October 19, 2006

This Week's Gender Seminar: Carine M. Mardorossian, 'Toward a New Feminist Theory of Rape'

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/sociology/gender/readinggroup/

Corinne Mardossian

In her essay Mardorossian suggests that feminist theorists, ‘ignore the topic of rape in favour of more ambivalent expressions of male domination such as pornography and sexual harassment’ and she adds: ‘Rape has become academia’s undertheorized and apparently untheorizable issue’ (743). Mardorossian seeks to understand this phenomenon and seeks to find an alternative feminist theory that addresses these problems i.e. that ‘does not accept existing premises and established “truths” but problematizes them by asking alternative questions and offering different conceptions’ (745).

First Mardorossian interrogates postmodern feminist analysis and she notes the resistance to using women’s experience as grist for their studies so, ‘instead of justifying out critical discourse through an appeal to women’s rape experiences, fro example, we should examine what the category encompasses in different spaces and times and investigate its relation to other areas of women’s lives in the public sphere’ (746). Postmodernists have studied ‘victimization’ using this model, but not ‘rape’.

Sexual violence is discussed more in analysis of cinematic texts. For example feminist critics have shown how the film industry perpetuates ‘an ideology of rape’ (powerless women, violent men etc.). Yet how does this relate to rape in the real world?

Mardorossian thinks that the theorization of rape by postmodernist feminists is inadequate and that in fact they have a great deal in common with ‘backlashers’ in their treatment of rape. To show this, she focuses on Sharon Marcus and Wendy Brown. Postmodernist approaches to rape have apparently ‘regressive implications’ (747).

Mardorossian thinks that the lack in postmodern feminism originates from ‘the general (re)turn to interiority that animates cultural theory today (of which Judith Butler is the most prominent example’ (747). According to Mardorossian, the resulting discourse, ‘reduces antirape politics to a psychic dimension’ (747). Mardossian is aware of the pitfalls in ‘speculating about traumatic experiences’, but she will not deny the ‘reality’ of rape.

Conservative writers dominate writings on rape in the US, Mardorossian tell us. These feminists ‘downplay the severity of the problem of rape by blaming the high incidence of rape in the United States on the warped and unnecessarily alarmist representations of “radical” feminism’ (748). Victims are represented as brainwashed and passive. Camille Paglia is reconciled to gender-wars of which rape is simply a part. Katie Roiphie criticises feminist campaigning against date-rape as promoting a Victorian version of femininity. Mardorossian wonders why this kind of writing is so popular in the public sphere.

Mardorossian notes that this writing, though it is bad in an academic sense, is still theory and even rape victims are attracted to it. Not that there is some hidden truth to be found here, but, ‘these conservative critics have succeeded in dislodging rape from the issue orientated and experiential perspective that have circumscribed its examination’ (750). Like postmodern feminists, these women question the authenticity of women’s experiences. The focus is not on experience, but on discourse. What kind of discourse then creates such theorizing?

Power versus victims feminisms are part of the problem here, according to Mardorossian, who cites Feminists Theorize the Political ed. Butler and Scott. Sharon Marcus writes about rape here, but her conclusions seem rather anti-feminist, since she finds that feminist discourse is partly to blame for the high rape incidence. There is an implication here that women misname so-called ‘rape experiences’. Marcus also thinks that feminism presents women as already raped and rapeable. Marcus believes that there is a ‘rape script’ of male power and female victims. Mardorossian summarises:

In other words, it is up to the women to recognize that her assailant does not simply have the power to rape but that his power is created by the extent to which she succumbs to the social scripts efforts to secure her participation. Marcus sees each individual rape as comprising various stages such as verbal threats and other forms of action and harassment, and argues that the time and space between these threats and rape constitute ‘the gap in which women can try to intervene, overpower and deflect the threatened action’. Thus, she takes the very notion that feminists use to describe “rape culture” and applies it to an individual rape tout court . Women need to identify the various parts of their interaction with the to-be rapist as stages within a continuum.

