Andrea Dworkin Essay - Critical Essays

Dworkin, Andrea (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Introduction

Andrea Dworkin 1946–

American nonfiction writer, novelist, essayist, short story writer, and poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Dworkin's career through 1998. For further information on her life and work, see CLC, Volume 43.

A highly controversial author and activist, Andrea Dworkin is a leading radical feminist and heterodox figure of the contemporary women's movement. Her provocative investigations into the cultural origins of misogyny and sexual violence have generated contentious debate among feminists, academics, politicians, and free speech advocates. A forceful spokesperson against pornography, Dworkin calls attention to the insidious sexual myths that perpetuate the role of women as degraded objects of male gratification and exploitation. Dworkin is best known for her nonfiction analyses Pornography (1981) and Intercourse (1987), as well as several collections of potent essays and speeches and two novels—Ice and Fire (1986) and Mercy (1990)—in which she illustrates the shocking brutality of female subjugation. Alternately revered and reviled for her fire-brand polemics and castigation of mainstream feminists, Dworkin has exerted an important influence on public discourse surrounding the modes, extent, and human cost of male dominated sexuality and female oppression.

Biographical Information

Born in Camden, New Jersey, Dworkin was raised in a liberal Jewish home by her father, a guidance counselor, and mother, a secretary. While still in grade school, Dworkin expressed her desire to affect social change as a writer or lawyer. Her early literary interests were shaped by the writings of Arthur Rimbaud and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and later Virginia Woolf, the Brontës, George Eliot, and revolutionary Che Guevara. Politically active by age eighteen, Dworkin was arrested at an antiwar rally in New York City in 1964. While jailed at the Women's House of Detention, she was sexually assaulted during an invasive body search, prompting her to lead a public demonstration upon her release. Dworkin attended Bennington College in Vermont, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1968 after a one year leave of absence in Greece. Dworkin's writing first appeared in the privately printed volumes Child (1966), a book of poetry produced in Crete, and Morning Hair (1968), which consists of poetry and prose. Disillusioned by American involvement in Vietnam, Dworkin moved to the Netherlands for a five year period after graduating from Bennington. During this time she endured a physically and emotionally abusive marriage to a Dutch man, whom she escaped in 1971 with the help of intervening feminists. Returning to the United States in 1972, Dworkin supported herself as a waitress, receptionist, secretary, salesperson, factory worker, and prostitute while periodically homeless. She was eventually hired as an assistant to poet Muriel Rukeyser while working on her first book, Woman Hating (1974), which she began in Amsterdam. Dworkin was also active in feminist demonstrations and established herself as a powerful speaker at the National Organization for Women's Conference on Sexuality in 1974. Two years later she published Our Blood (1976), a collection of essays and speeches, followed by The New Woman's Broken Heart (1981), a volume of short stories. During the 1980s, Dworkin joined forces with Catharine A. MacKinnon, a law professor at the University of Michigan, to campaign for antipornography legislation. Together they authored an important civil rights ordinance in Minneapolis that recognized pornography as a form of sexual discrimination. The ordinance was passed in 1983 and became a model for similar legislation in other American cities and Canada. Dworkin also appeared before the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography in 1986. Her research and lobbying resulted in Pornography and Pornography and Civil Rights (1988), a collaborative volume with MacKinnon. A frequent lecturer at feminist gatherings and contributor to numerous periodicals, Dworkin also published the book-length studies Right-Wing Women (1983) and Intercourse, the nonfiction collections Letters from a War Zone (1989) and Life and Death (1997), and the novels Ice and Fire and Mercy.

