Stephen Lee Naish re-reads Valerie Solanas’s 50 year old treatise the SCUM Manifesto in the age of Donald Trump, showing how she predicted the rise of the misogyny we now have to deal with.
Valerie Solanas’s 1967 treatise the SCUM Manifesto, written fifty years ago this year, was a damming critique of male dominance in American society. It denounced the male in extreme and extraordinary terms, calling for an end to the family unit and the male parental role, the dismantling of the male-led capitalist system, the end of traditional reproduction, and eventually for all males to be destroyed, either by cold blooded murder or by a self imposed annihilation. In place of them would be a female-led utopia that relied on automation and artificial reproduction. The SCUM Manifesto, once written off as an extremist text on the fringes of the feminist movement of the late nineteen-sixties, could now be considered a primer in understanding the rise of toxic masculinity and the presidential election of Donald Trump.
Solanas and her manifesto, which disputably was an acronym for Society for Cutting up Men, toiled in obscurity until her infamous attempted murder of pop artist Andy Warhol in 1968 brought her to national attention and the SCUM Manifesto was widely published by Olympia Press. In some respects this has had a negative impact on the SCUM Manifesto. What might have become an important and influential text in mainstream feminism (perhaps with a few editorial overhauls) now had an air of notoriety, rawness, and extremism that was hard to shake off. But the SCUM Manifesto is not a mess of incoherent anarchist ravings. Solanas had astute intelligence matched with a troubled existence; her hatred for men came from a dark episode of sexual abuse at the hands of her father, and later violence at the hand of her alcoholic grandfather. She had a child at a young age, a boy named David, whose father was a married sailor, the child was adopted and Solanas never saw him again. These events bleed directly into the SCUM Manifesto.
Illustration for the HKRB by Hazel Lai
The twisted version of the male that Solanas presents has become shockingly relevant in our own age. Trump’s extraordinary election result in the face of numerous misogynistic, racist, and xenophobic comments and actions before and during the presidential campaign is a slap in the face of feminist progress and the race and gender equality that seemed to increasing. What would have derailed a presidential contender in the past only seemed to strengthen Trump’s agenda. When video footage emerged of Trump making grossly lewd comments about grabbing women by the vagina as a seduction technique it was dismissed as “locker-room talk” and Trump issued an apology claiming that “nobody respects women more than I do.” Even in the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s campaign advert “Mirrors” that featured an edited audio collage of Trump’s own derogatory language towards women, he stood by his claim. His misogynistic behavior should have been enough to discourage any voter from ticking his box in the ballot booth, yet according to exit polls conducted in the wake of the election 53 percent of white women voted for Trump. When reading the SCUM Manifesto in consideration of Trump’s victory, one could be forgiven for thinking that Trump ripped the more grotesque aspects of his personality directly from the text, taking the worst traits as a backhanded compliment and running with it.
Here I want to re-evaluate the SCUM Manifesto and its author, who in the wake of the 1968 shooting of Andy Warhol, her time spent in Elmhurst Hospital, and her diagnoses as a paranoid schizophrenic, has often been dismissed. However, Solanas deserves acknowledgement as a visionary, if somewhat an extremist, and as a worthy psychologist of the male psyche. SCUM Manifesto tell us more about Trump-style masculinity, and it may also help understand the large number of female voters, who Solanas would refer to as “Daddy’s girls”, who found Trump’s message somehow appealing.
One astounding aspect of reading SCUM Manifesto in the wake of Trump’s presidential victory is the vicarious descriptions of the male that seemingly envision Trump’s own physique, actions, and mannerisms. This is the very base element of reading the manifesto today, but it is worth considering. Solanas could never have known the exact creature that would inhabit the White House fifty years after writing her manifesto, but she had a vivid idea of what type of male pushes himself towards ultimate power and dominance in a particular kind of masculine capitalism. In one of her opening statements she claims that “The male is completely egocentric, trapped inside himself” and goes on to claim that:
He is a completely isolated unit, incapable of rapport with anyone. His responses are entirely visceral, not cerebral; his intelligence is a mere tool in the services of his drives and needs; he is incapable of mental passion, mental interaction; he is a half-dead, unresponsive lump, incapable of giving or receiving pleasure or happiness; consequently, he is at best an utter bore, an inoffensive blob…
The “isolated unit” that Solanas describes the individualist Trump. Trump has been a singular force for decades; his business dealings, authored books, and accumulated wealth have been seen as an individualist victory with little input from others. His website boldly states that Trump: “is the very definition of the American success story, continually setting the standards of excellence while expanding his interests in real estate, sports and entertainment” When Trump builds a hotel or casino, or writes a bestselling business book he falsely claims that he himself designed the building, or that the text came from his own pen. Of course, the hotels and skyscrapers are outsourced to a team of architects, designers and construction workers, whilst the books are ghostwritten by established journalists and authors (as is the case with Tony Schwartz who co-authored Trump’s 1987 opus, The Art of the Deal, and in fact has claimed almost complete authorship of that book). Nevertheless, Trump’s name is emblazoned across every product as if it came from a singular mind.
