Out of the Celluloid Closet

The Yassification of Andrea Dworkin

· Updated on January 12, 2023

Seemingly all at once, Andrea Dworkin is everywhere. Semiotext(e) published a solid collection of her short works in 2019. A year later, The New Press unveiled Martin Duberman’s richly-researched, nearly 400-page biography on the late radical feminist, a first of its kind. For a time, you could buy an enamel pin of her from the highbrow feminist co-working space The Wing, Dworkin’s largess melted down to a few tastefully-molded, backpack-ready inches. Search her on Etsy, and you’ll soon encounter similar merchandise that unhelpfully dilutes her all-or-nothing beliefs down to cutesy slogans: t-shirts that read dump your porn-addicted boyfriend; stickers that announce you can’t buy consent. And now, there’s a documentary with a poster featuring Dworkin in that quintessential literary pose: captured in black-and-white, she enjoys a cigarette.  

Currently in competition at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, Pratibha Parmar’s My Name is Andrea shares the Etsy creator’s desire to make Andrea Dworkin cool. To the film’s credit, this is no easy task. Very few figures in American history have united queer activists, sex-positive feminists, housewives, and Hustler Magazine publisher Larry Flynt in shared irritation. Yet Dworkin, with her my-way-or-the-highway attitude and a surgical fixation on violence against women and its metaphors, holds that honor. 

Born into a leftist Jewish family in Camden, New Jersey in 1946, Dworkin’s suburban childhood was spent reading and aspiring to become one of the greats: Arthur Rimbaud, Jean Genet, Henry Miller. She was not the first young woman whose dream of becoming a writer would be thwarted by the reality of how the literary world, and the world at large, treats women. A string of harrowing experiences at the hands of men — strangers, doctors, a husband — would bring about an awakening; one that Dworkin experienced again and again when encountering other women who’d been raped: the patriarchy had us girls in an inescapable chokehold, and we condone our collective evisceration when we express anything but rage. Or, as Dworkin wrote in her first book Woman Hating: A Radical Look at Sexuality in 1974, “Women are objects, commodities, some deemed more expensive than others. But it is only by asserting one’s humanness every time, in all situations, that one becomes someone as opposed to something. That, after all, is the core of our struggle.”

Though its myopia and bluntness can be dreary, Dworkin’s work endures for the reasons it helped some women while causing others harm: it was unflinching and unapologetic. Writing of the minutia of rape  — the blood, the torn membranes, the aches, the demoralization, the power imbalance — as though she were jotting down a recipe for red velvet cake, Dworkin, all these years later, still makes Simone de Beauvoir pass for Martha Stewart. When picking reading her, which one should certainly do, I was struck by her frank Beatnik prose and gift for research; certainly, her voice was unprecedented. Yet when I put Dworkin down, I felt that I’d read an extremist dystopian novel rather than a work representative of my life, my communities, or our traumas (which we openly discuss, sometimes with dry humor.)  

Though its myopia and bluntness can be dreary, Dworkin’s work endures for the reasons it helped some women while causing others harm: it was unflinching and unapologetic.

With time, Dworkin would develop a reputation for this manner of “asserting her humanness” — especially after identifying prostitution and pornography as key threats to women’s liberation. As Johanna Fateman sums it up in her introduction to the 2019 Semiotext(e) collection, by the 1980s Dworkin had, “…made her scorched-earth theory of representation clear: porn is fascist propaganda, a weapon as crucial to the ever-escalating war on women as Goebbels’s sexualized caricatures of Jews were to Hitler’s rise; prostitution is a founding institution of the sex class system, the bottom rung of hell.” For this, Dworkin is commonly remembered as a key figure in the Sex Wars of the 1980s, during which the feminist debate about pornography’s culpability in violence against women reached a boiling point. Until her dying breath, she never compromised this position.

Writing of the minutia of rape, Dworkin, all these years later, still makes Simone de Beauvoir pass for Martha Stewart.

