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SEXIST BEATDOWN: Mackenzie Phillips Makes Everyone Sad Edition

So, you know what’s sad and hard to deal with? The Mackenzie Phillips thing. I mean, seriously: there is so much going on there! With the incest, and the “consensual” incest, and the nobody really even understanding or knowing how to process what “consent” even means (OPINION TIME: pretty much nothing) in contexts of abuse and wherein you have already been sexually assaulted by the dude a certain number of times and… yeah. Sad. Hard to deal with. Hard to even understand.

What is NOT hard to understand, however, is that a ton of the coverage around it has been totally shitty and irresponsible! Therefore, I invite you to join Amanda Hess of The Sexist and I as we puzzle through it all.

SADY: oh, say, have you heard of any fairly famous stories of abuse and sexual assault that people are spinning in a totally alarmingly rape-culturey way lately? because I HAVE!

AMANDA: wait … you mean the consensual incest?

SADY: ha ha, YEAH. i played a little game, the day that story broke. it was called, How Many Headlines Are Not Totally Fucked Up.

AMANDA: how many!

SADY: here is your answer: i found two that were not! one was on MTV news and it read: “Mackenzie Phillips Claims Her Father Raped, Drugged Her.” one was on E! and it read, “Mackenzie Phillips: I Was Raped By My Father.” now! you could find some problems with these headlines! BUT, every other source was like “Mackenzie Phillips Confesses Sex Affair With Dad.” leaving out the part where it became “consensual” after several rapes.

AMANDA: and the part where it never becomes “consensual”! because it never can be! i was interested the differences in the media coverage of this incident and the Phillip Garrido incident. there’s a whole lot we don’t know about that situation, but whenever “sex” is mentioned between Garrido and his kidnapee, it’s usually at least referred to as rape. because you can’t kidnap a person and rape them and then raise them as your child/wife and have that slowly blossom into a consensual relationship. and this is the same thing, except—you can’t rate tragedies, but i’m gonna—worse? because he is the man with the responsibility to raise his child and he kidnapped her from her childhood and drugged her and raped her for decades.

SADY: yeah. i mean, here’s the thing. this reminded me a lot of anais nin,* who started having “consensual” sex with her father as an adult. BUT: she also struggled to figure out whether these memories of him molesting her as a child were real or distorted or what (a PRETTY common thing for kids, who have trouble making sense of memories of molestation) and there’s no doubt that he was abusive to her in other ways. and, like, these are different cases. phillips’ started out, unambiguously, as sexual assault, and she named it as such. but then – here’s a thing i think is tricky to articulate so IF I FUCK UP TELL ME – it became “consensual,” to HER, but arose out of this context of abuse and drugs where she basically didn’t have the option of NOT being victimized in this way. like, i think that the whole “compliance is not consent” thing is important to articulate, because sometimes people tell themselves that what is happening is consensual just to deal with the fact that they don’t have an option of it NOT happening.

AMANDA: definitely. because even if you leave that relationship, that means severing one of the most important relationships in your life, your relationship with your father. and that’s not a real choice. especially when your father has been emotionally and physically—so many drugs!—prepping you to consent to this shit since age 10

SADY: right. exactly. it’s a thing a lot of people struggle with, whether it’s abusive family relationships or (HEY!) rape culture: when you’re receiving constant information to the effect that how you are treated is normal and OK and excusable, you – you, yourself! – may have trouble articulating that what was done to you was not OK.

AMANDA: i didn’t watch the oprah interview, but i was dismayed to hear how it went down. Oprah, as many know, was raped as a child, and she’s interviewed a lot of victims of sexual assault on her show, and I think that’s great. but there’s still this very obvious manipulation of the interview for the general public – silently judging for Phillips continuing to GET RAPED after she turned 18, etc.

SADY: right. but her take can be sort of sensationalistic. and i have a problem with the Oprah Face – it’s something she does a lot in interviews, this thing of Making The Face You Imagine Your Audience To Be Making – so she looks “scandalized” when what is said is “scandalous” or etc.

