Andrea Lohf

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ABSTRACT: Feminist activism arises in multiple genres of literature. Although studying feminist poetry frequently, critics often neglect pop musicians’ lyrics as indicative of trends within feminism because of high-low cultural thinking. In this paper, which is taken from a section of my master’s thesis, I first explore how academics discuss rape rhetoric. I then analyze Marge Piercy’s rhetorical consideration of audience in “Rape poem,” “For Inez Garcia,” and “The grey flannel sexual harassment suit.” Piercy, I argue, provides feminist and rhetorical backgrounds for understanding Lady Gaga’s approach to her audience in “Til It Happens to You,” which I analyze last.


“The personal is political” was the slogan for feminists in the 1960s and ‘70s during what scholars such as Sophia Phoca and Rebecca Wright (1999) categorize as the “Second Wave” of feminism (the First Wave starting with the women’s suffrage movement in the late 1890s). This connection ignited strident debate among feminists and those outside the Movement1 about what values feminists truly espoused. Even after the Second Wave, the Movement continued to receive criticism about what it aimed to accomplish, which intensified in the ‘90s as the new generation of feminists felt that the older generation’s sexual emancipation rhetoric restricted rather than liberated them (Phoca and Wright 1999, 170). More than twenty years after this initial rejection, those who profess a belief in equity and equality still distance themselves from feminism. Toril Moi (2006) notes this distancing in the attitudes of past students of her Feminist Classics class at Duke University: “[O]n my liberal, privileged American campus, young women who would never put up with legal or institutional injustice believe that if they were to call themselves feminists, other people would think that they must be strident, domineering, aggressive, and intolerant and—worst of all—that they must hate men” (1736). The ad hominem discourse Moi describes has persisted at least since the late 90s when Rush Limbaugh popularized the term “feminazi,” which has since developed into a commonly used slur against feminists (Williams 2015, “Feminazi”). Not surprisingly, feminists struggle to recover feminism’s reputation from the negative connotation these malicious attacks have entrenched. Sheinin, Thompson, McDonald, and Clement (2016) report that a Kaiser poll divided its respondents into two halves and posed a different question about the Movement’s perception to each half’s respondents. One half was asked “whether feminism has a good or bad reputation” while the other was asked the same question substituting “women’s movement” instead. They found that in the first half of the group, 55% see the word “feminism” negatively. 54% of the other half, who were asked the same question about “women’s movement,” viewed the term positively (Sheinin et al. 2016).

Even feminist activists express concern about feminism’s decline in positive recognition. Janet Albrechtsen (2015) and Andi Zeisler (2016) each argue that millennials (those born in the late 80s to 2000) have, to a certain extent, tainted the Movement. Zeisler’s main argument is that she can no longer call herself a feminist because of the corruption she sees within feminism’s increasing lack of political goals and cohesion (2016). Similarly, Albrechtsen (2015) claims that feminism should fight for the freedoms of oppressed women in other countries, not issues within the U.S. like the gender gap, misogyny, and sexism. Instead, she urges feminists to work toward abolishing female genital mutilation, child marriages, and honor killings (5). Instead of acknowledging sexism, she qualifies it as “assumed” sexism, hinting that Western women are no longer experiencing sexist oppression, they only assume they are. This critical backlash from Zeisler, Albrechtsen, and others against the century-long Movement calls into question whether millennials’ take on feminism differs so drastically from feminism’s original goals. To parse this developing question among critics of whether feminists’ attentions have shifted, I analyze the poems of feminist Marge Piercy and compare Piercy’s thematic foci to the lyrics of feminist millennial pop musicians like Lady Gaga.2 By comparing Piercy’s feminism with the feminism espoused by millennial pop musicians, I demonstrate both that Piercy’s poetry merits closer scrutiny from scholars and that feminist ideals have not changed as drastically as critics would like to argue.

To understand millennial feminists’ relationship to feminists of the past, I draw from Rebecca Munford and Melanie Waters (2014), who connect the claims of the death or tainting of feminism to hauntology (18). They explain: “If feminism is an ontology, a way of being, then it is also a hauntology in the Derridean sense – a way of being that is shaped by anxieties about the past, concern for the future and an overarching uncertainty about its own status and ability to effect change in a world where its necessity is perpetually cast into doubt” (20). In discussing their present circumstances, millennial feminists cannot help but refer to past feminists’ rhetoric and goals. Munford and Waters state these historical ties “impl[y] persistence, a refusal to go away” (21). They also describe Third Wave feminists, which represent part of the millennial generation, as existing within a “state of perpetual daughterhood” in their constant rebellion against their parents, the Second Wave feminists (23). This theory explains the resistance of Albrechtsen and Zeisler, who acknowledge and disapprove of the rebellion of the younger generation. It also factors into my analysis of the pop musicians. In the following analysis, I demonstrate that these women do hearken back to their “mother” feminists but in positive rather than negative ways, thereby refuting Munford’s and Waters’ negative portrayal of the “post-feminist mystique” while also validating the connection between these generations.

In addition to these feminist controversies, many might question my reasoning in bringing an American poet and pop musician into the same analysis. While I will not be discussing the structural similarity of lyrics and poetic verse, plenty of other academics have done so. Jean-Louis Cupers (2004), for example, describes this similarity as a “Chinese puzzle,” but as he begins his attempt at solving said puzzle, he contradictorily rejects the need to solve by stating, “there is no hiatus between language that is spoken and language that is sung. One passes insensibly from one to the other. This phenomenon, frequently overlooked, is particularly clear when one listens to language without actually understanding it” (309). He then goes on to discuss melopoetics, which is the intersection of literature and music, commenting on the “emancipation” of music from literature and literature from music that began in the 18th century. Nevertheless, he concludes his essay urging that the two be brought together again: “Melopoetics can only succeed if it manages to work in both ways, illuminating literature through music, illuminating music through literature. Like all genuine interdisciplinary endeavour, it is on the imperious condition of a mutual benefit ensuing from the encounter that research and effort will succeed in enforcing its viability” (316). Though I do not discuss the music of Lady Gaga’s song, I discuss her lyrics, which, according to my application of Cupers’ theory, are equivalent to Piercy’s poems spoken aloud. Although he offers no guidance for practical applications of melopoetics in academia, I suggest that studying Piercy and Gaga together allows the media of music and literature to benefit each other rather than remaining separate (309). We can appreciate one better by looking at it in tandem with the other.