What often gets lost in explorations of Dworkin and this decades-old feminist theater — was she, as My Name is Andrea exec producer Gloria Steinem rhapsodized, “the feminist movement’s Old Testament Prophet”? Or, as Camille Paglia scoffed, simply plagued by “nightmarish sexual delusions”? — is the historic impact of her work. My Name is Andrea allows an old news clip to recount her political campaigns against pornography in Minnesota. It works well for the film and its subject to emphasize this campaign’s abject failure. This retelling of her life is predicated on Dworkin losing to patriarchy over and over, but never giving up: her martyrdom becomes something to blindly aspire to, rather than debate. But Andrea’s adversaries were not just men, patriarchal systems, and the women who enabled them. As Ariel Levy writes in a 2005 introduction to a reprint of the activist’s 1985 book Intercourse, “…many feminists never forgave Dworkin and [Catherine] MacKinnon and anti-porn feminists in general for getting in bed with the right-wing.” When feminism linked arms with paternalism to do away with conceived social ills, they believed, no one won. As do I. 

In the early 1990s, Dworkin’s wholesale anti-porn rhetoric persisted. Spreading to Canada, it influenced a Supreme Court decision on how obscenity law was applied to pornography. This facet of Dworkin’s legacy is plainly stated in the 1991 BBC documentary Against Pornography: The Feminism of Andrea Dworkin. Yet this bit of international trivia is not something that My Name is Andrea — a film that imbues Dworkin’s words with prescience by visually linking them to #MeToo in the U.S., Sarah Everard’s murder in the U.K., and femicide protests in Argentina — bothers with disclosing. Remember, Andrea Dworkin must be cool; causing an expensive, multi-national ruckus in the effort to eradicate nudie magazines, in which self-actualized sex workers and queer porn served as collateral damage? Not cool. 

My Name is Andrea—offering nary a talking head to espouse a dissenting viewpoint—relies on a blend of reenactment and archival footage to portray its heroine: a painful Phil Donahue Show appearance here, a passionate speech delivered abroad there. Rather than employing a single actress to provide voiceover (Patricia Clarkson in Nancy Kates’ Regarding Susan Sontag) or quietly embody the writer in dramatization (Alexandria King in Tracy Heather Strain’s Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart), this impressionistic documentary taps several: Amandla Stenberg, Soko, Andrea Riseborough, Ashley Judd, and Christine Lahti play Dworkin at varying stages of her life: prettier, tinier, and more soft-spoken than the real, Jersey-born deal. The roughest edges of militant feminism, which Dworkin herself proudly refused to tame, are smoothed out and made digestible. 

This retelling of her life is predicated on Dworkin losing to patriarchy over and over, but never giving up: her martyrdom becomes something to blindly aspire to, rather than debate.

Certainly, these tender dreamscapes are well-composed and performed with conviction. Their intergenerational star power plays a practical role in the film’s lionization of a woman who was cruelly vilified for her appearance in life. The activist’s words are sweetened by dramatization, too. They become the words of the everywoman; accessible to younger viewers and husbands alike. Dworkin’s fire-and-brimstone speeches in particular — “Every woman walking alone is a target. Every woman walking alone is hunted, harassed. Time after time, harmed…” — go down easier when paired with the visual of 23-year-old Stenberg as 13-year-old Dworkin, innocently skipping through a field of wildflowers. Relatability, you see, is also cool. 

Fascinatingly, My Name is Andrea’s greatest whitewash job conceals Dworkin’s lesbian identity. If one were to view the documentary without knowing anything about her, it would be natural to assume that its fearless subject is a straight woman. Here, we watch the Andreas be fucked over and fucked well by men; moments that serve several functions in rehabilitating Dworkin’s image in popular culture: she wasn’t a victim despite her choice feminist rhetoric, she wasn’t some one-dimensional man-hater, and she enjoyed getting off. Perhaps, to My Name is Andrea’s creators, enthusiastically addressing the divisive figure’s queerness risks undoing that; the film has an easy opportunity to nod to her lover Ricki Abrams but, with an obligatory flurry of archival images of lesbians and drag queens at a protest, allows Abrams to be written off as a “friend.” 

