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Dead Men Don’t : Some Trouble with Feminist Graffiti June 26, 2005

Posted by Winter in activism, feminist theory, language, rape.

The other day, a friend of mine told me she’d noticed some feminist graffiti as she walked into university. Two texts have been painted in large purple letters on a wall near where she lives. The first reads “FUCK PATRIARCHY NOW” and is adorned with the Anarcha Feminism symbol. The second reads “DEAD MEN DON’T RAPE.” My friend expressed some discomfort and told me she didn’t think this kind of thing was very “helpful.” Talking to a few more women about it, I found that they also felt rather uncomfortable and the word “unhelpful” came up again in conversation. The women I spoke to are all self-identified feminists, although not too involved in anarchism or far left aspects of the movement.

“Fuck Patriarchy Now” is not the problem. It’s a classic, and can still raise a laugh, even among those who think it’s a little bit “aggressive.” Mind you, we have to be a bit careful here in Cardiff, where the rather laid back county council cleaners sometimes limit themselves to removing expletives only. Someone I know claims that she returned to her own efforts only to find the wall bearing another legend “PATRIARCHY NOW.” Feminism undermined by street cleaners.

The trouble has its source in the truism “Dead Men Don’t Rape.” Feminism does need to re-ignite its challenging tradition of saying the things that no one else wants to say. This is what radical feminists have always done. And perhaps there is a place for “shock tactics” although as I get older I feel very dubious about this, because I suspect such tactics only work to harden rather than open people’s minds. These days I’m inclined to agree with my friends that this is not a particularly constructive text, except perhaps insofar as it provides a point of departure for addressing some of the tensions currently running through so-called thirdwave feminism.

In the first instance, I think the discomfort is symptomatic of wider feminist anxieties about the use of blatantly confrontational and aggressive language, a nervousness born not of cowardice, but from painful awareness of living through an age of backlash. The media has successfully managed to portray feminists as being…well frankly, mad as a bag of snakes. Consequently, some of us feel anxious when faced with representations of feminism which seem to confirm backlash rhetoric. The trouble with “Dead Men Don’t Rape” is the possibility that it already represents feminism for a lot of people.

But anxiety is not the least of it; I think I can detect anger lurking behind the polite word “unhelpful.” Yes, we should admit that it pisses us off when some of us have been struggling for years to undo backlash rhetoric and have worked to re-present feminism to a world which likes to think it’s all over. Moreover, many of us now want men involved in the movement and regard the creation of feminist men as the only way out of this obscenely violent situation in which we are currently living. So the graffiti can actually feel like as much a punch in the face for other feminists as it is for any men who might happen upon it.

I also don’t like the way it seems to invite a reply. It would only take one wag to respond with “Dead Women Don’t Talk,” or something equally horrible. But for me, the trouble really comes down to this question: if I was walking along the street and I saw some graffiti stating, “THE ONLY GOOD FEMINIST IS A DEAD FEMINIST” would I feel inclined to question my attitude to the person who wrote the text? The problem is that this kind of graffiti does not actually shake up people’s perceptions of the world; instead, it quite possibly confirms their anti-feminism. They go home safe, (if a bit threatened), and shored up in their arrogant unquestioning belief that feminism is not even worth knowing about. Then, they throw it back in the faces of women like me as we try to persuade them otherwise. Unhelpful. Perhaps the graffiti writer would tell me that there’s no hope for them anyway, and perhaps she’d be right, but I still believe “non-feminists” should be challenged as much as possible. I don’t think this graffiti achieves that aim. But now the question to consider is what is the best way to shake people out of their complacency?

“DEAD MEN DON’T RAPE” is a close blood relative to that old mythical feminist maxim “ALL MEN ARE RAPISTS,” often attributed to Andrea Dworkin (RIP). Of course, Andrea Dworkin never said any such thing, and the backlash media probably created this phrase [see comments for correction!]. The graffiti seems to confirm the view that this is what feminists actually think – all men are potential or actual rapists. This pisses me off too, because it distracts us from a very nasty reality. Not all men are rapists, but vast numbers of men are complicit in a culture in which rape is used as a kind of gender terrorism. There are so many men, decent enough chaps, who don’t hit their partners or rape women, but nor do they speak out, or stand up against rape, until it happens to someone they care about. “MEN CAN STOP RAPE.” I’m very tempted to buy some spray paint and get busy with that one. Rape terrorism serves patriarchy: it keeps women scared, keeps them off the streets at night, and encourages them to view heterosexual relationships as necessary for their personal protection. This is horribly ironic because women are in far more danger in their own homes than they are on the streets at 3am. Most women are raped by someone they know, usually their partner or ex-partner. One fundamental reason why this graffiti bothers is the fact that rape bothers us, a lot. Raped women in this country still face a system loaded against them in their fight for justice. According to the Guardian in 2002, only 1 in every 13 rapes reported to the police results in a conviction.

Ultimately, the unadulterated anger in the phrase “Dead Men Don’t Rape” does shake us up, because it forces us to confront our own anger, yes, with men, with patriarchy, and with other feminists who seem to be doing things wrong, or not in the way we think best. Sometimes I feel I just can’t keep up the required level of anger. I’m 28; I’ve been a feminist since I was 18 and I’m not a naturally aggressive person. I’m a softy, an incorrigible romantic. I love kittens and baby birds and I don’t want to live my life in a state of rage destructive to me and those around me. It was a relief to come across bell hooks talking about love recently: “A genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to loving.” But, she continues, “there can be no love without justice” (Feminism is for Everybody 104).

We do need to get less squeamish about anger. On some level I applaud the honesty of the graffiti artist, but anger is not the exclusive property of any one kind of feminist, it belongs to all women living under patriarchy. I am concerned that our anxieties about the backlash have caused some feminists to become embarrassed about anger and reject it in the project of claming not to be “scary”. But surely we can differentiate between righteous, just, anger and aggression, or violence. In my view, all feminists need to think again about anger, how to use it, channel it, and manage it in the interests of feminist movement. We also need to address some of the tensions within feminism, especially between those who pursue a highly confrontational approach and those who try to persuade through convincing people of the reasonableness of the feminist view that true equality is necessary for everyone to thrive and live happily together. There are no easy answers and I am not suggesting anyone should compromise herself, but we need to be open to listening to each other and surely there is room both for expressions of anger and carefully constructed arguments. One thing Andrea Dworkin did say was “Remember; resist; do not comply”. On that one I’m with her all the way, but the question for us all to discuss is how to resist. And, although we really don’t like to talk about it in these terms, what is the best kind of rhetoric to get the message out?