SCUM Manifesto as a Rhetoric of Domination
Author(s): Rachel Molko
Rachel Molko is a first-generation Venezuelan and Jewish feminist scholar-activist. Currently, she is the Assistant Director of the Writing Program and a 4th year doctoral candidate at Northeastern University. Rachel’s research explores feminist rhetorical theory in the context of contemporary popular visual culture. Her dissertation investigates the rhetorical significance of feminist icons, particularly seeking to engage their potentialities for rhetorical agency and rhetorical citizenship. In her service to Northeastern, she centers wellness, community-building, justice, equity, and inclusion as the Co-Chair of the Graduate Student Welfare and Advocacy Group (GSWAG). Outside of work, she enjoys watching Jeopardy! with her partner, practicing hot vinyasa, and spending time with her cats, Simba and Weezy F. Kitty.
Abstract: This analysis considers the implications of positioning Solanas and SCUM Manifesto as representatives of feminist resistance in contemporary critical feminist discourse. Thus, it forwards that Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto  presents ethical pitfalls for a rhetoric of feminist resistance. By enacting compliance, manipulation, rebellion, and withdrawal, the manifesto reproduces a rhetoric of domination that confirms, rather than challenges, the power of hegemony (Foss and Griffin). The current work suggests that in reconsidering SCUM at face-value, it functions as a model by which feminist rhetoricians may appraise the imbrication of patriarchy in a seemingly anti-patriarchal text. This practice is important for conscientious reproduction of rhetorical praxis and for determining how we construct a critical feminist lineage.accountability, failure, feminist resistance, feminist snap, manifesto, rage, rhetoric of domination
You are not going to destroy this imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy by creating your own version of it. -bell hooks
Feminism has brought me language, liberation, and purpose. That’s not to say it doesn’t come with challenging questions and contradictions. Feminism continues to be a contentious ideology, within and beyond feminist discourse. If we are to understand and embody feminism as a politics of equity, I believe we need to sort out some baggage. This article responds to Sarah Ahmed’s call to think about feminist futures by tending to legacies of feminist pasts. For rhetoricians, reflecting on historic texts from a contemporary feminist viewpoint can create the space to consider how rhetorical and communicative choices align with or contradict the values of an ongoing movement. In this analysis, I consider the implications of positioning Solanas and the SCUM Manifesto as representatives of feminist resistance in contemporary critical feminist discourse. In what follows, I argue that this feminist rhetorical analysis of Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto  reveals ethical pitfalls for a rhetoric of feminist resistance. By enacting compliance, manipulation, rebellion, and withdrawal, the manifesto reproduces a rhetoric of domination that confirms, rather than challenges, the power of hegemony (Foss and Griffin). Solanas’ attempt to transpose oppression and dominance on the gender binary does not actually change the conditions of the social apparatus. Rather, it maintains violence and sexism as key organizing functions of society. This attempt to subvert the status quo is undone by the maintenance of a rhetoric of domination–she entangles her feminine rage with the persuasive power of oppressive linguistic practices.
I come to SCUM Manifesto as a budding scholar interested in the space between feminism, femininity, and popular culture rhetorics. In contemporary mainstream media, Valerie Solanas has resurfaced as a feature and a historical reference in popular culture. Solanas was first immortalized in I Killed Andy Warhol, a film by Mary Harron first screened at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival and shown again at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival in February 2016. Lena Dunham played Solanas on an episode of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Cult (2017), entitled “Valerie Solanas Died for Your Sins: Scumbag,” where her character served as a plot device to expose the continued presence of feminist rage in the sociopolitical climate. Swedish author Sara Stridsberg published Valerie: or, The Faculty of Dreams: Amendment to the Theory of Sexuality (released in English in 2020), a historical fiction novel inspired by Solanas, preceded by a play entitled Valerie Jean Solanas for President of America (2006). Goodreads.com features SCUM Manifesto at number 81 in the list of top 100 “Best Feminist Books” among authors like Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, Gloria Anzaldua, George Eliot, Audre Lorde, and Toni Morrison to name a few. Publishers continue to profit off of the manifesto with a celebratory tone. Avital Ronell’s reconsideration of the text was published by Verso Books in 2004, bringing SCUM into conversation with Derrida’s “The Ends of Man” (written in the same year) and Judith Butler’s Excitable Speech. AK Press published a version introduced by Michelle Tea in 2013 as “classic is a call to action.” Despite the fifty-year time lapse, Solanas continues to surface as an icon in contemporary feminist resistance efforts.
As a result of her notoriety, SCUM Manifesto has had a tumultuous rhetorical life, translated for global readership, heralded by some as and condemned by others. Valerie Solanas’ life was characterized by a series of extremes: She was abused by her parents and grandparents, became a truant, and had a child taken away by social services all before graduating high school (Latson; Ott). Carrying her traumas, she earned a psychology degree with honors from the University of Maryland and pursued some graduate school (Latson; Ott). Clearly, she was a person with intellect, ambition, and grit. If SCUM wasn’t complicated enough in its message, it was further complicated by Solanas’ attempted murder of Andy Warhol one year after its completion. The attempt was informed in part by Solanas’ suspicion that Warhol was planning to plagiarize a screenplay she’d asked him to produce entitled Up Your Ass (Pruitt). Solanas’ message, tone, and her steadfast ownership of it had a polarizing effect on the Women’s Liberation movement and shaped the Radical Feminist Movement (Fahs).
