Woman and exotic culture have historically been relegated to similar weak positions in their respective hierarchies: woman is subordinate to man, exotic culture inferior to dominant culture. This hierarchal authority of ethnocentric over exotic is linked with an imaginary masculine and feminine, in which the dominant culture is considered as the superior male, the exotic culture the weaker and derivative female. This interconnection between the image of female and that of exotic culture can be fully recognized in the Disney animated movie Mulan in 1998. The movie Mulan presents us with the story of a Chinese heroine Mulan Fa, who poses as a man and joins the army in her father's place, making the tremendous efforts to stop the Huns' invasions, and finally being recognized as a hero.
This movie has been chosen for several reasons. Firstly, the heroine, Mulan, who disguises herself as a man in the army and proves herself to be capable of being equal to men, offers a feminist perspective to the invisibility and marginality of women in the history of male domination. Alongside this feminist standpoint, Mulan and other female characters in the film enable us to trace the shaping of the image of oppressed women living in a patriarchal society. Mulan can be viewed as a feminist in that she tries to bring herself in from the margins in a patriarchal society where women are excluded from power, and she resists sexual hierarchy, and challenges the conceptions of women and sexual difference in traditional thought. She recognizes women's marginalization and seeks to overcome it, but on the other hand she is also the victim of a system of patriarchy.
Mulan is a gender victim in the sense that she has to overcome this invisibility/marginality by adapting "forms of the dominant patriarchal code" (von Flotow, 1997:12), which casts a light on the dilemma of women who, on one hand, are regarded as passive, the exact and separate other self, the opposite sex; and on the other hand are negatively tangled up with concepts of the dragon-lady when seeking to struggle against oppression (Eisenstein, 1979; Jaggar and Rothenberg, 1984; Coates and Cameron, 1988). Female oppression is further represented by the rest of the female characters in the movie, such as Mulan's grandmother, mother, etc. Their "internalizing sexism as normality" and allowing women's subordination to men to be appropriated, takes Mulan's behavior as a dishonor to the whole family, which is resonant with Spivak's argument that women who normalize the assumption of male superiority and centrality, are "acting out a scenario against feminism".
In the same manner, in the movie, the exotic culture represented by the Huns is placed as Other and inferior to the dominant culture, China. These characteristics of exotic culture, being the demonic Other and of marginal interest are in parallel with the excluding, trivializing position of women in the patriarchal society. In other words, the way that the exotic culture is described as different and placed in opposition to the dominant culture is analogical to the hierarchical relationship between men and women, in which woman is the Other of man and associated with irrationality and "negatively in relation to man". They both stand for groups marginalized or silenced in the human continuum. In light of these, the assumption of the dominant culture's superiority and centrality over the exotic is generated by the fact that exoticism is constituted as subordinate to ethnocentrism and its associations further imbued with sexual hierarchy.
As noted by Millett (1977), the "otherness" is indeed a political issue which involves the general control of one collectivity over another collectivity. In this movie it is especially the case in regard to the ideas of the marginal status of the female in relation to the exotic culture that is both inferior and weak. My interest here is to explore the extent to which women's lives are shaped by patriarchal social values, and those undermined, patriarchal responsibilities assigned to them. It is further argued that the movie Mulan serves as a charged microcosm of attitudes and value attached to female and exotic culture, to which culture subscribes. To conduct this analysis, I shall, in this essay, not only argue that discourses of gender are racialized/ marginalized but also that discourses of otherness are gendered.
