Thirty Ounces of Death in a Feathered Jacket

H Is for Hawk
By Helen Macdonald
New York: Grove Press, 2014, 300 pages, $26.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Mary Zeiss Stange


Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.

So Helen Macdonald describes the moment she first laid eyes on the young goshawk she has procured, to fly her through the misery of mourning her father’s too-sudden death. She names the bird Mabel: “From amabilis, meaning loveable, or dear. An old, slightly silly name, an unfashionable name. There is something of the grandmother about it: antimacassars and afternoon teas.” A name, in short, conceived to embody all that, by nature, this bird is not. Among birds of prey—born killers, all—the goshawk has a reputation for being unpredictable, unruly, temperamental, hard to handle, and difficult to train. It is just the thing, then, to carry the symbolic freight of vulnerable life confronting irrational death, in a soaring, memoiristic narrative of dislocation and loss. A narrative like those constructed by Macdonald, and before her, by the British author of The Once and Future King (1958), T. H. White, whose The Goshawk (1951) has long been regarded as among the best falconry books ever written. Upon its 2014 publication in England, H Is for Hawk instantly joined that select library.

It is a daunting prospect to take on the review of a book so widely and enthusiastically reviewed on both sides of the Atlantic—one that has garnered two prestigious literary awards in the UK and is sure, deservedly, to capture more on these shores. This work—which its author describes as equal parts memoir, “shadow biography” of White, and literary reflection—is meticulously, at times magically, written. It captures a reader’s attention as adeptly, and holds it as brutally, as its central character does a rabbit she’s chased down in a field of brambles.

What more can there be to say? From a literary point of view, relatively little. But from an ethical viewpoint regarding what “blood sport” may do for and to the human spirit, quite a lot, and it is complicated. The moral problematic of the book is summed up thus, by Macdonald:

Hunting with the hawk took me to the very edge of being human. Then it took me past that place to somewhere I wasn’t human at all. . . .I saw more than I’d ever seen. The world gathered about me. It made absolute sense. But the only things I knew were hawkish things, and the lines that drew me across the landscape were the lines that drew the hawk: hunger, desire, fascination, the need to find and fly and kill.

I approached this book as a hunter myself: a sister-spirit, I assumed, to both falconer and bird—for after all falconry is a species of hunting, and an ancient one at that. Macdonald’s sometime nemesis, sometime mentor White, who resigned his post as a school headmaster and took up falconry as an appropriately “manly” pursuit to mask his homosexuality in 1930s Britain, likened hawking to psychotherapy. It was a kind of madness that rendered him somehow, somewhat saner. Like White, Macdonald was a displaced person: “No father, no partner, no child, no job, no home [italics in the original].” I was thus intrigued by the therapeutic dimension of this accomplished falconer and naturalist’s procuring a bird as a conscious device to see her way through the agony of grieving her father’s death. And not simply any bird, but one notoriously difficult and not considered a fit bird for a woman. Like hunting more generally, falconry remains a largely male pursuit; in its highly specialized vocabulary, to train a hawk is to “man” it. Ladies, beware!

Facing the book as a sister hunter, then, I was not surprised to read Macdonald’s description of what this therapeutic process was about: “What I am going to do with the hawk. Kill things. Make death.” I was taken with her implied analogy between falconry and riflery, as on the day Mabel is poised to finally fly free, “It felt like I was holding the bastard offspring of a flaming torch and an assault rifle. . . .The hawk left the fist with the recoil of a .303 rifle.” But any metaphorical tie between hawking and gun-hunting begins to unravel with what comes next:

A rabbit prostrate in a pile of leaves, clutched in eight gripping talons, the hawk mantling her wings over it, tail spread, eyes burning, nape-feathers raised in a tense and feral crouch.

It is up to Macdonald to break the rabbit’s neck, otherwise Mabel will commence eating her quarry alive.

That is how goshawks kill. The borders between life and death are somewhere in the taking of their meal. I couldn’t let that suffering happen. Hunting makes you animal, but the death of an animal makes you human.

A powerful statement, that last sentence, and essentially the book’s thesis. It is a sentiment that resonates for any hunter. We humans are the only animals who are both blessed and cursed with that certain knowledge of our place in the food chain: other beings die that we may live, and we too shall die and be consumed one way or another. Macdonald spends the next several pages rehearsing the various rationales she had to afford friends and acquaintances who expressed reactions ranging from bemusement, to outrage, to disgust, at her apparent preoccupation with killing. Significantly, their collective concern was not with Mabel’s catching rabbits or pheasants, but with Macdonald’s dispatching them, hands-on, via strangulation.

