Allowed to speak

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • Sororophobia: Differences Among Women in Literature and Culture by Helena Michie
    Oxford, 216 pp, £25.00, August 1992, ISBN 0 19 507387 8
  • Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic by Elisabeth Bronfen
    Manchester, 460 pp, £45.00, October 1992, ISBN 0 7190 3827 8

‘The category of the Other,’ Simone de Beauvoir declared in the opening pages of The Second Sex, ‘is as primordial as consciousness itself.’ No doubt she was right. But it is hard to believe that the term has ever had such intellectual currency as it has at present. Whether in works of high theory or in the popular press, invocations of ‘the Other’, ‘otherness’ – even ‘othering’ – continue to proliferate. At times, all this talk proves more fashionable than productive, turning ‘other’ into little more than a glib synonym for ‘victim’. Even as ‘otherness’ threatens to become all too familiar, however, thinking about the human impulse to distinguish self from not-self can still help to decode our political and cultural arrangements. The ‘primordial’ category need not be simple.

De Beauvoir’s own appropriation of the Other for feminist purposes had much to do with making the Sartrean category available for contemporary critics of culture. The central insight of her magisterial work – ‘He is the Subject, he is the Absolute ... she is the Other’ – has become part of the common wisdom in a variety of disciplines. Helena Michie’s Sororophobia and Elisabeth Bronfen’s Over Her Dead Body complicate that insight in different ways, but these books are scarcely imaginable without The Second Sex and its far-ranging analysis of the myths of gender. As Michie notes, for feminists since de Beauvoir the two words ‘woman’ and ‘other’ are ‘virtually synonymous, the pairing redundant: all women are in some sense other.’ And from this perception comes the feminist’s sense of identity with her sex: in their otherness, paradoxically, all women are alike, a ‘sisterhood’ united by their common position as Woman.

Without exactly denying the force of this claim, Michie wants radically to unsettle it. For contemporary feminists, she argues, the rhetoric of sisterhood serves as a sentimental evasion, a fiction of kinship which glosses over the inevitability of difference and conflict. Woman as Other, in her view, is always haunted by ‘the other woman’ – the popular idiom conjuring up not the commonality of gender but the threat of jealousy and division. Coining the deliberately awkward term ‘sororophobia’ to name the impulses masked by this idealised model of family relations, Michie sets out to identify sororophobic moments in a variety of 19th and 20th-century texts, from Victorian melodrama and sensation fiction to contemporary lesbian poetry, novels by Afro-American women, and the writing of several recent feminist theorists. Brief ‘interchapters’ take up topics as disparate as the collective portraits of the Brontës and the staging of a competition between female figure-skaters at the 1988 Winter Olympics. Except for a sharply pointed commentary on the movie Fatal Attraction, Michie chooses not to discuss ‘the other woman’ in the conventional sense, preferring to concentrate, she says, on differences among women themselves rather than heterosexual rivalry over men. To her credit, she does not just try to complicate the question of gender by routinely invoking differences of race and class – a formula that has become something of a cliché in recent years. In Michie’s book, sororophobia accompanies all forms of sisterhood, which is to say that any gesture of identification or desire has its attendant impulses of differentiation and hostility. As she defines it, in fact, her neologism means not so much fear of the sister as ‘the negotiation of sameness and difference, identity and separation, between women of the same generation ... both the desire for and the recoil from identification with other women’.

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