The conclusion is that women are raped because of their non-combative response to a gender script. Women have different psychological make-ups, different relations to a gendered script etc. They do sometimes blame themselves, but this is a coping mechanism. Marcus’ conclusion suggests that through their lack of strategy, women have already written themselves into being victims and it lacks focus on the rapist. Marcus’ conclusions all-in-all are highly dubious.

Mardorossian notes that there is never much focus on the perpetrators of rape. Supposedly, women should know better than to let themselves be raped. This is evident in many psychological studies, including one by Lamb (1996)

Here Mardorossian turns to her experience of working amongst rape victims and she claims that not only are the women all very different, but that also their ways of fighting back are also very different. Mardorossian states: ‘A model like Marcus’s therefore downplays the “materiality of gender” and ignores that social inscriptions-that is, our physical situatedness in time and space, in history and culture-do not simply evaporate because we are made aware of them’ (755). Such postmodern feminism forgets about the materiality of the body.

For Mardorossian, one cannot make women’s behaviour and psyche the site of theorizing about rape, because that makes rape woman’s problem. Rape is the only crime where the victim’s response is so linked to the victim’s behaviour. Mardorossian notes that ironically in focussing so closely on women’s psyches, feminists ‘replicate modern techniques of power’ and the subject in history and culture is displaced (757). Thus is created ‘panopticism, an interiorized and individualized system if surveillance by which every woman becomes her own overseer’ (757). It is women’s lack of reflection then that cause their rape.

What Mardorossian takes issue with is Brown’s use of a Nietzschean model of ressentiment as a means to define the feminist struggle. _Ressentiment is:
*an effect of domination that renders impotence;
*a substitute for power, action, power, self-affirmation.
Feminists have a supposed ‘thwarted “will to power” that leads to vengefulness’ (760). Mardorossian complains that while the Nietzsche applies the term to individual character, Brown applies it to a movement and she sees this as a sign of interiority in postmodern feminism.

Brown also sees a ‘homology’ between ‘confession’ and ‘speak-outs against sexual violence’ (763). Mardorossian notes that confession is quite different to ‘speaking out against a transgression committed by an agent exterior to oneself’ (763). Why is feminism once again reproducing ‘the reactionary beliefs that rape is a reflection on the victim’s identity’ (764)? For Mardorossian, speak out can help women to examine the terms in which they are represented, it denaturalizes the equivalence of sexual violence and loss and it can be a kind of collective speech.

Mardorossian writes how ‘feminism is now irremediably associated with what I call victimology’ (766). Mardorossian want to intervene in the representation of rape victims and she wants to ‘assess the climate that could make such a portrayal of feminism so popular’ (766). How do feminists from the 70s now represent victimhood?

Mardorossian notes that while in the 70s, being a victim meant being ‘a determined and angry (although not a pathologically resentful) agent of change’ (767). Yet since then there seems to be a divide between being a victim and being an active agent. Mardorossian blames the media for portraying women as victims and for questioning that routinely takes place about ‘real’ and ‘fake’ victims. Angry feminists are supposedly not real victims.

Post-modern feminists fuse ‘victimization[...] with passivity (768). However, when seen in a certain manner, passivity itself can be active if it is a state that enables the woman to survive. In the past, victims of violence used their experience to build a better society, yet Mardorossian thinks that now we have returned to a Victorian state of affairs where privileged women know best how to help victims understand their own experience.

Mardorossian’s answer to the problems dealt with offers these solutions:
*‘to reconceptualize and reappropriate the word victimization and its meaning’;
*‘to resist the facile opposition between passivity and agency’;(771)
*‘to become more alert to the ways in which the source of women’s powerlessness is constantly located within victims themselves rather than in the institutional, physical, and cultural practices that are deployed around them’;
*‘to theorize and reconceptualize the meanings of categories such as “victim” and “experience” rather than merely criticize their use’
*‘to identify the ways in which women are no longer “silent” but are in fact encouraged to speak (out) through numerous yet non-politicized channels controlled by the liberal and bureaucratic state’(772).

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