Radical feminism became a social movement that advocated for a radical reconstitution of society and the elimination of male supremacy in all socioeconomic contexts. According to Ellen Willis, a prominent radical feminist activist and theorist, radical feminists understood society as inherently patriarchal. The objectives of radical feminism were to abolish patriarchy by pressurizing 1) capitalism as an institution and 2) the sexual objectification of women as a social norm. Tactics to reach the objectives included raising public awareness about issues such as rape and violence against women and to challenging the concept of gender roles so that anatomical differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally (Willis). With this in mind, this article comes from a question of values: How do strategies of communication affect the alignment of the message with the shared values of a social movement? What happens when the message is distorted by rhetorical choices? I believe it is important to check in with historical figures and artifacts as society learns (and unlearns). This practice is important for conscientious reproduction of rhetorical praxis and for determining how we construct a critical feminist lineage (Ahmed).
I make a critical choice in my engagement with SCUM Manifesto by choosing to analyze it at face-value. That is, in a sea of satirical uptakes of the manifesto, this response operates from the perception of Solanas’ attempted assassination of Warhol, an influential male artist, as proof of her dedication to the beliefs represented in the document. If critics dismiss this event (perhaps in a case of “life imitating art”), it is possible to make arguments for the manifesto as a site of resistance through rhetorical tropes such as parrhesia and diatribe (Kennedy). Ahmed herself has appraised SCUM as a feminist snap, as an affective manifesto that draws power from its own literalism. But what’s missing from the analysis of language, form, and rhetoric within Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto is a sense of accountability from a feminist perspective—rather than the heterosexist, patriarchal dismissal of Solanas’ power and rage. On the contrary, this analysis is necessitated precisely because of Solanas’ powerful and influential rage, a rage that need not be undermined or diluted by layers of perceived irony and satire.
Manifestos and Rage
Sara Ahmed suggests the concept of a feminist snap as a requirement of feminist praxis—that feminists must utilize their rage to enact social change. “From a shattering,” she writes, “a story can be told, one that finds in fragility the source of a connection” (183). In other words, affinities may emerge from a snap. According to her, the snap may manifest as a willingness to snap bonds that no longer serve, a site of feminist work where the violences of experience become visible, and a form of optimism without attaching specific future outcomes (194). “We snap. We snap under the weight; things break. A manifesto is written out of feminist snap. A manifesto is feminist snap,” says Ahmed (255). Feminist movements have procured manifestos for the cause since the suffrage movement (Campbell 1989). If there was ever a time for Solanas to procure SCUM, it was the 1960’s, a time where manifestos were a main mode of feminist communication.
As a rhetorical genre, manifestos are commonly recognized as a declaration of the intentions, motives, or views of their creators. Other radical feminist texts include the New York Radical Feminists’ “Politics of the Ego: A Manifesto,” “Redstockings Manifesto,” and Kate Millet’s “Sexual Politics: A Manifesto for Revolution.” Interestingly, these examples are representations of a collective with a specific mission. Solanas’ individual enactment of the manifesto genre embodies a neoliberal, phallogocentric style of the manifesto misaligned with a satirical reading. With SCUM’s references to the status quo situated in 1967 U.S. society, principles for a new distribution of power pertaining only to women, and protocol for enforcement including murder of the non-compliant (Solanas 14), Solanas chose a form that would forward her ideas as social action (Miller).
With Solanas composing in a genre used to inscribe patriarchy into society since the 1600’s, I note that her writing may be constrained by the genre of the manifesto itself–including the often hyperbolic tone that the genre engenders. Kimber C. Pearce argues that “generic appropriation” may constrain feminist rhetoric “to the prior discourse of the patriarchy to which they were opposed” (307). She uses generic appropriation here to mean “making over and setting apart” as one’s own substantive, stylistic, and situational rhetorical form (307). Through the notion of generic appropriation, I recognize that Solanas’ language may have been shaped by the conventions of the manifesto even if her intention was to diverge from them. In turn, Solanas makes an attempt to subvert the genre, yet employs rhetorical devices that preclude her intention to resist. While I recognize this aspect of generic constraints, they should not be cited as a means to see all rhetorical artifacts in a positive (or redeemable) light. It is important to listen beyond any shocking assertions in order to identify how the artifact functions as a product of patriarchy.