This is what falconers must do, in the name of humaneness. Yet I confess, hunter that I am, I was taken aback by my own qualms about this rabbit episode, and several others that follow in the book, culminating in a mini-orgy of carnage wrought by a self-hunting Mabel in a pen of captive-raised pheasants. Macdonald describes at great length the therapeutic value of her grisly participation in such death-dealing: “I was accountable for all these deaths. I was being accountable to myself, to the world and all things in it. But only when I killed. The days were very dark.” She acknowledges that she and Mabel subsequently fed upon at least some of the goshawk’s prey, although many kills seem also to have been left to lie in the field—an acceptable practice in England, but with rare exceptions (like the unfortunate killing of a songbird) illegal in the US. So, too, she was hunting without the constraint of the kind of bag limits imposed on falconers here. Another difference between American and British falconry is that the sport is far more highly regulated here than abroad. Indeed, Macdonald herself speculates that a model closer to the US system might be a good thing. I am sensitive to cultural and contextual differences in hunting practices around the world, so why did I feel a touch of squeamishness here?

I consulted a friend, Anne Pearse Hocker, who is an experienced falconer as well as a gun-hunter. As she phrased it,

Gun-hunting is killing from a distance, letting the gun do your distance work. In falconry you need to get up close and personal—learning to wring a rabbit’s neck efficiently is a key part of apprenticeship. Part of it is to prevent the prey animal from suffering. But it’s really about becoming part of the team.

The “team” in question is, of course, the partnership between falconer and bird. This makes excellent sense. And yet, as a hunter, I could not—cannot—entirely shake the feeling that there was something not quite right about the instrumental use to which Macdonald subjected her bird, as well as all those hapless rabbits, for the purpose of her own self-healing.

I hasten to add that I believe she would agree with me. Ethics or rightness had little to do with her mental or emotional condition throughout much of the story she tells of a year of grieving so shockingly intense that it amounted to a palpable kind of madness. At its end, coming out of what feels for much of the book like a long dark passage with occasional glimpses of hawk-generated light, it is unclear whether her lifting spirits might owe as much to the antidepressants she has begun taking as to her wild, beloved Mabel.

But Macdonald would aver that this is not the point, and here I would agree with her. If ultimately Mabel brings Macdonald home to herself, it is because the bird has taught her the limits of identification—metaphorical or literal—with nature. In the end, Mabel has become “a protecting spirit,” a “little household god.” Macdonald concludes:

In my time with Mabel I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not. And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it. Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities. Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all.

That is a lot of weight—real and symbolic—for “thirty ounces of death in a feathered jacket” to bear. In Macdonald’s telling, Mabel carries it off, brilliantly.

Since the 1997 publication of her Woman the Hunter, and most recently in Hard Grass: Life on the Crazy Woman Bison Ranch (2010), Mary Zeiss Stange has written extensively about ecofeminism, hunting, and the creation of common ground between green environmentalists and hunter/conservationists. She is professor of Women’s Studies and Religion at Skidmore College.

No Empire Without Collaborators

Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies From Imperial Japan’s Sex Slaves
By Peipei Qiu with Su Zhiliang and Chen Lifei
New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, 254 pp., $24.95, paperback
Reviewed by Lihua Wang


Official memorials and events honoring World War II heroes have become routine around the world since 1945. The rape of women during the war, however, has often drawn only short-lived international attention. Atrocities such as the rape of Nanking by Japanese invaders in 1937, Russian soldiers’ massive rape of German women during the postwar occupation, and the forced prostitution of “comfort women” across East and Southeast Asia during the war are often overshadowed by today’s news. Thus, this year’s Russian celebration of the war’s end sparked global debates and protests over Putin’s policy toward Ukraine—but no discussion of women’s suffering. As an antidote to this gender-biased international news culture, it is worth reading Chinese Comfort Women by Peipei Qui with Su Zhiliang, and Chen Lifei.

Chinese Comfort Women is significant in several ways. It provides the first English-language testimony, from twelve ordinary Chinese women, about the sexual enslavement of Chinese women during the war. The women also describe the experience of growing up in a feudal society before and during the war. Finally, the book asks why these women did not receive justice under either socialist or neoliberal China in the years following the war. Highlighting the brutality of Japanese rapists, the book links Chinese patriarchal institutions and Japanese military masculinity. Examining this connection can help us to understand how and why women were treated as commodities: sold, bought, and tortured at the hands of both Chinese and Japanese men.

