‘I’m This. I’m That. I’m Many Things’: Pratibha Parmar on Andrea Dworkin and ‘My Name Is Andrea’

Queer feminist American scholar and video maker, Alexandra Juhasz, invited Pratibha Parmar, woman of color feminist and queer British filmmaker, to talk together about her most recent film, My Name Is Andrea, after a premiere screening at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City in June.

The two had been long acquainted, first through activist AIDS media in the 1980s and then aligned within what became known as “New Queer Cinema” in the ’90s. Andrea Dworkin has herself long been a controversial figure within both feminist and mainstream culture—her visibility, power and relevance waxing and waning over many decades.

Parmar’s 2022 film about her—following close behind recent reevaluations of her oeuvre in books like Last Days at Hot Slit (2019) and Andrea Dworkin: The Feminist as Revolutionary (2021)—not surprisingly brought pushback and also praise within feminist and queer communities.

Juhasz wanted to hear Parmar’s thoughts on reactions to the film but also about her interest in Dworkin, as well as how this was evidenced in her cinematic approaches. What follows is an extract of a transcribed and edited conversation about twice this length. 

Alexandra Juhasz: Pratibha, thank you for agreeing to have a conversation with me about your film, My Name Is Andrea. I was so impressed by its feminist historical, ideological and formal engagements and also curious about inter-related concerns of voice, silence, “maleness,” and intra-feminist strife and legacy. Is there anything you’d like to say about yourself or the film before we engage with those issues? 

Pratibha Parmar: Never in a million years did I imagine I would make a film based on the life and writings of Andrea Dworkin. My feminist genealogy is rooted in women of color writings and activism. My formation as a feminist came from reading Alice Walker, Angela Davis, June Jordan, Cherrie Moraga, Barbara Smith and as an activist in the women of color feminist movement in the U.K. in the 1980s and ’90s. 

Given this history and orientation, I was always a little taken aback with a question I was asked multiple times over the eight years while working on this film, which always came from white feminists who seemed perplexed if not outright hostile: “Why on earth would you want to make a film about Andrea Dworkin?” The subtext of course is, why don’t you stay in your lane as a woman of color feminist who’s been making films about women of color? 

Juhasz: Stagnant or blinkered understandings of who we are, or what we can make art about, can close down the reach of curious, political or artistic people [laugh] to force us to work about one—our—thing. But, as a white queer feminist, I’ve been involved in anti-racist, Black lesbian, and AIDS media (among other linked interests in truth, documentary and activist media) for decades.

What happens when feminism (and other movements) put people in lanes? 

Parmar: I think about how the narratives of liberation movements that you, I, and many of our generation helped shape and were active participants in—movements with an emphasis on who we are, how we use our identities to empower ourselves, how we claim our identities to make artistic work—were essential but ultimately became limiting. I know at some point I resisted being forced into one place: This is where you start, and remain, and here’s the end point.

Something that my friend the poet and essayist June Jordan said once when I interviewed her that resonates for me to this day is: “Every single one of us is more than whatever race we represent or embody and more than whatever gender category we fall into. We have other kinds of allegiances, other kinds of dreams that have nothing to do with whether we are white or not white.”

You could also also add all kinds of other identity markers that can box us in the context of Jordan’s insight. I don’t think I would have survived as a daughter of refugees had I not questioned everything around me—my parents were refugees from Kenya, Indian parents who had to flee Africa to the only place they could come to, which was the U.K. because of British colonialism. We arrived and I was 12 and my mother worked in a sweatshop. I had to find a way to survive in the school playground. That’s where I learned about racism when called a ‘Paki’, a racist derogatory word.

It’s embedded in my DNA to interrogate everything around me especially the seemingly intractable structures or bodies of knowledge that you are presented with—as a woman in Indian culture, as a queer woman of color. Once I became politicized, once I came out, once I had a community of people around me in which I could do that safely, I could engage and challenge. 

Juhasz: Your film takes us on a similar journey to visualize how Andrea Dworkin becomes politicized, then a renowned voice in her time, and how that is linked to the development of her voice and its enraged and eloquent critique as a woman brutalized by patriarchy, and morally affected by war, colonialism, and racism. 

She’s spectacularly intense and impressive. It’s amazing to see her speak—a force of nature. She takes up a lot of space. But then again, so do you, albeit with your own style!

There’s a lot of notable film between you and us and Andrea Dworkin: reenactment, elegant cinematography, images of present-day and historical feminist activism, the weaving of her actual voice and her prose, as read by five talented and diverse actors

Parmar: From the get-go, I eschewed the biopic trope, curating Dworkin’s voice through everything that was available to me. In fact, I started by writing a screenplay only using Dworkin’s words for the five dramatizations in the film. I am orchestrating all these storytelling elements into specific configurations, motifs, giving weight to some elements of the story over others. 