Major Works

The primary subjects of Dworkin's critical studies and fiction—sexual abuse, pornography, and female subordination—are introduced in her first book, Woman Hating. In this work, Dworkin examines the socialization of gender roles and misogyny through analysis of fairy tales and pornographic writings. Such cultural artifacts, according to Dworkin, represent a continuum through which hierarchical heterosexual relationships are prescribed from childhood through adulthood. Her examination of sources ranging from "Snow White" to Pauline Réage's The Story of O demonstrates that women are consistently portrayed as weak, submissive, and despised, reflected in cultural practices such as foot-binding and witch-burning. These themes are expanded upon in Pornography and Intercourse. In Pornography, Dworkin examines the content, social context, and effects of pornography as a tool of male domination over women. Dismissing claims that pornographic writings and images fall under the protected category of free expression, Dworkin asserts that pornography is an exploitative medium of mass propaganda by which the ideology of male supremacy is transmitted. Drawing attention to the victimization of real women who perform in pornographic films, Dworkin contends that the creation of pornography is inseparable from the degradation of women it falsely portrays as fantasy; thus the production of pornography embodies its harmful effect. In Intercourse, Dworkin discusses the physical act of heterosexual intercourse as the quintessential manifestation of male hegemony and female inequality. According to Dworkin, male penetration during copulation signifies possession of the woman, rendering impossible the notion of female liberation or selfhood, as she is compelled to submit to male desire as occupation. Incorporating analysis of religious and legal strictures governing female sexuality and texts by Leo Tolstoy, Kobo Abe, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Gustave Flaubert, Dworkin maintains that—for women—the manipulative, demeaning experience of sexual intercourse precludes mutual respect or integrity. Dworkin's semiautobiographic novels, Ice and Fire and Mercy, give vivid expression to the conclusions in her nonfiction. Ice and Fire relates the experiences of an unnamed young feminist from Camden, New Jersey. She grows up in a work-class Jewish neighborhood, goes to college, marries an abusive husband, and eventually settles in New York City where she lives in squalor, prostitutes, and is brutalized by various men while attempting to write a book. After much difficulty locating a publisher, the protagonist finally gets her book into print, though it flounders due to its spiteful publisher and poor sales. Dworkin's alter ego in Mercy, also a young woman from Camden, is named Andrea. The first person narrative documents a long history of horrific sexual abuse inflicted upon its protagonist, beginning when she was molested in a movie theater at age nine. Andrea is sexually assaulted by sadistic prison doctors, raped and mutilated by her husband, and repeatedly violated while living a bohemian existence in New York City. Her rage finally gives way to retributive violence, leading her to firebomb sex shops and assault homeless men while envisioning an international guerilla war on men. The narrative action is framed by a prologue and epilogue, both entitled "Not Andrea," in which Dworkin parodies her liberal feminist and academic detractors. Dworkin's views on the political, cultural, and physical subjugation of women are further elaborated in the essays, columns, and speeches collected in Our Blood, Letters from a War Zone, and Life and Death. In the nonfiction work Right-Wing Women, written during the early years of the Reagan administration, Dworkin attempts to explain the appeal of the Republican party for women, despite its opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and other legislation to enhance the well-being of women. According to Dworkin, fear of male violence compels many conservative women to relinquish their autonomy for the security of traditional sex roles which demand passivity and subservience. The book was in part an attempt by Dworkin to distance herself from the antipornography advocacy of anti-feminist, religious, and conservative groups such as the Moral Majority.

Critical Reception

Dworkin's compelling examination of sexual politics and pornography is the subject of divisive controversy in academic, political, and feminist circles. Though praised by some for her insightful, groundbreaking analysis of cultural misogyny and sexual exploitation, her detractors typically object to the abrasive presentation of her postulations. Critics frequently complain that Dworkin's bombastic rhetoric distorts and sensationalizes the substance of her findings while alienating much of her audience. Critics also condemn Dworkin's interchangeable use of literal and metaphorical statements and her tendency to construct sweeping generalizations based on overstated or anecdotal evidence. Pornography and Intercourse, her best known and most inflammatory works, are generally recognized as her most important contributions to feminist scholarship. Negative critical response to Intercourse is directed primarily at elements of biological determinism in Dworkin's argument. According to many reviewers, Dworkin reduces the inequality of women to the inevitable anatomical facts of intromission. Though critics often dismiss her methodology and conclusions, many praise her highly perceptive critical analysis of literary sources in Pornography, Intercourse, and Woman Hating. Dworkin's vigilant condemnation of pornography has also caused fissures among feminist activists, especially those reluctant to challenge First Amendment rights. However, Dworkin's focus on pornography as a Fourteenth Amendment infringement instead of an obscenity issue, a strategy formulated with MacKinnon, is considered an important legal maneuver for antipornography advocacy. Dworkin is less appreciated as a novelist. While some reviewers commend her visceral evocation of sexual violence, most find fault in her simplistic prose, undeveloped characters, overt feminist agenda, and graphic sexuality which, as some reviewers note, resembles the pornography she decries. Eschewing theoretical abstractions and the insular ideological battles of academic feminists, Dworkin has won many supporters for her willingness to address distasteful and often overlooked aspects of sexual abuse. A formidable independent thinker and activist, Dworkin is recognized as one of the most articulate and influential voices of contemporary feminism.