World War II in China began early, with the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931 and the invasion of other parts of Chinese territory throughout the 1930s. Using data from Chinese archives and scholarly studies, Chinese Comfort Women describes the expansion of the war throughout almost a decade and a half, until the war’s end in 1945. The book then provides details about numbers and locations of “comfort stations” across Chinese provinces—situating the testimony of the women forced to become sexual slaves.

The personal narratives of twelve former comfort women are the focus of the second part of the book. They tell life stories dating back to their natal families. Although the women came from different locations, including Nanjing, Shanghai, Hunan, Hubei, Shanxi, Yunnan, and Hainan Island, their girlhoods exemplified Confucian ideology, which devalues and oppresses women. From the moment they were born, they were considered inferior to their brothers. Many former comfort women had already endured early experiences of being treated as commodities, as child brides. For example, Wan Aihua was sold as a child bride because her father was addicted to opium, and his habit put the family into debt. Because she was so young, before Wan was sold, her mother made her repeat her name, birthday, parents’ names, and the name of her village until she memorized them correctly.

As the women became daughters-in-law, their hardships grew. Confucian principles ordain a family hierarchy determined by gender, age, and generation. Lei Guiying remembers that her mother-in-law had two daughters, both of them older than she. When Japanese soldiers occupied Lei’s village, everyone attempted to hide, especially girls and young women, who feared sexual assault. The Japanese soldiers killed farm animals for their own food supplies, and the villagers had nothing to eat. Lei’s mother-in-law ordered Lei, who was only nine, to steal food from an abandoned grocery store in a nearby town. On the way, she encountered many Japanese soldiers and was a terrified eyewitness as the soldiers abducted fourteen and fifteen years old girls. She was “lucky,” she says, because she had not yet reached puberty. The women’s hardships within their patriarchal families diminished in scale, however, compared to their later experiences of rape, gang-rape, violence, and humiliation at the hands of Japanese soldiers.

Often, local administrators collaborated with the Japanese invaders to “recruit” and kidnap women. In fact, without the help of the Chinese men, the Japanese would never have been able to carry out large-scale abductions and rapes. Chinese Comfort Women examines the role of local patriarchal power at the village, township, and city levels. According to the authors, Chinese women were seized as sex slaves in two ways: either by the armed force of Japanese soldiers or by the drafting of women by local administrators.

Chinese Comfort Women provides details of the direct link between local Chinese governments and the establishment of comfort stations. A translated 1939 document from Wenshui County Office in Shanxi Province, for example, notes a “shortage” of military brothels and prostitutes in the county. To solve this “problem,” officials decided to draft one healthy, good-looking woman from each of the county’s 300 households. Another document orders the establishment of comfort stations in Fengyang county in Anhui Province in 1938. In some cases, local governments were responsible for providing medical checkups of the comfort women.

Evidence of local collaboration with the Japanese invaders is also provided by the women’s testimony. Zhou Fengying recalled a painful memory. On a spring day in 1938, a group of Japanese soldiers appeared in her home village, accompanied by a local male collaborator. She was captured and her feet were tied together. She was only one of many village girls taken from their homes. Chen Yabian had a similar experience. She was forced by four Chinese collaborators to be transported to a labor camp. Several weeks later, she was transferred to a comfort station. Lu Xiuzhen stated that her station was managed by local Chinese. As Sarah Kovner maintains in Occupying Power: Sex Workers and Servicemen in Postwar Japan (2014), “There can be no empire without collaborators.”

Japanese soldiers raped women both individually and in gangs. Wartime gang rape has been defined, by the lawyer Rhonda Copelon, as a distinct form of brutality (see “Surfacing Gender: Reconceptualizing Crimes against Women in Time of War,” in Mass Rape: The War Against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina [1994]). Genocidal rape, Copelon writes, takes place in a setting of imprisonment and/or in rape camps. This is clearly the experience of the Chinese former comfort women. Huang Youliang describes the agony of being gang raped outside of her home in 1941. When Huang was only fifteen years old, Japanese soldiers invaded her village. She could not run fast enough and was caught by a group of Japanese soldiers. She was first violently grasped by her arms, then another soldier ripped off her shirt and skirt, and the rest raped her. Yin Yulin remembered being forced into a small block house, where a crowd of Japanese soldiers was waiting. She was gang raped, and her body ached so much she did not even have the strength to cry. Lin Yajin described a “normal day” at the comfort station: three or four rapists would arrive together, all naked. One would rape her while the others watched.