One of the starting points in thinking through the cinematic language of the film came from Dworkin’s memoir, Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant (2002). She insists on not being defined as any one thing, instead saying, “I’m this. I’m that. I am many things.” That’s how I interpreted it. And this also resonated for me, you know not to be fixed. She is saying: ‘I’m not confined to any one representation that people have insisted on—as a woman, as a thinker, as a writer.’

Her words enabled me to create a stylized collage of her different selves at different times in her life. I had access to written materials, her TV appearances, radio interviews and her writing. I could approach the telling of the story in an expressionistic way, moving beyond a singular linear biography, telling multiple stories.

And that’s where I am: in every edit choice, every performance, every image construction, every silent moment, every choice of archival footage, every decision with my sound designer, composer, DOP, producer. I wanted to reach into the crevices of visual poetical textures that could startle. I wanted to explore a formal approach that might depict Andrea’s visceral experience and the interiority of the trauma of sexual abuse as captured in her words, so that those words and those emotions would seep through the frame to resonate for anyone who has experienced sexual abuse/violation.

At the end of the world premiere screening at Tribeca Film Festival, a young woman came up to me, very moved, tearful. She said, “I’ve never heard about Andrea Dworkin. I didn’t know anything about her. But I am a survivor. And for the first time ever, I feel that my story is being told in a way that makes me feel seen.” 

Yes, I did want Andrea’s story to speak to other women’s stories. Her experience of sexual assault is not just hers alone. It’s a political problem, as she says. 

There is an arc between generations of female artists’ protesting violence against women. And I want Andrea’s voice to be part of the conversation on its own terms and in its complexity.

Pratibha Parmar
Andrea Dworkin insisted on not being defined as any one thing: “I’m this. I’m that. I am many things.” (Courtesy)

Juhasz: There is such a haunting contradiction between Andrea’s powerful voice as a speaker and writer depicted in the film, and what ended up being a silencing of her voice in the last few decades. The anti-pornography position the she wrote and spoke about so forcefully was dominant when I was a young feminist in the 1980s. Changing and challenging myself to become a pro-sex feminist was foundational for developing AIDS and queer activism inside of our communities. We wanted to honor, investigate and represent our own sexuality from a queer or female and/or woman of color perspective.

The inherited and then-dominant position that was afraid of sex, that wanted to silence or suppress sexual expression, a feminist politics that felt quite total and judgmental, ran counter to the tenets we were developing around safer sex and queer liberation. Surprisingly (at the time, at least) it turned out to be the anti-pornography position that did not last. This position was silenced, or perhaps simply overwhelmed by what felt like the righteousness and feminist power of our work and activism. As a result, you now have generations of younger feminists who don’t know about her at all, and you also have people, our generation, who are like, “Oh no, I wouldn’t read anything about her. I wouldn’t read her at all.”

We didn’t read her, and hence she’s been largely forgotten, or at least left unread. So, what you’re doing in the film, by ‘un-canceling’ her if you will, is that you open her up newly for consideration—as opposed to putting her in a box, closing her down or looking away.

Parmar: I do find the word ‘cancel’ jarring because I think it reduces people to some absolutist, fixed position.[laughs]

When I read her book Intercourse (1987), I was surprised at her nuanced inquiry into male writers like Tolstoy, Mailer, Tennessee Williams and others, and their use of language to describe heterosexual intercourse—in their writings men “invaded,” “possessed” women’s bodies—language that laid bare their ideas of female sexuality as being inferior or in service to men, casting women as being the space which is entered and violated. 

Juhasz: So, this is about language and not action? 

Parmar: Yes, and also no. Because what interested me was how Dworkin was a wayward, unwieldy, defiant woman—a woman whose imagination refused to be constrained; who thirsted for more; and stretched the boundaries of what is possible, what is allowed, what needs challenging—this vision for more than what is offered is what brought me to Dworkin.

If you take everything she said in Intercourse literally, I think you are missing out on the discursive disturbance she is creating intellectually and morally. 

Juhasz: So, let’s stay open to discursive disturbance and cancel the word ‘cancel,’ given its valences of control and invisibility. Instead, let’s continue to think together through spatial, bodily and kinetic metaphors, as you do above, and as Andrea did before us: thirst, stretch, disturb, constrain, refuse, challenge.

In the film, Dworkin is often pictured in conversation (or debate) with the male “geniuses” of her time. But she is as often seen as alone and isolated. We see a warrior and then also a victim of patriarchal sexual violence—many times wounded and self-healing in isolation, so as to gain the strength to speak and act again in public. 

Parmar: I think this idea or image of her as a lonely, isolated figure perhaps comes also from the fact that this woman was utterly vilified, for so many reasons. For starters, she refused to concede to femininity and always wore overalls. Her loud, in your face provocations through her body and her writings made people mad, made people dismiss her ideas as too radical, and made many feminists want to distance themselves from her as well. 

