The Bechdel Test for Women in the Age of Irony

In 1985, the comic writer Alison Bechdel wrote an edition of her strip Dykes to Watch Out For, in which a character declares that in order for a movie to be worth watching it has to suit three criteria. (1) It has to have at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about something besides a man. What has since become known as “The Bechdel Test” is sometimes used in cultural and film studies as a simple starting point for feminist analysis. Once I started paying attention to this test, it was disheartening to notice how few films and other works pass these three qualifications. Why aren’t women more fully represented in films, novels and television? In the case of The Bechdel Test, why aren’t women minimally represented in more texts? Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency writes, “It’s quite extraordinary actually how many movies don’t pass this test cause it’s not even a sign of whether it’s a feminist movie or whether it’s a good movie just that there is female presence in it and that they actually are engaging about things other than men.” It should go without saying that it would be difficult to find a film that would fail the test if the sexes were reversed.

Jennifer Kessler, former screenwriter and founder of The Hathor Legacy, a site devoted to women in film and television, argues that in order to achieve success in the industry, film writers are actually pressured to write films that do not pass The Bechdel Test, for fear of “losing the audience.” Financial concerns rule Hollywood, and movies which deviate from the traditional mold are suspect. This sets up a continuous problem for filmmakers in which the status quo is maintained. Women continue to take a backseat to men in character representation. Kessler, who left the industry writes, “I concluded Hollywood was dominated by perpetual pre-adolescent boys making the movies they wanted to see, and using the ‘target audience’ – a construct based on partial truths and twisted math – to perpetuate their own desires.” She concluded that she would find more success in attempting to change the system from without.

Neda Ulaby argues for NPR that it is important for audiences to see women engaged on screen on a wide range of topics, not just in the usual conversation about the main, usually male, character. She argues that the twenty-six year old strip “still resonates because it articulates something often missing in popular culture. Not the number of women we see on screen, but the depths of their stories and the range of their concerns.” She argues that The Bechdel Test retains its popularity because women continue to feel that they are not represented on screen. She adds “the shows that fail might surprise you.”

The Bechdel Test will continue to be a useful tool as long as women remain underrepresented in film and other types of stories. In my program at The Evergreen State College entitled, “The Age of Irony,” we spent time examining wars and social movements of the 20th Century in the United States. We also worked to apply concepts of cultural criticism to a number of films and novels of this time period. I decided to examine twelve of these works used by the program, making use of The Bechdel Test as a starting point for feminist analysis. Letter grades were assigned so that I could elaborate a bit beyond a simple pass/fail assessment.

My Man Godfrey
This 1936 film opens with a scene in which two sisters, Cornelia and Irene, are engaged in a scavenger hunt, looking for a “forgotten man.” Immediately it is clear that there is a rivalry between the two, a classic film trope which limits the opportunity for women characters to engage on more than a superficial level. The film passes The Test as Irene and mother Angelica have a brief encounter over Angelica’s goat, with the scene immediately cut to a shot of Angelica’s husband referring to her as a “dizzy old gal.” Throughout the film, however, nearly every other conversation any two women engage in is about Godfrey. The women tend to be vain, lacking in substance and childlike in demeanor, especially Godfrey’s love interest Irene. Godfrey tries to school Irene in “proper” behavior, and even refers to her as a “little girl.” There are a number of women in this film, including maid Molly, who is one of the most level-headed characters, intelligent and amusing without the flightiness of Irene or the prissiness of Cornelia. All of the women seem smitten in some way or another with Godfrey, who is the central figure and hero of the story. The film satirizes the frivolity of the upper class while reinforcing the notion that social mobility is within reach. Overall grade: C-

The Great Gatsby
This 1925 classic novel narrowly passes The Bechdel Test in an early scene in which Daisy and Jordan laze on the couch. They have a brief exchange as Nick enters the room, Jordan complaining to Daisy of boredom. Later in the novel the two grumble about the heat. While Daisy features prominently in the story, the reader learns very little about her as a person. She serves as an object of desire for Gatsby, who wishes to possess her and her desirable class status. He describes her to Nick, “Her voice is full of money.” Fitzgerald works to create a picture of the elite social set living on East Egg wherein materialism, emptiness and indifference are the norm, but the women characters seem particularly flat. Tom takes a fatherly role in his relationship to Daisy, brushing aside her infidelity. On Jordan, Nick declares, “Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply.” This suggests that women are childlike in their motivations, and require protection from men. A minor nod to the feminist movement occurs when Tom says of Daisy, “I may be old-fashioned in my ideas, but women run around too much these days to suit me.” The novel clearly centers on the activities, feelings and motivations of the male characters, and there is little to relate to in the women represented, who mainly serve as background. Overall grade: D+