Drawing variously on Lacanian theory, Derridean deconstruction, Marxist post-structuralism, and anthropological models, the discourse of the Other has been put to widespread use in cultural and postcolonial studies. The dominant paradigms tend to deny the power of otherness. In general, patriarchy becomes "male power" and the unexamined, natural basis for the social-cultural characteristics of women's subordination. In patriarchal cultures, the struggle must end in the victory of the masculine; complementarity must arrange itself hierarchically. The exotic, as succinctly defined by Stephen William Foster, "immediately evokes a symbolic world of infinite complexity, surprise, color, manifold variety and richness", provides a cultural mechanism for comprehending remote and unknown phenomena without totally emptying them of their strangeness. The term "exotic" labels and initiates control of social phenomena that, being at the outset remote and unknown, may for those reasons appear chaotic, threatening, bizarre, and ineluctable. The otherness of woman, apparently, who seem to have no will of their own and are forced into the margins of society, resonates with the existing cultural beliefs about the exotic culture (Douthwaite, 1992). The basic dichotomy between Man and Woman, Exotic and Native, and Other and Self draws a lot of scholars' attention on its genderized image (Said, 1985; Clifford, 1988; Asad, 1973; de Certeau, 1986). De Beauvoir (1952) indicates that, within the sexual category, she is defined and differentiated with reference to man, not he with reference to her, which echoes with the we-they contrast applied to ethical difference. The exotic otherness of female and alien culture/periphery are produced in a similar context, in which the exotic is "routinely described as feminine, its riches as fertile, its main symbols the sensual woman, the harem and the despoticbut curiously attractive"self. He/Self is the Subject, he/self is the Absolute -she/exotic is the Other.
As Stephen Heath admitted in an essay on "Male Feminism", "men have been trained simply to read, they have the acquired neutrality of domination, theirs is the security of indifferenceit is women who are different, the special case". Schopenhauer felt that women had a natural need to be controlled by men because of their deficiency of reason. Women's social roles which are usually associated with the family represents lower-level, socially fragmenting, particularistic sorts of concerns, as opposed to interfamilial relations representing higher-level, integrative, universalistic sorts of concern.
Root views exoticism as a form of what she terms "cultural cannibalism" through the fact that dominant cultures create images of non-dominant cultures in order to consume them. Exoticism with its diverse implications (women) could not be what it is, both in relations of power and a force of consumption, without having people who are barely industrialized, civilized, poor economically-speaking, often weak and vulnerable and at the disposal of those in power (dominant culture, men) (Rossel, 1988). De Certeau argues cannibalism and polygamy, which are usually tied to savage society, bring savage society's relation to its exteriority (war) and to its interiority (marriage), as well as the status of men and that of women.
The dichotomies applied to the sexes in which "natural" woman is contrasted with "rational", "cultured" man leads to the hierarchical social relations of subordination and domination that, in turn, shadow the gendered image of the exotic culture in association with nature and that of the dominant culture with civilization (Sydie, 1987). Nature is considered as one type of "exotic" otherness by many scholars (Segalen, 1955; Clifford, 1988; de Beauvoir, 1952; Ortner, 1974; Chodorow, 1978, 1979; O'Brien, 1981). They place women and the exotic on the "nature" side of an equation, accompanied by the assumption of their inherent inferiority. Nature, in a generalized sense, is contrasted with culture or with technology and ideas "by means of which humanity attempts to assert control over nature". In a failure to distinguish clearly between exotic culture/woman and nature, we assign properties that belong to the Other (Dinnerstein, 1977; Chodorow, 1978, 1979). The need to dominate nature is part of the unconscious of both sexes, which is therefore more likely to elicit attack from culture. Given the tendency that both female and the exotic are associated with nature, it seems they are similar in many respects in terms of their subordination, inferior status that are tempered to be controlled. Women have been associated with nature because of their reproductive function, as a result, that function makes women the Other, carrying the natural burden of reproduction and enables male domination and female compliance with their own subordination (O'Brien, 1981; Ortner, 1974; Chodorow, 1978, 1979; de Beauvoir, 1952). For the exotic culture, the sense of alienation is achieved through the exotic culture setting that is usually pictured with geographic unfamiliarity that existed in temporalities outside of modernity. Alien culture is spatialized into fixed, unchanging, and remote landscapes and peoples who live in "a zone of contemporary non-contemporaneousness that would soon disappear" before the native civilization. For both female and the exotic, culture is separate from and superior to nature because it has the ability "to transform -to 'socialize' and 'culturalize' -nature". In light of which, women's secondary status as well as that of the exotic culture can therefore be accounted for by the identification or symbolic association with nature.
As Lu (2000) pointed out that the portrayal of China and of Chinese identity in both Hollywood and mainland films has not been able to escape from the trap of national and political stereotyping. The movie Mulan, she argues, reveals how the memory and deep history of indigenous cultures are being appropriated by giant media corporations, with the result that subjectivities and cultural identities across the globe are reconstituted in accordance with the operations of capital and the market. Lu further argues that the ideological opposition between the West and the East seems rooted in a shared model of geopolitics as well as in a common conception of fixed, unchanging national borders.
