Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Feminist Readings: 'Sexual Politics'

Kate Millett's Sexual Politics is one of those books people talk about a great deal but don't actually read. It's a feminist 'classic', we think - historically important but out-of-date and hopelessly stuck in the second wave. Of course, that means it's unfit for consumption in these more enlightened times.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Sexual Politics is inflammatory, but it's hardly the anti-male diatribe some (Camille Paglia, etc.) claim it is. It's well-written, enlightening, and completely relevant for the modern reader.

In fact, Sexual Politics contains the most reasoned, sensible critique of the traditional family I have even read. Even more, the sexual revolution - now much maligned - is shown for what it really is. Without sexual revolution, there can be no overthrow of the patriarchy, traditional gender roles, or anything else. The political is not merely personal, but irrevocably sexual as well.

While this concept alone makes the book well worth reading, the critique of Freud's views on women is also excellent. These views, of course, have been thoroughly debunked by modern psychology and are no longer considered current. Unfortunately, due to endless popularizations of his theories, he continues to be an enormous influence on popular thought about gender (and everything else). People still talk about penis envy, assume that women are naturally less sexual, and on and on.

Millett, rather than sticking with a formal psychological treatment of Freud, attempts to show that his conclusions about women were based entirely on preconceived cultural attitudes and personal failings. It succeeds completely. Now, I have no idea whether Millett's treatment of Freud makes any sense on psychological grounds, but it's the perfect antidote to popular attitudes about women's psychology, from 'that's what she said' jokes all the way up to bizarre notions of female frigidity as dispensed by advice columnists and talk show hosts.

The only 'flaw' to be found in Sexual Politics are the novel criticism sections that bookend the volume. I place 'flaw' in quotes because there's absolutely nothing wrong with the sections themselves. They're well-written, logical, not overly anti-male, but I had to question their purpose. Knowing that D.H. Lawrence is, well, a sexist asshole in the first degree doesn't really affect the political-sexual environment of the world. Plenty of novelists are sexist - but they're just novelists. (I understand that Millett intended them to be seen as reflections of the greater culture, not as cultural agents, but it still seems to be given too much importance)

I bring this up merely to say that Sexual Politics is far, far more than angry literary criticism. Don't be put off by the first chapter; read the whole thing. You won't be disappointed.


Amber Leab said...

Thanks for this. I think it's important to revisit the past in order to better understand the present--and to remember how much we still need feminism. This one's going on my reading list.

Aviva DV said...

I recently re-read Sexual Politics in preparation of teaching it to my WS101 students and made the "mistake" (or perhaps it wasn't?) of assigning only the first chapter -- thinking, probably rightly, that they wouldn't put up with 45 pages of dense theory in chapter 2. At first I was concerned that they'd balk at the overt vulgarity of the authors Millet quotes, but they handled it really well and the text allowed us to have a quite interesting discussion about sex, domination, submission and life imitating art (or vice versa). An excellent book...