Principal Works

Child (poetry) 1966
Morning Hair (poetry and prose) 1968
Woman Hating (nonfiction) 1974
Our Blood: Prophecies and Discourses on Sexual Politics (essays and speeches) 1976
The New Woman's Broken Heart (short stories) 1980
Pornography: Men Possessing Women (nonfiction) 1981
Right-Wing Women: The Politics of Domesticated Females (nonfiction) 1983
Ice and Fire (novel) 1986
Intercourse (nonfiction) 1987
Pornography and Civil Rights: A New Day for Women's Equality [with Catharine A. MacKinnon] (nonfiction) 1988
Letters from a War Zone: Writings 1976–1987 [republished as Letters from a War Zone:...

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Criticism

Janice Mall (review date 3 May 1987)

SOURCE: A review of Ice and Fire and Intercourse, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 3, 1987, pp. 1, 7.

[In the following review, Mall offers tempered criticism of Ice and Fire and Intercourse.]

According to Publishers Weekly, Andrea Dworkin's first novel, Ice and Fire, was turned down by 20 American publishers before its appearance last year in England. One wonders why. True, Dworkin, known as a feminist particularly concerned with pornography, takes a flyer on surrealism in the novel, but the style works for her, at least at first.

Her protagonist is marvelous as a little girl on a working class Jewish block in...

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Maureen Mullarkey (review date 30 May 1987)

SOURCE: "Hard Cop, Soft Cop," in The Nation, May 30, 1987, pp. 720, 722-4, 726.

[In the following excerpt, Mullarkey offers unfavorable assessment of Intercourse, which she describes as "a hate-mongering tantrum."]

Is pornography a sex aid, like a dildo, hence undeserving of protection as speech? Is it a potent political message that should be denied protection before it leads to a Haymarket riot of rapists and pedophiles? By what criteria is an image determined "degrading"? Is the pet of the month a nastier purveyor of "bad attitudes" than Calvin Klein advertisements, rock videos, Harlequin romances or the New York Post? Is Screw an unusually...

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Lorna Sage (review date 16 October 1987)

SOURCE: "Staying Outside the Skin," in Times Literary Supplement, October 16, 1987, p. 1129.

[In the following review, Sage provides tempered criticism of Intercourse.]

By the time Swift's Gulliver paddles away from Houyhnhnm-land in his Yahoo-skin canoe, he is so consumed with self-disgust and self-hatred (Yahoo-hatred) that it seems he has only two alternatives—to skin himself, to jump out of his skin, or (the one he chooses) to loathe everyone else, and particularly (when he gets home) his nearest and dearest, from whose foul closeness he escapes to the stable to inhale the horses. Andrea Dworkin's Intercourse is a book that belongs in a similar landscape...

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Leonore Tiefer (review date 1988)

SOURCE: A review of Intercourse, in Sex Roles, Vol. 19, Nos. 3-4, 1988, pp. 255-8.

[In the following review, Tiefer offers qualified endorsement of Intercourse. "Dworkin's book," Tiefer concludes, "deserves appreciation and study for its challenging depiction of various aspects of heterosexual relations despite her overstatement of their importance."]

As feminist historians are beginning to show, theories about sexual acts and values have played a central role in every feminist movement. Feminist sex reformers in the 19th and early 20th century argued intensely over women's and men's sexual "natures," and how best to construct sex to further women's...

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Hermoine Lee (review date 3 June 1988)

SOURCE: "Taking the Lid Off," in Times Literary Supplement, June 3, 1988, p. 611.

[In the following review, Lee offers unfavorable assessment of Letters from a War Zone, which she dismisses as "an appalling book."]

This is an appalling book, and it is hard not to be appalled by it for hasty reasons. Andrea Dworkin is a fanatic, a ranter and a bully. She represents, in her own sad words, "the morbid side of the woman's movement. I deal with the shit, the real shit." To read her is to go to prison: to become, like her, a monomaniac, confined inside the walls of her cruel theme, to the complete exclusion of other and kinder ways of thinking about being alive. She...

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Deborah Harrold (review date April 1989)

SOURCE: A review of Intercourse, in Ethics, Vol. 99, No. 3, April, 1989, pp. 670-1.

[In the following review, Harrold summarizes Dworkin's view of sexual inequality in Intercourse.]

All right, strap on those crampons, and into the Abyss! How does intercourse relate to the status of women?

Intercourse is examined through a series of concepts—repulsion, skinlessness, stigma, communion and possession, and the opposing/complementary roles of virginity and occupation/collaboration. Dworkin uses a multiple approach to her subject and her subjection. She analyzes social practice and individual lives, and the use of language; she employs...

