A Review of Dorothy Allison’s Skin: Talking About Sex, Class and Literature

By Lisa A. Kirby

 

Dorothy Allison’s Skin is a moving and emotional look at Allison’s personal life, history, sexuality, and writing. Her collection is a series of essays that addresses everything from her sexual experiences to her theories on literature and politics. Allison is bold in her admittance to lesbianism, feminism, and sexual liberation, yet she also delves into a series of societal taboos and her personal history to reveal her conceptualizations of femininity, class, and society at large.

 

Allison identifies herself equally as both working class and lesbian and sees both as manifestations of the “Other.” As Allison points out early on, “we die so easily, disappear so completely—we/they, the poor and the queer” (13). Like many working-class writers, Allison recognizes that the voices of the working class are often silenced. She, therefore, seeks to give voice to her own experiences and those of other working-class lesbians. In terms of class differences, Allison points out that she has always felt she was the outsider. As she points out, “the working-class hero was invariably male, righteously indignant, and inhumanly noble [ . . . ] my family’s lives were not on television, not in books, not even in comic books” (17). Because Allison could find no points of connection or representation with which she could identify, she had to create her own commonalties. She did this by escaping into science fiction, books, and imagination as a child and, as an adult, by immersing herself in writing and communities of feminists and lesbians who were “like her.” She also sought out working-class intellectuals who could understand her experiences as a working-class academic. As a child, Allison would look around at her classmates and “did not know who those people were—not only as individuals but as categories, who their people were and how they saw themselves” (20). Allison’s entire life was a series of categories—those in which people placed her and those by which she sought to understand others. Allison also argues that not all of the working class should be categorized as similar. For instance, if this were true, Allison admits, “the myth of the poor would make my family over into union organizers or people broken by the failure of unions” (25). And for Allison’s family, this was not the case. They were working class in their own way—despite the fact that this label might be construed in different ways.

 

In addition to her commentary on social class, Allison’s Skin is also an opportunity for her to interrogate other theoretical constructions such as feminism. Allison points out her problem with long-established forms of feminism: “traditional feminist theory has had a limited understanding of class differences and of how sexuality and self are shaped by both desire and denial. The ideology implies that we are all sisters who should only turn our anger and suspicion on the world outside the lesbian community” (15). Interestingly, here Allison points out that not only are there differences that exist between heterosexual and lesbian feminists, but there are also class differences within the feminist movement. Much like other feminist scholars in the Second and Third Wave, Allison seems to find problems with the mostly white, middle-class origins of the feminist movement.

For many years, Allison believed the common idea that “feminism is the theory, lesbianism the practice” (114). Yet she soon began to realize the untruth in this statement. She realized that feminism entailed freedom—freedom to love whomever and however one pleased, whether that was lesbianism or heterosexuality. Allison is also quick to point out that she is not a man hater, which she feels is an important distinction to make as a feminist. Allison is herself waging her own sort of revolution—both as a woman and as a writer. She first dismisses many of the usual feminist ideas, and she rejects the notion that all feminists are cut from the same cloth. She seeks freedom and equality as a working-class lesbian, yet she also seeks truth and action in her own writing.

Along with problematizing the power structures in the feminist movement, Dorothy Allison also re-negotiates other power structures, most particularly in the way that language is used. Allison proudly self-identifies as a “queer” and, in her estimation, “the word queer means much more than lesbian. Since I first used it in 1980 I have always meant it to imply that I an not only a lesbian but a transgressive lesbian—femme, masochistic, as sexually aggressive as the women I seek out, and as pornographic in my imagination and sexual activities as the heterosexual hegemony has ever believed” (23). This statement touches upon one of the central notions in Allison’s writing—the fact that she is both open and proud of her sexual orientation and also not afraid to admit her interest in some things that might be considered taboo by others.

In speaking of those “taboos” that Allison is unafraid to admit to, one of the most provocative sections in Skin is the chapter devoted to discussing pornography. Allison is unapologetically pro-pornography and, in fact, devotes an essay in her book to her own history with lesbian pornography. This is interesting in many respects. First, it goes against what many feminists proclaim: that pornography objectifies women and is perpetuated by a patriarchal society. Her difference in viewpoint on this particular subject actually causes Allison to question dominant feminist ideology. Secondly, Allison is quite frank about her discussion of pornography and other such subjects. She states that her writing is “sex writing,” and she strives to produce it in terms that are brutally honest and real. Because of this writing strategy, I gained the sense that Allison’s writing moved beyond the theoretical into actual practice. In her book, she writes little of feminist ideologies and theories, but instead demonstrates how being working class, lesbian, and feminist has affected her life. She states at one point that “real lesbians are not theoretical constructs,” and it seems that, through her writing, Allison seeks to prove this (141).

 

In this same vein, Allison further recognizes that she—as woman, lesbian, feminist, and working class—does not fit into the literary constructs devised by those in power. Thus, as in her own life, she also seeks to re-negotiate boundaries and categories in her writing. As she questions, “if Literature was a dishonest system by which the work of mediocre men and women could be praised by how it fit into a belief system that devalued women, queers, people of color, and the poor, then how could I try to become part of it?” (169). I think this lends a great deal of explanation to both Allison’s writing style and content. She does not write the usual feminist theory or personal narrative as many might envision it. By addressing issues such as her own sexual practices, how society views lesbians, how she labels herself as “white trash,” and the problems she has with the dominant feminist movement, Allison is once again using her writing as a re-negotiating tool.

In all, Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature serves as a revealing and important work for scholars of working-class studies, feminism and gender politics, and queer theory. Though written over ten years ago, the collection still serves important cultural, political, and literary functions. Allison’s collection is an interesting and personal look at the complexities of her identity formation, and the levels on which she engages each category of self is both honest and sometimes painful. What shapes Allison’s writing is not only her recognition of Self and need for Truth, but admittance to all facets of her identity.

 

Lisa A. Kirby, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of English at North Carolina Wesleyan College. She specializes in twentieth-century American fiction, working-class literature, and feminist studies. Her work has appeared in Indiana English, the Oregon English Journal, and she has a forthcoming article in Philip Roth Studies.