Monday, May 24, 2010

MacKinnon: On Man as Default

I was first introduced to the ideas of legal scholar and feminist Catherine MacKinnon almost a decade ago during a Feminist Jurisprudence course in law school.

Sadly, I don't think I appreciated either MacKinnon or that class as much as I could have back then. Law school has a way of sometimes sapping the curiosity right out of someone. I would love to audit that class now, with a bit more real world experience and feminist consciousness under my belt. Until then, I have settled for reacquainting myself with feminist legal theories and exploring them further on my own.

MacKinnon is a dominance feminist who, among other things, argues that legal strategies to make women equal to men are unsatisfactory because they continue to center men as the norm. In a recent interview, she expands on this idea:

"'De Beauvoir showed the problem: that the woman is the `other,' and the man is the standard. I am showing something else: that the things that have been depicted as a solution to the problem - that is, the feminist struggle for equality, for the equalization of the rights of women to the rights of men - are in fact part of the problem.'

MacKinnon makes it clear that the very fact of wanting to be equal to men perpetuates the assumption that men and masculinity are the model that determines what is worthy and what is desirable. 'If we want to achieve equality in such conditions of inequality, our way will become endless,' she comments."

We see this centering of the male experience in the way that women are encouraged to be and think like men in order to have successful careers, which only reinforces male dominance. For sci-fi geeks out there, think of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series, where femininity has been devalued and erased as women have been assimilated into the maculine-human norm. Even though women have achieved formal equality, men remain the default human being.

Her argument is interesting because, on the surface, it borders precariously close to different theorists, and many anti-feminists, who say that men and women are inherently different. While MacKinnon would likely agree that some biological sex differences exist between men and women, she would argue that more important questions are (a) how and whether the law is used to create and reinforce sex/gender hierarchy and (b) how the legal system and male dominance have exaggerated sex differences, making many of these differences appear to be "natural" when they are not.

And, of course, MacKinnon has a lot to say about rape and pornography. Watch how she deals with one mansplainer:

"MR. WATTENBERG: ...Rape -- you know,we keep coming back to this. Rape is against the law. Rape is a vulgar, terrible, murderous crime. I mean, who says that anybody --

MS. MacKINNON: And women -- and what women know about it --

MR. WATTENBERG: Who says that anybody is saying rape is okay?

MS. MacKINNON: It is not taken seriously in this society.

MR. WATTENBERG: Oh, that's just not true. I mean --

MS. MacKINNON: I mean, I'm glad that you take it so seriously, but I think it would behoove you to realize --

MR. WATTENBERG: I mean, do you think that people --

MS. MacKINNON: -- that the society you live in does not.

MR. WATTENBERG: -- that people who are husbands and fathers and brothers don't take rape seriously?

MS. MacKINNON: Well, not only don't they, but the incest figures suggest that they participate in it to a considerable degree.

I definitely need to re-introduce the word "behoove" into my vocabulary.

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