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Lore Dickstein (review date 29 October 1989)

SOURCE: "Street Fighting Feminist," in The New York Times Book Review, October 29, 1989, pp. 11-2.

[In the following review, Dickstein offers tempered criticism of Letter from a War Zone. According to Dickstein, "Much of what Andrea Dworkin has to say is important—whether you agree with it or not—but how she says it tends to undermine her argument."]

Abbie Hoffman might have been pleased to see that someone still spells America with a "k," evoking in one small gesture the clenched fist, the pulsating energy and rebelliousness of the 1960's. Andrea Dworkin is still out there fighting, and hers is a very specific battle: against the way American culture treats...

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Andrea Dworkin with Gail Dines and Rhea Becker (interview date June 1990)

SOURCE: "A Conversation With Andrea Dworkin," in Sojourner, Vol. 15, No. 10, June, 1990, pp. 17, 19-20.

[In the following interview, Dworkin comments on pornography and contemporary feminist protest.]

[Gail Dines:] Why did you have to go to England to get Letters from a War Zone published originally?

[Andrea Dworkin:] I can give you the reasons I know. In the United States the pornographers and the publishers see themselves as having identical interests—legal, social, and economic interests. In the United Kingdom that is not the case. Pornographers are still regarded as pimps and sleazeballs even though the consumers are your regular...

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Ann Russo and Lourdes Torres (essay date June 1990)

SOURCE: "Why Feminists Should Read Andrea Dworkin," in Sojourner, Vol. 15, No. 10, June, 1990, pp. 16-7.

[In the following essay, Russo and Torres provide a positive overview of Dworkin's feminist perspective and political activism through analysis of Letters from a War Zone.]

The following retrospective essay provides an analysis of Andrea Dworkin's work from 1976 to 1989. It is based on Dworkin's newest book, a compilation of essays and speeches entitled Letters from a War Zone: Writings 1976–1989, which covers subjects ranging from Hedda Nusbaum's experience of battery to the ACLU's stand on pornography.

Dworkin has devoted her...

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Zoë Heller (review date 5 October 1990)

SOURCE: "Nasties," in Times Literary Supplement, October 5, 1990, p. 1072.

[In the following review, Heller offers unfavorable assessment of Mercy.]

In 1983, Andrea Dworkin gave a speech to students at Hamilton College in upstate New York. "I represent the morbid side of the women's movement", she began. "I deal with the shit, the real shit." Seven years on, Dworkin's commitment to the dirty work of feminism shows no signs of letting up. "The shit"—or more specifically, the physical abuse of women by men—is still her specialization.

Her second novel, Mercy, is the story of Dworkin's alter-ego, "Andrea", a young woman whose journey...

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Wendy Steiner (review date 15 September 1991)

SOURCE: "Declaring War on Men," in The New York Times Book Review, September 15, 1991, p. 11.

[In the following review, Steiner offers tempered criticism of Mercy. According to Steiner, "Ms. Dworkin's argument, proceeding from pain, may be moving, but it is also intolerant, simplistic and often just as brutal as what it protests."]

This past spring in London, with an hour to kill in a bookstore, I decided to read the first few pages of as many new novels as I could. Among the recent releases was Mercy, a second novel by the controversial feminist Andrea Dworkin, better known to me for her nonfiction tirades against pornography, against intercourse,...

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Roz Kaveney (review date Summer 1991)

SOURCE: "Review Article: Dworkin's Mercy," in Feminist Review, No. 38, Summer, 1991, pp. 79-85.

[In the following review, Kaveney offers tempered criticism of Mercy, which she describes as "an ambitious novel." Kaveney writes, "The real failure of this book is not in the cheating, or the calculated omissions, or the implicit elitism; it is in the deep solipsism that characterizes it from beginning to end."]

Polemical novels are problematic, both ethically and aesthetically. When a novel is merely a novel, the aesthetic questions around it have to do with how well it achieves its artistic ends: a critic may prefer Alexandrian trickiness, or may prefer...

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Madison Smartt Bell (review date 15 September 1991)

SOURCE: "Sustaining a Scream," in Chicago Tribune Books, September 15, 1991, p. 5.

[In the following review, Bell offers favorable assessment of Mercy. Bell praises Dworkin as "a brilliant and passionate theoretician" whose "anger is a polished and dangerous instrument."]

"Now I've come into my own as a woman of letters," goes the prologue of Andrea Dworkin's second novel, Mercy. "I admit to a cool, elegant intellect with a clear superiority over the apelike men who write…." Some apelike reviewers may find this sort of thing prejudicially annoying. Let the reader be warned.