AMANDA: yeah. and it’s so weird in a situation like this, because the news of this years-long abuse just hangs there. where do you go with it? it’s just objectively awful and terrible, but interviewers have tried to spice it up a little bit by judging which parts were most awful, and which parts were maybe her fault

SADY: actually, can i tell you my FAVORITE reactions? they were really special! and did not come from oprah!

AMANDA: sure!

SADY: my FAVORITE reactions have been those that are like, “this is so horrible! for my ENJOYMENT OF THE MUSIC OF JOHN PHILIPS!” which is closely tied to the Should She Have Said Anything At All? Maybe Not! debate, but that is fairly predictable and pedestrian silencing, whereas this – THIS! – demonstrates a bold and innovative approach to making the issues secondary to your own personal comfort.

AMANDA: i know. how is that even related? i’m reading a story about surviving rape, why the fuck do i care if someone does or does not like the mamas and the papas?

SADY: but that’s the thing! and this happens so often in cases of celebrity abuse. like, i believe that, when you and i discussed the chris brown and rihanna thing, you pointed out that a lot of people who covered it were just coming off a post where they drew jizz on a star’s face or whatever to express disapproval.

AMANDA: yeah.

SADY: when something like this is treated as a “celebrity story” (which it is, to some extent) rather than a story about sexual violence (which it is, to a larger extent, I would argue) there’s going to be lazy or uneducated or insensitive coverage. which isn’t to say that everyone in the whole wide world who writes about celebrities is lazy or uneducated or insensitive, because that’s blatantly untrue, but that people who don’t know shit are going to write their piece too.

AMANDA: and on that note: with this story in particular, i find the “Think of the Children” defense extremely bizarre. I mean, what kid is going to be reading and/or caring about news about John and Mackenzie Phillips? I barely knew who she was before I heard about this. If a parent had to explain incest or rape to a child because of this news (and ooooh, talking to your kid about abuse is such a baaad thing), they’re first going to have to explain who the fuck these people are, right?

SADY: yeah. totally true! but, i mean, speaking of talking about abuse… the reactions that have been like, “why did she tell us ewww” or “but what of my record collection?” have been rare(ish) and call-out-able.

AMANDA: Except from her own family! Bonus reaction of her step-mother, who was married to John at the time: “John was a good man who had the disease of alcoholism and drug addiction,” the statement read. “He was incapable, no matter how drunk or drugged he was, of having such a relationship with his own child.”

SADY: “Mackenzie has a lot of mental illness. She’s had a needle stuck up her arm for 35 years.”

AMANDA: I mean, the statement isn’t even like, “i had no awareness of this happening,” but rather, “he couldn’t have done this, he was too good!”

SADY: right! the drug abuse and mental health issues have NOTHING to do with potential trauma! she’s just a freakshow! also, john was cool!

AMANDA: yeah. SHE did a lot of drugs, so she can’t be trusted. HE did even more drugs, so he can’t be a rapist. it all makes sense!

SADY: i mean… on some level? because my heart is full of twinkly stars and daisies and unicorn dust? i want to see how this HUGE story, which is playing out in public and is right in front of everyone’s face, can actually illuminate for people how victim-blaming and misunderstandings of consent can work. like, with the family turning on her. and the accusations that she just wants attention. and the minimizing of the word “rape” and widespread use of the word “sex.” these things are so common in MUCH SMALLER STORIES and i want to believe that seeing them, and seeing a conversation around them, is going to show people how fucked-up they are.

AMANDA: i’ll believe it when i see it

SADY: yeah. i mean, what’s typically going to happen is that voices who call shit out are going to be called fringe and unreasonable and mean and blah de blee blah bloo. but, you know. people are talking about incest now. and what with how little we all seem to get about it, given how it’s been covered? i hope to God at least some of us are going to REALIZE how little we get it, and move in the getting-it direction.