Furthermore, this enduring question of whether two artists of different genres can coincide in the same academic discussion raises the question of what is canon and other highbrow-lowbrow arguments. Barbara Christian (2009) argues that Black feminist criticism can only continue flourishing by relinquishing the binary opposition perpetuated by high-low thinking. She calls on her fellow Black feminist critics to embrace the high, the medium, and the low without judging, to talk about it all without boundaries. “In ignoring their [low brow] voices, we may not only truncate the movement but we may also limit our own process until our voices no longer sound like women’s voices anymore” (243). By discussing all forms of women’s contributions to literature, Christian posits, Black feminist critics continue to honor the multiplicity of women’s voices and do not succumb to venerating just high culture, which was long dominated by men’s voices. Similarly, if feminist critics refuse to integrate low culture into our years-long discussion of high culture, we run the risk of ignoring extremely promising texts, thus “truncat[ing] the movement [and] limit[ing] our own process” (243). As Christian argues, we need both-and, not either-or, and that is the approach I take here by discussing Piercy’s poetry alongside Lady Gaga’s lyrics.

Moreover, Paul Lauter (2009) elaborates upon the difficulty feminist critics face in constructing a theoretical framework and eventually offers his own calls to action for future feminist critical theorists. Lauter asserts that the “first task in the project of feminist criticism [is] the recovery of lost works by women, and the restoration of the value of disdained genres” (85). Not only is Marge Piercy a poet whose work needs recovering,3 but pop music lyrics clearly constitute a disdained genre because few academics address them on their own textual merit, instead choosing to discuss artists’ public personas and music videos. Lauter closes his argument by stating the goal of feminist scholarship: “not to describe the world but to change it” (89).

Toward that goal, I offer a different way to discuss feminists’ voices: mixing the high and the low just as Christian exhorts to recover Piercy’s lost voice and connect it with voices who hold weight in the contemporary pop music world. In seeking to shed more light on an oft-forgotten feminist poet, I read the poems of Piercy, a Second-Wave feminist, to discover ways in which the feminism of her generation has helped to inform the feminism evident in the lyrics of Lady Gaga. I will discuss the song “Til It Happens to You”.4 Before analyzing this song, I engage with related critical discussion and closely read three of Marge Piercy’s poems. This structure helps the reader understand the trajectory of feminist thought in its growth and changes so that it becomes clear feminism has not become tainted as Zeisler and Albrechtsen suggest. Though each generation seems affiliated with a set of issues, I demonstrate both generations concern themselves with the same set of issues. This study also serves the pedagogical purpose of directing millennials, who follow Lady Gaga, to a poet and feminist who potentially speaks for them. Piercy, in her continued dedication to feminism, remains in touch with its core values of equity and equality for all, the same values that thrive in this American feminist pop musician’s lyrics. Critics like Zeisler and Albrechtsen attack millennial feminists for losing touch with the Movement, but by studying Piercy’s poetry alongside these pop musicians, I demonstrate that these attacks are unfounded. The Movement’s ideals match the ideals of millennial women, and Piercy’s poetry connects them all.

Deciphering Audience in Rape Culture

In 2015, Lady Gaga released her single “Til It Happens to You” in conjunction with The Hunting Grounds, a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses. Nearly 40 years earlier, in her 1976 collection Living in the Open, Marge Piercy paired “Rape poem” and “For Inez Garcia” to discuss and analyze rape culture. She also wrote about sexual harassment two decades later in her 1997 poem “The gray flannel sexual harassment suit.” Both Piercy and Gaga address their audience as their opposition, writing to refute, satirize, and, in Gaga’s case, speak directly to those who victim blame, rape, or otherwise perpetuate rape culture. Reading these women’s works chronologically, I suggest that their message becomes increasingly direct and inclusive, as if the audience has not been listening, and that this failure to listen demonstrates the continued importance of addressing sexual violence in U.S. society.

Critical Discussion

“Rape” is uncomfortable in our ears. As Carine M. Mardorossian (2002) states, it is “academia’s undertheorized and apparently untheorizable issue” (743). Discussing physical violence can be uncomfortable, but the stigma surrounding rape feels different somehow. Ellen Rooney (1983) posits a compelling answer as to why people might feel this way: confusion (1274). Various works of literature depict rape and seduction within a dichotomy. That dichotomy makes the two acts appear so ambiguously similar that critics debate which act occurs within a text. Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Rape of Lucrece are two examples (1271). In her reading of Tess, Lyn Parker (1992) avoids choosing by referring to the scene as the “seduction/rape in the Chase” (275). Similarly, W. Eugene Davis (1968) posits there is too much ambiguity for such an argument to be made, yet he asserts that despite that ambiguity, he reads Tess as having consented and later regretted her decision (399). This criticism suggests a patriarchal influence on rape culture. Rooney agrees, stating, “in one sense, the compound ‘seduction or rape’ is symptomatic of our failure to escape the ‘old Patriarchal system,’ the system that bound seduction to rape” (Rooney 1983, 1272). Though awareness of rape culture continues to increase, inappropriately confusing sexual violence with seduction endures and is one reason names like Brock Turner, Bill Cosby, and Donald Trump are so widely dispersed via media coverage, but the names of famous survivors like Inez Garcia and Joan Little, who appear in Piercy’s poetry, are obscured. Patriarchal values teach reverence for men who seduce like Casanovas, but who they seduce is never important. Because the rape-seduction dichotomy still thrives through rape culture, seduction explains away these men’s actions by turning them into heroes, a debacle I will discuss later in this section.