The novel Babbitt contains some important ideas countering mainstream American concepts of its time surrounding class, politics and upward social mobility which was such an enchanting ideal of the 1920s. Unfortunately, it utterly fails The Bechdel Test. The main women characters in the novel include Babbitt’s wife Myra, “as sexless as an anemic nun,” who “…took care of the house and didn’t bother the males by thinking.” Other notable characters include Babbitt’s daughter Verona, who attends the University and is a bit of a non-conformist, but intellectually shallow, and his friend Paul’s wife Zilla, who is the standard nagging wife. Babbitt has an ongoing fantasy of a fairy girl who is pretty and uncomplicated. She is positioned in the novel oddly as a catalyst for Babbitt to explore the other avenues that might be open to him in lieu of remaining in the middle-class trap he has set for himself. Overall Grade: F

American Beauty
The story in American Beauty centers on the character of Lester Burnham, a middle-aged man struggling with the same kind of materially fulfilling yet empty life that George Babbitt finds himself living. The three prominent female characters include Carolyn, Lester’s wife, Jane, his daughter, and her friend Angela, the object of his sexual fascination. Each of the three women characters work to support the narrative supplied by Lester, illustrating his unhappy marriage, his inability to relate to his daughter, and his gross obsession with her insecure, attention-seeking friend Angela. There is a great deal of tension between Carolyn and her daughter. In one scene, Carolyn slaps Jane and yells, “You ungrateful little brat. Just look at everything you have.” Most of the interaction between Jane and Angela has to do with Jane’s developing relationship with her neighbor, Ricky, or with Lester. There is a fair amount of character development for the women in the film, although the story itself centers on Lester’s thoughts, feelings and experiences. Angela presents herself initially as a sexually precocious young girl, actively pursuing a relationship with Lester. In the end, it is Lester who puts an end to their sexual encounter, as he seems to come to a realization of sorts. Overall grade: C+

The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit
This 1956 film is centered on the character of Tom, who struggles to define himself after the war, adjusting to civilian life. The film fails The Bechdel Test, as there is no interaction in the film among the women characters, but the characters themselves are interesting to examine. Betsy, Tom’s wife, is clearly frustrated by her role as housewife. She heavily manipulates Tom in his career in a desperate attempt to have influence over the course of her own life. She equates material success with fun and happiness, and expects to see Tom in full pursuit of increased wealth for the family. She tells Tom, “You can get a raise if you want it…if you have the nerve to hold out for it.” At the workplace, women serve as decoration. Tom is told, “We always give the new man the prettiest secretary.” Susan, the boss’ daughter, enjoys the material benefits bestowed upon her while telling her father, “It’s really stupid the way you live, working all the time.” She is “not interested in money,” but is anxious to marry an older man in order to avoid working or attending college. Tom’s lover during the war, Maria, is beautiful and impoverished. Married Tom tells her, “I want to leave my entire estate to you.” When Tom confesses his affair to Betsy years later, she is concerned about her ability to measure up to his lover. “Did she have a better figure than me?” She asks, “You weren’t always worrying about money with her, were you?” Later, she is repentant, saying, “Hit me right across the head if I ever say anything to hurt you again.” After Tom and Betsy decide to financially support Tom’s son with Maria together, Tom declares to Betsy, “I worship you.” Overall grade: F

Slaughterhouse Five
Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel fails The Bechdel Test, and contains problematic depictions of women. Billy has a difficult time relating to his family, and is disconnected from his life. He is resentful of his daughter Barbara, who tries to help him to function. He opines, “All this responsibility at such an early age made her a bitchy flibbertigibbet.” He is equally disconnected from his “ugly” wife Valencia, who “was as big as a house because she couldn’t stop eating.” She wants to lose weight for Billy, who is wholly indifferent to her affections. Instead, he develops a fascination with adult movie star Montana Wildhack. She is kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians for Billy’s amusement. Initially she is terrorized, but eventually, inexplicably, comes to “love and trust” him. Early in the novel Werner, Billy and Derby come upon a group of teen-aged refugees in an exposed shower. “The girls screamed. They covered themselves with their hands and turned their backs and so on, and made themselves utterly beautiful.” The three seem to be delighted by their nudity and titillated by their fear. Vonnegut dedicates his novel in part to the non-fictional character of Mary O’Hare, who is concerned that his Dresden novel will amount to the glorification of war. “You were just babies then!” He takes her words to heart, subtitling Slaughterhouse-Five The Children’s Crusade. The novel fails to fully develop any of its female characters, detailing their often unflattering physical descriptions, and at no time do any two women converse, about a man or otherwise. Overall Grade: F

