When the Daily Mail described our interviewee as a “dissident feminist” last December we knew we had to talk to this outsider of mainstream feminism, professor and writer Camille Paglia. I wanted to know why it’s not easy to slot her into a “camp”, what we can learn from her dissidence, and whether, looking back, she would consider acting differently in the public sphere. Has Paglia mellowed with age? Erm, that would be a big, bellowing, NO!
The Daily Mail described you as a “dissident feminist” and then went on to list a series of counter intuitive opinions you are reported as having. Why is it important for a feminist to be “dissident”? Do you ever play devil’s advocate and do we need feminists who are “controversial”?
I am a dissident because my system of beliefs, worked out over the past five decades, has been repeatedly attacked, defamed, and rejected by feminist leaders and their acolytes across a wide spectrum, both in and out of academe. This punitive style of mob ostracism began from the very start of second-wave feminism, when Betty Friedan was pushed out of the National Organization for Women by younger and more radical women, including fanatical lesbian separatists.
As a graduate student in 1970, I quietly clashed with future bestselling lesbian novelist Rita Mae Brown at an early feminist conference held at the Yale Law School. Brown said, “The difference between you and me, Camille, is that you want to save the universities and I want to burn them down.” The next year, I nearly got into a fistfight with the New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band over my defense of the Rolling Stones. Two years after that, as a Bennington College teacher at dinner at an Albany restaurant, I had an angry confrontation with the founding faculty of the pioneering women’s studies programme of the State University of New York when they sweepingly dismissed any role of hormones in human development. They accused me of being “brainwashed by male scientists”, a charge I still find stupid and contemptible. (I walked out before dessert, thereby boycotting the feminist event we all were headed to.)
“Neither she nor any other feminist has the right to canonise or excommunicate.”
There was a steady stream of other such unpleasant incidents, but everything paled in comparison to the international firestorm of lies and libel that greeted me after the publication in 1990 of my first book, Sexual Personae (a 700-page expansion of my Yale dissertation). It’s all documented and detailed in the back of my two essay collections, but let me give just one example. In 1992, Gloria Steinem, the czarina of U.S. feminism, sat enthroned with her designated heirs, Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf, on the stage of New York’s 92nd St Y and, when asked a question about me from the floor, replied: “We don’t give a shit what she thinks.” The moment was caught by TV cameras and broadcast by CBS’s 60 Minutes programme. Faludi has monotonously insisted over the years that I am not a feminist but “only play one on TV”. Well, who made Faludi pope? Neither she nor any other feminist has the right to canonise or excommunicate.
I remain an equal opportunity feminist. That is, I call for the removal of all barriers to women’s advance in the professional and political realms. However, I oppose special protections for women (such as differential treatment of the names of accuser and accused in rape cases), and I condemn speech codes of any kind, above all on university campuses. Furthermore, as a libertarian, I maintain that our private sexual and emotional worlds are too mercurial and ambiguous to obey the codes that properly govern the workplace. As I recently told the Village Voice, I maintain that everyone has a bisexual potential and that no one is born gay. We need a more flexible psychology, as well as an end to the bitter feminist war on men. My feminist doctrine is completely on the record in four of my six books.
As for playing “devil’s advocate”, I can’t imagine a committed feminist engaging in that kind of silly game. The real problem is the cliquish, tunnel-vision intolerance that afflicts too many feminists, who seem unprepared to recognise and analyse ideas. In both the U.S. and Britain, there has been far too much addiction to “theory” in post-structuralist and post-modernist gender studies. With its opaque jargon and elitist poses, theory is no way to build a real-world movement. My system of pro-sex feminism has been constructed by a combination of scholarly research and every-day social observation.
The infamous faxes between you and Julie Burchill in The Modern Review are still very much the stuff of legend in the UK’s media. Any regret about the whole thing? If you were mentoring a young Camille today how would you tell her to deal with that kind of situation? All guns blazing, take her down and combative, or would you be recommending some mindfulness, meditation and understanding?