It is funny to see My Name is Andrea, with its two out-actresses (Soko and Stenberg), bite its queer tongue in a way Dworkin never did. It is not funny to see how invisible this aspect of Dworkin’s life is when compared to the endless reenactments of violence she experienced at the hands of men. While watching the corn syrup blood ooze down Riseborough’s forehead after a reenactment of domestic violence, I found myself asking a question I asked when first reading Dworkin in my twenties, and again when the SCOTUS draft opinion on abortion leaked, and when Amber Heard testified, and whenever I see fucked-up tweets about Lia Thomas: Why is everyone so obsessed with showcasing and inventorying feminine pain when pleasure is right there, ready to be fought for? While Dworkin went to her grave trying to put the three-dimensional weight of sex-based annihilation into words, these gauzy depictions demean Dworkin’s language, reducing her graphic turns of phrase to — ironically enough — a sort of elementary social justice pornography. For My Name is Andrea, centering men in a conversation that should be about loving women is cool.

It is funny to see My Name is Andrea bite its queer tongue in a way Dworkin never did.

Contrary to My Name is Andrea’s at-times dangerously oversimplified vision (man/penis/patriarchy vs. woman/womb/feminists), dykes were likely in Dworkin’s bed as often as we were on the receiving end of her literary lacerations. At a lesbian pride rally in New York in 1975, she announced, “This love of women is the soil in which my feet are rooted” and extolled our ilk’s “wild, salty tenderness.” A decade later in the novel Ice & Fire, the narrator — so unlike the Dworkin exalted on-screen — considers her girl-lover who “fucks like a gang of boys” and “tears around inside.”

Naturally, because so many lesbians ascribed to a more nuanced politic, were kinky, or enmeshed in sex work, she fought with us to further her cause. These spats and biographical inconveniences that My Name is Andrea shies away from are important; perhaps more important than pumping a drained #MeToo movement with a #feministicon fuel. Riffing on Joan Didion in a 1983 essay called “Goodbye to All This,” Dworkin called out the women she felt enabled patriarchal supremacy, from respected feminist artists to the girls next door. Among them was none other than the lesbian poet Adrienne Rich. “Goodbye Adrienne,” Dworkin writes. “The poems were supposed to be baaad, not good.” This punch is a gentle one in comparison to the one she pulled against leather dykes, whom she equated with a feminist Third Reich: 

“Goodbye all you swastika-wielding dykettes, all you tough dangerous feminist leatherettes, all you sexy, nonmonogamous (it does take the breath away), pierced, whipped, bitten, fist-fucked and fist-fucking, wild wonderful heretofore unimaginable feminist Girls. Keep the Jews in line and the cows dying. (Oh for the good old days of Lesbian-Feminist-Vegetarians for Jesus.)”

Feminist in-fighting is often looked down upon as a sort of “distraction” from the “real” villain; decidedly uncool. But to omit it is to miss out on feminist literature’s feisty symphony. Dworkin’s stern words, when paired with lesbian author Dorothy Allison’s poetry from that time, form a rich discourse, a call-and-response from opposing camps. Allison, who turned tricks and liked rough sex, was no less mesmerizing when she wrote, “The women who hate me hate their insistent desires, their fat lusts swallowed and hidden, disciplined to nothing, narrowed to bone and dry hot dreams.” 

Omitting these artistic and theoretical challenges also perversely endorses the worst of Dworkin, who has become a totem of a new strain of feminism that is keen on annihilating not only sex workers, but trans people — even if it requires colluding with the men of the political right. In her New York Times review of Dworkin’s 1981 tome Pornography: Men Possessing Women, The feminist critic Ellen Willis cautioned accordingly. Never, she wrote, had “conservatives hesitated to borrow feminist rhetoric of about the exploitation of women’s bodies.”

Try as My Name Andrea might, Dworkin will never be cool. What is to be gained from her life and writings cannot be gained through veneration, but through a spirited reckoning.♦

My Name is Andrea plays Tribeca Film Festival Saturday, June 18; and Sheffield Doc Fest beginning Saturday, June 25.

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