Emilie Buchwald, Pamela R. Fletcher, and Martha Roth (2005) define “rape culture” as “a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent” (xi). Their definition coincides with Rooney’s rape-seduction dichotomy. By blurring the lines between seduction, which is considered “normal,” and rape, which is considered violent, “rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women” (xi).

Every major piece of rape criticism I have read focuses on female survivors, but neglecting male survivors perpetuates the rape culture Buchwald, Fletcher, and Roth advocate against. Effects of the culture reach all gender identities. According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (2015), 1 out of every 10 rape survivors is male (“Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics”). Moreover, “21% of TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming) college students have been sexually assaulted, compared to 18% of non-TGQN females, and 4% of non-TGQN males.” (“Victims”). While advocating for female survivors, feminist criticsseem to have have lost track of the male and trans survivors, unknowingly contributing to the culture they seek to dismantle; as I analyze Piercy’s and Gaga’s decisions in portraying rape culture to their audiences, I will retain these oft-neglected minorities.

It also is important to pay attention to the rhetoric of rape. For example, many survivors reclaim the agency they feel they have lost after being raped by speaking about their experiences, creating a sense of power over their rapist by controlling their own narrative. Nevertheless, as Carine Mardorossian (2002) asserts,

Rape is a reality that feels anything but real to the victim, yet this very same unreality can become the basis of a representation the speaker can manipulate and gain control of, that can command an audience’s attention and be made intelligible in other than the available cultural terms. Empowerment in this respect is about accessing one’s life as material rather than depth. (765)

Although survivors perceive benefit from speaking out about their trauma, Mardorossian asserts the more they repeat their story, the more they begin to see their experience as “material,” thus losing its “depth” and meaning. I do see merit in her view that problematizes speaking out. Survivors benefit from speaking out about their experiences, but what Mardorossian seems to be saying, and what I argue in this section, is that speaking out accomplishes little if the audience is not listening, or, if they are listening but misunderstand, misinterpret, or misuse survivors’ recounts. If feminism achieves nothing from creating more rape narratives, we must change the conversation.

Scholarly discussion of rape differs from survivors’ discourse, and sometimes, the difference is not beneficial. Sabine Sielke (2004) extensively overviews the history of rape rhetoric, and, like Rooney, acknowledges its background in seduction but traces the rhetoric back to the 18th century, arguing that it is the rape discourse, not the act of rape itself, that has contributed to rape culture (371-372). Sielke supports her assertion by reviewing the power dynamics within rape discourse, telling how women become victims, and how that is supposedly the role from which, for decades, feminists have been attempting to remove them. Sielke’s argument parallels Piercy’s later argument in “grey flannel,” that white women are the most popularly depicted rape victims. Furthermore, though she brings up fascinating points and compellingly radical notions on feminist critical theory, Sielke confines her discussion of rape rhetoric strictly within prose. She uses the term “literature,” but she never discusses contemporary poetry like Piercy’s. As Sielke asserts, in reading the rhetoric of rape, scholars also reveal the “ideologies, cultural anxieties, and contradictions that crystallize in representations of rape- ideologies, anxieties, and contradictions that feminist theory has tended, at least in part, to perpetuate” (374), so discussing poetry and lyrics should prove significant to feminist criticism because these kinds of discussions broaden the amount of rhetoric and therefore determine whether feminists are, as she argues, “perpetuating” a harmful stereotype or promoting a helpful view of rape (374). Sielke claims to reveal more about contradictions in how rape is portrayed yet neglects the glaring contradiction of male and trans rape survivors, who also deserve portrayal. Timothy Beneke (1982), in his preface to Men on Rape, acknowledges male survivors of sexual violence, stating, “I wanted to interview a man who had been raped, but was unable to find a man who would consent to an interview. That fact alone may say more than the interview would have. For what it’s worth, men also rape other men. […] At its source if not in its effect, the issue is the same as in the rape of women: male sexual violence” (xiii-xiv). Thus, though Sielke makes a significant contribution to the discussion of rape rhetoric, her blind spots in both alternative literary genres and lack of inclusivity diminish her effectiveness.


“Rape Poem”

With these definitions and concepts of rape rhetoric in mind, I read as indirect in “Rape poem” Piercy’s (1976) message to her audience about the internal and external complexities dealt with by survivors. She repeatedly begins her early stanzas with the phrase “There is no difference between being raped” and follows this phrase with a graphic but realistic metaphor for how survivors feel, thereby juxtaposing tangible external trauma with the intangible internal trauma survivors suffer. Being raped is the same as “being pushed down a flight of cement steps / except that the wounds also bleed inside” (88). Piercy conveys this sense of the internal trauma those outside of the survivor community cannot understand. Ruling out internal bleeding, which is a physical possibility, I instead suggest emotional and mental scars are the “wounds that also bleed inside.” Sielke and Mardorossian each argue that focusing on the inner turmoil a rape survivor feels places that survivor in the role of victim, removing their agency. However, in this instance, I suggest that Piercy’s focus on the inner is unique in its specific application to her audience. Her indirect method of prevention and spreading awareness is to humanize survivors. I also note the lack of gender-specific pronouns as that lack is inclusive of all survivors and alerts the audience that every person who is raped has humanity and the capacity to feel these emotions.

Piercy’s metaphors connect to Rooney’s argument about the rape-seduction dichotomy. Because societal norms dictate women enjoy seduction, if men cannot discern seduction from rape, they might expect women to respond to both with equal enjoyment. Therefore, by describing survivors as being run over by a truck and being asked if they enjoyed it, Piercy highlights the obvious conclusion that they would not enjoy that physical trauma; therefore, they do not enjoy the trauma of rape. Although she begins to narrow her idea of survivors as female only, more importantly, Piercy emphasizes the ridiculousness of the cajoling in which rapists and victim blamers participate. She portrays rape in a way that could help this antagonistic audience understand their unacceptable treatment of survivors.