There is not a single thing I would change in my handling of that acrimonious 1993 episode. British journalist Julie Burchill gratuitously attacked and insulted me, and I responded in kind. Our exchanges continued, with my replies getting longer and hers getting shorter, until she realised she had misjudged her opponent and “bottled out” (a British locution for beating a hasty retreat that I heard for the first time from an amused Times reporter commenting on the battle).
I learned how to jab and parry from my early models, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, and Mary McCarthy. Germaine Greer, whom I deeply admire, has always been glorious in combat. As for mentoring a young Camille Paglia, I would tell her to study my martial arts moves and do likewise!
We have found ourselves in the midst of many similar battles of wits online, as Twitter is effectively publishing everyone’s faxes. As someone who can give as good as you get, how do you feel about some prominent feminists and writers being hounded off Twitter by other feminists? What do you think Twitter is doing for feminism – making it narcissistic, polarised and too noisy, or democratic, pluralist and a thriving community?
It’s a sad comment on the current state of feminism that the movement has been reduced to the manic fragments and instant obsolescence of Twitter. Although I adore the web and was a co-founding contributor to Salon.com from its very first issue in 1995, I have no interest whatever in social media. My publisher maintains an informational Facebook page for me on the Random House site, but I don’t do Facebook or Twitter and wouldn’t even know how.
“…without strong books and essays as a permanent repository for new ideas, modern movements eventually sputter out…”
It is difficult to understand how a generation raised on the slapdash jumpiness of Twitter and texting will ever develop a logical, coherent, distinctive voice in writing and argumentation. And without strong books and essays as a permanent repository for new ideas, modern movements eventually sputter out for lack of continuity and rationale. Hasty, blathering blogging (without taking time for reflection and revision) is also degrading the general quality of prose writing.
As for feminists being hounded off Twitter by other feminists, how trivial and adolescent that sounds! Both sides should get offline and read more—history, sociology, psychology, and the big neglected subject, biology. How can the greater world, much less men, ever take feminism seriously if its most ardent proponents behave like catty sorority girls throwing hissy fits at the high-school cafeteria?
The two feminist issues that create the most noise on Twitter, and generate backlash whichever way you side, are the sex industry and gender, the latter especially in relation to transgenderism. What are your thoughts on both?
I support, defend, and admire prostitutes, gay or straight. They do important and necessary work, whether moralists of the Left and Right like it or not. Child prostitution and sexual slavery are of course an infringement of civil liberties and must be stringently policed and prohibited.
Feminists who think they can abolish the sex trade are in a state of massive delusion. Only a ruthless, fascist regime of vast scale could eradicate the rogue sex impulse that is indistinguishable from the life force. Simply in the Western world, pagan sexuality has survived 2000 years of Judaeo-Christian persecution and is hardly going to be defeated by a few feminists whacking at it with their brooms.
Transgenderism has taken off like a freight train and has become nearly impossible to discuss with the analytic neutrality that honest and ethical scholarship requires. First of all, let me say that I consider myself a transgender being, neither man nor woman, and I would welcome the introduction of “OTHER” as a gender category in passports and other government documents. I telegraphed my gender dissidence from early childhood in the 1950s through flamboyantly male Halloween costumes (a Roman soldier, a matador, Napoleon, etc.) that were then shockingly unheard of for girls.
As a libertarian, I believe that every individual has the right to modify his or her body at will. But I am concerned about the current climate, inflamed by half-baked post-modernist gender theory, which convinces young people who may have other unresolved personal or family issues that sex-reassignment surgery is a golden road to happiness and true identity.
How has it happened that so many of today’s most daring and radical young people now define themselves by sexual identity alone? There has been a collapse of perspective here that will surely have mixed consequences for our art and culture and that may perhaps undermine the ability of Western societies to understand or react to the vehemently contrary beliefs of others who do not wish us well. As I showed in Sexual Personae, which began as a study of androgyny in literature and art, transgender phenomena multiply and spread in “late” phases of culture, as religious, political, and family traditions weaken and civilizations begin to decline. I will continue to celebrate androgyny, but I am under no illusions about what it may portend for the future.
Camille Paglia is a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her latest book is Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars.