and MeToo, and in the context of a broader disenchantment with the ‘sex positive’ feminism that was in the ascendancy by the end of the 1980s, Dworkin is being rediscovered – and rehabilitated – by a new generation of young women. The publication in 2019 of an edited volume of Dworkin’s writings, Last Days at Hot Slit, prompted several reviewers to declare that Dworkin was the feminist we now need: to express our collective disappointment with the state of contemporary heterosexuality, and to understand why it is that, after all this time, so many men appear still to hate women.

The clip from Donahue appears ten minutes before the end of My Name Is Andrea, Pratibha Parmar’s new documentary about Dworkin (its executive producer is Amy Scholder, one of the editors of Last Days at Hot Slit). That Dworkin is a feminist for our time is a conviction that Parmar clearly shares. Her previous documentaries include Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth (2014) and Warrior Marks (1993), based on a book she co-authored with Walker about female genital mutilation. My Name Is Andrea is a synthesis of original archival material of Dworkin, mostly from her frequent TV and radio appearances (she had bills to pay, but also an admirable willingness to speak to unreceptive audiences), together with scenes in which Dworkin is portrayed by various actors, including Ashley Judd and Amandla Stenberg (Rue from The Hunger Games). The film opens with Judd, in Dworkin’s familiar overalls but with rather less frizzy hair, speaking feelingly to camera in lines drawn from Dworkin’s semi-autobiographical novel Mercy (1990):

My nom de guerre is Andrea One. I was born in Camden, on Mickle Street, down from where Walt Whitman, the great grey poet, lived, a visionary, a prophet of love; and I loved, according to his poems. I had a vision too, like his, but I will never write a poem like his, a song of myself.

Next Stenberg speaks from behind a net curtain. ‘My name is Andrea,’ she says. ‘It means manhood, or courage.’ Finally, the French singer-songwriter Soko, leaning against a tree, pencil and paper in hand, tells us that her name is Andrea too. As the film proceeds, there are visual allusions to contemporary feminist touchstones including MeToo, Sarah Everard and the ‘Femicidio es Genocidio’ protest in Argentina, all overlaid by audio recordings of Dworkin. The suggestion is that Dworkin’s writings and ideas transcend the conditions that produced them: so much so that they speak for all women, even decades later. (In response to a negative review of Intercourse in the New York Times, Dworkin wrote: ‘I will check back in a decade to see what you all think.’) Dworkin, here, is both feminist prophet and Everywoman; we are all named Andrea.

The structure of My Name Is Andrea – part traditional documentary, part experimental biopic – honours Dworkin’s request that we read her books for what they give us, rather than what they might reveal to us about Dworkin. But the problem with this request, and so with any effort to accede to it, is that Dworkin’s books are so unabashedly formed out of the particular, and darkest, stuff of her life. Mercy, the novel from which the opening lines of the film are drawn, is a Bildungsroman in which a woman named Andrea explains how, through long experience of male violence, she became a murderer of men. Dworkin wasn’t a murderer, but it was long experience of male violence that transformed her from a precocious and outspoken child with a love of poetry (Baudelaire, Ginsberg) into an icon of feminist rage. At nine, alone in a movie theatre, she was sexually molested by a stranger. At eighteen, arrested for attending an anti-Vietnam War protest, she was violently sexually assaulted by two doctors in a women’s detention centre. A few years later, she moved to Amsterdam and married an anarchist who subjected her repeatedly to acts of domestic violence; after she divorced him he continued to stalk her and beat her. In need of money to escape back to the US, she turned to sex work, something she had done intermittently since high school – and which she would later describe as a series of rapes. My Name Is Andrea gives us glimpses of all these formative episodes, with the curious exception of Dworkin’s experience of sex work. (The film also glosses over the fact that Dworkin’s life partner of more than thirty years, John Stoltenberg, was and remains an openly gay man – so it ends up suggesting, inadvertently, that Dworkin made some sort of peace with heterosexuality.) We see and hear Dworkin describing these assaults and the significance they had for her, and watch as they are restaged by the actors in the film. In this way, her personal history is made exemplary of the female condition.

This appears to have been Dworkin’s own view. In the early 1970s, when Dworkin was fleeing her abusive ex, a feminist friend gave her the writings of early radical US feminists, including Kate Millett and Shulamith Firestone, as well as Robin Morgan’s edited volume of women’s liberation movement literature, Sisterhood is Powerful. This prompted Dworkin to vow, she later recounted, to use ‘everything I knew, including from prostitution, to make the women’s movement stronger and better … I’d give my life to the movement and for the movement.’ For Dworkin, her own life – ‘everything I knew’ – was the evidentiary base of her writing. From it, she ‘knew’ that prostitution was rape, that pornography was akin to Nazi propaganda, that men’s drive to sexually dominate lay at the base of women’s oppression, that the women who practised penetrative sex with men were patriarchal collaborators. She was gripped by the ‘conviction’ that what had happened to her ‘wasn’t really so personal’ but was, rather, a transparent window to a wholly general reality: ‘What was happening to me was happening to all of the women that I knew.’ It was for this reason that her ‘autobiography’ could legitimately serve as the ‘unseen foundation’ of her attempt to theorise the totality of relations between women and men.