As a feminist, I can understand how and why SCUM came into existence and recognize its power. In Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, Soraya Chemaly’s points to a commonality among women who experience rage: They have faced the phenomena of open dismissal and pathologization of their anger. When men display anger, it reaffirms gender norms and traditional assumptions of masculinity—business as usual. What typically follows is rewards: men gain power from reproducing these assumptions of masculinity, often despite the effect of their anger on others. It follows that when women express anger, they transgress gender norms (defying the agreeable object role historically assigned to women), resulting in powerlessness. Feeling powerless is distressing, conditioning women against expressing their anger in the future and toward a mode of communication that prioritizes the comfort of others. Clearly, something has to change. This is the reason that feminist rage, along with feminine rage in general, needs to be visible and appreciated as a justified human reaction. Texts like SCUM provide rich ground to examine the presence of such feeling but, as a reader, I’m left wondering what I am supposed to take away from the text in terms of next steps for feminist activism. As a rhetorician, I have concerns about alienating potential allies and inspiring hatred.
With a compassion for the personal and historical context in which Solanas authored SCUM, it is useful to frame the manifesto as an Ahmedian feminist snap. Solanas had endured long-spanning and varied trauma that shaped her perception of the world—and created within her a burning rage. As Ahmed states, “A [feminist] snap is not a starting point, but a snap can be the start of something” (194). Often met with violent consequences, physical or otherwise, women have come to understand the costs of displaying anger and are compelled to reconstitute, disregard, redirect, or minimize it. As an embodied experience, anger takes up cognitive real estate and will manifest in bodily reactions such as short temperedness, discontent, and an impairment of overall health. This “anger feedback loop” is often a direct implication of unacknowledged social injustice (Chemaly). All one has to do is wait for the…SNAP.
Rhetoric of Domination
As feminists, we are responsible for the circulation of our politics and we need to be aware of the ways in which our politics will be used against us. Sonja K. Foss and Cindy L. Griffin reveal hermeneutic and ideological boundaries that limit the possibilities for rhetorical feminism (331). They understand Aristotelian rhetoric, or rhetoric-as-persuasion, as a conscious intent to change others, which is centered on competition and dominance. A rhetoric of domination constitutes patriarchy, where “some people are less valuable than others” (335). According to Foss and Griffin, patriarchy does not recognize inherent worth in people; value must be “earned, achieved, or granted” and is measured “only in relation to some outside standard” (336). That is, one’s adherence to the unwritten rules of belief, attitude, and behavior that constitute civility in patriarchy shapes the perception of the already raced, sexed, and gendered subject. Critical to the functioning of patriarchy is a hierarchical structure that controls and oppresses ways of knowing and ways of being in the world (335). Foss and Griffin characterize a rhetoric of domination with four primary rhetorical strategies that “confirm the power of the system” (336): Compliance, manipulation, rebellion, and withdrawal. In what follows, I define and trace these rhetorical strategies to expose the way Solanas builds a rhetoric of domination in the SCUM Manifesto.
While I explore the use of all four rhetorical strategies in the composition of the text, I do not believe they are all equally deployed or equally impactful. Rather, my goal is to thoroughly demonstrate a multitude of pitfalls that Solanas succumbs to in the making of the manifesto and the implications of uncritical subversion. It is also worth mentioning that this analysis does not take issue with the presence, the guiding light, of rage. After all, as Soraya Chemaly writes, “Anger isn’t what gets in our way — it is our way. All we have to do is own it.” This analysis hinges on a difference between leveraging rage toward patriarchy and condemning all male-presenting persons. It is possible to assess each instance of male subjugation as a critique of patriarchal values. However, without maintaining patriarchy as an institution that prescribes power dynamics between the genders, one would find themselves, as Solanas has, forwarding eugenics under the guise of a feminist snap. Feminist criticism hinges on an understanding of patriarchy as a cultural hegemony responsible for the systemic oppression of non-males, not simply an intentional and individualized domination of women (Becker; Freedman; Offen).
Foss and Griffin define compliance in a rhetorical context as “acquiescence to the requirements of the system” (336). In other words, a compliant rhetor judges and responds to a rhetorical situation on the basis of patriarchal standards. In her attempt to persuade readers to join the SCUM movement, I identify argumentum ad hominem as one stylistic technique through which compliance operates. By personally attacking the interlocutor on the basis of perceived character, this technique represents compliance with patriarchy because it functions on the basis that there is a “better” sex and that there exists a male essence. Solanas’ attacks on her opposition preclude a possibility for her manifesto to embody the feminist value of equity by disenfranchising the entire male population through a definition of maleness as an irreparable, non-human condition.
Argumentum ad hominem (Greek; “argument to the person”) has a long history in the rhetorical tradition. While there are various forms that this device can take, such as circumstantial or tu quoque, the form of relevance to this assessment of the SCUM Manifesto is defined by Graciela M. Chichi as the abusive type. She writes, “the…‘abusive’ variant of the ad hominem-fallacy, which is a dialogue move, but not an argument” consists of a personal attack on the interlocutor (334). It is particularly striking that this rhetorical choice is not regarded as an argument, rather as a baseless attack on the opposition based on their perceived character or social group; in this case, the opposing argument is not considered at all (Chichi 342). Solanas may have relied on argumentum ad hominem as a persuasive strategy because she could not identify an argument that all individual male-presenting persons make. Rather than refer to patriarchy, an identifiable system of oppression, she essentializes “male” as the source of female oppression.
