There aren’t too many figures in feminist history more controversial than Andrea Dworkin. The radical feminist writer and activist, whose work spanned the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, has become synonymous with a stringent sect of anti-pornography, sex-negative conservative feminism that seeks to limit sexual freedoms, including LGBTQ and sex worker rights. But you wouldn’t know any of that from “My Name Is Andrea,” a hagiographic documentary shaped only by Dworkin’s writing and words from British filmmaker Pratibha Parmar.
Using a series of dramatic recreations with various actresses playing Dworkin at different ages, “My Name Is Andrea” seeks to recast the author as some misunderstood literary prophet — devoid of any of the historical context that might have persuaded her many detractors. Her writing is powerful, even beautiful at times, and the likes of Ashley Judd, Amandla Stenberg, Christine Lahti, Soko, and Andrea Riseborough do it justice in lyrical monologues. But the film’s dogged insistence on sugarcoating Dworkin’s legacy does it no favors. By refusing to address her critics on the left (she had plenty on the right as well), “My Name Is Andrea” ensures not a single one might be swayed to reevaluate Dworkin’s contributions.
That said, Dworkin was a force in American feminism for decades, and her life and career are certainly worthy of closer analysis. By relying solely on Dworkin’s writing and words, seen in recreations and archival footage of Dworkin herself, the film makes a strong case for Dworkin as a powerful orator and writer. In her fiery missives and often frightening speeches, it’s clear that her she was motivated by a guiding belief in women’s liberation from what she saw as man’s inherent violence. This unrelenting passion stayed with her until the end of her life, even if that meant alienation from most of her contemporaries.
The film’s most moving chapters are Dworkin’s early life, when her worldview was still being shaped as a young writer. She loved poetry, especially Allen Ginsberg, who would become a mentor. It’s refreshing to hear her youthful exuberance as she writes of finally introducing herself to the beat poet after seeing him read nearly a dozen times. “I counted. He told me 11 times that he loved me,” she writes, as a male voice echoes these sentiments repeatedly. While living abroad, she writes excited letters to her parents, urging her father to read Frantz Fannon. These glimpses of the young and carefree Dworkin serve to humanize the larger than life figure, revealing a facile and hungry mind before tragedy took its toll.
A large part of Dworkin’s work dealt with sexual violence against women, and she wrote extensively about her multiple rapes from childhood to adulthood. The film recreates these as well, in heavy-handed scenes in a movie theater, a prison medical facility, and an Amsterdam apartment. While these assaults were undoubtedly integral to shaping Dworkin’s perspective, visually recreating them in such detail seems at odds with the world she dreamed of — one free from sexual violence. Though she never wrote about rape scenes in movies, it’s hard to imagine the woman who argued that all pornography was violence against women would advocate for cinematic depictions of rape.
A prolific filmmaker specializing in documentaries about women’s rights, Parmar’s artistic hand is evident in her bold and unusual choices. Having multiple actresses play Dworkin, though none of them look much like her, adds a kind of dreamlike pastiche quality to the storytelling. As Dworkin loved to remind us, she seems to be saying these things could have happened to anyone, and they have. Using only Dworkin’s words is another pointed choice that serves to highlight her literary prowess, but the lack of any talking heads to place her in history leaves the viewer feeling a bit unmoored.
It’s also unusual that all of the actresses are thin, something Dworkin was not for much of her life. This glaring contrast is made all the more obvious because of the many archival scenes of Dworkin, in all of her abrasive, unabashed glory. One would think a film about Dworkin might have some interest in pushing back against Hollywood’s unrealistic body standards, but it seems they had to pick their battles. Unlike Dworkin, who picked them all.
“My Name Is Andrea” premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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