It is difficult to document the frequency of genocidal rape in China during the war. Mass rapes took place in organized spaces that were not always defined as “rape camps.” Comfort stations in China were identified as business spaces and equated with brothels, as the authors point out. However, this interpretation not only denies sexual aggression by Japanese soldiers but also makes wartime genocidal rape irrelevant to China. In reality, the comfort station was a patriarchal institution created to legitimize wartime rape.

The comfort stations were owned and operated by both institutions and individuals. The largest number were owned by the Japanese military. Local Chinese administrations also claimed their portion of ownership. Individuals owners of the stations were Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese men, who were under the supervision of military authorities. While there is a lack of documentation regarding how much profit business owners made, some former comfort women remember Japanese soldiers purchasing tickets at comfort stations. However, none of the women who testify in Chinese Comfort Women received any form of payment.

All the comfort women suffered. Their pain included both psychological abuse and physical violence: they were beaten, burned with cigarettes, and locked in dark spaces. Some had broken bones. Zhu Qiaomei was kidnaped by Japanese soldiers when she was pregnant, and raped before and after she gave birth. A repeat rapist would sucked her breast milk dry each time he raped her. After five months in a comfort station, Lin Yajin was ill. “My injured chest bones hurt, my private parts festered, I urinated blood, and my whole body was swollen and ached like hell,” she says.

Until the 1990s, the women’s suffering, misery, and abusive experiences received neither national attention nor international concern. The third part of Chinese Comfort Women explains this piece of the puzzle. After 1945, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE) did not classify the comfort-women system as a war crime. In China, the nationalist and socialist governments failed to recognize individual and gang rape as crimes, due to the small number of cases brought to the courts. Thus, former comfort women were not offered any official assistance or compensation. They continued to suffer from poverty, poor health, and discrimination. In postwar China, they kept silent.

Finally, in the 1990s, a movement calling for redress for the survivors of the Japanese rape campaign was launched by activists, lawyers, and public intellectuals. In collaboration with Japanese advocates, the movement filed five lawsuits in Japanese courts between 1995 and 2001. In December 2000, the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery was held, a landmark for international efforts by women’s organizations. Six surviving comfort women, including two, Wan Aihua and Yuan Zhulin, whose accounts are in this book, participated in the Chinese delegation.

It will be interesting to watch the news of China’s official celebration of the seventy-year anniversary of the war’s end, on September 3, 2015, to observe whether the government finally recognizes the suffering of former comfort women.

Lihua Wang, PhD, is a visiting assistant professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her article, “Neoliberalism and the Feminization of Family Survival: The Happiness Project in Four Chinese Villages” received an Outstanding Author Contribution Award from the Emerald Literati Network Awards for Excellence in 2013. She is the editor of Globalization and its Chinese Discontents: Feminist Critiques (2008) and co-editor of Women, War, and Violence: Personal Perspectives and Global Activism (2010).

Protected and Policed

Regulating Desire: From the Virtuous Maiden to the Purity Princess
By J. Shoshanna Ehrlich

Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI
By Jessica R. Pliley
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014, 293 pp., $29.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Anne Gray Fischer


In the final weeks of April, Congress closed a deal on the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, a contentious sex-trafficking bill that had been tethered to the confirmation of the attorney general. Passage of the bill—and Loretta Lynch’s historic assumption of the office as its first African American woman, after an overlong delay—hinged on language that would prohibit the use of victims’ restitution funds for abortions. Ultimately, senators brokered a compromise, and the bill passed. The noncontroversial measures in the bill beefed up the state’s power to surveil, police, and prosecute an expanded category of alleged perpetrators of sex trafficking, while failed amendments included creating social supports for those most vulnerable to exploitation: homeless youth. This episode delivered a perfect snapshot of our twisted sexual and racial politics: a bill that promised to enrich the power of law enforcement on behalf of women held the top enforcer of law in the country, a woman of color, hostage, because Congress was scrimmaging over the shredded remains of women’s access to reproductive autonomy.

