I conducted this interview with the influential feminist philosopher and ethicist Drucilla Cornell over the past month, as the #MeToo movement has gained force, and debates about feminist responses to male sexual misconduct and abuse have been renewed. She is a professor of political science at Rutgers University and the author of many books, including “Law and Revolution in South Africa: uBuntu, Dignity, and the Struggle for Constitutional Transformation (2014), “The Spirit of Revolution: Beyond the Dead Ends of Man” (2016) and “Clint Eastwood and Issues of American Masculinity” (2009). Here we discuss the impact of pornography and popular culture on male sexual behavior, the psychology of misogyny, race, the #MeToo movement and more.
— George Yancy
George Yancy: We find ourselves here in a remarkable moment. Each day, it seems, well-known men like Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer are being identified as alleged perpetrators of sexual misconduct or sexual assault. This is significant. But in my view, a deeper and more entrenched problem remains: Most women, within the context of their everyday lives (workplaces, for example), continue to be subjected to the male “pornographic gaze.” Do you agree?
Drucilla Cornell: The male pornographic imaginary is clearly a larger problem. But the men being named are symptoms of an even deeper one — male terror of the power of the female body to give and take away life.
The images of man as predator make it seem as though they are in charge, they have the power to bring women, often literally, to their knees. But behind this is fear and anxiety. Female bodies must be turned into objects of pleasure that can never be imagined as a whole person because it would be too scary. We have foot men, breast men and rear-end men because an embodied woman with a face, a life and a voice is something they cannot face up to.
We see this in all the legislation that attempts to control the power of women to give life and death. The endless battles against the right to abortion, the attempt to censor birth control, the demands of men that they can weigh into the decision when a woman has an abortion. Are these men powerful in the world? Unquestionably. Did they abuse their power? Unquestionably. But psychically the misogynist imaginary is one full of fear and terror of the scariest thing imaginable; a woman with power, her own voice, and her own life.
Thoughtful academic conversation between two thoughtful people. And while interesting, would mystify vast majority of people trying to find [common ground].
Fear is no excuse. We have to call them out as the wimps that they are. Powerful in their day to day life at work, terrified in their lives as sexual predators. That said, we need to have a deeper understanding of how the misogynist imaginary is related to the suppression in our society of the significance of the maternal body. How do we fight this horrific abuse of masculine power and at the same time understand that the misogynist imaginary is rooted in fear?
Feminists, lesbians and the transgendered have shown us that the erotic does not need to be immersed in the masculine imaginary. The job of feminists is to demand thoroughgoing erotic transformation of our relationship to each other (Stephen Seely and I argue this in our book “The Spirit of Revolution: Beyond the Dead Ends of Man”). This is of course inseparable from an agenda of economic transformation, which Bernie Sanders called for and the group he founded, Our Revolution, continues to echo in its campaign Medicare for All. We must be fearless in our struggle and our support for those who have been traumatized and victimized, and we must tackle the much bigger problem of the violence inherent in what gets called heterosexuality, but one in which the hetero, the other, of the woman is completely rejected as an equal human being.
G.Y.: A recent article in the Times magazine looked at the effect of pornography on today’s teenagers. Clearly, the masculine imaginary is powerfully reinforced by cultural images like this that communicate to men that women “want” to be treated as bits and pieces of flesh. Take James Bond, for example. I recall as a boy watching the Bond film “Goldfinger” (1964). And there was the character Pussy Galore, played by the actress Honor Blackman. I was taken and partly shaped by that fantasy. Many boys and men would have been. Seeing James Bond as a wimp might be a way to upend that narrative. What other sorts of new narratives or cultural images would help young boys and men avoid seeing women as less than full human beings?
D.C.: Yes. James Bond is a wimp. Looking at James Bond through the lens of his creator, Ian Fleming, is a good start. In the later movies, Bond has lost the woman he loves and is in despair. He is a lackey of the British government, a glorified civil servant, the speedboats and dalliances with the Pussy Galores of the world aside.
One surprising place we can find counter-narratives of what women want and desire is in at least two of the movies that Clint Eastwood has directed. In one of his earlier films as a director, “Sudden Impact,” Harry Callahan, yes, the infamous Dirty Harry, ends up on the trail of what seems to be a serial murderer, Jennifer Spencer, who is systematically murdering all of the men, and indeed one woman, who raped her and her sister in the small town of San Paolo, Calif.
