ONE 8 • Shooting Warhol

Shooting Warhol

by Gerard DeGroot

The author of the controversial book The Sixties Unplugged (2008) revisits a pivotal event for he infamous Pop Artist.

On 3 June 1968, Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol at his studio in Greenwich Village. The bullet tore its way through his internal organs, leaving Warhol virtually dead. Rushed to hospital, he miraculously survived. Later that day, Solanas surrendered to police, justifying the shooting on the grounds that Warhol had ‘too much control’ over her. She pleaded guilty and was given three years in prison for reckless assault.

The shooting arose from an argument that began a year earlier, when Solanas approached Warhol about producing her play ‘Up Your Ass’. The play featured a man-hating hustler modeled on the author. Warhol, who had a fondness for weird, vaguely agreed to produce the play. The script, however, was subsequently lost, sending Solanas into apoplexy. Partly to placate her, Warhol cast her in two of his avant-garde films—perfect vehicles for her peculiarity. Solanas, however, kept obsessing about the missing manuscript, and eventually decided that Warhol was trying to suck her dry. She imagined him a vampire and painted her bullets silver. Interviewed by the Village Voice in 1977, she called the shooting ‘a moral act … I consider it immoral that I missed. I should have done target practice.’

At her trial, defence attorney Florynce Kennedy argued that Solanas had struck a blow for female autonomy—Warhol was cast as the archetypal domineering male who preyed on women. Kennedy maintained that she was an ‘important spokeswoman of the feminist movement,’ a strange claim given that her only noteworthy act was to have shot a misogynist. Lending support, Ti-Grace Atkinson, president of the New York chapter of NOW, called her ‘the first outstanding champion of woman’s rights’, a rather bizarre assertion.

Radical feminists, desperate for a martyr, welcomed Solanas to their pantheon. Apparently, the sincerity of her misandry was sufficient to excuse her violence.

Solanas was famous for one other thing besides shooting Warhol. She also founded SCUM, sometimes called the Society for Cutting Up Men. The movement philosophy was set out in the SCUM Manifesto, first published in June 1968 in the Berkeley Barb. Like the author herself, the pamphlet challenges explanation. It is part pop psychology, part political tract, but mostly a mindless rant against men.
‘To call a man an animal,’ Solanas writes, ‘is to flatter him; he’s a machine, a walking dildo. … Eaten up with shame, guilt, fears and insecurities and obtaining, if he’s lucky, a barely perceptible feeling, the male is, nonetheless, obsessed with screwing; he’ll swim in a river of snot, wade nostril deep through a pile of vomit if he thinks there’s a friendly pussy waiting for him.’

In the midst of this rant lies an interesting critique of the world shaped by men. ‘The male’s inability to relate to anybody or anything makes his life pointless and meaningless,’ Solanas argues. ‘The ultimate male insight is that life is absurd, so he invented philosophy and religion. Being empty, he looks outward, not only for guidance and control, but for salvation and for the meaning of life. Happiness is impossible on this earth, so he invented Heaven … No genuine social revolution can be accomplished by the male, as the male on top wants the status quo, and the male on the bottom wants to be the male on top.’

Therein lies a connection between the crime and the manifesto. Both were motivated by a terror of dependence; SCUM was Solanas’s hysterical expression of autonomy. The manifesto provided a blueprint for a society run by women and, eventually, peopled only by them. Men would be gradually eliminated, replaced by more productive machines. Children would be artificially conceived, and male babies aborted. All this could be achieved easily and quickly. ‘A small handful of SCUM can take over the country within a year by systematically fucking up the system, selectively destroying property, and murder.’

Solanas was sexually abused by her father, beaten by her grandfather, and spent most of her life as a prostitute. In other words, she had reason to hate men. Her hatred inspired fantasies of a world without males, a world made perfect by its undiluted female-ness. In truth, SCUM never actually existed, though devoted admirers still try to establish chapters. As she explained, SCUM was just a ‘literary device’. ‘There’s no organization called SCUM,’ she confessed. ‘I thought of it as a state of mind. In other words, women who think a certain way are in SCUM.’

As SCUM and Solanas demonstrate, popular reform movements inevitably propagate absurd, extremist factions. Nearly every campaign for freedom and justice ends up spawning tiny nihilistic offshoots bent on mindless destruction and murder. Thus, the line from Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique to Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto is identifiable even if it seems illogical. Once the ‘liberation’ can was opened, worms wriggled in every conceivable direction. A problem, however, arises when each little worm is assigned worthiness.

Solanas argued that because men were unable to see women as anything other than sex objects, cooperation toward the higher goal of gender equality was impossible. Their presence was detrimental to the realisation of justice. While that basic premise has validity, the anger it inspired too often became an acceptable substitute for dialogue. Theatrical violence (like the shooting of Warhol) was so much easier than a long and frustrating political campaign. Solanas was a freak, but she was unfortunately not an anomaly. Radical lesbian collectives like the Furies and WITCH (the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) eventually came to compete with each other in their capacity for mindless bedlam. Ironically, their need to destroy the stereotype of peaceful women pushed radical feminists toward macho madness. Meanwhile, mainstream feminists who wanted merely to enlighten men about female oppression tried desperately to keep their movement on track, away from the nutcases like Solanas who threatened to derail the train.

The journalist Robin Morgan experienced what it was like to be hoisted by her own radical petard. She once argued that men would be ‘divested of cocks’ after the feminist milennium. That reckless theory crashed head-on into a wall of reality when she was breastfeeding her baby son and a radical sister advised her to toss ‘the pig male baby’ into the garbage bin. That incident was Morgan’s epiphany: she veered back into the realm of sanity.

Solanas hated men who loved women and women who loved men. Her apologists claim she was a feminist prophet misinterpreted and misquoted by those bent on attacking the women’s movement. Yet to see the SCUM Manifesto in a favourable light requires ignoring 95 percent of its content. Why has it been so difficult for the movement to identify a lunatic and dismiss her? Why do radicals feel the need to offer refuge to every reprobate who decides to march under their flag? Surely the women’s movement would be better off banishing Solanas from its hall of fame.

After her release from prison, Solanas became a prostitute. She walked the streets in a silver lamé dress, desperately seeking tricks to finance her heroin addiction. In and out of mental hospitals, she died a miserable death in a welfare hostel in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco in 1988. To those seeking a martyr, that seems a perfect end.

Gerard J. DeGroot is Professor of Modern History at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. His book,
The Bomb: A Life, won the prestigious 2004 Westminster Medal.