Sunday, August 17, 2014

Precis - The SCUM Manifesto - Valerie Solanas

After publication in 1967, “The SCUM Manifesto” by Valerie Solanas became highly regarded as a radical feminist text. The argument presented is relatively straightforward: due to the corruption of male-dominated society, women must “overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation, and destroy the male sex”. Among an astounding list of grievances against men, Solanas includes some memorable language that relates the causes of war, social and racial inequality, ignorance, disease, death, etc. squarely back onto the shoulders of the male sex. As such, the actual message of the manifesto becomes literalized in Solanas’s attempt to satirize the modern life and to shock both men and women out of complacency with society’s sexism. Regardless of her personal intention (or, I suppose, sanity), the most obvious interpretation of the text is as a forceful challenge of assumptions about gender norms. 

Although I understand what Solanas is trying to accomplish here, I am somewhat uncomfortable with the turn that some of her language takes (but I can’t help thinking that I am meant to). She condemns the male sex by suggesting that the quest to prove manhood results in “an endless amount of mutilation and suffering and an endless number of lives” and yet, she later recommends that women in an ideal society should “act on a mob basis” and “kill all men”. This obvious irony here is that violence becomes both a problem and a solution to what Solanas finds wrong with the world. Beyond this, she characterizes the male and female genders in a way that almost ends up discounting complexities in human nature. She depicts man as “completely egocentric, trapped inside himself, incapable of empathizing or identifying with others, or love, friendship, affection of tenderness.” Although this statement might be taken to work towards a fair overall objection to the patriarchal systems that have kept women constrained since, well, forever -  it definitely unfairly generalizes many members of the male sex. As such, that sentence could more reasonably be applied to both male and female genders (not limited to men, that is) and, even more aptly applied to specific individuals, regardless of sex.  

While some of aforementioned concerns are fairly obvious and perhaps more minor considering the context of the entire piece, I was particularly struck with the way that Solanas refers to females who don’t ascribe to the SCUM Manifesto. She goes so far as to say that the real conflict is between “ SCUM -- dominant, secure, self-confident, nasty, violent, selfish, independent, proud, thrill-seeking, free-wheeling, arrogant females, who consider themselves fit to rule the universe, who have free-wheeled to the limits of this `society' ... and nice, passive, accepting `cultivated', polite, dignified, subdued, dependent, scared, mindless, insecure, approval-seeking Daddy's Girls, who can't cope with the unknown, who want to hang back with the apes, who feel secure only with Big Daddy standing by, with a big strong man to lean on and with a fat, hairy face in the White House …” This incredibly long sentence struck me as particularly harsh because it discounts the strides that “cultivated” and “dignified” women have made in the struggle for equality. The choice doesn’t have to be kill or be killed. Despite the sexism that is embedded into the world we live in, there are a countless number of women who have displayed enormous strength by working within and succeeding in a male-dominated world. I wouldn't characterize these women as “scared” or “mindless”. 

Although I appreciated this text because it's hilarious and apt and Solanas says things that very few people have had the courage for, I do think it's important to consider what approach to feminism will best support gender equality. To the extent that the text is meant to wake society up and make us see through the sexism that has become institutionalized in political, economic, and social spheres, it does its job masterfully. It adds another, admittedly more aggressive voice to the fight for equality - but how effective is this approach? To the extent that some of the language is meant as an honest representation of what is and what ought to be, the text almost does the advance of feminism a disservice because it turns against the very people it seeks to promote. Is Solanas really that opposed to working from within the system? (It certainly seems as if she would have preferred hitting it repeatedly and with a mallet.)


Eric Gentry said...

I took the entire SCUM Manifesto to be a direct attack of Sigmund Freud. In her quest to discredit the Fetishism piece that all humans are male, and all fetishes derive from the penis. Solanas wanted to bring things back to the pussy seeking. All men want to be female, and have mommy issues, and cannot solve anything, so society needs the power of femininity to really get things done. Did she set back the women's right campaign with the personal affront, or advance it by shining a light in the shadows where light did not dare go? Maybe you are right and the entire piece was done on purpose to draw attention to these issues in society.

J Seagull said...

Hi Leah,

I too was taken aback a bit when Solanas wrote things such as the example you described, where she contrasts rowdy feminist women with the so-called "Daddy's girls." But I eventually decided that the text is indeed almost entirely satirical. So at that point my questions became things like: "What is the purpose of this exaggeration?" Instead of "how could she say such a thing?"

So, in this case, I think my question is, why is she lumping all females into two totally opposed categories? Is there something about this technique that is actually a mockery in itself?

To jump off of Eric's comment about Freud, I also saw her mockery of Freudian thinking throughout the text myself. And isn't the kind of project that Freud was engaging in a classic example of the kind of thinking that just has to categorize everything into an overly simplistic schema that results in absurd conclusions?

Could it be that some of the techniques Solanas is using are based on that? If the world has been drawn with all these simple boundaries and categories, then playing with that in various can produce some interesting results.

But even taking a step back and not attributing any of this to comedic intent on the part of the author, isn't this what happens anyway? Is it not what Fanon described in his piece that we read about violence? When one is formed by being steeped in certain ways of thinking, one may go on to re-enact those flawed ways of thinking in the attempt to escape them. Either way, when I see these troublesome items in Solanas' piece, they seem to be a reflection of the ideology she is responding to. Like you said, "the choice doesn't have to be kill or be killed", but maybe the point is, that's the attitude that's being responded to, and reflected, here.

Samiha Baseer said...

My understanding of feminism, at its most basic level, is a movement promoting equality of women in society. In Solanas work, she wrote about the eradication of men and argued for the birth right of only females. With that said, what do you think about this work under the category of feminism?

Lea Dandan said...

Hi all,

Do you think feminism can be redefined for promoting equity of women in society rather than the equality of women? According to the dictionary, equality is defined as "the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities." We can approach equity in a way that encapsulates that fact that women and men are not created equal. For example, higher testosterone levels which men predominantly have, leads to lower cortisol levels, a hormone that is a stress indicator. Since women have lower testosterone levels, they have to work harder to fight their biology. Equity allows consideration of the given variables and gives both sexes the benefit of the doubt in an ethical manner rather than equalizing blindly.