Spencer is a painter who has returned to San Paolo with these murders as a goal. Her excuse for being there is to paint hobby horses, a famous symbol of the penis, on the merry-go-round in the amusement park in which she was raped. Her sister is institutionalized and has not spoken since having been raped multiple times. Harry Callahan becomes romantically involved with her and sees the anguish in her paintings. Her killings are premeditated. She shoots her victims in the scrotum, watches them suffer, and then she shoots them in the head. It’s a Dirty Harry movie so, yes, Harry comes out of the midst to save the day when she is embattled with the last murder.
Harry takes out the last rapist and is about to read Jennifer Spencer her rights, but she interrupts with the following speech: “Read me my rights? What exactly are my rights? Where was all this concern for my rights when I was being beaten and mauled? And what about my sister’s rights when she was being brutalized? There is a thing called justice. And was it justice that they should all just walk away? You’d never understand, Callahan.”
Harry makes a decision knowing that the last rapist’s fingerprints are on the gun that killed him. He hands the gun to another officer and simply says, “It’s over,” and walks away with Jennifer Spencer. Is Eastwood showing us that if there is no justice for women, then they cannot be judged by Man’s law? Watch the movie. I started with “Sudden Impact” because we are dealing now with men who are violent sexual harassers, indeed some who are accused of rape.
In “The Bridges of Madison County,” Eastwood redoes a popular novel by focusing on how the two children of Francesca Johnson, played by Meryl Streep, take up the search for the woman in the mother by reading the diaries she had left behind for them. The diaries tell of her four-day affair when her children and husband were gone to the state fair. The dairies tell a sexually explicit story. The film is shot from the perspective of Francesca Johnson and we watch her joyously embracing her own eroticism, and indeed lust, for Robert Kincaid.
We know how heterosexual sex is often shot in Hollywood movies. The man picks the woman up, throws her against the wall, penetrates her, and we see ecstasy on her face in about 10 seconds — same formula used in pornography. In “Bridges,” the couple dance in the kitchen in what some women see as one of the most sensual and erotic scenes ever shot in Hollywood. Then there is the fade-out into the bedroom, which is deliberately kept blurry.
Francesca is a woman in her late 40s, not a teenybopper with redone boobs. So, do we need to lose Eros if we are to treat women as full persons with equality? Clearly not. The two are reunited in death as both have their ashes thrown off the bridge where their romance begins. The narrative in the movies that Eastwood directs follows men, and, yes, we are talking about straight white men here, as they move from conventional sexism to being shaken by a woman who testifies to that sexism, to having the courage — and yes it does take courage — to see women as full persons and to treating them with the respect that they deserve.
G.Y.: As you know, feminist theory isn’t universally white. I would also imagine that Eros is expressed differently among women of color vis-à-vis white women. I raise this issue as many women of color will not see themselves in “The Bridges of Madison County.” What are your thoughts on that?
D.C.: Of course, women of color, including the great poet Audre Lorde, are some of the most profound writers on erotic transformation and revolution. Indeed, Lorde’s work first laid the groundwork for understanding that there is an erotic component in any revolutionary struggle and that to forget that, to turn away from it, will always reinstate a deadly denial of how revolutions, including socialist revolutions, are to free us from the violent and alienated constraints of the imperial and neoliberal capitalist world we live in. She, of course, is one among many. I would certainly add Angela Davis, Gloria Anzaldúa, Dorothy Roberts, Patricia Williams, Sylvia Wynter, Jamaica Kincaid, Bell Hooks, Toni Morrison and so many more. (I would turn the reader particularly to Morrison’s novel “Paradise.”) My only point about Eastwood is that he seems in his films to be struggling with what it means to be a good man within the obvious constraints of white, heterosexual masculinity.
G.Y.: It can be argued that #MeToo may fail to speak to women of color who are brutally sexually harassed or raped, leaving their voices unheard, perhaps at times unhearable because of racism.
