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Friday, March 11, 2011

WAPsters VS. FACTsters

I've read a smattering of works that touched on the different philosophical currents within the American feminist movement, including Camille Paglia's SEXUAL PERSONAE and Christina Hoff Somers' WHO STOLE FEMINISM? However, I have AMERICAN PSYCHO to thank for making the philosophical division clearer to me than ever before.

I'm referring neither to the Bret Easton Ellis novel (which I've not read) nor the so-so film adaptation, but the DVD of AMERICAN PSYCHO. In what seems an attempt to justify the gorey, lady-killing excesses of the film, the DVD included a special feature: Holly Willis' "The Pornography of Killing," which took the form of a performer reading Willis' script to the viewer. The script asserts that feminism evolved into two distinct philosophical camps, mostly during the decade of the 1980s. As it happened, these camps formed two advocacy organizations, WAP (Women Against Pornography) and FACT (Feminists Against Censorship Taskforce). Of the two, FACT is apparently defunct while WAP seems to have toned down its activities in recent years. Clearly the philosophies are still extant, though only one of the two shows up much in the world of comics-fandom.

WAP's orientation was, as Willis avers, oriented toward praxis. Gender equity, in terms of such real-world benefits as equal pay, could only be achieved by banishing the image of Woman as Victim. Pornography was regarded by WAP as perpetuating stereotypes of women as either victims of male violence or as servants to the male will, as seen in this Susan Brownmiller quote:

We are unalterably opposed to the presentation of the female body being stripped, bound, raped, tortured, mutilated, and murdered in the name of commercial entertainment and free speech.

WAP's conception of pornography, then, was that it was a zero-sum game for women, and therefore was to be opposed despite its protection under the rubric of "free speech."

FACT, however, evolves from a more long-range theoretical approach informed by academic post-structuralism. The Willis essay quotes both George Bataille (whom I've quoted here often) and Angela Carter (whose non-fiction I have not read) to advance the notion that for FACT and its fellow travelers pornography could "include sexual representations by and for women." Fellow traveler Ellen Willis (apparently no relation to Holly) is credited with this oft-used quote:

In practice, attempts to sort out good erotica from bad porn inevitably comes down to "What turns me on is erotic; what turns you on is pornographic.

In support of this view of pornography (which, not coincidentally, is meant to serve as a justification for AMERICAN PSYCHO's employment of violent pornographic scenarios), the Willis essay particularly quotes Carter's SADEIAN WOMAN. Carter defends the works of the Marquis de Sade by finding that through the tedious repetition of his scenarios of sex-and-violence he actually neutralizes the appeal of what he writes. In this way, going by Willis' essay, Sade becomes "moral pornography" in that it critiques the society based on gender inequity, much as Ellis' AMERICAN PSYCHO also does.

As I've read neither the Ellis nor Carter works in the original, I can't comment on them in detail. However, though Sade is an important author for many reasons, it's wishful thinking to consider his pornography any more moral than that of any raincoat-wearing fetishist.

Nevertheless, FACT's theoretical approach to pornography and the depiction of sexuality is far closer to being accurate than that of WAP, though both philosophies are tainted with what I've termed "ratiocentrism." This is the inability to see a given phenomenon in elemental terms that do not fall wholly within the parameters of a rational construct, such as (predominantly) Freudianism and Marxism.

And of course, the Willis essay is tainted in that it chooses (as a strategy for defending AMERICAN PSYCHO) to define pornography at the outset in terms of violence alone: calling it a "fascination with blood, murder, and mayhem, and especially sexual violence as it is enacted upon the bodies of women." Clearly this is a slanted definition that would leave out huge sections of pornographic work ranging from FANNY HILL to your basic violence-free Skinemax softcore.

I've seen quite a few WAPster voices raised in comics-fandom, but not so many FACTsters. Perhaps some of the WAPsters would benefit from a reading of Bataille, who, as I've noted in previous essays, throws a certain light upon the twisting pathways of sex-and-violence representation. Though it's likely that most of the WAPsters known to me would much rather curse the darkness than light a candle.


Richard Bensam said...

One small note: there is a group called the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce, and there is another group called Feminists Against Censorship. I'm not familiar with the work of the former and I don't know how much overlap there may be between the membership and activities of the two…but I can tell you for a fact that some of the founding members of FAC are comics readers. Avedon Carol is much more associated with SF fandom but also follows comics on a casual level, while Roz Kaveney is most recently the author of a book on superhero comics actually called Superheroes! I'm honored to consider them at least vague acquaintances in RL as well as online. I don't know if you're familiar with the blogs/online writings of either one, but I think you might enjoy them.

(N.B.: you were very nearly in a book alongside Roz -- I regret I wasn't able to persuade her to contribute an essay. But hey, we had plenty of good people in there all the same...)

Gene Phillips said...

Hi Richard,
Yeah, I've the impression that FAC may still be around. I think it was influenced by FACT.

I'll definitely check out Carol and Kaveney; thanks.