Addressing victim blaming, Piercy states that we do not ask people bitten by rattlesnakes how short their skirts were (88). People who blame victims fail to look at the root of the problem: toxic masculinity, which Terry A. Kupers (2005) aptly defines as “the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence” (714). Piercy’s metaphor instead blames the root of the cause, the rattlesnake, which she equates to the rapist and toxic masculinity. The rattlesnake would have bitten the ankle regardless of the person’s clothing, and Piercy asserts a similar claim is true with rape. The rapist is not going to ignore a woman who covers herself. Physical appearance, the outer, is not the primary focus for him as Piercy argues later in the poem. Though the survivor she envisions is female, I argue that male survivors similarly experience victim blaming. As Beneke asserts, the fact that we do not talk enough about male survivors places a blame on them for reporting (who would believe them?) before they even have a chance to do so (xiii-xiv). Survivors, regardless of gender, feel fear after their attack, and, veering back into describing their internal trauma, Piercy discusses a fear of “half the human race,” a characterization that avoids gender altogether (88). Although earlier stanzas specify being raped by men and utilize traditionally female characteristics, “half the human race” could include men raped by men or by women.

Providing more details on toxic masculinity, Piercy suggests that because of the pervasiveness of it, rapists could be “your boyfriend’s brother or any other ‘normal male’” (88). Anyone masculine, from the survivor’s perspective, is a potential threat. In fact, RAINN (2015) reports that seven out of ten rape survivors knew their rapist (“Perpetrators of Sexual Violence”). Piercy (1976) alludes to this tragic phenomenon, stating, “Rape fattens on the fantasies of the normal male / like a maggot in garbage” (89). Her analogy encompasses both Kuper’s definition of toxic masculinity and Piercy’s understanding rape culture. The latter exists because of the former; fantasizing about dominating women is considered “normal,” so, rape, like maggots, thrives in the “garbage” of men’s fantasies.

Piercy carries this figurative language into her description of a survivor’s constant fear, paranoia, and vigilance against the men of the world:

Never to open the door to a knock
The fear of the dark side of the hedges,
The fear of the smiling man
in whose pocket is a knife.
The fear of the serious man
in whose fist is locked hatred. (89)

To a survivor, every man is a potential rapist. Toxic masculinity can seep into any man, and it is unknown how little could trigger his violent impulse to rape. Piercy’s focus on the male rapist, though statistically accurate, creates more stigma for survivors raped by women. However, in 1976 when she published this poem, one of the major pushes in the feminist movement was to protest violence against women. Violence perpetrated by women was much less common, so it is slightly unrealistic to expect Piercy at that time to consider female rapists, who were rare enough to exclude from rape rhetoric of that era. In contrast, as I will discuss, Gaga avoids stigmatizing male and trans survivors by not using gender-specific pronouns.

Nevertheless, while Piercy does not include women in her demographical consideration of a rapist, she does reveal the circumstances needed for a male rapist to develop his violent tendencies.  “All it takes to cast a rapist” is for a man to hate his body and to see it as a “weapon” a “jackhammer,” a “blowtorch” (89). These men push that hatred onto women (“the soft alien flesh”) in the form of rape. Piercy utilizes language like “invincible as a tank” and “possess and punish” to clearly delineate toxic masculinity. Ultimately, she argues that male rapists rape women because these men hate themselves and, unfortunately, literally thrust that hatred upon women who are not closed but “open to love” (89), a trait that infuriates them in their misery.

“For Inez Garcia”

In “Rape poem,” Piercy establishes for the antagonistic or ignorant audience a basis of understanding of what a survivor must go through; in “For Inez Garcia,” (1976), which directly proceeds it, she explores the survivor’s experience and explicates further implications for current definitions of men’s and women’s honor. Piercy begins by defining a woman’s honor. She is the “possession of her keeper” and has “speed / like a race horse” and a “bloodline / of a pedigreed bitch” (90). Furthermore, “no other man [should] spoil / his wife, nor his ox, nor his ass.” By using animals and words like “possession,” “bloodline,” “pedigreed,” and “spoil,” Piercy reveals the commodification and subsequent devaluation of women through their supposed honor. Woman is property, just like any animal a man would keep, so, damage to her, to her “honor,” would result in lessening of her value (being “spoiled”).

Contrastingly, Piercy’s definition of a man’s honor shows the inequality between the genders. Honorable men aspire to be a “samurai,” a “knight,” a man with “noblesse oblige” (90). This hyper-masculine hegemonic definition of honor reveres fighting but not the commodification of men. Class comes into play in the various levels of honor, but men never experience the degradation women do consequently for any diminishing of their honor. Men without honor are simply lower in the class system, not devalued as animals no longer worth their full price. Piercy questions this traditional distinguishing of the genders and where a woman’s will begin and ends: “Am I everyman’s urinal? / What does it mean to say No? / What does it mean to say No to a superior force?” Piercy’s capitalization of “No” emphasizes the lack of agency women possess in this honor system. Because they are valued only as a man’s property, their voice in their life diminishes, so to oppose that “superior force” merits recognition. Not surprisingly, Piercy characterizes men as the “superior force” because, as she shows earlier in the poem, men’s honor increases or decreases through fighting and the class system. They have the power and are better than the “animal” that is woman. Classifying woman as “animal” implies not only a dominant gender but also normalizes the same toxic masculinity Piercy introduces and discusses in “Rape poem.” Although critics like Mardorossian and Sielke argue that using this kind of classification, even critically, supports the idea of women as victims, I disagree. Piercy understands women are not victims and does not treat them as such. Instead, she criticizes the current structure in place and offers potential solutions.