D.C.: I completely agree that the brutal stories of black women, and I would add here Latinas and Native Americans, often remain unheard. Obviously, black women could not even be raped under conditions of slavery because they were not even considered human beings, and that history is ever-present with us. My former colleague Dorothy Roberts’s groundbreaking book “Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty” remains one of the most telling testimonies to the way that black women’s bodies are used in the medical field for horrific forms of experimentation, who live in conditions of almost unbearable brutality with almost no recourse and whose bravery allows them to survive under unimaginably cruel conditions.
I would also urge people to seek out and read the works of these women — especially the numerous texts of Bell Hooks, who has so written eloquently about the brutality and cruelty black women endure and, again, has made central to her work the issue of erotic transformation as crucial to any truly revolutionary change. Also, Patricia Williams’s excellent review of the many young writers who have followed in the glorious path laid down by those I have just mentioned, including my former colleague at the Rutgers political science department, Shateema Threadcraft, whose book “Intimate Justice: The Black Female Body and the Body Politic” is groundbreaking.
G.Y.: Returning to your point above, it would seem that “Man’s law” fails to “properly” prosecute, but also fails to affirm the brutal gravity of what it means to be a woman who is a victim of rape as a cultural practice, a system of male power. Speak to this. Also, are you suggesting that Woman’s law would be one in which they take justice into their own hands?
D.C.: I would be hesitant to say that there is something called Woman’s law, although I would like to remind us all of the debates of justice and care beginning with Carol Gilligan’s pathbreaking book “In a Different Voice.” It was Judith Butler, after all, in her 1990 book, “Gender Trouble,” who questioned the use of “woman” and “women” as if feminine sexual difference could be separated from the practices of hetero-normative performance. We are constantly reminded by gay, lesbian and transgender people that gender not only is but should be in trouble. But as Butler and I have debated over the years, I remain committed to the idea that we cannot deny the feminine within sexual difference without once again degrading all that is feminine and therefore paradoxically reinstating Man’s law.
In my first book, “Beyond Accommodation: Ethical feminism, Deconstruction, and the Law,” I argued instead that we must expand, and indeed even explode, the constraints on feminine sexual difference so that we can become “women” differently in a symbolic world that we create as well as inherit. But my ideal of the imaginary domain was meant to recognize that each one of us must be given the ethical, moral and legal right to come to terms with our sexual being as we wish so as not to fall back into any notion of woman or women that reinforces heteronormative gender roles and respects the challenges of gay, lesbian and transgender people.
G.Y.: So, what needs to change in the erotic lives of men, their sense of power, and the pornographic imaginary? And can men do this alone? I ask this because it seems unfair to require women to help men and yet continue to be the “objects” of our problematic sense of masculine sexuality.
D.C.: Here we are returned to my assertion that James Bond is a wimp. And I will end with a comment on Trump’s State of the Union address and its triumphalist, racist masculinity. Is Trump sexually a wimp? Of course, he is, trading in one model for a younger one. So, what does it mean for a man to change and why? I will end with Eastwood. Eastwood shows us again and again that men caught up in triumphalist masculinity fail to achieve erotic happiness and often fail in their intergenerational relationships with women.
In “Mystic River,” Eastwood tells the story of three men, but I will only focus on one image. Sean is one of the three boys who is deeply impacted by the rape of his male friend Dave by so-called representatives of Man’s law, a cop and a priest. It is a trauma that forms them all. Now grown, Sean believes he has done everything right. He doesn’t cheat, he doesn’t drink, he brings his check home, but his wife and his newborn baby girl leave him. His wife calls him periodically, and Sean, through the pornographic imaginary, can only see her perfectly made-up red lips speaking words unheard, or remaining silent.
At one point, he initiates a call to her in which he lets himself be completely vulnerable and says, I don’t get it, but I want you to come home. He is completely vulnerable and shaking. At that point she becomes a woman, a full-bodied woman, not a fetishistic pair of lips, and they do indeed reconcile, with Sean remaining in the last scene of the movie vulnerable and awkward because of having to confront a woman who is no longer a fetishized object form. Full embodied women are scary and he is willing to be scared.
As Bell Hooks tells us again and again, the price men pay for Man’s law is the inability to love, and that loss is truly tragic. Feminism, and particularly the feminism of the women of color I have mentioned, is about freeing all of us to live in a world of erotic transformation.