There are several identifiable instances of argumentum ad hominem in the manifesto, especially in the introductory sections. Within her attacks, I identify exaggerated statements (hyperbole), that I imagine Solanas used to enhance her “argument.” However, rather than enhance her point, I argue that her employment of hyperbole in conjunction with argumentum ad hominem serves to essentialize her opposition (in this case, males). From a contemporary feminist standpoint, this move undercuts her credibility as a feminist rhetor and aligns her with a system that does not recognize inherent value in all beings. Solanas writes:
The male is completely egocentric, trapped inside himself, incapable of empathizing or identifying with others, or love, friendship, affection of tenderness. He is a completely isolated unit, incapable of rapport with anyone. His responses are entirely visceral, not cerebral; his intelligence is a mere tool in the services of his drives and needs; he is incapable of mental passion, mental interaction; he can’t relate to anything other than his own physical sensations. (1)
In this section, she begins to describe the consequences of the “biological accident” that are males (1). Rather than defining “maleness” as a socially-constructed and performative identity category, she writes that “maleness is a deficiency disease and males are emotional cripples” (1). It follows that her language in this passage would be constructed through the negative, or a lack, save for the use of the adverbs “completely” and “entirely.” I hear these adverbs as hyperbolic hinges for her prescribed constituents of maleness. If her manifesto was written as a response to patriarchy, she would be able to define it as a hegemonic power structure. However, since her manifesto is an opposition to all male-presenting persons, she binds herself by this definition that does not account for intersectional manifestations of personhood, a core value of contemporary feminist praxis—and one that applies to men!
While intersectionality (Crenshaw) entered feminist discourse about twenty years after she wrote the manifesto, it is also useful to point to the way she bound herself in the context of radical feminism. Intersectionality conceived as theory, methodology, heuristic, or all three, has unleashed an astoundingly fertile and interdisciplinary archive of feminist critical inquiry at this new standard. Deborah L. Rhode’s “Feminist Critical Theories” identifies two central commitments addressed across feminist analytical frameworks: 1) They seek to promote equity between sexes and 2) they seek to identify the fundamental social transformations necessary for full equity between the sexes. Both Freedman and Rhode underscore values that, as Sonja K. Foss and Cindy L. Griffin say, construct a feminist rhetorical theory which “challenge[s] the reality the system has created” (336). Rhode’s exploration is useful for contemporary feminist rhetorical analysis because her study was constructed to “underscore the importance of multiple frameworks that avoid universal or essentialist claims and that yield concrete strategies for social change” (619). By bringing together frameworks that maintain validation of subjectivity and recognition that identity comes from a matrix of systems, Freedman and Rhode’s thinking inform this study as an exigence to yield useful principles for intersectional feminist research that grapples with activism and social movements.
If one objective of the radical feminist movement was to challenge the concept of gender roles so that genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally (Willis), a biologically-determined understanding of maleness serves to reify the position that sex and gender are genetic predispositions that determine personalities. With Solanas basing her argument on males as a biological accident from the beginning of the text, she continuously relies on the binary of female-male that, along with the normalization of gender roles and compulsory heteronormativity, is imbricated in patriarchy. Thus, I argue that the basis of her argument reifies the binary opposition that defines identity and relationships in patriarchal society. This compliance results in a failure to resist patriarchy and capitulates to anti-feminist rhetoric.
Foss and Griffin define manipulation in this context as a delusion of control when a rhetor believes they are not complying with the system, but still accept the system’s terms, unspoken rules, and values. In other words, a manipulative rhetor will attempt to redress the conditions of the system to suit their needs or desires. In this case, I identify dehumanization as a rhetorical device through which manipulation operates in the manifesto. For example, equating a person or population to pests, deadly animals, parasites, disease, filth, zombies, or demons would qualify as dehumanization (Szilagyi). By shifting a focus away from systemic inequity and oppression, onto males as non-human succubi, Solanas’ message preys on the reader’s capacity to empathize with male-presenting persons. Dehumanizing rhetoric employs terms that interpolate different groups of people as any number of non-human beings that have a particularly negative connotation.