Was it because they were afraid of her stark, angry vocalization of how women’s bodies were violated? Earlier I spoke about Dworkin being unwieldy, in your face, stubborn, and refusing to compromise. These are not acceptable attributes for a woman. [laughs]

There seems to have been many contributing factors to her being cast as this “witch from hell,” who refused to obey, who refused to make herself and her voice palatable for easier consumption. Her rhetoric of dissent was not to everyone’s taste. Gloria Steinem shared with me that the porn industry had spent considerable dollars on persecuting and misrepresenting Dworkin, constructing her as the anti-sex, anti-men feminist we all came to know. She was taking on a multi-billion-dollar porn industry which harassed and constantly threatened her and her life. It was not in their interest for her to have a public voice. 

Juhasz: But can you talk about the differences between what you think, what she thinks, what the film thinks, and what her critics, both feminist and misogynist, think? 

Parmar: Why focus on what feminist and misogynist critics think about Dworkin? Firstly because there is plenty of pre-existing written material that already does that, and secondly in the context of my film that discussion is not generative. 

Juhasz: Sidelining you into a lane you cannot tolerate? 

Parmar: Yes. The starting point, for some critics of the film, does not situate me in a discourse of equal exchange. Frankly, there are feminist critics of the film who render me invisible as a woman of color filmmaker who is bringing a very specific intersectional lens to Dworkin’s story.

I have so many thoughts about this, that I feel an update to my 1983 essay, “Challenging Imperial Feminism,” percolating. [laughs]

It would begin: 

“I constructed this cinematic space/frame to tell this particular story of Andrea Dworkin because I, Pratibha Parmar, the curious filmmaker, artist, activist, think that she has something powerful to say today: about cultures of amnesia where women go missing every day and we as societies move on; misogynist cultures which allow for daily murders, bodily violations of women’s bodies and cultures; where women’s speech is penalized for speaking out about domestic abuse.” 

I am also interested in exploring what Dworkin has to say about being a woman writer. She talks about how women writers are not allowed to have feelings that are emotionally vibrant and politically in your face. She was told that women are expected to deliver pretty words.

One of her publishers said to her, “We can’t publish this because you write like a man,” to an early manuscript of Woman Hating (1974). That’s interesting for me as a feminist who’s been told that I should just be quiet about my queerness because it’s destabilizing a whole other agenda of equality. So many women have been told that our anger is unwanted, that it is not in any way creative, that it actually does us a disservice. Our rage and its articulation are seen to be irrational. 

This patriarchal narrative of defining women’s voices, women’s rage, women’s anger, being continually beaten down, marginalized and misrepresented, that theme was really important to me. And that was tied into another concern: how do we as women come to speech? And Andrea talks about how she went mute after her sexual assault.. She writes eloquently about how she couldn’t find the words because you need a community of people to help you find ways to express what happens to you in isolation. That idea of coming to speech was personally resonant because as a queer woman, as a working-class woman of color, as a refugee, my own journey to come to speech against cultural,social demands to remain meek, mild, and softly spoken as well as use my voice to protest racist erasure and neglect, has been tough to put it mildly.

In the 1980s, I was just coming into my lesbianism, my erotic possibilities. And I was like, “I am not having anyone tell me what I can watch and what I can read. Nobody’s censoring me.” I’m just coming out of all these censored moments in my life, the strictures of my culture and my community. And I’m a free woman and I want to be able to see and do whatever I want with whoever I want. 

And yet here we are again. A recent posting on social media about the film offered a list of what should have been included around its discussion on pornography—a check list. An alternative film entirely! Wow, the smug white feminist arrogance to suggest to a queer woman of color filmmaker what she should have or should not have included in a film! 

So many women have been told that our anger is unwanted, that it is not in any way creative, that it actually does us a disservice. Our rage and its articulation are seen to be irrational. 

Pratibha Parmar

Juhasz: While I am certainly not interested in telling you what to make or not make, I can attest that it has been the case that she has not been read by me and many other feminists because of her positions on pornography. And it is also clear that you only grant a very small amount of the film to her controversial position on straight sex and porn and also the feminist controversy around it. 

Parmar: When I was researching and talking to people, the bitterness was palpable … the emotions about the vehement fights that went on, amongst feminists and lesbians at that time—all reduced to pro-sex and anti-sex camps. Reviewing that literature, I was very clear that this was not a debate I wanted to foreground. I *did* want to foreground her as a powerful writer and activist who eviscerated the impact of systemic patriarchal violence. 

Also, I could see how those who revered Dworkin and those who hated her had painted themselves into the kinds of cul de sacs we have already understood to be traps, and they refused to speak to each other, refused to hear each other. Dworkin was as culpable of that as anyone else. And that’s why I included that radio interview where a woman asks, “Would you be in coalition with women you don’t agree with?” And Andrea says, “Not with those women. I only work with women I respect.” There was an intransigence there. 