AMANDA: i agree that that much will probably happen. i hope.

*Actually, you know what? The more I think of it and/or learn about Mackenzie Philips, it doesn’t. And the differences are so complicated and weird that I think we’ll all be better off if I spare you my analysis and just leave it as-is.


  1. Roxie wrote:

    Ever since I’ve heard this story I’ve been shouting at websites, tv, & news articles
    that it could never be consensual! Her father has the responsibility NOT to have sex with her!

    Saturday, September 26, 2009 at 4:53 am | Permalink
  2. amy wrote:

    thanks for this, Sady and Amanda. The coverage has been horrifying, and the complete lack of compassion towards Philips even more horrifying.

    Saturday, September 26, 2009 at 12:53 pm | Permalink
  3. QL wrote:

    Are some people just missing the part of their brain chemistry that says, see that person, yes that person there, the one you sired, and cared for as a small child and supposedly still love and care for very much? Yes? You should NOT TOUCH THEM IN THE PANTS.

    I understand that it’s difficult to shift your ideas about people you’ve felt a great affection for over the years (John Phillips) as a musician, and possibly as an ideal type of man. I get that you can be unwilling to give up the comfort that people gain from idealizing celebrities, when the real world seems so imperfect, so I don’t expect you to hate John Phillips for his actions, I don’t expect you to so easily change your feelings for him. What i expect you to do is admit that what he did was WRONG and rather MESSED-UP and that Mackenzie is a VICTIM in this situation who was ABUSED by one John Phillips. Whether you want to blame drugs, or mental illness, whether or not you can bear to hold him fully accountable in your mind, you must at least admit and accept that he abused her and it was wrong.

    The idea that a daughter can consent to sexual relations with her father is so absurd I don’t know how it’s even considered. It’s such a complex dynamic in terms of power, responsibility, love and sexuality that my mind boggles at the very idea of it.

    Consent implies willingness, not just a lack of objection. How this concept continues to escape people is beyond me.

    Saturday, September 26, 2009 at 7:52 pm | Permalink
  4. tinfoil hattie wrote:

    Thank you for this. The coverage has been disgusting. And heart-wrenching.

    Sunday, September 27, 2009 at 4:57 pm | Permalink
  5. Megan wrote:

    I think what you said about how people choose to consent because they don’t have much other choice and because the consequences of vigorous non-consent would be psychologically unbearable or terrifying to the concept of your survival comes very close to what I was trying to say in the Andrea Dworkin debate (the spectre of which debate I hesitate to raise, since I have not been back there since its early days and have no clue what direction it ended up taking).

    But the reason I’m bringing it up is because it felt like I couldn’t explain it in the dworkin debate without causing you to angrily accuse me of infantilizing women or patronizing them with my extremist claims that no woman ever truly consents. And so I just want to point to what you said and say, “ah, there. That is pretty much what I meant. Just that having lived through the choice-to-consent-that-is-not-really-a-choice, I tend to see all consent as falling on a spectrum. Some is less constrained, some is even enthusiastic, but it is all subconsciously weighed.

    I think if you have ever had to (or chosen to) seduce your rapist, you will understand what I mean. And if you have not, let me say that I am not trying to invalidate women’s agency in consenting. Nor am I trying to start up the debate we were having, just striving for a little illumination, I guess.

    QL’s words: “consent implies willingness, not just a lack of objection,” made me think about how far we have to go in terms of understanding consent and understanding what constitutes reasonable behaviour from the victim. I mean no offense to QL’s argument there – just that when we want to assert that John Phillips is still culpable we say, “well she might have complied, but that’s not consent.” But what if she did seduce him, what if she did act enthused? It’s not abnormal for victims of assault to do, it’s one of the few ways they can feel like they still have some control. It’s similar to women “choosing to feel empowered by” whatever the degradation of the day is.