In SCUM, Solanas graduates from using animal metaphors, to genocide, and finally to eugenics as a means for social change. For example, Solanas writes:
He is trapped in a twilight zone halfway between humans and apes, and is far worse off than the apes because, unlike the apes, he is capable of a large array of negative feelings—hate, jealousy, contempt, disgust, guilt, shame, doubt—and moreover, he is aware of what he is and what he isn’t. (1)
In this passage, she makes the case that men are not apes because they possess a self-awareness and a nuanced emotional capacity. In general, this kind of rhetoric supports the diminishment of boundaries between verbal abuse and physical abuse by influencing the way people think and act toward each other. In fact, she draws comparisons between male-presenting persons and apes at three separate occasions throughout her manifesto. In some cases, she utilizes the metaphor to draw physical comparison; in other cases, she employs the metaphor to illustrate a minimized IQ. Another animal-based metaphor she takes up is comparing male-presenting persons to dogs at two occasions in her work. At one point, she writes:
Just as humans have a prior right to existence over dogs by virtue of being more highly evolved and having a superior consciousness, so women have a prior right to existence over men. The elimination of any male is, therefore, a righteous and good act, an act highly beneficial to women as well as an act of mercy. (12)
In this passage, she crosses the line from dehumanization to genocide. This statement blatantly forwards the superiority of one sex over the other as a way to disenfranchise that “lesser” sex. With one sex having the right to live over the other, Solanas frames genocide as an advisable path toward revolution. Implicit in this passage is the notion that this genocide would come from a place of compassion and charity. By laying out the groundwork that men are sub-human, she begins to reduce the ability for the reader to relate to the “apes” and “dogs” to which she refers. This manipulative language aims to deceive the reader from their own morality in order to justify SCUM’s agenda.
Eventually, Solanas moves away from animal metaphors and speaks in terms of degeneration, referring to deterioration that can only be prevented through the eradication of the invasive actor (Szilagyi). Solanas posits:
As for the issue of whether or not to continue to reproduce males, it doesn’t follow that because the male, like disease, has always existed among us that he should continue to exist. When genetic control is possible— and soon it will be—it goes without saying that we should produce only whole, complete beings, not physical defects of deficiencies, including emotional deficiencies, such as maleness. Just as the deliberate production of blind people would be highly immoral, so would be the deliberate production of emotional cripples. (12)
In this passage, Solanas discusses the birth of male babies in terms of pathology, with eugenics as a viable cure for the degeneration of society. However, male presenting persons are not the only population implicated in the statement. By stating that “whole, complete beings” are the only ones with a right to life, she negates the worth of disabled persons. Solanas has demonstrated that she does not believe in the immanent worth of all people, and this section shows that she does not believe in a person’s right to life either. By devaluing subjectivities that stem from a diversity of lived experiences, Solanas aligns herself with patriarchal notions of abstract objectivity and ableism. In short, arguing for eugenics separates this work from artifacts that represent feminist ideology.
Foss and Griffin define rebellion in a rhetorical context as a refusal or challenge that counterproductively serves to harm the rebel, rather than the system (336). In Solanas’ endeavor to persuade readers that males are worthy only of extinction, I identify calls to violence as one way rebellion manifests in this particular case. In her attempt to justify genocide and eugenics, Solanas contradicts her own stance against violence that she frames as a rudimentary male stimulant. Throughout the manifesto, Solanas spends time condemning men for their obsession with violence as a phallocentric compensation for the sexual satisfaction they cannot attain as “incomplete females” (1). She writes:
The male’s normal compensation for not being female, namely, getting his Big Gun off, is grossly inadequate, as he can get it off only a very limited number of times; so he gets it off on a really massive scale, and proves to the entire world that he’s a ‘Man’. Since he has no compassion or ability to empathize or identify, proving his manhood is worth an endless amount of mutilation and suffering and an endless number of lives, including his own—his own life being worthless, he would rather go out in a blaze of glory than to plod grimly on for fifty more years. (“War” 2).
Since males are aware that “men are women and women are men” (2), Solanas argues that they are motivated to prove their manhood and choose violences as a means to do so. In protest, she frames compassion and relatability as valuable characteristics, which prevent the need for violence toward the self or others. Solanas argues that women are superior to men largely in part for their emotional competency, which I hear as an essential understanding of an affective female, or feminine, disposition. At any rate, SCUM forwards that males are “completely physical” (1) without these characteristics and seek to “get off” as a compulsory response to avoid passivity and their true womanhood (2). Her unproductive subversition of maleness and femaleness serves to reify the subjugated, subordinate, and inferior position of femaleness in the system of patriarchy. Thus, violence is a defense against the desire to be female.
