Sexual Politics


To the Editors of The Crimson:

I was depressed and disgusted by the story by Paul Attanasio sprawled across the May 1st "What is to Be Done."

Over ten years ago, Kate Millett wrote Sexual Politics, starting a protracted personal debate between Norman Mailer and various feminists, and more importantly, reemphasizing the extremely political nature of fiction.

"Confusing the simply antisocial with the revolutionary, Mailer develops an aesthetic whose chief temperamental characteristic is a malign machismo, still dear to those in the New Left who have fallen under Mailer's spell in adolescence or continue to confuse Che Guevara with the brassy cliche of the Westerns," she wrote. In Mailer's world, "sex is war, war is sexual," and so women are the enemy, to be treated with violence as a solution for male angst.

Somehow I had hoped that the reams of feminist criticism of American literary sexism (see Andrea Dworkin's Woman Hating; see my article on Kerouac in the September 1978 Seventh Sister) would knock writers like Mailer off their pedestals, would make younger writers realize that they could criticize an author's male chauvinism while admiring his use of language. Perhaps this is too much to ask of Harvard, where, as we all know, the pugilist has a private little ring at 21 South Street.


I assume (hope) that Attanasio was satirizing American machismo, making the point that the obsession of his characters with guns and fucks and games was "why we are in Iran." I appreciate the critique--if it is a critique, and not just an intellectual musing. The way in which he does it, however, undercuts any positive value it could have.

First of all, it is highly offensive. "Sometimes I slip it between those honeydew melons." Think for a minute about what it is like to be a woman in America (after all, just a tad of being a writer is empathy, right?)--getting ass-grabbed on the way to the Coop for typing paper, every goddam man on the street slobbering for those "honeydow melons" and letting you know it, whether you're dressed like Radcliffe '80 or Radcliffe '08--caged in by glossy magazine photos of surrogates for you spread-eagled--sitting at dining-hall tables while fellow students boast of Combat Zone conquests. Think ok? The crowning indignity is when this trash occurs in your own home, when Quincy House shows porno flicks and when you cannot open the Crimson without being subjected to someone's gang rape fantasies: "they could take her together, there were orifices enough for all in the land of plenty."

We don't need it. There's enough of that trash elsewhere that it does not need to be included in a supposedly anti-sexist newspaper. I don't care what point it's making: it can be made in other ways. Because it reads like Attanasio enjoyed writing that.

Secondly--and this is why no justification of such scenes as "artistically necessary" is possible--the entire conception and style of the story is inadequate to the issues involved. Attanasio is glib, his characters are glib. Everyone is very glib and clever and no real commitment to dealing with the problems of American machismo and militarism is made. The characters are intellectual enough (graduate students at Harvard, dropping allusions to Heidegger and Hemingway!) that only intellectuals will read the story; yet they are redneckedly outlandish enough (bowling and slinging semi-automatic weapons) that they will not challenge any intellectuals to consider their own personal role in the process. Their very redneckedness is in fact romanticized, made "Hip" in the way Millett wrote. In short, Attanasio has created a clever (tiresome) string of one-liners that laughs its way all around the issues. It's caricature that thinks it's analysis.

And it's a very, very easy way out. It doesn't try to find a response to redneck machismo; nor does it try to find one to intellectual machismo. It doesn't acknowledge the real and pressing question of how intellectuals are supposed to stem the tidal wave of jingoism Carter is engulfing us in.

It is an example of decadence--decay of values--in which the only proposed action is laughing at oneself. Noam Chomsky has written about precisely this, the failure of the American intelligentsia profits-before-people policies, willfully blind and/or intimidated.

It is very simple for young writers to emphasize style in a way that excludes social content. It is very simple for them to copy the slick New York Establishment--Mailer, Updike, Barthelme, Adler, and so on. I am not advocating a reductionist "socialist realism." I am advocating a transcending of solipsistic subjectivity. I am advocating a thoughtful search for a style that will encourage understanding of the political choices that face us daily. So, as a literary critic, I find Attanasio's piece unoriginal, everly self-conscious, slick.

And as a feminist, I find it appalling. I find it even more appalling that a supposedly "anti-sexist" paper would include it. This can indicate only a lack of serious thought into what constitutes women's opression in our country, and how it manifests itself in many forms, including "literature." Well, start thinking. Politics is more than two columns of editorials twice a week.

I furthermore welcome debate on a "new fiction" that will go beyond cynical self-consciousness. Ilana De Bare '80