Continuing her criticism of the patriarchy, Piercy explains further women’s roles and why they do not benefit women: “The man’s body is a weapon and the woman’s / a target. We are trained to give way” (90). Rachel Hall (2004), in her discussion of rape prevention, criticizes organizations that place the responsibility for not being raped on women, labeling it the “tough target” suggestion: “A (re)action hero, she is stealthy and quick with an expert awareness of her own vulnerabilities. To be a tough target, a woman need not be tough, just hard to catch” (6). The label of target holds too many negative connotations, and Piercy seemingly agrees with Hall’s idea of women as targets. She ends “Rape poem” by stating masculinity ends with men militantly forcing their self-hatred as “a weapon” onto women, whose softness makes them “targets,” and in “For Inez Garcia” she criticizes those who encourage women not to fight back or resist, to be docile:

don’t argue,
give in, keep quiet, make peace.
Speak to the rapist nicely, speak softly
and reasonably, assure him you have
his best interest at
heart. Kiss the knife.
Perhaps he will not injure you that much. (Piercy 1976, 90)

Tragically, as “Rape poem” and the rest of the poems and lyrics in this article suggest, this advice backfires for women. Piercy implies that those who have power perpetuate rape culture. In this scenario, men hold power. Women are taught to acquiesce for self-preservation, but that strategy does not work. Men and women need equity and equality so that both men and women can feel safe saying no and can express their feelings in a healthy manner that does not let self-hatred build or make any person a “target.”

By following these lines with more lines beginning with “perhaps,” Piercy creates a repetition that forces the reader to recognize the life-threatening chance the hegemonic patriarchal society tells women to take:

Perhaps he will not kill you today.
Perhaps the injury will close to scar tissue.
Perhaps you will forget to be afraid
the rest of your life. (91)

Perhaps women will not get injured, but this chance only masks the docile role the power dynamics have forced upon them. Forgetting and healing, while mitigatory, need not happen if women possessed more power and were taken seriously in their assent and dissent. Piercy presents the hegemonic guidelines as possibilities, not certainties. The hope expressed is false and misleading because women still have no agency or directive. Piercy advocates against the passive role of “perhaps” that Rooney asserts contributes to mistaking rape for seduction.

The unequivocal active/passive dichotomy is attributed to rape. Thus, the absence of feminine desire in rape is read as simple (unequivocal) passivity. This maintains the valorization of the dichotomy of the rapist, the subject of the discourse of desire in rape. Because the “object” of rape is finally helpless, her defeat is read as passivity, and her passivity is totalized. As a consequence, her resistance (her activity) goes unread. Ironically, it is this activity—the resistance of the victim—that makes rape rape. But victimization is not passivity. Or rather, it is necessary to think the negativity of the victim’s lack of desire without valorizing her passivity, her place as mere object. (Rooney 1983, 1271-1272)

Rooney points out how survivors’ fighting, their activity, becomes overshadowed by the fact that the rapist overpowers them (into passivity). Thus, the rapist, in the seduction-rape dichotomy retains and performs his masculinity in subduing the woman, and this valorization of passivity Rooney discusses fits aptly with Piercy’s earlier discussion of women’s honor. Men objectify women, placing them in the role of passivity. When men position themselves next to that passivity (by being the controlling partner in a relationship), their honor increases. Piercy, however, would like to see more equal footing for each gender and their honor systems.5 Mardorossian would agree that feminist critical theory has failed by holding onto the rhetoric of victimization. Concluding her discussion of therapists’ strategy of revamping victimization into agency, she states that for these therapists, “passivity itself becomes a defense mechanism and can no longer be opposed to agency unless it is reduced to an internal logic that is divorced from material considerations” (Mardorossian 2002, 768). By continuing to discuss survivors in the passive rather than active sense, feminist critical theorists strip them of their agency. I connect this neglect by critics to the overutilization of rape narratives. Repeating survivors’ stories and painting them passively does not further feminist aims. Contrastingly, Piercy has established women’s passivity but also its lack of positive results. Now, Piercy argues, is the time for change, and the last line, “Perhaps it would be good to open him,” invites retaliation.

Piercy vocalizes this retaliation by exhorting, “To say Yes one must be able / to say No: No to the other” (Piercy 1976, 91). The binary opposition of “Yes” and “No” reflects true consent. There are no “Blurred Lines,” as Robin Thicke would like to believe.6 Rape is a question of assent or dissent. When people blame victims, they posit the existence of a fictitious middle ground, and their position breeds the microaggression in survivors that I later discuss in “Til It Happens to You.” Moreover, saying “No” after saying “Yes” or remaining silent becomes difficult because women (or men) are saying it to a “superior force” who, likely, has never heard dissent previously. That “No” is not guaranteed respect. As Rachel Hall (2004) discusses in her evaluation of the “No means no” campaign of the 1990s, the whole purpose for the project is that some men do not understand the meaning of no, so trying to educate them seems unproductive, “reassign[ing] women to a reactionary position within the field of sexual relations generally, and within the rape script specifically” (9).

Yet, Piercy does demonstrate knowledge of consent and the power dynamics involved: “Power accepts no lesser currency” (Piercy 1976, 91). Fighting back against the rapist is okay. Inez Garcia,7 the woman whose case inspired the poem, is justified according to Piercy: “A woman’s honor / is rooted in being able to say yes, / to say no and make each stick fast, / that ghostly will that rises” (91-92). She aims to redefine the traditional concept of women’s honor, thus redistributing agency equally. Women need to be taken seriously in their dissent and assent alike:

There is no
holiness without terror, no will
without responsibility and consequence
no entire person without boundaries,
and the will to guard what goes
out and what comes in. (92)

Piercy firmly establishes the binary opposition of consent in these lines. We cannot have one without the other. Women need to be autonomous just like men. Their commodification must end as society rethinks gender roles. In continuity with Piercy’s call for autonomy, I suggest the same can be said for transgender individuals.

Coincidentally, Piercy envisions a new beginning for feminism. Survivors have the right to self-defense, the right for which Inez Garcia and Joan Little fought. Drawing from the hope these women give to survivors, Piercy returns to her metaphor of the ghost, which she uses earlier in the poem, to give the reader hope. A “frail ghost of a new whole / conscious self” signifies the new direction of feminism. From the frailty of their commodified past, women emerge stronger and more equal, but that equity and equality, like the wisps of a ghost, is still fleeting.