In an article for Slate on April 21, Josh Voorhees gave voice to the media consensus: “It remains unclear,” he wrote, “why the Senate GOP decided the human-trafficking bill was the right vehicle for a largely unrelated fight about abortion, and a completely unrelated one about Lynch.” For feminists, of course, these are not separate issues, but rather tightly woven threads in the larger political fabric that enfolds women’s bodies. Women’s inequality is crucial to maintaining the nested structures of family, church, workplace, and state. A political revision to some women’s lives in one setting triggers reverberations throughout this sprawling, interlocking hierarchy of power; thus, state efforts to protect some women are bound up with the targeting and confining of others, from homeless youth living in the crosshairs of structural predation, to the attorney general-in-waiting. As Jessica Pliley writes in Policing Sexuality, “Laws intended to police sex trafficking rarely benefit those who have been trafficked; instead these laws mark women as bodies to be policed.” This is how a bill ostensibly designed to protect victims of trafficking can become ammunition to fortify the carceral state, which disproportionately locks up men and women of color; or a potential tool to further constrict access to abortion for poor women; or a stage for a political spectacle to bar Lynch from her office.

In Regulating Desire, J. Shoshanna Ehrlich argues that the “purity ideal” animates the political wrangling over the role of the state in women’s lives, providing the justification for laws that “are both potentially liberating and stifling.” Despite a few adaptations over time, the core tenets of the purity ideal are remarkably durable: womanhood is best expressed through domesticity and private dependence, and women’s sexual lives are safest, and most worthy of protection, when they happen at home, preferably in wedlock. This purity ideal has historically been loaded with eligibility restrictions—such as prevailing racialized sexual hierarchies that presumed people of color were inherently immoral and degraded—and it was gender specific, as straight white men’s sexual purity was more of a suggested alternative than a social imperative.

The history Ehrlich recounts is not about contests over the legitimacy or desirability of the purity ideal, but rather, about reform efforts “designed to encode the value of female virtue into law based upon a set of assumptions about [young women’s] sexuality.” Best read as a collection of linked essays, Regulating Desire presents five episodes across one hundred and fifty years when female virtue was critical to the construction and deployment of state protection of women’s bodies: antebellum campaigns to criminalize male seduction of unmarried women; the social purity movement to raise the age of consent; Progressive Era efforts to detain and rehabilitate “problem girls”; Great Society and liberal 1970s policies to assist pregnant teens; and Reagan Era policies to implement abstinence-only sex education. Historians have told the nineteenth- and turn-of-the-twentieth-century stories in great detail. But Ehrlich’s innovation is tracing the purity ideal from its antebellum moment through the culmination of “family values” politics. Regulating Desire raises a provocative question. What connects, say, early twentieth-century maternalist reformers who sought to preserve the “jewel in the crown” of young white girls’ womanhood—an expedient strategy in a political culture dominated by a separate spheres consensus, Jim Crow supremacy, and women’s disenfranchisement—to Reagan-era conservatives, who resacralized virginity after two decades of concerted feminist action to dismantle the purity ideal?

The purity ideal served contradictory ends. For example, in the antebellum campaign to criminalize men who seduced young women with fraudulent promises of marriage, the purity ideal was essential to bending a hostile state toward women’s bodily protection. Reformers drew their rhetorical power from the grim fate awaiting an unmarried woman who had been “ruined.” However, this tactic was only useful if the woman had been “spotless” prior to her seduction. In the rigid purity hierarchy, women who could not claim native-born whiteness and domesticity struggled to make claims to their bodily protection; they were not understood as victims, but became, over time, unruly targets of regulation and punishment. The campaign for seduction laws, then, was at once a radical affront to white men’s sexual privilege and a deeply conservative ratification of white women’s domestic dependence and women of color’s exploitation. These earlier reforms inaugurated the unfortunate calculus for women’s activism around issues of sexual victimization that has dogged feminists ever since. Efforts to protect some women were implicated in the marginalization of others, and struggles to equalize gendered power disparities often pivoted on deepening women’s inequality across fault lines of class and race.

Ehrlich concludes with the different ways reformers wielded the purity ideal, in particular the “liberal or feminist impulses” that distinguished earlier white women’s activism from that of latter day conservatives. As Ehrlich shows, hard-won protections for white women do not typically “trickle down,” and—rooted as they are in the implicitly racist purity ideal of white women’s domesticity and dependence—they carry with them the seeds for antifeminist and white supremacist political maneuvers. Indeed, Regulating Desire prompts readers to think critically about the unforeseen consequences of contemporary “liberal or feminist impulses.” Perhaps the larger question is not how successive generations of reformers across the political spectrum have seized on the purity ideal to achieve their political goals, but rather why, despite the ongoing revision to women’s citizenship status, the purity ideal has stubbornly retained its political currency.