I had a very clear intent from the get-go, to not make a polemical, didactic documentary full of talking heads which laid out all sides of an argument. However, the section in the film where we get to the pornography debate is the only section which veers into this traditional doc world. I made this exception because Dworkin’s voice led the so-called anti-sex movement. It was important to me that the opposition to Dworkin/McKinnon Ordinance was sign-posted and given some air. The film includes an archival clip of Carol Vance from the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce, laying out the anti-censorship position on a mainstream TV show. I included her voice as part of the montage of images expressing an anti-censorship position from queer artists like Catharine Opie and Annie Sprinkle.  

I remember writing at that time about my pro-sex position as a queer woman of color, an essay titled “Rage and Desire: Confronting Pornography” in the book ‘Women Against Censorship’ published in the U.K. in 1988. I also co-authored with Sue O’Sullivan a book titled, ‘Lesbians Talk Safer Sex.’ So my position is pretty clear.

The space the debate on pornography gets in the film is no shorter than the space the film gives to some of the other aspects of her life and writings. Ultimately I was far more interested in setting out the contours of what formed the activism and thinking of a white radical Jewish feminist. I was interested to see how her activism in the anti-Vietnam war movement, her deep engagement with the writings of James Baldwin, Franz Fanon, Aime Cesare was part of her foundational structure, which in turn emboldened her feminism.  Her correspondence with Huey Newton in the early ’70s was also a revelation to me.  

And let’s also remember that the pornography industry and its proliferation in this digital age is completely different in terms of access to pornography from the corporate world of pornography that Dworkin was critiquing decades ago.  

I am hopeful that there are more open minds than closed because here we are, Alex, in dialogue. 

Juhasz: Your film is not a hagiography. It’s not even a biography. It is a defracted multiple map of a complex developing human being, who’s very smart, and also, maybe going a little crazy along the way. All this is also raised in the film: her anger, her victimhood, her voice, her speechlessness, her ideas, her hope and analysis, and her fear and paranoia. But it doesn’t tell us what to think about her. It doesn’t tell us what you think about her! 

My Name is Andrea does suggest that she has gone missing from our attention, and that this deletion is an act of misogyny and a loss to feminism. We certainly don’t need feminists to continue that. In fact, quite the opposite! We need to remember and consider our histories, foremothers, conflicts, gains and losses.

Just as you made a film about Andrea Dworkin, Jean Carlomusto has released a film about another lesbian queer scholar, Esther Newton Made Me Gay, and how her work was both overlooked and foundational within queer studies. And there’s another film coming out of San Francisco, Sally, by Deborah Craig about the lesbian (sometimes separatist) activist Sally Gearhart, also a controversial position, if not so much person, within queer and trans feminisms. Why now? 

Parmar: My question to myself was: How can this film be useful to us at this moment in time as women survivors, women activists who are fighting the fight on the ground against systemic misogyny and woman hatred?

Across the globe, violence against women has escalated. Andrea’s unflinching inquiry into women’s inequality came from her own experience of sexual assault and her driving question—“I wanted to find out what happened to me and why”—shaped her life and her writings.

Andrea is very incisive in her take down of patriarchy and misogyny and helping us to understand the kinds of systemic ways that racialized capitalist patriarchy assaults women continuously. I am interested in looking at the links between racialized violence and sexualized violence in terms of systemic racism and misogyny. Things have gotten worse. That’s something that I feel deeply passionate about, am deeply invested in challenging cultural/political and actual physical assaults on women’s bodies, trans bodies, Black bodies, Indigenous bodies. 

As you saw, I included in the film contemporary footage from protests in Argentina, from Spain, from Brazil, from the U.S.: women resisting on the streets, doing street performances.

I also included footage from Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labovitz, who did this powerful street performance in 1977 on the streets of L.A. called “In Mourning and In Rage,” their resistance piece on rape.

Ultimately, I am interested in different modes of resistance to male violence, white capitalist violence, and …how art and its role in this has been and continues to be necessary. There is an arc between generations of female artists’ protesting violence against women. And I want Andrea’s voice to be part of the conversation on its own terms and in its complexity. 

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Alexandra Juhasz is a distinguished professor of film at Brooklyn College, CUNY. She makes, teaches and writes about feminist media, including in her book Women of Vision: Histories in Feminist Film and Video (University of Minnesota Press, 2001), the documentary Women of Vision: 18 Histories in Feminist Film and Video (1998, 83 mins), and its recent revisit with Dr. Angela Agauyo, Informed Historical Reveries (Fall 2019). She is the producer of The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996) and activist AIDS videos and scholarship spanning many decades of the pandemic.