In the Heat of the Night
The 1967 film In the Heat of the Night fails to pass The Bechdel Test. The women characters include Mrs. Colbert who insists that Virgil remain on her husband’s murder case, noting the incompetence of Gillespie and the Sparta police department. Mama Caleba makes a brief appearance as a woman planning to assist Delores in obtaining an abortion. The character of Delores is a young teen, presented early in the film, her nudity barely concealed by the window frame as the character of Sam peers in on her lasciviously from his police car. Delores seeks male attention through her sexuality. The women characters are poorly developed, and serve to support the main story line which is dominated by men. Overall Grade: F

Another Country
James Baldwin’s 1962 novel, Another Country is a powerful commentary on race, gender and sexuality. It passes The Bechdel Test, although it is primarily a novel about its male characters. Rufus, who dies early in the novel, is present throughout it as his close friends and sister Ida try to make sense of his suicide. Rufus enacts his intense self hatred upon his girlfriend Leona, humiliating and abusing her. The few interactions between the female characters are dominated by their feelings about men. Leona and Cass have a brief exchange in which Cass tells Leona, “Next time, we’ll go off and have a drink by ourselves someplace, without all these men.” Unfortunately, the reader does not witness this conversation. Cass tells her husband Richard when he declares, “I don’t believe all this female intuition shit. It’s something women have dreamed up,” “You can say that–and in such a tone! But I can’t say that–what men have ‘dreamed up’ is all there is, the world they’ve dreamed up is the world.” Richard laughs her off, “what a funny girl you are. You’ve got a bad case of penis envy.” Later, Ida and Cass enter into a conversation about Vivaldo, in which Ida tells Cass, “Come on, Cass, honey, we going to get down to the knitty-gritty this afternoon.” The real “knitty-gritty” is the inner workings of the men in their lives. When Cass and Vivaldo meet privately for a drink, Vivaldo says, “Men have to think about so many things. Women only have to think about men.” Cass responds, “If men don’t know what’s happening, what they’re doing, where they’re going — what are women to do? If Richard doesn’t know what kind of world he wants, how am I to help him make it? What am I to tell our sons?”

The only significant interaction between two female characters in the novel is one between Ida and Cass in which they have a powerful exchange about their relationships, and about race. The two have a difficult time connecting as Cass, like her husband, has experienced white privilege and is able to confront it through her developing friendship with Ida. Ida tells Cass, “There’s no way in the world for you to find out what it’s like to be a black girl in this world.” Ida is treated poorly by the men in her life, and uses her sexuality in order to secure her career as a performer. Richard, too, is abusive toward Cass when he discovers her affair, slapping her hard enough to draw blood. Overall grade: C+

Dr. Strangelove
This 1964 satirical film fails The Bechdel Test. The single female character is that of Miss Scott, the bikini-clad secretary of General Turgidson. In an early scene, the only time in which a woman appears in the film, Miss Scott strikes a number of pin-up style poses as she relays information to boss and lover Turgidson. Later she phones him in the war room to express her insecurities about their relationship. The B-52 pilots peruse Playboy magazine (containing a shot of the actress playing Miss Scott) while on duty, and “Top Secret” documents are contained in a safe whose interior is decorated, high school locker-style, with girly magazine photos. Dr. Strangelove uses irony to draw attention to stereotypes of masculinity, the character of Turgidson, his name, and his relationship to women is one overt example. Nevertheless, Miss Scott is presented as a decorative object for the enjoyment of the audience, and that is her primary purpose. Overall grade: F

Brave New World
Huxley’s 1932 work of dystopian fiction, Brave New World passes The Bechdel Test. The characters of Lenina and Fanny have a few interactions about the experiences of women living in 632 A.F. Most of their conversations focus on male characters, as they are expected to copulate frequently, and not to linger too long over any one in particular. The two discuss the “Pregnancy Substitute,” which all women are expected to undergo in lieu of childbearing. They make use of the “vibro-vacuum machine,” and other rituals to maintain their attractiveness. Lenina conforms to society, embracing and internalizing the expectations put out for her. She is frequently described as “pneumatic,” suggesting a perky and accommodating figure. Bernard takes offense when Henry reduces Lenina to a sexual object. “Talking about her as though she were a bit of meat. Have her here, have her there. Like mutton. Degrading her to so much mutton.” Linda, who has not been subjected to artificial beauty treatments on the reservation, is considered ghastly in appearance, and therefore worthless. While the major philosophical explorations in the novel are focused on the male characters, Huxley presents a solid critique of the way women are socialized and made into commodities in the brave new world. Overall grade: B-