Images of Female
Sexual dominion obtains the most pervasive ideology of our culture and provides its most fundamental concept of power. The movie provides a picture in which the ethics, values, philosophy and art of culture are of male manufacture. Women are recognized to be the "other sex" in relation to men and in relation to a patriarchal social order. Apart from the heroine Mulan, the rest of the female characters help generate the hierarchal oppositions characteristic of a patriarchal construction of gender, in the sense of their contributions to the portrayal of compliant women controlled by men's power of sovereignty.
The above are two excerpts from the movie. The first one, in the form of a song, is the conversation among Mulan's mother and other women helping Mulan dress up to leave the matchmaker a good impression of a perfect bride. The second one is the conversation between Mulan and the matchmaker regarding how to be a perfect bride. Both of these are mainly a description of what it is to be female as reflected in the mirror society of patriarchy. The image of woman is expected to be 'calm, obedient, work fast-paced, with good breeding, and a tiny waist'. All the terms that female characters use -calm, obedient, good breeding, etc. --are women's qualities, the fact of their true womanhood. Every criteria of being a perfect bride is a clue to trace back on how she must think and behave to attain or satisfy the demands which gender place upon one. Women seem to accept their inferior status, and allow themselves to be defined by the superior group and accept this definition as just.
As we have also noted, the major part of housework and childcare is regarded as women's responsibility. Women as domestic drudges (e.g. 'work fast-paced'), sex objects (e.g. 'with a tiny waist') and child-bearer (e.g. 'a girl by bearing sons') illustrate the social pressures to conform to gender codes. In addition, women can only be categorized as such by virtue of their marital/family connection (e.g. being a perfect bride and taking care of the family members, including pleasing future in-law, etc.). In the above excerpts, all the requirements of being a perfect bride are accepted and rooted in women's minds. This highlights the fact that the acceptance of a value system by female, in which male supremacy resides and is based on the needs and values of the male dominant group and find convenient in subordinates: intelligence, force, and efficacy in the male; passivity, ignorance, docility, virtue, and ineffectuality in the female, further upholds and validates the patriarchal structure. In the same scenario, many other young girls are dressed up trying to impress the matchmaker, which further implies that women are taught to accept as normal and legitimate a male system of values. With regard to the fact that girl can only bring her family honor through good marriage, upon which the mother is counting, affirms the idea that this fact is grounded upon, in which patriarchy decrees that the status of both female child and mother is primarily or ultimately dependent on male. These marital adjustment and sex-role responsibilities (e.g. their appropriate wife and mother roles played in the family), suggests male domination in the light of women's own collusion with their fate. The limited choice of marriage for women also obscures the realities of female status and the burden of economic dependency. The "natural" dependence of women in marriage is then a necessity if the dichotomized views of nature of the sexes and the assumption that hierarchical relations of male superiority and female subordination are justified by the dichotomy. And since patriarchy encourages an imbalance in human temperament along sex lines, both division of tasks assigning to different sexes ('a man by bearing arms/a girl by bearing sons') reflect this imbalance.
As both the primitive and the civilized worlds are male worlds, the ideas which shaped culture in regard to the female were also of male design. The image of women is an image created by men and fashioned to suit their needs, which is further resonated in the movie that 'men want girls with good taste, ... and a tiny waist; paler than moon, with eyes that shine like stars'. Men's requirements of being a perfect wife indicate the fact that men impose themselves as norm. Woman is defined with reference to man, not he with reference to her (e.g. 'I want her...').
Singling out the vivid imagery of women imposed by men's needs and preference for physical beauty/appearance over wisdom (e.g. men do not like a girl 'who always speaks her mind'), serves a sense of the desire to affirm the patriarchal authority and manly power. It also displays the dangers of sexual role reversal and makes Mulan an intended subversive woman of sexual authority.
The above passage addresses the ways what it is to be male. It is to be master, hero, strong minded. Social expectations of being a man are marshaled along with the line of "aggression is male". The implication of a pervasive assent to the prejudice of male superiority guarantees superior status in the male, inferior in the female.
