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Reappraisal of a Radical

Jerry Bauer

My Name Is Andrea (2022)

Andrea Dworkin has always been a divisive figure, within feminism and without. She’s best known for spearheading, alongside Catharine MacKinnon, legal attempts to ban pornography in the 1980s, seeing that as the first step to ensure equality between the sexes. That goal has been comprehensively lost, but her wider point – the threat of sexual violence is a cultural whip used to keep women in line from girlhood, and women should unite to fight back against that by any means necessary – was often lost in the fuss. Pratibha Parmar’s biographical story of Dworkin, as shown at the Tribeca Festival, isn’t quite either a biopic or a documentary. Unfortunately its message is lost in the fuss.

The trouble is the theory and the biography are seen as interchangeable, which is neither true nor fair. Young Andrea (Amandla Stenberg) had a difficult home life in New Jersey made worse by a sexual assault by a stranger in a movie theater. As an idealistic university student (French singer Soko), she was arrested at a protest and then subjected to a devastating physical and sexual assault by doctors in a notorious New York women’s prison. In the aftermath of the resulting court case, she moved to Amsterdam, where she (Andrea Riseborough) witnessed the beginning of the global hippie counterculture and married a Dutchman. But the marriage turned violent, which was even more devastating. The dialogue, almost always in voiceover, is verbatim texts from Dworkin’s own writings and memoirs, intercut with period footage as well as family photos.

But then there is an unaddressed decade before Dworkin (Ashley Judd) exploded into the public eye based on her work against pornography, with styles veering between softly-spoken polite debate and podium-thumping exhortations for the raping to stop. Later in life, after a final act of brutality, Dworkin (Oscar-winner Christine Lahti) has lost her will to fight and is preoccupied with her health problems. It’s especially Ms. Judd and Ms. Lahti who bring the righteous fury of Ms. Dworkin’s words to vivid life in monologues performed for the camera. As an act of feminist solidarity, the five actors deserve all the plaudits.

However. And regrettably. As the movie is conceived, it falls into the sexist trap of conflating a woman’s work with the woman’s life. It’s a simple way of dramatizing the points Dworkin was making, sure, but it also makes it sound like no skill or expertise went into her theoretical work, that it was all entirely based on her unhappy experiences. By making no distinction between private letters of the time and descriptions written for publication decades after the fact, Ms. Parmar blurs the line between memory – especially performed memory – and fact. It would be fine if this was a regular biopic, but not when you’re using verbatim texts as the only words. If you’re telling a true story, as in a documentary, you do not have artistic license over your subject’s life, and it’s a dangerous mistake to do as Ms. Parmar has done.

Stranger still is the choice to use documentary footage of feminist protests from the past decade, including footage from the vigil in London after the murder of Sarah Everard, a young British woman who was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a policeman in 2020 (so, 15 years after Dworkin’s death). The vigil turned into a violent demonstration of police power gone wrong, an excellent example of how the power of the state can be used for evil, and how viciously the state can and will suppress protest. But it’s got nothing to do with Dworkin’s life, and Britain’s problems are not America’s. The inclusion of that footage is especially jarring since it follows a long section in which Ms. Riseborough types a letter to her mother explaining how her time in Amsterdam taught her that as an American she can only succeed in fighting the patriarchy on her home ground. Violence against women is global, and solidarity in the face of it should be, but we all know other factors come into play. So to bring real-life footage like this to the fore, when there’s no serious discussion of how Dworkin’s work against pornography failed with a vengeance, minimizes both what happened to Everard and the importance of Dworkin’s work.

Because make no mistake, her work was important. Dworkin mainstreamed a discomfort with how women’s bodies are used for men’s amusement, whether in pornography or in ordinary daily life. The fact that she dared spell out a feeling which a great many women connected with, whether they wanted to or not, opened a great many doors not only in feminist and queer theory, but also in how a great many ordinary women understood their ordinary choices. The trouble with Dworkin’s work against pornography is that sex work (in all its guises) can be a symptom of various societal ills, but only rarely the cause. By choosing to focus on the symptoms, she splintered her her work about how sexism curtails women’s choices into issues about free speech and censorship which seriously derailed second-wave feminism. A smarter documentary would have analyzed her work and its impact with other people’s words as well. Because as shown in this movie, her work only affected her own life. Such a wasted opportunity.


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