[(review date summer 1988) In the following review, Bartlett investigates the relationship between MacKinnon's themes in Feminism Unmodified and Susan Estrich's Real Rape.]
Catharine MacKinnon's Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law and Susan Estrich's Real Rape are two of the best recent examples of feminist legal writing.1 The authors are prominent feminist lawyers and legal theorists. They both write about the powerlessness of women and the role of the legal system in enforcing this powerlessness.
MacKinnon's Feminism Unmodified, which is a collection of speeches delivered from 1981 to 1986, serves as a comprehensive and readable summary of the critique of American society and its legal system that has established MacKinnon's reputation as one of the most original and uncompromising of contemporary feminist thinkers. MacKinnon's central theme is that the whole of society is organized hierarchically, by sex. She presents a theory of power that, like Marxism, is a "total" theory--a description of the social arrangement between men and women that is "internally coherent and internally rational and pervasive yet unjust" (49). MacKinnon takes on many topics--women's inferior status in the workplace, sexual harassment, pornography, rape, family violence, the small number of women athletes--using each one as an opportunity to demonstrate this arrangement.
Under MacKinnon's analysis, much of the success of men in dominating women can be attributed to the insidious use of abstract standards and principles, which appear to be gender-neutral but, in fact, are designed to create and maintain male advantage. Thus, "men's physiology defines most sports, their needs define auto and health insurance coverage, their socially designed biographies define workplace expectations and successful career patterns, their perspectives and concerns define quality in scholarship, their experiences and obsessions define merit, their objectification of life defines art, their military service defines citizenship, their presence defines family, their inability to get along with each other--their wars and rulerships--defines history, their image defines god, and their genitals define sex" (36; see also 71-72).
MacKinnon draws heavily on the theme of pornography to demonstrate her thesis that the whole of society is structured as male hierarchy. Pornography creates sexual reality for both men and women, setting the terms upon which men relate to women as subject to object. Pornography silences women, defining them as acquiescent in, indeed desirous of, violation and possession by men. At the same time it eroticizes male violence against women and "institutionalizes the sexuality of male supremacy" (172). Like abstract (male) principles of neutrality, equality, and justice, pornography hides what it is by calling itself something else. "Pornography turns sex inequality into sexuality and turns male dominance into the sex difference" (3). Because pornography so successfully constructs social reality, it makes the harm of dominance and violence by men against women commonplace, assuring its invisibility.
MacKinnon rejects both the "equal treatment" approach of liberal feminists and the "special treatment" approach of more radical feminists as fatally committed to the principle of difference. Such a commitment, she claims, merely perpetuates the male standards and values from which difference...