All further representations conspire to convince the viewer of Chi Fu's superior intelligence, control and along with his stereotyped lines of sex categorization, while demonstrating the female's complaisance and helpless carnality; each moment exalts him further and degrades her lower. Chi Fu contains the patriarchs' difference or otherness and produces identity and similarity in relation to the other sex. Chi Fu's patriarchal feeling that woman is subject to man resonates with misogyny, which is widely and firmly entrenched in society (Roger, 1966). Chi Fu, as a defender of patriarchy, has set himself up as the standard or yardstick against which woman is measured in a negative light. The passage also addresses the "invisibility" of socially disadvantaged women. Women are ignored, marginalized, and they cannot speak for themselves. They (the muted group) have no distinctive view of reality to communicate or worth being heard or listened to (e.g. 'hold her tongue in a man's place'; 'no one will listen'). The character, Chi Fu, who believes patriarchy is logical, designates superior status, and roles of mastery to be reserved for the male. In the patriarchal scheme of things, Mulan as a daughter has no place in the patriline, no access to most of the professions, no right of succession or inheritance. Mulan as a female, who is active in the public realm, is regarded as problematic both to the men with whom she interacted with and to other women, who believe women inhabited, ideally, a privatized domestic sphere. Thus having a female in certain professions which is only reserved for male (e.g. military), for whatever strenuous tasks she has done, is a dishonor not only to her whole family, but to the country. She suffers not simply the powerlessness which derives from not seeing her experience clarified and legitimized, but more significantly, the powerlessness which results from not being a man, to whom the public world of action, decision, power and authority that belongs.
Mulan as a feminist
Lucy Irigaray argues that the psychoanalytic tradition, like all male thought, can only theorize woman as lack, as castrated male (Irigaray, 1985). Females who break the laws of marital fidelity should be beaten, for the barter system of marriage must not be violated by outside commerce. Mulan, as well as other female characters' status is largely dependent on their marriages, which most of the time the element of love and free choice are not what arranged marriage concerns. In short, marriage in which the wife is dutifully submissive to the husband is part of the natural law in patriarchal society. Mulan confronts these myths about women and tries to re-shape the image of female, as well as re-establish equivalence between sexes. She refuses the dominant stereotype of women, insisting that women are capable of being the same as men. She seeks power for herself and uses the opportunities and privileges of empire as a means of resisting patriarchal constraints and creating her own independence. She attempts to break down patriarchal structures of thought which limit her perception of her own power. A concrete example is in order. When Mulan has been teased as weak, "like a girl", she does a lot of exercise trying to catch up with other men, and she has proved that she can be as good as male in her struggle to transform the culture.
The trick of role reversal comes in handy here. Mulan refuses to admit that woman is inferior and attempts to attack patriarchal forms of all kinds. Mulan as a woman with only a tenuous foothold in a male-dominated profession is not afraid to take a stand and fight for her views. But her feminist ideas and behaviors are taken as a dishonor to her family and are further strongly disregarded by other women, including her mother, who are assimilated into patriarchal family. The other female characters in the movie accept their own devaluation. They internalize sexism as normality, acting against Mulan and her feminist ideas (Spivak, 1992; Ortner, 1974; de Beauvoir, 1952).
Within the scenario the perspective shifts toward the representation of a peripheral woman trying to make out the rule of men's world. But the power of the false consciousness into which women as well as men have been socialized does not allow women to seek refuge in her difference and makes Mulan felt guiltily empowered (e.g. 'I should never left home'). Mulan has to adopt the values of the superior (male) group when she tries to gain equality with. These scenarios of resistance to male authority parallel the contestatory attitudes that the exotic peoples have towards the dominant culture, which will be discussed in detail in the following section.
The instances of sexual description we have examined so far were notable for the large part which notions of ascendancy and power played within them. They shed light on the power-structured relationship between male and female, within which arrangements whereby one group of persons is controlled by another. Patriarchal marriage and the family with its ranks and division of labor play a large part in enforcing them. A common feature of both these themes is the physical abasement of the woman, and the universal appropriated by men. In general, the competitive, exploitive and individualistic interests of men are, ideally, tempered by the cooperative, nurturing and communal interests of women -as long as women are controlled within the legitimate bonds of marriage, or kept within the domestic sphere.