Because she presents to those who disagree with her (those who blame the victim, men with toxic masculinity, etc.), Piercy builds her argument as a defense for Inez Garcia. Her language represents a call to action: “Let Inez Garcia, Joan Little become /[ . . .] an army, / each defending her body, defending her sister” (Piercy 1976, 92, my emphasis). These lines embody Piercy’s vision of feminism: a sisterhood in which women help each other defend not only their bodies but themselves against patriarchal oppressors. This vision of sisterly defense characterizes each poem I discuss, and it signals their attack on the patriarchy, not, as Mardorossian would argue, the victimhood of feminists. Piercy, Garcia, and Little have not been “irremediably and unidirectionally shaped by the traumatic experience of rape,” and they are not “incapable of dealing with anything but their own inner turmoil” (Mardorossian 2002, 768). These women use their voices to defend themselves against rape culture.

“The gray flannel sexual harassment suit”

Two decades later, Piercy’s (1997) response to rape culture continued in its strength.  In “The grey flannel sexual harassment suit,” she satirically vocalizes the perspective of the patriarchy and therefore creates a different reading experience. The speaker’s highly judgmental tone works to “other” women who experience sexual harassment and are part of demographics outside the speaker’s narrow, white-washed vision. He uses “cannot be sexually harassed” and “can be sexually harassed” to denote this radical opinion that only certain women are innocent and therefore vulnerable to sexual harassment whereas all other women, through their actions, appearance, or ethnicity, invite it (Piercy 41). Sexual harassment can be defined as lewd or suggestive comments, gestures, or innuendos that insinuate unwanted sexual advances from the sender to the recipient. Within rape culture, I work within the definition of sexual harassment as the non-violent exercise of toxic masculinity because the harassment does not, in most cases, result in the bodily assault of rape.

Even though women who are sexually harassed encompass a widely diverse group, the speaker’s mindset implies men only desire to attack one type of woman. He would not accept as fact that Native Americans are twice as likely to experience rape as compared to all other races (“Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics” 2015). Instead, a woman who can be sexually harassed “is white of course as unpainted / plaster, naturally blonde / and speaks only English” (Piercy 1997, 41). No minorities, brown-haired women, red-haired women, black-haired women, rainbow-haired women—no one outside of a White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) idealized female figure—can be sexually harassed. If they claim to have survived any kind of sexual violence, the patriarchy ignores and silences them, choosing instead to believe its own twisted narrative.

Furthermore, the speaker believes what a woman is wearing has everything to do with whether she can be harassed. Women who can be harassed wear

white cotton blouses
buttoned up to the throat, small
pearl clip-on earrings,
grey or blue suits and one
inch heels with nylons. (41)

The description the speaker further supports my analysis of his conservative ideology. While not immediately apparent to the reader, it is clear Piercy intends the speaker to be male and act as a representative of patriarchal values. Thus, he believes a woman who is sexually harassed must be covered up. Wear a blouse and suit, but button every button and show as little skin as possible. Wear neutral colors like white, blue, or grey so as not to stand out with anything vibrant like red or even pink. Notice, too, that a woman cannot have her ears pierced. She must have “clip-on earrings.” Having her ears pierced signifies that an outside force has penetrated her, and that piercing, or penetration, defiles her purity and therefore her honor and commodified value to men. If she is already seen as “damaged,” damaging her further through sexual violence, the speaker fallaciously reasons, does not matter as much as it would if she still possessed her honor. Additionally, the speaker’s need for women not to draw attention to themselves relies upon the assumption that men lack self-control around women who are the least bit provocative. However, men, specifically the speaker and the patriarchy he represents, are not willing to admit this flaw because it is a weakness and an affront to their honor. Their toxic masculinity causes them to attack women who show skin, who wear bright colors, or who have pierced ears, but the speaker chooses to ignore these implications. Regardless of his hypocrisy, the speaker persists in designating the women he believes can be harassed.

Further perpetuating this narrow demographic and contributing to the development of the patriarchal speaker’s voice, Piercy’s speaker defines the parameters of a woman’s purity. If a woman has been sexually harassed, she “should be a virgin” for the claim to be believable (Piercy 1997, 41). Immediately the speaker’s use of “should” reveals the identity politics at play. “Should” implies a recommendation, expectation, and idealized norm and is not like the boldness Piercy displays in “Rape poem” and “For Inez Garcia.” Conversely, too, this speaker is antagonistic, believing only in the sexual harassment claims of women who are virgins. Furthermore, “Her immaculate house is / bleached with chlorine tears” (41). “Immaculate” evokes the Virgin Mary, piecing together the picture the speaker has been creating for what a sexually harassed woman looks like. Only innocent, pure, holy women can be raped, assaulted, or otherwise sexually harassed. Obviously, purity or a lack thereof does not exempt women from sexual violence. The satire of the poem lies in the assumption the patriarchy only accepts claims of violence from the specific woman the speaker describes, not the countless women he “others.” This failure to acknowledge all survivors rather than a small subset angers Piercy, so she writes “grey flannel” to make her readers feel that anger with her as they become more aware of the travesty of injustice the patriarchy perpetuates.

Adding to Piercy’s anger, the speaker’s word choice of “should” and the concept of purity refuse to go away. A woman “should” only know two men: her father and the “minister / who patted her head / with his gloves on” so as not to soil her (Piercy 1997, 41). Being safe with only two men implies that women who are engaged in various levels of sexual activity or, perhaps, women who simply have male friends, cannot be sexually harassed because they put themselves in danger by being in the presence of these unsafe men. It also fails to recognize acts of incest and molestation that have been perpetrated by fathers and clergymen. Additionally, Piercy’s specificity of the minister’s gloves again reveals a requirement of cleanliness. Women, who know more men, do not believe in God, or both, will not be believed if they are sexually harassed because they are “unclean” already. The speaker’s need for cleanliness connects to Piercy’s earlier point concerning women’s honor in “For Inez Garcia.” If a man’s property is unclean, it is devalued, so it makes sense for the perpetrators of rape culture to perpetuate these purity standards in identifying women whose sexual harassment claims they choose to believe.