While the regulation of women is on abundant display in Ehrlich’s history, their desire is conspicuously absent. This is perhaps because state policies rarely attend to individual women’s desires, but rather, to the powerful political desire to organize women into orderly, private, family units, preferably with a male head of household. What does it mean to protect and foster a woman’s consent when she either rejects or, because of her social status, is excluded from the realm of domestic virtue? In Policing Sexuality, Pliley writes that the state had to “grapple with the vexing problem of female consent.” As the twinned forces of industrialization and urbanization drew widening pools of women into the discriminatory wage labor force and commercial entertainments, a young woman’s rising economic and sexual autonomy could not exist without her economic and sexual exploitation. Across the twentieth century, the growing numbers of women who ventured out into public for both wages and pleasure troubled the divide between women’s market and sexual practices, and the expectations that proper women draw firm lines between the two. When agents of the state puzzled over the problem of women’s consent that shot through modern political economies, their interventions to untangle the knot of women’s autonomy and exploitation ultimately served to tighten it.

Policing Sexuality traces the enforcement of a single law, the White-Slave Traffic Act, or Mann Act, which is still in effect today, from its original passage in 1910. The federal Mann Act criminalized transporting women across state lines for prostitution “or any other immoral purpose.” Forged in the early-twentieth-century crucible of feminist activism that Ehrlich discusses, the Mann Act was rife with the contradictions of the purity ideal and the slippery lines between paternalism and prosecution: between, as Pliley writes, “protecting innocence or policing deviance.” “White slavery,” a term of art used interchangeably for trafficking and prostitution, immediately exposed the hidden discriminations at the heart of the purity ideal and the intended beneficiaries of protection. In her brilliant chapter detailing the history and political uses of “white slavery”—a widespread moral panic circulating amid Jim Crow segregationist policies and nativist anti-immigration campaigns—Pliley highlights the “double meaning” of “white”: racial protection and sexual purity, intertwined concepts which drew on each other for their popular meaning and political potency.

The enforcement logics of the Mann Act flowed from this racial and sexual hierarchy of purity. Enforcement fell to the Bureau of Investigation, and later, the FBI. Through the bureau’s investigations into tens of thousands of cases of suspect sexuality across the country—which activated local and state authorities, and even briefly deputized middle-class white men to serve as federal agents of surveillance and regulation—it achieved exponential growth and professional consolidation in a matter of decades. While historians have devoted great attention to the FBI’s surveillance and policing of political activists, in Pliley’s dramatic recovery of the buildup of the FBI, she exposes the centrality of sexuality to the legitimization and deployment of state police powers.

In the conservative bureaucratic culture of the FBI, preserving and protecting family units became the FBI’s top investigatory priority. When, in 1917, the Supreme Court upheld a broad interpretation of “any immoral purpose,” to include noncommercial and consensual sex acts ranging from adultery to seduction, the FBI became empowered to enforce the Mann Act “as a bulwark in defense of traditional gender”—and, we could add, racial—“roles,” writes Pliley. From a law designed to police prostitution, the Mann Act was transformed into a broader regime of taming “disorderly” sexual practices. As Pliley writes, “It should not surprise us that a law designed to police prostitution also policed domesticity, given the centrality of women to both, and male sex privilege in both.” But in the enforcement of the Mann Act, she notes, FBI agents encountered women who upended the popular narratives of women’s victimization. Were wives who supported their husbands through prostitution, or mothers who fled their families, “victims or complicit criminals”?

The key paradox in the Mann Act was that its enforcement “rendered women as both victims and targets of sexual surveillance,” explains Pliley. The law criminalized women who betrayed their functions as wives, mothers, and daughters, requiring the unprecedented construction of federal prisons for rising numbers of women who had been convicted under the Mann Act. But the law also empowered abandoned wives, seduced women, rape victims, and their families—all typically white—to receive a slightly greater likelihood of legal redress than they might have otherwise enjoyed in local courts. Across the modernizing twentieth century, as women disrupted the boundary between “good” and “bad,” the FBI expanded its capacity to fortify moral borders through its muscular enforcement of sexist and segregationist norms that maintained the patriarchal family.

Historically, women’s protection has rarely been synonymous with their self-determination. “The prioritization of law enforcement over victim services functions to treat victims as suspect and criminal,” Pliley concludes. In the ongoing contests to control the meanings and practices of women’s bodies, campaigns to achieve protection and self-determination for all women aren’t built in collaboration, but too often, in competition. As both histories show, efforts to protect women can be swiftly converted into tactics to police women, and a single protective law does not act equally and universally upon all women, but rather produces divergent worlds of experience, where already vulnerable women are both overpoliced and underprotected. For feminists, this means that walking the perilous line between women’s protection and punishment is both a political mandate and a certain hazard. As we walk this line, we must keep in mind the full breadth of possibility in the creation and enforcement of protective laws, vigilantly asking of each new law: who—and what—is being protected? And who—and what—is being policed?