But the main body of the novel is told in a different voice,...

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Cindy Jenefsky (review date February 1992)

SOURCE: "To Remember the Pain," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. IX, No. 5, February, 1992, pp. 6-7.

[In the following review, Jenefsky offers a favorable evaluation of Mercy. According to Jenefsky, "The result is a work of artistic integrity that, in the manner of Dworkin's body of writing generally, synthesizes form and content, art and politics."]

In an interview with herself in Yearning (1990), bell hooks asks "Why remember the pain?" and responds:

Because I am sometimes awed, as in finding something terrifying, when I see how many of the people who are writing about domination and oppression are distanced from the...

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Lauren Glen Dunlap (review date Spring 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Letters from a War Zone, in Belles Lettres, Vol. 9, No. 3, Spring, 1994, pp. 74-5.

[In the following review, Dunlap offers positive assessment of Mercy.]

The urgency and rage that suffuse Andrea Dworkin's writing leave little room for savoring the distinctions between pre- and post-French Revolution pornography. In Letters from a War Zone (1993), Dworkin asserts that pornography remains essentially the same across eras and cultures precisely because women's oppression—"expressed in rape, battery, incest, and prostitution"—remains the same. "The change," writes Dworkin, "is only in what is publicly visible."

...

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Andrea Dworkin with Michael Moorcock (interview date 21 April 1995)

SOURCE: "Fighting Talk," in New Statesmen & Society, April 21, 1995, pp. 16-8.

[In the following interview, Dworkin discusses formative events in her life, her writings, and her views on pornography and free speech.]

[Michael Moorcock:] You were born in Camden, New Jersey, in 1946, had an admired father, went to a progressive school, led the familiar bohemian life of the 1960s, were active in protest politics, were arrested and received unexpectedly brutal treatment—but not as brutal as being a battered wife, stranded in Amsterdam with your monstrous husband, a political radical. Pretty traumatic stuff, yet you remain, I think, fundamentally an optimist....

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David Futrelle (review date 16 March 1997)

SOURCE: "Battle-Ax," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 16, 1997, p. 9.

[In the following review, Futrelle offers an unfavorable assessment of Life and Death.]

To read Andrea Dworkin is to enter into an alternate universe.

In her Amerika—yes, she still spells the word with a K—we live in the midst of an obscene, unending war: the war of the sexes. Women live, she says, "under martial law … in a situation of emergency … under a reign of terror … brutalized by 'pimps' and pornographers and just plain ordinary men."

These dramatic phrases are not, to Dworkin, simply examples of poetic license, the sort of boilerplate...

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Kristen Golden (review date March-April 1997)

SOURCE: A review of Life and Death, in Ms., Vol. 7, No. 5, March-April, 1997, p. 82.

[In the following review, Golden offers praise for Life and Death.]

Twenty-five years ago, after a feminist helped her escape from her brutally violent husband in Europe, Andrea Dworkin made a vow: "I would use everything I know in behalf of women's liberation," she recalls in Life and Death, an impressive collection of speeches and articles she wrote between 1987 and 1995.

And Dworkin knows a lot. In Life and Death, her eleventh book, it is clear that she knows—firsthand—about rape, prostitution, battery, pornography, child sexual abuse, and...

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Martha C. Nussbaum (review date 11 August 1997)

SOURCE: "Rage and Reason," in The New Republic, August 11, 1997, pp. 36-42.

[In the following review, Nussbaum comments on Life and Death and provides sustained analysis of the philosophical, legal, and moral dimensions of Dworkin's case against pornography.]

I.

Prophets don't write like philosophers. Why not, since they seem to have a common goal? Since Socrates, philosophers, like prophets, have been dedicated foes of ethical complacency, and of the many forms of moral disease complacency conceals. Socrates's call to the examined life was inspired by a concern for the health of souls. He once described the insides of his...

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Cindy Jenefsky and Ann Russo (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: "The Art of Confrontation," in Without Apology: Andrea Dworkin's Art and Politics, Westview Press, 1998, pp. 78-93.

[In the following essay, Jenefsky and Russo examine Dworkin's political methods and rhetorical discourse as an antipornography activist. According to the critics, Dworkin's approach centers upon strategies of "concretization" and "de/centering," by which she draws attention to the real-life implications of pornography while undermining familiar constitutional arguments in its favor.]

Dworkin's advocacy against pornography is shaped by her commitment to confrontational politics as "the essence of social change." "The way that you destabilize male...

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