Nevertheless, it is also important to note that men are the ones who defile women. The speaker hypocritically states that a woman “visited by female / angels only” can be sexually harassed, but women who are in contact with men other than their father or a clergyman cannot be (Piercy 1997, 41). This distinction establishes a heteronormative existence for all women and a problematic, inconsistent portrayal of men. If these two men are honorable enough to be allowed into a woman’s inner circle, certainly the others in their gender could not be blamable for a woman’s impurity through sexual violence. The speaker would be forced to admit his toxic masculinity and blindness to rape culture. Those who blame victims utilize these types of arguments fallaciously, never focusing on who has sexually harassed the woman, only on her personal qualities.

Ultimately, the speaker makes explicit his position, echoing what I have already unpacked in my analysis:

If you are other than we have
described above, please do
not bother to complain.
You are not a lady.
We cannot help you.
A woman like you simply
cannot be harassed. (Piercy 1997, 41)

This stanza is the only place in the poem where the speaker uses first-person pronouns, and the “we” serves to exemplify the “we” of rape culture. “We” implies more than one person whereas “a woman like you” is one individual. This scenario has quickly devolved into “Us vs. Them,” and, utilizing Piercy’s concept of “superior force” as previously discussed in “For Inez Garcia,” I suggest the woman, or, in a more inclusive sense, survivors who make up the “Them,” will not and cannot win. The survivor is “not a lady,” implying yet again that she is subhuman, imperfect because she does not meet the heteronormative, conservative, clinical mold of female. In her study of rape “management,” Rachel Hall (2004) acknowledges this bias in U.S. culture. Authorities in law enforcement and the medical community most often approach rape prevention in terms of restricting women’s bodies rather than addressing the toxic masculinity that Piercy argues “casts” a rapist (1-2). They also ignore the same bias Piercy discusses in “grey flannel”:

The metonymic treatment of some women’s bodies as rape space builds on an American tradition in which the politics of race and sexual violation are inextricably linked. Historically, the treatment of white, middle-class women as uniquely vulnerable has worked in tandem with two other fictions: the myth of the black male rapist and the stereotype of the sexually voracious black female. (4)

Moreover, Piercy’s lines also imply both men’s lack of control (“We cannot help you”) yet, at the same time, their power in harassing women (Piercy 1997, 41). Because no one will help these women, men can do anything they want to them. No one would believe the women because they do not fall within the parameters set forth by the speakers, thus creating an environment in which rape culture continues to thrive. I suggest we can apply this kind of logic to male survivors just as aptly if not more so, given their greater stigma in speaking out. As Beneke noted, male survivors feel greater stigma because of the lack of attention shown to their demographic. Directing more attention to these neglected survivors will help generate awareness that men do not just rape but suffer rape.

Furthermore, Piercy’s use of “we” and “you” establishes a clear audience, telling us that the speakers are the majority, the patriarchy responsible for rape culture and what Piercy would call the “superior force.” The obvious audience is women outside the restrictions the speaker describes, the “you” in the poem. However, men could also read and identify with the “othered” women or, realistically, the patriarchal speaker himself. Piercy uses a confrontational structure to chastise the hegemonic powers responsible for rape culture. Satire works, and while it is possible her readership includes only women who would agree with her, her multi-faceted approach benefits her case with a much more diverse audience. Even if the audience does not belong to either the “we” or the “you,” they can see the power dynamics at work and the inequity of how the “you” is treated. Thus, Piercy achieves her goal of promoting awareness of rape culture and, I argue, inclusivity.

“Til It Happens to You”

Receiving the torch that Second Wave feminists like Piercy have passed her, Lady Gaga (2015) understands audience just as expertly as she addresses rape culture in “Til It Happens to You.” Rhetorically, Gaga directly addresses her opposition using second-person pronouns, which, perhaps most importantly, are not gender-specific pronouns. There is a “you” and a “me,” so all survivors are included. Furthermore, because this song debuted nearly 40 years after “Rape poem” and “For Inez Garcia” and almost 20 years after “grey flannel,” Gaga’s direct address is significant. Piercy, as I argue, never explicitly addresses her audience, especially in “grey flannel” but in the earlier poems as well. Gaga, on the other hand, remains direct in her pronoun choice. Piercy’s poems and Gaga’s song need to be read and heard to spread awareness and promote changing the toxic culture in which rape breeds.

In “Til It Happens to You,” Gaga uses repetition astutely to further her message, using it like a personal mantra, but with motivation that falls flat because the mantra comes from someone outside the survivor community. “It gets better, it gets better” leads to “pull myself together, pull it together” (Lady Gaga 2015). This remonstrance becomes

what the hell do you know
what do you know
Tell me how the hell could you know [?]
How could you know [?]

While in “grey flannel” Piercy utilizes third-person pronouns and reserves her second-person “you” for the end of the poem, Gaga uses second-person pronouns to directly address her audience throughout her song. She speaks directly to the people who want to help her, firmly rebuking them for not understanding (“how the hell could you know”) and therefore not helping. Similarly, Gaga utilizes repetition to accuse those outside the survivor community of not providing adequate support to survivors. “You tell me hold your head up / hold your head up” signals to the listener that those who are not survivors have too often encouraged survivors without understanding the gravity of their situations. Surviving is not merely a matter of holding one’s head up, and, in these lines, Gaga reflects that mindset.  Still, she continues, “’Cause when you fall, you gotta get up / You gotta get up and move on.” The appearance of 2nd-person pronouns introduces the out-group in-group situation. There is a “You” telling the speaker to get past her sexual assault.8 Nevertheless,the speaker is angry and hurt that the “You” would be so dismissive of her experience:

Tell me how the hell could you talk[?]
How could you talk?
’Cause until you walk where I walk
It’s just all talk.

Gaga plays with popular sayings in these lyrics: “Walk a mile in my shoes” and “walk the walk” versus “talk the talk.” Actions speak louder than words. What has the listener, the “You,” done to help survivors? Gaga, in her rebukes, suggests the “You” is only talking and needs to do more walking to understand her experience.            