Anne Gray Fischer is a PhD student in History at Brown University. Her dissertation traces the policing of prostitution and the making of the carceral state in the US from the 1930s through the 1980s.

Pleasure and Performance

A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography
By Mireille Miller-Young
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014, 368 pp., $27.95, paperback

The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography
By Jennifer C. Nash
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014, 219 pp., $23.95, paperback

Reviewed by Svati P. Shah


A Taste for Brown Sugar and The Black Body in Ecstasy provide rich, nuanced, and careful critiques of how black women are represented, and re-present themselves, in American pornographic films. Both Mireille Miller-Young and Jennifer C. Nash invoke this discussion in order to expand the discursive terrains of race and sexuality, and to engage with feminist debates on pornography, power, and racialization in relation to sexuality. The books overlap in some significant ways, including their shared interest in a filmic archive drawn from the Golden (1970s) and Silver (1980s) Ages of pornography, when changes in the law made it possible to create, distribute, and screen hardcore pornographic films to a mass audience. These books also differ. A Taste for Brown Sugar provides a discussion of black women’s representation in pornographic film that spans the twentieth century and includes the contemporary era. The Black Body in Ecstasy links pornographic films featuring black actors to a discussion of race within other contemporaneous film genres. Both books examine the treatment of pornography within black feminist theory and may be understood as part of a new turn in feminist scholarship on race, sexual commerce, and sexuality.

A Taste for Brown Sugar takes in the sweep of the pornographic film archive, from late nineteenth-century French photographs, to American stag films, Golden and Silver Age pornographic films, and contemporary debates on the intersections of hip-hop and pornography. The book ends with a discussion of working conditions for black women in the pornographic film industry. In addition to the industry’s history, Miller-Young examines its aesthetics, racial and economic politics, and the debates it has generated among black feminists regarding representation.

Miller-Young tracks when and where black women appear in pornographic films, but first contextualizes this history with a discussion of slavery in the US—in particular, of slave markets as the sites where women of African descent became eroticized objects for white men. Moving from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century, Miller-Young identifies shifts in the aesthetics of black female eroticism, such as the increased cachet of lighter-skinned models. She notes the ways in which models in early photographs and stag films interacted within the image and with the camera, often breaking the fourth wall with a rolled eye, a smirk, or a smile; women, then and now, constantly negotiate the conditions of the production of these images, says Miller-Young. The book concludes with a discussion of African American women’s negotiations of working conditions in the contemporary porn industry, and offers several examples of African American women who make their own pornographic films or run their own production companies.

A Taste for Brown Sugar is written for a relatively broad audience, and is able to reach both academics engaged in scholarly debates and general readers. The broad remit of the project is evident in Miller-Young’s use of a range of methodologies, drawing from archival research in the earlier chapters and ethnographic methods in later ones, in which she discusses, for example, the everyday life of an actor of color who performs in a pornographic film. Deploying a conversational style, she shares her excitement in discovering obscure sources, as well as candid opinions of particular films. From the outset, Miller-Young makes her analytic and methodological aims clear, explaining that she seeks to “represent and analyze the complex iconography of race found in pornography, both on behalf of those in the image, and in order to understand the enduring power of these images in our lives.” The questions of voice and perspective resound throughout the book, particularly in the later chapters, which include interviews with actors and filmmakers, including those who have worked in the industry since its Silver Age.

In The Black Body in Ecstasy, Jennifer Nash focuses on an iconic set of films from the Golden and Silver Ages of pornography to demonstrate, as she writes, that “race is necessarily a pornographic fantasy.” We may understand this assertion to denote the ways in which race is closely enmeshed with sexuality, rather than being wholly distinct from it, or having developed independently of it. Instead, race may be understood as a discourse of sexuality, and vice versa; the concepts are so imbricated that they must be theorized together. Using close readings of both the filmic archive and black feminist theory, she presents her argument in five main chapters, each of which is devoted either to an archive as a whole—such as the black feminist theoretical archive, which she discusses in Chapter 1—or to a particular film or theme. Like Miller-Young, Nash is interested in complicating the one-dimensional view of race in pornography, in part derived from antipornography feminism, which argues that pornography and its aesthetics reduce black women to the hypersexualized objects of a racist representational discourse. Nash characterizes antipornography feminism’s perspective on black women as stemming from its more general criticism of women in pornography. She summarizes the analysis of race in antipornography position in this way: “While black women are treated worse than white women, both black and white women are oppressed as women. The difference in their treatment is a difference in degree, not in kind.”