Mildred Pierce
This 1945 film nicely passes the Bechdel Test, containing a number of well-developed female characters. The story centers on the character of Mildred, who is forced to leave her role as housewife when her philandering husband abandons the family. Mildred finds work as a waitress, eventually opening her own restaurant business, securing substantial wealth for herself and her daughter Veda. Veda is spoiled and cruel to Mildred, finding it “degrading” that she should have to work, telling her, “You’ll never be anything but a common frump.” Veda is delighted by Mildred’s boyfriend Monte, who has the name and class standing which she aspires to. Unfortunately, Monte is broke and the two conspire to take advantage of Mildred’s wealth. Other notable characters include Mildred’s trusted friend Ida, younger daughter Kay, and maid Lottie.

Ink-stained Amazon writes for Bitch Media that Mildred Pierce has been the subject of much feminist analysis due to its “gender subversive female protagonist.” Mildred is transformed into a formidable business woman, but suffers as her daughter grows into a contemptible young adult. She measures her true success by her ability to garner love and respect from Veda. While the novel Mildred Pierce is set during The Great Depression, relating the struggle of Americans to retain class standing under economic strain, Warner Bros. chose to delay the release of the film version until the end of the war in 1945, as women were being encouraged to leave the work force. In a somewhat awkward ending, Mildred is shown appearing to reunite with former husband Bert as Veda is imprisoned. Amazon suggests that the timing of the release “would show women that if they didn’t leave the careers they had assumed while the boys were at war, and continued to shower their children with lavish gifts, no good would come of it.” While not a wholly feminist film, Mildred Pierce does have a strong female protagonist, and is a fascinating reflection of its time in regard to issues of gender, race and class. Overall grade: B+

A Feather on the Breath of God
The unnamed female narrator of A Feather on the Breath of God looks upon the lives of her immigrant parents and that of her own, reflecting among other things upon cultural identity, femininity and sexuality. Through her relationships with friends and family, the character of the narrator is revealed to the reader, her struggles to find her own sense of self, and experience of “the female condition.” The novel well passes The Bechdel Test, relating interactions between women on intimate issues such as abortion, class, and sex appeal, revealing the inner complexities of the women characters and giving readers access to their experiences. The male characters of her father and later her lover are examined through the eyes of the narrator, a unique and valuable feature in a work of fiction. The author artfully exposes the experience of the ballet dancer in the novel, the struggle to maintain the ultra-feminine ideal represented by the ballerina, while suffering through damaging eating rituals and bodily mutilation which Nunez aptly relates to foot binding. The narrator shares her experiences of the ballet, “Ballet a woman’s world? But it was men who invented ballet–and the ballerina. It is men who put her feet in those shoes, and who take the food out of her mouth.” Overall grade: A

An analysis of these twelve novels and films from The Age of Irony reveals that the majority of the works do not contain a significant female presence. If averaged together, the letter grade for all twelve texts is a D, based upon five failing grades, one D, three Cs, two Bs and only one A. The letter grades were subjective, but generally a C was assigned for passing, and additional points were added or taken away to indicate the strength of female characters or troubling instances of stereotyping or overt sexism. The strongest work for female presence was A Feather on the Breath of God. Nunez specifically alludes to the experience of being a woman, and navigating a male-dominated world. The characters, the plot, the interaction are all developed through the lens of a female character.

It is important for all of us to have the opportunity to relate to the characters we see on screen and in print. Even though women make up slightly more than half of the population, film in particular tends to be dominated overwhelmingly by men. Women are often relegated to the role of the sexual object, (Miss Scott) the nag, (Zilla, Betsy), the young seductress (Veda, Delores). Men tend to be the central characters, driving the action, revealing their inner struggles, feelings and motivations. Women are taught to identify with men while reading novels and watching films, while stories which feature women are dismissively referred to as “chick flicks” or “chick lit.” Men are less likely to identify with women when there are many representations of male characters to relate to.

Measures similar to The Bechdel Test have been used to examine other forms of representations including race and sexual orientation. Simple awareness of these kinds of measures is a good way to begin analyzing how ideas about gender, race, class or sexuality are reinforced by media. The character from Bechdel’s comic used the test to determine whether or not she would bother to view a film at all. Twenty-some years later, it would be wonderful if she were offered more to choose from.