It is Dworkin’s unalterable conviction that gives her prose its ringing, prophetic quality. Style was, for her, ultimately a political question, about finding a form of ‘prose more terrifying than rape, more abject than torture, more insistent and destabilising than battery, more desolate than prostitution, more invasive than incest, more filled with threat and aggression than pornography’. In an otherwise critical review of Mercy, the New York Times praised Dworkin’s book for, ‘unlike any antipornography text’, ‘defeat[ing] prurience’. Dworkin’s ‘stylistic breathlessness – repetition, rhythm, loss of control – conveys not rising passion’ the review went on, ‘but the desperate need to have the violence end.’ Yet, crucial as her certainty was to her prose and her politics, it is not at all clear that Dworkin was justified in feeling it.

Certainly it is clear that we today are not. Sexual violence is ubiquitous, and for many women it feels like the defining condition and the deepest reality of their lives. But that feeling, like all appeals to personal experience, can obscure as much as it reveals. What do we make of the poor women, especially poor immigrant women and poor women of colour, for whom increased susceptibility to violence is a symptom of structures of oppression from which the men in their lives also, if differentially, suffer? Did Dworkin herself not see the contradiction between her unjust arrest and subsequent rape at the hands of the state, and her apparent faith that this same coercive apparatus could be wrangled into the service of women? Even if we grant, with Dworkin and other radical feminists, that sex work cannot be understood outside the frame of gendered hierarchy, what does it mean to ignore sex workers’ near-universal insistence that the criminalisation of their trade makes their lives less liveable?

Above all, what does it mean to join forces with those on the political right, as Dworkin did in her legislative battle against pornography, and to call on a reactionary state to do one’s feminist bidding? (In 1992, the Canadian Supreme Court, invoking the rationale developed by Dworkin and her anti-porn collaborator Catharine MacKinnon in their effort to make pornographers liable to civil suits, expanded Canada’s obscenity laws to criminalise pornography that was violent, degrading or dehumanising. Within months, Canadian police seized copies of Bad Attitude, a magazine of lesbian erotic fiction, from Canada’s first gay and lesbian bookstore, which was found guilty of criminal obscenity.) These questions are not posed by My Name Is Andrea, and to do so would complicate the film’s reverent attitude. But they should be, and increasingly are, questions for us today. It is perhaps for this reason that the film’s scenes in which Dworkin’s words are spoken by actors never entirely come off – it all feels too performative and mannered, almost schlocky.

By contrast, when the real Andrea comes on screen, she roars. Early on, in one of the film’s most remarkable moments, we see Dworkin in 1992, debating at the Cambridge Union on the topic of ‘political correctness’. She opens by paraphrasing James Baldwin on the way European immigrants, however ‘despised’ they had been in the old country, were endowed, on arrival in the US, with whiteness: ‘They immediately had a leg up because the bottom was fixed and the bottom was Black.’ The only equality the American founding fathers cared about, Dworkin tells the assembled students – mostly male and many of them in dinner jackets – was ‘an equality among rich white men’. This left out most people: white women, men and women of colour, and ‘the survivors of that slaughter of the Indigenous peoples’. It constituted an assault on their ‘freedom, legal and social rights, self-determination, self-sovereignty’. And, what’s more:

Leaving out most people also meant that the society did not use or acknowledge or respect the creativity of most people, the intelligence of most people, the life experience of most people, the inventiveness, the originality, the perspective, the purpose, the insight of most people.

‘Do you hear the silence?’ Dworkin bellows to the students, as if truly longing for a reply. ‘Do you understand the loss that I am talking about? Can you feel what is missing, what is not there?’

Like many of the prominent feminists of her generation, Dworkin was a woman of abundant intellectual and creative gifts. And, as with many of the other brilliant women of her generation, the shape those gifts would take, and the uses to which they would be put, was largely determined by a confrontation with male supremacy and the emerging battle against it. Dworkin was not silenced, but neither was she speaking free from political and historical necessity. Responding to the audience member on Donahue who wanted to know what had happened to make her this way, Dworkin noted bitterly that Norman Mailer – at nineteen she had called him ‘America’s most talented novelist’ – was never asked this sort of question, despite his colourful life. (Is ‘colourful’ the right way to describe stabbing your wife at the launch of your own mayoral campaign?) If Dworkin’s point was that all writing is autobiography, then she was right, if only trivially so. She was also right, non-trivially, if her point was that male writers are exempt from the lurid, personal inquisition to which women writers are routinely subjected, on the tacit assumption that men’s experiences reflect the general human condition and so do not stand in need of explanation. But to read Dworkin as we might read Mailer, or another male writer, is to forget the specific ways in which a woman’s life – not just her ‘biography’ or ‘formation’, but the concrete reality of what it is to live out a subordinate role under patriarchy – can set the fate of her intellectual output.

Imagine an Andrea who had, somehow, set it all aside, all the violence and assaults on her dignity: an Andrea who had simply got on, as Dworkin had planned to do as a young girl, with the business of writing poetry, of making something beautiful. This is an Andrea, I think we can say, who would have failed to rise to her moment. But she would have also been, in some ways, freer.

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