    What we consent to and why, what we believe we want for ourselves and why, what we gain by consent and what price we pay for our agency is all SO, SO complicated.

    To come back to the issue of consent and incest and responsibility, someone said it on some thread at IBTP a long time ago. “It doesn’t matter if an abused dog does everything it can to get you to kick it [because that’s what it expects and knows how to deal with], you’re still a sick fuck if you oblige it.”

    Sunday, September 27, 2009 at 7:58 pm | Permalink
  6. snobographer wrote:

    The idea that a daughter can consent to sexual relations with her father is so absurd I don’t know how it’s even considered. It’s such a complex dynamic in terms of power, responsibility, love and sexuality that my mind boggles at the very idea of it.

    Mackenzie Phillips says “it became consensual over time.” The “over time” part is what gets me. I haven’t read her book, so I don’t know all the details, but it sounds to me like her dad just wore her down. Like after he’d raped her so many times she eventually just complied because what she wanted apparently didn’t matter any which way. It sounds like Mackenzie Phillips has that typically warped view of consent as being ‘not kicking and screaming.’
    Another thing that’s grating my cheese is people saying “we don’t know whether it’s true because John Phillips isn’t here to defend himself.” Like if he was around, he’d be all, “oh yeah, I totally did that.” And as if Mackenzie Phillips has any reason to make this stuff up.

    Monday, September 28, 2009 at 4:00 pm | Permalink
  7. You had me at “compliance is not consent.” Thanks for this.

    Tuesday, September 29, 2009 at 1:57 pm | Permalink
  8. David B. wrote:

    “SHE did a lot of drugs, so she can’t be trusted. HE did even more drugs, so he can’t be a rapist. it all makes sense!”

    Holy effin shee, that is awesome.

    Tuesday, September 29, 2009 at 9:50 pm | Permalink
  9. Canomia wrote:

    I hadn’t heard about this untill now and it is just so incredibly sad.
    I live in Sweden and the rape-story everyone is talking about here right now is Polanski and the girl he druged and raped. There are similaritysthough its not at all the same situation, mostly the fact that the rapists are famous artists and lots of people like their work and would like to keep doing that, undesturbed by rape accusations. I’d like to read your take on the Polanski debate as well by the way. Now that he’s finaly been arested and all.

    Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 4:21 am | Permalink
  10. Jaimie/QL wrote:

    “But what if she did seduce him, what if she did act enthused? It’s not abnormal for victims of assault to do, it’s one of the few ways they can feel like they still have some control. It’s similar to women “choosing to feel empowered by” whatever the degradation of the day is.”

    No I completely understand what you’re saying here. When I said “consent implies willingness, not just a lack of objection,” I was referring to the mainstream idea that to be un-consenting (which is totally not a word) you have to be kicking and screaming and that if you’re just lying there, then you must be fine with it. This idea only applies to situations where the rapist/victim dynamic is pretty defined, where the relationship between them is less complicated.* Of course, there is the whole other end of the abuse spectrum where this relationship is very complex – like in MacKenzie’s case. This is where any definition of consent completely goes out the window because there are so many other dynamics at play. Here, what you said Megan, about seduction and empowerment etc – I completely agree.

    *I’ve said this very badly, and I don’t mean to imply that some rape is less complex or devastating etc. than others, I was just thinking on the differences between getting attacked in the street by a stranger, being date-raped by a friend and longer term abuse by a father – they are such different emotional circumstances.

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 7:40 pm | Permalink
  11. Sadako wrote:

    Agreed–this is a sad all around disturbing topic.

    The Roman Polanski rape makes me sad, too, and it’s even less ambiguous and yet ppl seem to see it as a super grey area because the girl looked older and had a greedy mother and b/c Polanski is soooo creative. Blech.

    Monday, October 12, 2009 at 2:25 pm | Permalink
  12. Goodmorning
    awesome post – i’m creating video about it and i will post it to youtube !
    if you wana to help or just need a link send me email !

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 1:06 am | Permalink