Works Cited

American Beauty. Dir. Sam Mendes. 1999. DVD.
Baldwin, James. Another Country. New York: Dial, 1962. Print.
“The ‘Bechdel Rule,’ Defining Pop-Culture Character : NPR.” NPR : National Public Radio : News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts : NPR. Web. 03 May 2011.
“The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies.” Feminist Frequency. Web. 03 May 2011.
Bechdel Test Movie List. Web. 03 May 2011.
Dr. Strangelove, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Prod. Stanley Kubrick, Victor Lyndon, and Ken Adam. By Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, Peter George, Gilbert Taylor, Anthony Harvey, and Laurie Johnson. Perf. Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, and James Earl Jones. BLC, 1963.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. Print.
In the Heat of the Night. Dir. Norman Jewison. Perf. Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. 1967. DVD.
Lewis, Sinclair, and Kenneth Krauss. Babbitt. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005. Print.
The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. Dir. Nunnally Johnson. Perf. Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones. Twentieth Century Fox, 1956. DVD.
Mildred Pierce. Dir. Michael Curtiz. Perf. Joan Crawford. Warner Bros., 1945. DVD.
My Man Godfrey. Dir. Cava Gregory La. By Morrie Ryskind and Eric Hatch. Universal Productions, Inc., 1936. DVD.
Nunez, Sigrid. A Feather on the Breath of God: a Novel. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Print.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-five, Or, The Children’s Crusade: a Duty-dance with Death. New York: Dial, 2009. Print.
“Why Film Schools Teach Screenwriters Not to Pass the Bechdel Test — The Hathor Legacy.” The Hathor Legacy — Breaking down Gender Roles, One Role at a Time. Web. 03 May 2011.


Sex Wars and Second Wave Feminism

A defining aspect of the second-wave feminist movement was the “feminist sex wars” or “pornography wars,” which emerged from competing thought on issues related to pornography and other forms of prostitution, sexuality and gender. As pornography became more readily available, an anti-pornography movement emerged in response to the violent sexual imagery of women that was common in adult materials, spilling over into mainstream culture. They argued that pornography reinforced dangerous gender stereotypes and encouraged real-world violence, working towards legal restrictions on violent sexual imagery. In response, an alternative “pro-sex” feminism developed, which viewed the anti-pornography movement as dangerously tied to right-wing political thought which sought to repress and control sexuality. Pro-sex feminists argued that legislation on pornography would work to the detriment of sexual liberation and interfere with free speech rights. The debates on sexuality and pornography were considerably more complex than merely a “pro-sex” camp and an “anti-sex” or “anti-pornography” camp, and it is useful to understand the various strains which influenced the conversation. Some women disassociated themselves with the feminist movement over issues related to the sex trade, and the sex wars are viewed as an important factor in the deterioration of the second wave. The sex wars have had a continuing impact as women have begun to advocate for personal empowerment through sex work and the proliferation of pornography via the internet has made it a fixture of popular culture. The anti-pornography movement of the second wave has been oversimplified and mischaracterized to support anti-feminist rhetoric. Women who engage in critique of sex work and pornography may be unfairly labeled as “Dworkinite,” or “anti-sex.” Introducing a sophisticated analysis of the effects of pornography and other forms of commercialized sex into feminist spaces is crucial to understanding its cultural implications. It is evident that the arguments women engaged in over the sex wars are unresolved, and may need more attention now than ever before.

In her memoir of the second-wave movement, In Our Time, Susan Brownmiller discusses “the pornography wars.” She writes that the women’s liberation movement was at a high point at the same time that the availability of pornography was on the increase. In 1973 Miller v California effectively relaxed laws on obscenity which led to a “staggering rise in the production and consumption of over-the-counter pornography” (Brownmiller 296). Pornography, she argued, served to undermine the goals of the feminist movement in two ways. Just as women made gains toward equality in the workplace and developed legal and social remedies for empowering women, a flood of materials objectifying their bodies and reinforcing traditional notions of gender were widely circulated and normalized. In addition, strong feelings about sexually explicit materials on both sides drove the feminist movement into heated debates about the meaning and consequences of the new mainstreaming of pornography. Brownmiller, who became a vocal anti-pornography activist at this time, argued strongly that these materials worked to the detriment of sexual freedom and promoted violence against women. In her 1975 book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, Brownmiller argues against pornography. She sees a clear connection between pornographic imagery and a social environment that objectifies and degrades women. Her examination of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography’s report from 1970 demonstrated that the vast majority of pornographic materials were geared toward a white, middle-class, married, male audience. Unsurprisingly, the report showed that men were far more likely to find the images arousing, where women were more likely to report “disgust” and “offense” (Lederer 31). Brownmiller adds that, “there can be no ‘equality’ in porn, no female equivalent…pornography, like rape, is a male invention, designed to dehumanize women, to reduce the female to an object of sexual access, not to free sensuality from moralistic or parental inhibition” (32). Rather than working to free men and women from the traditional repression of sexuality, Brownmiller argued that popular pornographic images actually worked to reinforce them. Pornography was a form of propaganda which taught men to objectify and demean women, and it contributed to “a cultural climate in which men felt free to rape” (Brownmiller 297).