This skewed positioning adds credence to Solanas claim that the male is “completely egocentric”, unwilling to share the limelight and taking credit for every victory and accomplishment himself. Later in the manifesto, Solanas further unpacks this egocentricity, stating: “Isolation enables him to try and maintain his pretense of being an individual by becoming a ““rugged individualist,” a loner, equating non-cooperation and solitariness with individuality.” Trump has been dually noted as a loose cannon when it comes to his presidential manner, or following diplomatic protocol. In a campaign debate with Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton, he refused to answer the question of whether he would concede defeat and acknowledge a Clinton presidency, stating that: “I will keep you in suspense.” This played neatly to his stance as a firebrand and a political outsider who sees “non-cooperation” with perceived social norms as a positive anti-establishment trait. Trump also didn’t follow usual and established diplomatic protocol when contacting other world leaders after his election win, talking to the President of Taiwan on the telephone before contacting the leadership of China. This action caused the Chinese government to lodge an official compliant.
Solanas claims that the male is “trapped in a twilight zone halfway between humans and apes, and is far worse off than apes because unlike the apes, he is capable of a large array of negative feelings – hate, jealousy, contempt, disgust, guilt, shame, doubt…” These negative traits that the SCUM male processes were used by Trump to great success on his campaign trail and at his countless rallies. He used them to stir up resentment from his supporters towards those seeking immigration and refugee status to the United States, towards those of religious minorities, and towards the political elite of Washington D.C, he also turned them towards any naysayer of his campaign or any political rival however well established or untouchable. At one point during his campaign, Trump even dismissed the suffering and hardships of Republican Senator John McCain during his five and a half years as a prisoner during the Vietnam War, claiming that he was only perceived as a war hero because of his capture. This negative attitude compliments Solanas idea that the SCUM male is “unable to relate, empathize or identify…” The SCUM male can’t see past his own self-importance and he’ll trounce anyone on his own path to power. However, as Solanas explains he’ll also deflect his failings on to others and away from himself, using prejudice and resentment to further his cause; “The male needs a scapegoat onto whom he can project his failings and inadequacies…” Trump continually used racism, xenophobia, sexism, and class prejudice to further himself and fire up his supporters and distract attention away from his own scandals. To add to this, Solanas claims that “The male’s chief delight in life is in exposing others. It doesn’t much matter what they’re exposed as, so long as they’re exposed.” Trump delighted in trying to expose Hillary Clinton’s email scandal, and was in a state of utter elation when he brought three women who in the past had accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct to a campaign debate. Even when the previously mentioned video of Trump mouthing off about his seduction techniques surfaced, the apology video turned the attention to Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual misconduct as a way of to deflect the accusations against himself.
The only compliment (backhanded at best) Solanas has for the SCUM male is his ability to be a successful marketer. Solanas states: “It should be said, though, that the male has a glaring area of superiority over the female – public relations.” Indeed, Trump’s whole persona is public relations nightmare, or a riveting success depending on how you view it. Comments and actions that would have destroyed most reputations only seemed to inflate his popularity and one might add his ego. Trump played his political inexperience to his own advantage, telling his supporters that he was going to “drain the swamp” of Washington elitism and install some much needed common sense.
There has been much alarm regarding Trump’s thoughtless comments on war and conflict and especially the horrific idea that as President he’ll have a nuclear arsenal at his fingertips. The fact that his policies remain elusive (something he puts down to not wanting to inform America’s enemies of his intentions) is actually frightening. This is something that Solanas explains in damming terms that the SCUM male uses war as a metaphor for his manhood; weaponizing his genitals, so to speak. She explains:
The male’s compensation for not being female, namely, getting his Big Gun off, is grossly inadequate, as he can get it off only a very limited number of times; so he gets if off on a really massive scale, and proves to the entire world that he’s a “Man.”