Image of Exotic Culture
The Huns as the Other
In the movie, the dominant Chinese culture sees the Huns as symbolic of terror, devastation, the demonic, hordes of hated barbarians, and constructs them as the Other. A culture affirms its centrality through its science, civilization, and conquest. The dominant Chinese culture is coupled with modernity, and civilization, in accordance with its time. Meanwhile it conceptualized the exotic locales of the Huns culture. The barbaric image of the Huns is more or less accompanied with the world of animal nature. The Huns are seen "merely" as being closer to nature than the Chinese, in terms that they are being more rooted in, or having more direct affinity with, nature. The representations of the Huns are always associated with the thrills of unbridled passion, miscegenation, and wild adventure in a raw, natural, and exotic setting. They are placed with territories whose remoteness still offers the promise of mystery (storm, glacial, cliff, etc.) and whose lands no man had called upon. These territories are portrayed with all its innumerable scoriae, flaws, and stains in the movie. Their exoticism is best seen in the costume that Shan Yu is exotically clothed and accompanied with a hawk; whereas, the dominant Chinese's association directly with the technology (e.g. the use of cannons by Chinese army), suggest the contemplation that "nature is a force we must conquer rather than accept and accommodate ourselves to" (Sydie, 1987:3). The Huns' vast otherness and unfathomable mystery serves its exoticism associated with the Self's/Chinese centeredness and subjectivity. The dominant Chinese culture succeeds at least in isolating and discrediting an array of stereotyped Other -the "feminine" exotic.
The Great Wall stands upon its margin, and recalls the mind to the darker and sterner realities of life outside of the wall. The Great Wall is a symbol of separation of us from them and thus creates a world with an eternal incomprehensibility. The Wall inevitably functions to dichotomize the human continuum into we-they contrasts and to essentialize the resultant Other. It places the barbarian other at a distance from our own lands with a depiction of savage society. The Huns are an example of coming from the outside, from the exotic. They are marginal peoples who enter a historical space that has been defined by the technologically advanced Chinese imagination. In Chi Fu's account, the Great Wall that border China is gendered. The Wall serves not only as the symbol of geographic difference that differing Self (China) from Other (the Huns), but further represents the sexual images associated with each other, being masculine and feminine, respectively. In other words, the Wall is depicted as the dichotomy between the civilized, masculine China and the savage, feminine Huns become more marked. The Huns/exotic culture tend to be feminized, with all the value judgments associated with femininity, the desire to appropriate them are commonly described as 'weak', 'underdeveloped', 'marginal'; while the Chinese/self culture tend to depicted as the true site of perfect masculinity. To disparage other cultures is a sign of ethnocentrism, Chi Fu emphasizes how different is the Huns/the Other and makes them not only different but remote and inferior. Those cultures beyond the Wall are exotic objects that are properly understood only with reference to their original milieux. The Great Wall also serves the need to a position at the center through the exoticizing of an Outside. However much the positions articulated in this context differ in their particulars; they nonetheless share a common opponent: they are the Others of a Chinese Self. In light of these, the Great Wall as border, geographically as well as culturally, envisioned the "exotic" quality of otherness and the idea of a hierarchy appearing simultaneously. The Other can only be perceived in a hierarchy which recalls the peripheral status of female in patriarchy hierarchy, both in a self-oriented relation that inevitably favors the Self. Both the Huns and women are characterized by relegating to a separate sphere apart from mainstream culture.
The General's confidence over his troops sheds another light on a clearly delineated Self who relies on the certainty of his difference and, to a great extent, of his centrality and predominance. It is the lack of knowledge of Other that adheres to the General's assumption that our civilization is opposed to the "tribal" or "closed society" the Huns belong to. Thus the imagined, fixed power differentials and the Huns, supposedly isolated peoples, not only suspended the distinction between a privileged Self and an inferior Other, but sought its permanent transcendence.
As argued by many scholars (Williams, 2001; Said, 1976), perhaps one of the most important aspects of any relationship that is "defined by a significant imbalance of power is how the narrative of one is given over the narrative of the other" (Williams, 2001:273). The possession of great power facilitates the creation of image of the powerless. The imbalance of power enables the China to construct its identity in contrast or opposition to that of the Huns, which further lead them to demonstrate their superiority over the Huns.