Popular magazines such as Hustler and Penthouse contained regular images of violence against women, set in a sexual context. Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography by Laura Lederer describes a sampling of some typical “tabletop pornography” from the late 1970s (Lederer 17). Images of bondage and mutilation, child molestation and torture, and rape and violent imagery were common. As Brownmiller became a prominent spokesperson for the anti-pornography movement, Hustler and Screw both made use of her image in their magazines, publishing personal information, including her place of residence in response to her public criticism (Brownmiller 297). Many prominent feminists, including Gloria Steinem, were attacked in this way by publishers. Their caricatures were placed in degrading sexual scenes. This response by pornographers demonstrated a willingness to use sexual imagery as a form of harassment and intimidation that may have led to real violence against Brownmiller and other feminists actively engaged with the subject of pornography.

A 1976 film entitled Snuff which contained scenes of “eroticized torture” and purported murder brought the anti-pornography movement national attention, as women worked to oppose snuff films and sadomasochistic imagery (Brownmiller 298). Women Against Pornography (WAP), and Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media (WAVPM) were two of the prominent anti-pornography groups which hosted demonstrations and worked to raise consciousness about violent sexual imagery. Andrea Dworkin, a leading organizer participated in hosting tours of Times Square in the belief that by raising consciousness about pornography, women would band together to oppose it. The famous Hustler cover of 1978 featured a woman apparently being stuffed into a meat grinder, drawing attention to the anti-pornography movement. In addition to tours of sex shops in Times Square, women were presented with slide shows in order to raise awareness about violent imagery in adult materials. WAP staged a protest against a proposed Penthouse club which would be named the “Meat Rack” (Brownmiller 303). Other anti-pornography groups surfaced around the country promoting feminist criticism of violent materials, which was quite different from the conservative opposition to obscenity. Feminist arguments against pornography addressed concerns over the conflation of sexuality and violence that would have a pervasive effect on society. WAP and other groups argued that pornography itself promoted the sexual repression of women by narrowly defining sexuality and casting women as objects for consumption by men.

In 1972, Deep Throat, starring Linda Lovelace first brought pornography to the mainstream. The popular film was important in that it was the first feature-length pornographic film to attract a wide audience. Later, Lovelace wrote an account of her experiences in the making of Deep Throat entitled Ordeal, in which she claimed that she had been viciously abused by her partner and coerced into her performance. Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin of WAP were inspired by the experiences of Lovelace to draft legislation that might protect women from abuse by pornographers. They argued that pornography was a violation of civil rights for those women coerced into performance or suffering violence as a result of pornography, or being forced in the workplace or elsewhere to view pornographic materials (Brownmiller 316).

The legislation had some limited success but was ultimately rejected as unconstitutional in district court, with pornographic materials defended on the grounds of the First Amendment. MacKinnon continued to argue from a radical feminist stance that within the context of patriarchy, the First Amendment did not apply to women, as the Constitution presumes social equality (MacKinnon 128). She argues in Feminism Unmodified that “Pornography causes attitudes and behaviors of violence and discrimination that define the treatment and status of half the population” (MacKinnon 147). WAP ultimately dissolved over the issue of legislation, with many concerned that legal limits to pornography were not the right solution to the problems surrounding it. Through the pursuit of legislation, MacKinnon and Dworkin earned the attention and support of right wing political leaders, unfortunately linking the ideas of repression of sexuality on religious grounds with the freedom for women victimized by viewing or participating in pornography to pursue legal remedies.

From the beginning, debates over pornography were heated among feminist groups. Brownmiller reports that some women identified with or enjoyed erotic and sadomasochistic imagery, and resented the characterization of all explicit imagery as problematic. Some women felt a sense of liberation through the newfound availability of erotic materials, or worried that the anti-pornography movement was a threat to free speech. Others became concerned with the implied alliance with the religious right (Brownmiller 308). A “feminist anti-anti-pornography” undercurrent began to develop, which included the “promotion of lesbian sadomasochism as a new oppressed minority” (314). It was clear that sexual imagery which could seem degrading and misogynistic to some, was arousing or liberating for others. Underlying arguments about pornography were deeper differences of philosophy on gender and sexuality that would prove to be divisive.