Later in the work, Solanas writes:
The male is eaten up with tension, with frustration at not being female, at not being capable of ever achieving satisfaction or pleasure of any kind; eaten up with hate—not rational hate that is directed at those who abuse or insult you—but irrational, indiscriminate hate… hatred, at bottom, of his own worthless self. Gratuitous violence, besides ‘proving’ he’s a ‘Man’, serves as an outlet for his hate and, in addition—the male being capable only of sexual responses and needing very strong stimuli to stimulate his half-dead self—provides him with a little sexual thrill. (“Hatred and Violence” 11)
In this section, she identifies “indiscriminate hate” born from self-loathing as the root of “gratuitous violence.” Throughout the manifesto, she juxtaposes the male or incomplete female to “groovy chicks” whose “function is to relate, groove, love and be herself, irreplaceable by anyone else” (5). I problematize her binary by extrapolating that if groovy chicks love themselves, then there is no need to turn to violence as an outlet for hate. If groovy chicks believe they are irreplaceable, then they won’t feel the need to “go out in a blaze of glory” (2). If her differentiation between male women and female men is based in self-worth, SCUM’s rebellion as a destructive killing mob collapses the opportunity for female empowerment outside of a patriarchal structure by adopting tactics that undermine her own categorical identifications. Of the revolution, she writes:
SCUM will keep on destroying, looting, fucking-up and killing until the money-work system no longer exists and automation is completely instituted or until enough women cooperate with SCUM to make violence unnecessary to achieve these goals, that is, until enough women either unwork or quit work, start looting, leave men and refuse to obey all laws inappropriate to a truly civilized society. (15)
In SCUM, she advocates for a completely automated society so that women won’t have to spend time doing mundane tasks. Yet, her calls to violence enact rebellion as a strategy of the rhetoric of domination. After spending the first thirteen pages establishing the frailty of males for their institution of violence as a means to compensate for their own passivity, she turns to those who would be her followers and asks them to take up the same contemptible violence to create a utopia. Turning “patriarchy” into “matriarchy” may seem like feminist revolution, but the power dynamic lives on through a patriarchal mode of communication that hinges on sex and gender roles. Based on the enactment of rebellion, I argue that taking up Solanas and SCUM as models for feminist resistance distorts the principles that guide contemporary feminist praxis.
Foss and Griffin define withdrawal in this context as a separation between rhetors and information and/or resources vital to their freedom or survival (336). In other words, a withdrawn rhetor will remove herself from company that can benefit her well-being or the success of her message. In this case, Solanas embodies this rhetorical strategy in two ways: 1) by choosing not to address a feminist audience in her manifesto or aligning herself with a community, and 2) through her rejection of feminist aid during her trial for attempted murder. However, I must say that, both of these choices align with Foss and Griffin’s feminist rhetorical principle of self-determination in decision-making. While she made the decision for herself as to who would represent her and how she would represent her ideas, her choices manifest as a withdrawal that adds to the rhetoric of domination she built in her manifesto.
Intriguingly, Solanas did not frame her manifesto as feminist. For example, the only appearance of the term “feminist” in the manifesto is in it’s antithetical form. Solanas writes, “‘Great Art’ proves that men are superior to women, […] being labeled ‘Great Art’, almost all of which, as the anti-feminists are fond of reminding us, was created by men.” In the construction of this passage, she refers to anti-feminists as “them” and aligns herself with “us,” which may be interpreted as “the feminists” or as “groovy chicks,” the latter of which she addresses repeatedly throughout her piece. While creating a new profile of womanhood is not explicitly anti-feminist, she implicitly denies association with feminists and creates an abstract category for the kind of women who are fit for the SCUM revolution.
At the time of Solanas’ arrest, Ti-Grace Atkinson, then the president of the National Organization of Women (NOW), partnered with Flo Kennedy to form Solanas’ defense team in the Warhol case. Atkinson and Kennedy offered to take Solanas’ case despite instruction from Betty Friedan to distance herself from Solanas to avoid “connecting violence and feminism” (Fahs 577). Friedan declared, “desist immediately from linking NOW in any way with Valerie Solanas. Miss Solanas’ motives in [the] Warhol case [are] entirely irrelevant to NOW’s goals of full equality for women in truly equal partnership with men” (Pan). While Friedan became a controversial figure in her own right, she saw a danger in responding to Solanas as a soldier for the feminist cause. From jail, three months after her arrest, Solanas wrote to Atkinson,
I know you, along with all the other professional parasites with nothing of their own going for them, are eagerly awaiting my commitment to the bughouse […] I want to make perfectly clear that I am not being committed because of my views or the “SCUM Manifesto” […] Nor do I want you to continue to mouth your cultivated banalities about my motive for shooting Warhol. Your gall in presuming to be competent to discourse on such a matter is beyond belief. In short, do not ever publicly discuss me, SCUM, or any aspect at all of my care. Just DON’T. (Pan)
Clearly, Solanas had no interest in aligning with feminist leaders of her time. These choices represent withdrawal because her rejection of legal counsel showed that she would rather risk conviction than accept free aid that may grant her freedom. However, Atkinson felt compelled to aid Solanas despite her initial refusal because “[Solanas] had done something appropriate to the feelings [women] were all having. She was fighting back” (Fahs 576). Here, Atkinson refers to the affective undercurrent of rage that maintains a presence in resistance efforts. Although, I am pressed to argue that not all resistance can be characterized as feminist resistance.
Despite her initial inclination to help Solanas get through her trial, Atkinson inevitably cut ties with Solanas. In an interview with Breanne Fahs, Atkinson said that Solanas’ interpersonal nature was to “dominate and abuse you and she was very manipulative” (578, my emphasis). At least Valerie Solanas is consistent. At any rate, Atkinson’s ruminations on her time with Solanas and on the feminism of the 60’s and 70’s reflects the core of my argument in this study. When Fahs asked Atkinson if she felt that Solanas was a feminist; she answered a simple “no.” When asked to elaborate, Atkinson said:
She’s part of my archive, but I don’t think of her as part of my feminist archive.