During the Republican primaries, Trump’s rival, Senator Marco Rubio made a sly comment on the size of Trump’s hands, implying, though not saying it, that small hands equaled small genitals. Trump took the issue up at his next rally, saying “I guarantee you there’s no problem, I guarantee it.” Trump wouldn’t allow the comment to slide; he had to respond because his manhood was in question. Solanas talks about the sense of damage this could cause, stating that the SCUM male would “rather go out in a blaze of glory that to plod grimly on for fifty years.” One might recall Hillary Clinton’s criticism that Trump could be violently provoked by a simple tweet. If any component of Trump’s maleness comes into question during his presidency we might all tragically be on the receiving end of his large weapon.
A strange occurrence of the 2016 US elections was the huge turnout of female voters that supported Trump. There are many questions about why this happened, especially with the knowledge that Trump had in the past used derogatory language and innuendo against women. There was also the matter of Trump’s policies towards reproductive rights and the overturning of Roe v Wade, which Trump stated he wanted to return the decision of abortion back to the individual States. Whilst Solanas’s manifesto is highly critical of men it also explores the idea that a certain type of female needs to be eliminated in order for a fully-fledged female revolution to flourish. Solanas refers to these women as “Daddy’s girls”, and describes them as:
always tense and fearful, uncool, unanalytical, lacking objectivity, appraises Daddy and thereafter, other men, against a background of fear (“respect”) and is not only unable to see the empty shell behind the façade, but accepts the male definition of himself as superior…
However, if this is the case, and a certain group of women cannot unchain themselves from the SCUM male then the blame cannot be fully placed on these so-called ‘Daddy’s Girls’. As Solanas continues:
Having an obsessive desire to be admired by women, but no intrinsic worth, the male constructs a highly artificial society enabling him to appropriate the appearance of worth through money, prestige, “high” social class, degrees, professional position and knowledge…
Money is something Trump has been very proud of, bragging about hotels, casinos, beauty pageants, wrestling events, reality TV shows, golf courses, establishing his own university, all in an attempt to gain wealth, prestige and social standing, and as Solanas states, “masterfulness by the manipulation of money and everything controlled by money, in other words, of everything and everybody.” Solanas contempt of males is a defining characteristic of the manifesto, but is not actually the first call to action in the conflict she envisions. Solanas sees the conflict beginning with the SCUM collective’s eradication of
nice, passive, accepting, “cultivated”, polite, dignified, subdued, dependent, scared, mindless, insecure approval seeking Daddy’s girls, who can’t with the unknown, who want to hang back with the apes, who feel secure only with Big Daddy standing by, with a big strong man to lean on and with a fat hairy face in the White House…
A SCUM male “in the White House”? Perhaps Solanas knew more of the future than she was letting on.
There are no obvious answers in the Scum Manifesto that could be put to practice without wide-scale civil disobedience. further, I can’t honestly endorse Solanas’s notion that the male needs to be completely and, in some cases, violently eradicated from society. Yet one thing is certain: society is indeed built by and for a predominantly white male consumer. Solanas called this the “artificial society”, and its artificiality is more potent now than ever. This needs to change, and it is men as much as women who need to enact this change. Of course, the mass slaughter of all males will not lead to a better society, but a shift in perspective that abandons the privileged desires of the male will eventually succeed. Men need to step up, and also step aside. We need women in every political office, leading in every aspect of our lives, not just in the areas where social norms have placed women in the past. We need women leading in areas of science, education, housing and urban development, energy, commerce, media, defence, and labor, and with the built-in male capitalist mechanism removed – because it will be down to males to remove it- these departments would be run for the benefit of the everything, not corporations. Solanas’s “Daddy’s Girl, ever eager for approval…” will no longer exist because patriarchal approval will not be required.
The SCUM male that Solanas so brutally depicts is a minority, and is in decline. Trump, we can hope, is the last grasp of a dying breed, the final revenge of toxic SCUM masculinity. There is no question that hardship and injustice await the American public, and no one on the receiving end will find a sympathetic ear in the new US government, so it can no longer be about them, it has to be about us – all of us, the world over. Solanas got a lot of things right, and for this she should be praised, but she got wrong one key component for revolutionary change. Society can’t function with divisions in place, yet Solanas placed a massive gender division at the very core of her work. Trump, from a male perspective, has done this also, yet has gone further, dividing people not only by gender, but by race, nation, sexual orientation, and class. Society functions on solidarity with one another. And solidarity is absolutely critical for a better world.
Stephen Lee Naish‘s writing explores film, politics, and popular culture and the places where they converge. His essays have appeared in numerous journals and periodicals. He is the author of U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film (Zer0 Books) and Create or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper (Amsterdam University Press). He lives in Kingston, Ontario with his wife Jamie and their son Hayden.
The featured image on this post is by Hazel Lai. Hazel is an undergraduate student of English at HSMC, Hong Kong. Her art can be seen at her Instagram page.