In her book, Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor, Wendy Chapkis examines the various arguments framing the “feminist sex wars,” and supplies a collection of interviews with women in the sex trade. Writing from a pro-prostitution feminist perspective, Chapkis provides a careful examination of competing ideologies around sex work, while demonstrating an awareness of her own bias. She provides a useful analysis of the divisions which characterized the sex wars of the 1970s and 1980s with a careful consideration of its legacy and impact on feminism. Part of her project is to “help heal the schism within feminism…around the subject of commercial sex,” arguing against the typical division of arguments around the sex wars into two distinct groups (Chapkis 1).

Chapkis examines two major ideologies which she identifies as Radical Feminism and Sex Radical Feminism, and details the underlying theoretical make-up of each of these major groups. “Pro-‘positive’ sex feminism” and “anti-sex feminism” are contained within the arguments associated with Radical Feminism (Chapkis 13). Sex Radical Feminism or Sex Radicalism includes “sexual libertarianism” and “sexual subversion” (26). These categories are useful in that they assist the reader in understanding that alliances can be declared by sources external to the conflict, over-simplifying complex arguments and obscuring areas of consensus.

Radical Feminism is associated with the anti-pornography movement of the late 70s and early 80s. Chapkis identifies “pro-‘positive’ sex” feminism as the arguments associated with “sexual romanticism,” articulated by feminist leaders like Gloria Steinem. The erotic is defined as “rooted in Eros or passionate love” (Chapkis 13). Pornography or other forms of commercialized sex are detrimental to this concept of sexuality, being devoid of love or intimacy. In this conceptual understanding of sexuality, certain practices are necessarily bad. A “male sexual style” is identified which is characterized by “objectification, promiscuity and emotional non-involvement.” Female sexuality is characterized by “affection, tenderness and commitment” (14). Pro-positive sex feminists aimed to abolish prostitution, and argued that women’s sexuality was threatened by the proliferation of pornography. Sexual romanticism can serve to define sexuality along gender lines, negating sexual expression which exists outside of romantic love. Further, criticism of pornography and prostitution goes well beyond the loss of Eros including concerns over sexualized violence, worker safety, promotion of rape culture and many other issues.

“Anti-sex feminism,” another component of Radical Feminism includes arguments which condemned prostitution, pornography and other forms of sex. Catherine MacKinnon articulates this argument, as she identifies “the very meaning of sex [as] male domination” (Chapkis 17). “Women Against Sex” argued that sex itself was suspect as a form of female degradation and domination by men. If sex is always an inherent act of male supremacy, there can be no real notion of consent in pornography or other forms of sex. Some proponents of these arguments imagined a “feminist future” in which sex would be “informed by an entirely different practice.” Important to this type of argument is the notion that “sex cannot be a tool for dismantling male supremacy” (18). This form of feminism objected to sexual romanticism as it reinforced notions of inherent gender difference. Anti-sex feminism is commonly confused with religious sexual repression, an unfortunate relationship which detracts from the feminist critique.  In an effort to eliminate gender hierarchy, women strategized by withholding sex as a way to reclaim sexual power. Under this theoretical framework, romanticist feminism is classified as liberal, in the sense that it aims to work with prevailing gender norms, and anti-sex feminism is classified as radical, in the sense that gender itself is challenged in an attempt to upend the patriarchy.

Sex Radical Feminism or Sex Radicalism is another important theoretical framework detailed by Chapkis, containing arguments around sexual libertarianism and sexual subversion. Both are concerned with “active engagement within the social order,” rather than with “purification” or “resistance” to various forms of sexual expression, whether commercial or private (Chapkis 21). Sexual libertarianism argues that the legitimacy of sexual acts are determined by the individual, rather than by society or community standards. Social hierarchies, including sexual inequality should not impose meaning to personal acts of sexual fulfillment. Feminist writer Camille Paglia opposes the anti-pornography movement, arguing that opposition to pornography makes one a “censor” and a “prude.” She argues that women hold sexual power over men, and rather than being cast as “slaves” or “victims” in sex work, they should rightly be viewed as “goddesses” (22). She reasons that women subjected to violence are personally responsible rather than that violence is caused by political or social factors. Sexual libertarian ideas are often expressed by producers of pornography, as individual consent is frequently emphasized over the larger social impact of its production and consumption. Objection to the commoditization of sexuality is not necessarily related to prudishness, as objection to commoditization and objection to sexuality itself are quite separate.