She was a glitch, a mistake. The fact that she keeps coming up, you could say that means we as women, as feminists, yearn for some violence, or somebody to fight back, and she looked like she was fighting back. (Fahs 579; my emphasis)
In her own words, Atkinson describes phenomena that wove SCUM into the tapestry of feminist history. Solanas was fighting back, but she wasn’t fighting a fight in the name of feminism. Her anger and her resistance gave the impression of a fight inspired by the feminist movement. By sacrificing the principles of feminist ideology, Solanas maintains a rhetoric of domination that becomes another cog in the wheel of systemic violence.
This research responds to the call to extrapolate theoretical principles from the practices of women to suggest alternative ways of viewing rhetoric from specific historical periods and engaging with it from a contemporary standpoint (Colman). Revisiting artifacts with a tumultuous rhetorical life, such as SCUM, can help us reflect on the kind of legacy we want to create. In her interview with Breanne Fahs, Ti-Grace Atkinson shared:
Later, I kept seeing people who were interested in Valerie and who responded with a kind of excitement. I asked this one woman, “Why does she attract you?” because I realized she really wasn’t interested in deep feminist questions. She said, “Well, she seems to have some panache, some style about it; you know, she shot somebody.” In a way I have to say that was probably what attracted me too. I was filled with rage and I thought it was somehow appropriate to “just shoot them all!” It certainly seemed deserved, but it was a misreading of what was going on. (Fahs 580)
As this exchange shows, Valerie Solanas and her SCUM Manifesto are lightning rods, stirring interest in change (to say the least) for five decades—and are prone to “misreadings”. Clearly, her commitment to her beliefs and demonstration of rage draw an audience to her. But as Atkinson observes, the excitement the rhetor and her rhetoric engender are not necessarily for the benefit of feminism. Working to eschew the trap of patriarchal rhetoric does not mean that feminist rhetoric should be left only with civility on one hand and confrontation avoidance on the other. In fact Nina M. Lozano-Reich & Dana L. Cloud point out that power imbalances in economic, political, and social context make these options quite difficult to adhere to (221). However, the question of audience becomes increasingly important here. Solanas is writing (in part) to an audience of females (based on her use of “we” and “females” throughout the manifesto), to bring them together to create the maleless utopia she illustrates. This subversion of the status quo is undone by the maintenance of a rhetoric of domination—she entangles her feminine rage with the persuasive power of oppressive linguistic practices. This is the hinge from which this assessment comes.
This analysis sought to unpack SCUM Manifesto by thinking through its claims with a contemporary feminist lens, resting on the notion that the affective undercurrent of anger and rage instantiated an alignment between Solanas’ rhetoric and the historical moment. Seemingly by virtue of kairos, this particular manifesto has been imbricated in the iconography of second-wave feminism and the radical feminist movement. This alignment misrepresents the ideological principles of equity that feminism seeks to generate. This misalignment adds to the symphony of observations that that the metaphor of feminist “waves” does a disservice to the understanding of the history of feminism. Lumping all woman-centered activism of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s into the “second-wave” of feminism represents all resistance efforts as a unified phenomenon. However, feminism is not an umbrella for all rhetorics of resistance and positioning it as such serves to distort the personal and political goals of a feminist ideology. In fact, this may be one of the only acknowledgeable examples of “reverse sexism,” which, without the backing of a system of institutional power, isn’t even a recognized prejudice in social justice discourse (Bearman).
By reproducing a rhetoric of domination through the rhetorical strategies of compliance, manipulation, rebellion, and withdrawal, Solanas confirms, rather than challenges, the power of cultural hegemony over meaning-making (Foss). For one, the basis of her argument complies with the binary opposition that defines identity and relationships in patriarchal society—the reductive heteronormative ideology remains so when the sexes are reversed. While setting up her version of the binary, she employs hyperbolic language to dehumanize male-presenting persons in the effort to justify genocide and eugenics. However, reproducing linguistic violence as a condition to meet a desired end traps her message in the rhetoric of domination and separates her work from the trajectory of feminist resistance—and pits populations against each other. In other words, not all resistance should be thought of as feminist resistance if it forgoes feminist commitments in the in the process. If there is any takeaway from this particular manifesto for feminism, it is to maintain feminist integrity by avoiding assimilation to patriarchal rhetorics of domination.
As alluded to earlier, this analysis is but one addition to the various readings of SCUM, and I suspect that many more will continue to emerge. Thinking ahead, what might we also gain from a distanced reading that considers affect and not pure intention? An interesting approach might be to analyze the manifesto as through a rhetoric of queer aesthetics. In The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam writes that “the queer art of failure turns on the impossible, the improbable, the unlikely, and the unremarkable. It quietly loses, and in losing it imagines other goals for life, for love, for art, and for being” (88). Failure gives an idea of what may not serve the cause, information that may ultimately aid in long-term or alternative successes. More information allows for critical decision-making and a reduction of risk. Deemed failures give an idea of what certain choices look like, what they reflect, and they demonstrate the parameters of a discourse community. These facets present the opportunity to reproduce the results or to shift direction. Solanas’ manifesto can be read as a failed feminist resistance because it capitulates to patriarchal rhetoric.