The image of the Huns is full of signs reminding us of the 'foreignness' of the scene. The exotic image of the Huns is further amplified with the changes they bring in their wake, the damages they cause, the defensive measures taken against them. Seeing what they are like, and what they ruin, it secured the Chinese privileges at the costs of its Other. From the Chinese point of view of a pure exoticism, the Huns represent the barbarians that must be subordinated to and conquered by the "citizens". They are, in a word, "exotics" -performing the alien in all its attractive and dangerous fascination. Standing in contrast to the Huns, who are seen as living at a lower, primitive, barbaric stage of human history, Chinese society is at a higher stage of civilization.
It is possible to argue that women as a group do not enjoy many of the interests and benefits any class may offer its male members. Their marginal life frequently renders them conservative, as pointed by Millett, "they identify their own survival with the prosperity of those who feed them". Mulan, as a member of the muted group, has to "transform" her own model into acceptable male dominant modes of expression, in order to be heard. Men have set up social arrangements to privilege themselves. Women as the Other, as the difference, is marshaled with the line of "passivity is female". The Huns as the Other is aligned with the oppressed women, both belong to members of an oppressed and marginalized subculture. Sameness is the norm and difference can be interpretively controlled -the strange and surprising appearance of the exotic adds an almost risk-free piquancy to the event. As Chodorow points out, both sexes would benefit, each gaining the positive features of the Other and rejecting the negative, the same strategy would apply to and beneficial the dominant-exotic culture.
- Images of authority come drenched in gender. Deborah Tannen (1995), Talking from 9 to 5: How Women's and Men's Conversational Styles Affect who Gets Heard, who Gets Credit, and Gets Done at Work, argues that women who hold authority are forced to choose between a professional image, appropriate to the qualities the profession attributed to her, and compliant female, suggested by her gender. It seems when a woman is in positions of authority, there is an expectation that she will be unfeminine, negative, or worse. Woman, who adopts man's style (in a declamatory and aggressive manner) to maintain her authority, is seen as the dragon lady and disliked. But if she talks in a polite, cooperative way, she is seen as lacking in authority.
- Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. (1992). The Politics of Translation. In Venuti, Lawrence (ed.). The Translation Studies Reader. New York and London: Routledge. p. 375.
- Ibid., p. 375.
- China is dominant within the period of this movie.
- De Beauvoir, Simone. (1969). The Second Sex. London: New English Library. p. 16.
- Foster, Stephen William. (1982). The Exotic as a Symbolic System. Dialectical Anthropology, 7, p. 23.
- Said, Edward. (1985). Orientalism. Harmondsworth: Penguin. p. 103.
- Heath, Stephen. (1986). "Male Feminism." In Jardine, Alice & Smith, Paul. (eds.) Men in Feminism. New York & London: Routledge. p. 27.
- Schopenhauer, Arthur. (1987). "Society/Sociology." In Sydie, Rosalind A. (1987). Natural Women, Cultured Men: A Feminist Perspective on Sociological Theory. Milton Keynes: Open University Press. p.6
- Ortner, Sherry B. (1974). Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture? In Rosaldo, M. Z. and Lamphere, L. (eds.), Woman, Culture and Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
- Root, Deborah. (1996). Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation and the Commodification of Difference. Oxford: Westview Press.
- Certeau, Michel de. (1986). Heterologies: Discourse on the Other. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
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- Harootunian, Henry. (2002). "Foreword." In Segalen, Victor. Essay on Exoticism: An Aesthetics of Diversity. Durham: Duke University Press. p. 4.
- Sydie, Rosalind A. (1987). Natural Women, Cultured Men: A Feminist Perspective on Sociological Theory. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
- Lu, Sheldon H. (2000). "Representing the Chinese Nation-State in Filmic Discourse." In Sponsler, Claire & Chen, Xiaomei (eds.) East of West: Cross-cultural Performance and the Staging of Difference. New York & Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave.
- Millett, Kate. (1977). Sexual Politics. London: Virago. p. 26.
- Said, Edward. (1985). Orientalism. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
- Clifford, James. (1988). "Introduction: The Pure Products Go Crazy." The Predicament Of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London: Harvard University Press.
- Millet, Kate. (1977). Sexual Politics. London: Virago. p. 38.