Other Sex Radical views are more concerned with the political and social context of sexuality as commodity. Marcy Sheiner of the magazine On Our Backs questions whether “arousal potential [should be] the sole criteria for what goes into a sex magazine” (Chapkis 23). Sexual subversion differs from sexual libertarianism in its interest in promoting an “erotic ethic,” which is concerned with the social implications of erotic materials and expression (24). Chapkis writes, “sex radical feminists…share with romanticist and anti-sex feminists a sense of outrage at the existing social order” (26). Sex Radicalism generally aims to engage and transform sexual expression from within, with a potential for “sex to be a cultural tactic which can be used both to destabilize male power as well as to reinforce it” (29). Sex work as “cultural tactic” is an idea that is difficult to quantify. Work concerned with the “erotic ethic” is a worthwhile endeavor, but it is important to consider not just the production but the consumption of commercial sex and consideration must be made to the market which may be intentionally drawn to unethical forms of sex work such as child pornography or forced prostitution.

Chapkis demonstrates that feminist thought on commercialized sex is more complicated than is generally discussed. Not all who comprised the anti-pornography movement were “anti-sex,” and not all who argued against it were insensitive to concerns about its quality or content. Her book, written in the late 1990s also demonstrates that the heated debates of the late 70s and 80s which defined the feminist sex wars did not end with the failed Dworkin and MacKinnon legislation and the loss of organization of what is now characterized as the second-wave feminist movement. Sexual romanticism and sexual libertarianism had in common that both theories accepted prevailing gender ideology, while anti-sex and sexual subversion arguments around commercial sex promoted the challenging of gender barriers, and sexual expression.

In considering arguments around pornography and other forms of commercialized sexuality, the notion of consent is crucial. Dworkin and others who promoted “anti-sex” ideology argued that within a male-dominated gender system, women were by nature of their gender subject to abuse through a sexual expression which had been defined and commoditized by men. Similarly, in the sex trade where women are at times prostituted and under the control and management of men, consent becomes questionable. Sexual subversion, where women reclaim agency within sex work, requires an amount of self-actualization which is not always demonstrated to be the case when women engage in these practices. From a social perspective, it is also important to consider not only the agency of performers of commercialized sex, but the effects on consumers in dealing with violent or oppressive sexual imagery and practices.

In Daring to Be Bad, Alice Echols argues that the radical feminism which played such an important part of the second-wave feminist movement was transformed into what she refers to as cultural feminism. Radicals who were interested in redefining gender and challenging the basic social order became less prominent as feminists interested in working within the dominant structure to create change came to shape and define the movement for the third-wave and now post-wave generations. The sex radicalism of which Chapkis identifies is more closely aligned with the idea of cultural feminism, wherein sex workers attempt to defy the mainstream conception of such work as demeaning, and participants as merely victims or objects. It is an attempt to commit radical acts of feminism within a traditionally male dominated structure.

The sex wars are important in understanding current conversations among feminists regarding pornography and other forms of commercial sex. Recent works including Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy and Pamela Paul’s Pornified tackle the mainstreaming of pornography and the popularity of videos such as Girls Gone Wild, in which young women participate in mass produced “amateur” pornography. Some still try to maintain a distinction between “erotica” and “pornography,” or pursue alternative or “feminist pornography.” Some actors in the industry such as Nina Hartley self-identify as feminist and speak out in support of the mainstream industry. Dworkin and MacKinnon had an important impact on the sex wars, with their arguments often characterized as anti-male. Levy and Paul suggest that in order to be viewed as pro-sex, a woman must also be pro-pornography. It is important from a feminist perspective to be free to actively critique pornography in much the same way as other elements of media and culture, challenging overt and subtle forms of misogyny. It works to the benefit of a highly profitable industry for women to participate in their own objectification, and for those who question it to be cast as “man-haters.” Still relevant to the conversation about pornography are issues of violence against women, sex worker safety, and discussion around its effects on body image and sexuality, as well as theoretical analysis on how pornography reflects and reinforces gender roles.

Works Cited
Brownmiller, Susan. In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution. New York: Dial, 1999. Print.
Chapkis, W. Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print.
Echols, Alice. Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1989. Print.
“Feminist Views on Pornography.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 20 Feb. 2011.
Lederer, Laura. Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography. New York: Morrow, 1980. Print.
Levy, Ariel. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York: Free, 2005. Print.
“Libertarians and Pro-sex vs. Dworkinite Radical Feminisms.” History News Network. Web. 24 Feb. 2011.
MacKinnon, Catharine A. Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1987. Print.
Paul, Pamela. Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. New York: Times, 2005. Print.