A productive outcome from engaging with SCUM as a feminist rhetorician lies in its potentiality as a model by which one may appraise the imbrication of patriarchy in a seemingly anti-patriarchal text. This type of rhetorical failure of resistance is productive only when we are able to, as Ahmed writes, “accept our complicity,” “forgo any illusions of purity,” and “give up the safety of exteriority” (94). There were and there are versions of feminism that condone that “the elimination of any male is, therefore, a righteous and good act, an act highly beneficial to women as well as an act of mercy” (Solanas). That’s to say that we are responsible for the circulation of our politics and we need to be aware of the ways in which our politics will be used against us. How can we advocate for a more just future if we don’t question the lineage of the feminist standpoint? The failure is productive in that it gives us a location from which to critically curate a feminist rhetoric of accountability.
See Appendix A for a summary of the content in SCUM.
See Appendix A for a summary of the content in SCUM.
Solanas denied that SCUM was an acronym, rather that it refers to the hierarchical position women held in society (scum of the Earth). However, there has been speculation that it stood for the Society for Cutting Up Men.
When I approached this project, I had a few assumptions regarding uptake, especially that Solanas’ reputation would have become a terministic screen for interpreting the possibilities in the manifesto (rhetorical and otherwise); the screen could come from an understanding of Solanas as a heroine who embodied her beliefs or as a murderous paranoid schizophrenic who needed medical help.
Apparent in the staunch stance against males as oppressors; a desire for more idealistic, psychologistic, and utopian philosophy; and stance against sex work.
This norm is experienced by and is commonly understood among different kinds of women, despite unique experiences of those multiply-marginalized.
Civility has been used as a form of racial, sexed, and gendered discipline. Examples include patriarchy’s framing of women as hysterical and unfit to participate in a public forum, to colonialism’s address of BIPOCs as uncivil savages, to heteronormative understandings of LGBTQIA+ sexualities as deviant. In each case, the idea of civility is reserved for the dominant class and is symbolically and materially unavailable to othered populations. For more on civility and inequality, see Cloud and Lozano.
With particular favor toward white, cisgendered, and able males.
Argumentum ad hominem ranks second-to-last in Paul Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement just above “name-calling.”
While Atkinson’s relationship to Solanas helps me ground my argument in a historic context, I am compelled to disclose that she is an author of the “Forbidden Discourse: The Silencing of Feminist Criticism of ‘Gender’” statement. Written, signed, and circulated by Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs), this statement 1) argues for the exclusion of women who have undergone M>F transition from “RadFem” conferences and 2) undermines the validity of gender theory. Atkinson is cited in this article because her affiliation with Solanas during her trial makes her first-hand account a relevant perspective for the purposes of this article.
It is important to note that these leaders represented the women’s liberation movement, from which radical feminism derived.
I can’t help but be amused by the coincidence in word choice here.
Appendix A: Summary of SCUM
SCUM Manifesto begins by urging “groovy chicks” to “overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation, and eliminate the male sex” (1). Then follows with a theory that males are deficient females through an identification of the Y chromosome as an incomplete X chromosome. It follows that the biological deficiency manifests in emotional incompetencies such as a lack of emotional intelligence and personal passions. Since males lack empathy and are unable to relate to anything or anyone, Solanas reads them as narcissists who cannot feel anything outside of their own physical sensations. She continues through a subverted Freudian analysis of “pussy envy” (which I discuss later), and posits that males spend their lives attempting to become female and overcome their inferiority. Due to the biological, emotional, and social inadequacies of the male sex, she identifies twenty-two socio-economic shortcomings of male-centered social systems (patriarchy, but never names it as such).
The manifesto is broken into sections as follows: War; niceness, politeness, and “dignity;” money, marriage and prostitution, work and prevention of an automated society; fatherhood and mental illness (fear, cowardice, timidity, humility, insecurity, passivity); suppression of Individuality, animalism (domesticity and motherhood) and functionalism; prevention of privacy; isolation, suburbs and prevention of community; conformity; authority and government; philosophy, religion and morality based on sex; prejudice (racial, ethnic, religious, etc.); competition, prestige, status, formal education, ignorance and social and economic classes; prevention of conversation; prevention of friendship and love; “Great Art” and “Culture;” sexuality; boredom; secrecy, censorship, suppression of knowledge and ideas, and exposés; distrust; ugliness; hate and violence; and disease and death. She uses these sections to justify the elimination of the male sex. In order to accomplish these goals, Solanas proposes that a revolutionary vanguard of women be formed. This vanguard is referred to as SCUM, which “criminal disobedience” in order to destroy the system. The manifesto ends by describing a female-dominated utopian future in which, without men, violence will be rendered obsolete.
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