In seeking to complicate this position, Nash methodologically follows on the feminist philosopher Judith Butler in presenting what she calls an “aggressive counter-reading” of pornography, which “suspends normative readings of racialized pornography and instead advances readings which emphasize black performances and pleasures represented on the racialized pornographic screen.” Miller-Young, for her part, positions her argument as being in accordance with the aspect of antipornography criticism which asserts that actors in pornographic films experience violence and powerlessness, but she also asserts that there are other ways to read and complicate black women’s engagement with pornography: for example, through the lenses of pleasure, play, and a wry engagement with the audience via the camera.

Nash returns to the trope of ecstasy throughout her argument. “By ecstasy,” she explains, “I refer both to the possibilities of female pleasures within a phallic economy and to the possibilities of black female pleasures within a white-dominated representational economy.” The operative term here is “possibilities.” While Nash’s project includes mapping pleasure and ecstasy within these films as a rejoinder to the feminist antipornography paradigm, her theoretical intervention is also manifest in activating the possibility of reading ecstasy and other forms of pleasure into the racialized pornographic archive.

Nash presents her primary criticisms of the imbrications between the black feminist theoretical archive and antipornography feminism in her first chapter, “Archives of Pain.” The title refers to black feminist thought that finds common ground with antipornography feminism in its assertion that pornography is only legible through the lens of harm. This variety of black feminism reads black female-ness in the terms of injury. Pursuing her ideas of possibilities and foreclosures, Nash structures the chapter around a discussion of Saartjie Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus, a South African Khoi Khoi woman who was put on display for audiences in late nineteenth-century Europe. Nash writes that feminist portrayals of Baartman as an iconic figure of violence and violation exemplify a “critique of dominant visual culture” within black feminist theory “that emphasizes representation as a practice that references and reenacts historical traumas.” It is not the fact of racism and dehumanization in this case that Nash aims to problematize but, rather, the ways in which the history of Baartman’s treatment as an object of display has risen to the level of iconicity within black feminist thought. What, in other words, does it mean to trace contemporary critiques of racism and gender through Baartman? What kind of genealogy of the present does this iconicity produce?

Later chapters offer similarly detailed readings of “blaxporntation”— a genre of pornographic films made in conversation with 1970s “blaxploitation” movies and Golden Age pornography—including Lialeh (1973) and Sexworld (1978), as well as Silver Age works, such as Black Taboo (1984). Miller-Young discusses these films as well, focusing on the conditions of their production, and including interviews with some of the actors who participated in them. She shows that with these films, the pornographic film industry was attempting to capitalize on the then-relatively untapped African American market, as well as to expand the racial demographics of its performers. (Discussions of the political economy of race and the production of pornographic genres are linked with this history.) Nash situates these films within the aesthetic and discursive conventions of exploitation films, blaxploitation films, and pornographic films, while problematizing feminist analytic tropes such as the “controlling image” and the “male gaze.” The focus of her reading of these films, however, remains ecstasy: where it is signaled, how it is mapped, and what it reveals about the racialized discursive milieu in which it is produced. In building on, while perhaps moving away from, the notion of “controlling images,” Nash makes an argument for seeing what pornography makes, what tropes it produces, and what it might reveal of the imbrications between race and sexuality.

If there is a mainstream or dominant understanding of pornography, it is one that views pornography as harmful: an egregious example of a universal, gender-based hierarchy. When this discourse takes up the question of race, it does so primarily by maintaining that black women are particularly objectified and hypersexualized in the representational conventions of film and other media, and that these conventions are laid bare in pornography. Both books address this view of pornography, while also aiming to move beyond it. Each demonstrates that there are a host of questions yet to be asked of the images that constitute the archives of pornography. These include how, and to what effect, pornography produces, uses, maintains, experiments with, plays with, and critiques tropes of black female sexuality. How may the dialogue, plot lines, and aesthetics of pornographic films be read as commentaries on race, as well as gender and sexuality? How and in what context can this archive operate as a space that produces, reflects, and “remembers” race in the United States? The questions these books raise show that both are essential reading for anyone seeking to understand new work on feminism, critical race studies, pornography, and film history.

Svati P. Shah is an associate professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her book Street Corner Secrets: Sex, Work and Migration in the City of Mumbai (2014) offers an ethnographic critique of sexual commerce, migration and informal sector labor in India.

Women's Review of Books

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