Likewise, Gaga uses repetition to allow the seriousness of rape to sink into the listener’s cognition:

How it feels
How it feels
‘Til it happens to you, you won’t know
It won’t be real
No it won’t be real
won’t know how it feels. (Lady Gaga 2015, my emphasis)

Repeating “How it feels” lets the message sink in with the listener, and once that message sinks in, Gaga further rebukes the listener who has not been raped, establishing a clear out-group and in-group. Rape is an in-group experience. Those who have experienced it understand fellow survivors, but those who do not, cannot. It “won’t be real” because they have no idea “how it feels.” While Piercy works to explain survivors’ mindsets to her readers, Gaga decides it is best to respect survivors and the solemnity of their experiences and not attempt an explanation. Mardorossian might find this focus on a survivor’s inner trauma antifeminist in its characterization of the speaker as “victim,” but for Gaga, appealing to the out-group for empathy and acknowledgement is how she achieves her agency. She does not need their version of help but help that works for her.

Subsequently, Gaga gives the listener a glimpse into the reality of a survivor, letting them walk into the in-group briefly so they can understand the kind of help survivors need:

’Til your world burns and crashes
’Til you’re at the end, the end of your rope
’Til you’re standing in my shoes, I don’t wanna hear nothing from you
From you, from you, ’cause you don’t know. (Lady Gaga 2015)

Gaga reveals the origin of the microaggression survivors develop as they navigate the world of rape culture. I define microaggression in the feminist sense as continually feeling slighted by hegemonic society and thus lashing out at each new affront. Gaga is tired of hearing how to handle herself from people who do not share a similar survivor’s experience. Her subsequent microaggression echoes the criticism Mardorossian makes against feminists whose only activism involves speaking for survivors rather than letting them speak for themselves. The lines also connect to “grey flannel” because the speaker assumes he knows survivor demographics but is grossly mistaken just as the out-group assumes they understand rape survivors’ experiences but are chastised by Gaga. Piercy and Gaga demand an end to victim-blaming and greater emphasis on helping survivors instead of overwhelming them with false platitudes.


In reading their sung and written words, I argue there is a clear shift in how each artist addresses her audience. Both women denounce victim blaming, but Piercy tackles toxic masculinity in a way Gaga does not; however, Gaga’s directness and inclusivity resonate in the community of survivors who have long endured patriarchal society’s hegemony. Gaga and other survivors ask for acknowledgment and healing instead of victim-blaming. The out-group cannot possibly understand the in-group, but the out-group can help dismantle rape culture as an ally. Accordingly, Hall offers three rape prevention suggestions for feminists. First, target an audience of men, not women (Hall 2004, 11). Both poets, to an extent, have done this, although I argue Gaga’s inclusivity is much more apparent. Second, overcome the idea of women as victims. Critics like Mardorossian might argue Piercy struggles with this suggestion, but, as I have demonstrated, she does fight against it, as does Lady Gaga. Finally, Hall recommends avoiding the naturalization of rape through survivors’ sharing of their terrifying stories (12-14). Piercy never directly shares survivors’ stories but instead uses metaphors to help those in the out-group understand survivors’ mindsets, and Gaga also avoids this mistake. Ultimately, I would be fascinated to read a similar study 20-40 years from now. Will we have made more leaps in disintegrating rape culture? I certainly hope so.


1. Piercy was part of the Women’s Liberation Movement, a feminist intellectual organization, in the 60s until its dissolvement, and so whenever she discusses feminism in her writings, she uses the term Movement. I echo her usage as an homage.

2. This article is adapted from one section of my thesis. In that thesis, I study songs from not just Lady Gaga, but also Meghan Trainor, Beyoncé, and Taylor Swift.

3. Piercy is rarely anthologized or taught when compared to fellow feminists Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath, who are now canonized poets. In fact, it was difficult to find any criticism of her work at all, let alone criticism of the poems I have discussed. Most scholars tend to discuss her novels, notably Woman on the Edge of Time, Vida, and He, She, and It. For that reason, this study and more like it are needed to recover Piercy’s remarkable contributions to feminist poetry.

4. Though I only discuss “Til It Happens to You” in this adapted version of my thesis, the original, longer work covers “All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor, “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga, “Formation” by Beyoncé, and “Blank Space” by Taylor Swift.

5. I acknowledge my dichotomous discussion of gender here but am referring to the dichotomy Piercy creates in “For Inez Garcia” when she discusses men’s and women’s honor systems. Perhaps the lack of transgender inclusivity is lost historically in Piercy, but I am unsure how to remedy this lack without detouring from my analysis.

6. Thicke’s 2013 song “Blurred Lines” centers on a man’s dilemma of knowing whether a woman consents to sexual activity. Thicke misunderstands the notion of consent to be yes when she is silent or when her body language seems inviting.

7. Both Garcia and another woman named Joan Little went on trial for different murders in 1974. Garcia was accused of killing the man who held her down while another man raped her. She was found guilty after a psychological defense and served two years before she received a retrial. Her new lawyer then changed her defense to a simple self-defense, and a jury acquitted Garcia. Similarly, Joan Little went on trial for the murder of a jailer who she killed as she defended herself against rape. She also was acquitted.

8. I use feminine pronouns to reflect Gaga as the speaker, not to exclude other gender identities from the survivors’ mindset.

Works Cited

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Hall, Rachel. 2004. “‘It Can Happen to You’: Rape Prevention in the Age of Risk Management.” Hypatia 19, no. 3: 1-19.

Kupers, Terry A. 2005. “Toxic Masculinity as a Barrier to Mental Health in Prisons.” Journal of Clinical Psychology 61, no. 6: 713-724.

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Andrea Lohf received her Bachelor’s degree in English from Wartburg College in 2015. In 2017, she received her MA in British and American Literature from Northern Illinois University. “Bodily Violence: Deciphering Audience in Rape Culture” originated as a section in her master’s thesis, which is titled Piercy, Pop Music, and the Patriarchy: Feminist Activism in the Sung and Written Word. Her academic interests include Marge Piercy, feminist critical theory, contemporary women’s literature, cultural theory, and film adaptation.

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