Growing up as "a gender nonconforming entity" in Eisenhower's America wasn't easy for cultural critic and best-selling author Camille Paglia. Her adolescence in small-town upstate New York was marked by rejection, rebellion, and cross-dressing, all in reaction to the stultifying social norms of the 195'os and early '60s. She would go on to become one of America's most famous academics and cultural critics, an "anti-feminist feminist" and an incendiary atheist who once wrote that "God is man's greatest idea."From her perch at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, Paglia has befuddled orthodox partisans and ideologues for decades.
So what does this tireless provocateur think of contemporary culture, with its openness to a wide variety of ever-proliferating gender, racial, and sexual identities? Not so much. Whether the subject is feminism or the fate of Western civilization, Paglia is no Pollyanna. In this wide-ranging discussion, she says decadence is upon us, higher education is going to hell, LSD destroyed the baby boomers, millennials are myopic, contemporary criticism has croaked, and Hillary Clinton might singlehandedly destroy the universe. Even Madonna, once Paglia's ideal of sex-positive feminism, seems to have lost her way.
Does the celebrated author of Sexual Personae (1990) and Break Blow Bum (2005) have any reason to get out of bed in the morning? Does she have any hope at all? Reason TV's Nick Gillespie sat down with Paglia in March to find out.
reason: Let's talk about the state of contemporary feminism. You have been in a public life or in an intellectual life since the late 1960s, a proud feminist, often reviled by other feminists. Gloria Steinern most famously said you were an anti-feminist and when you denied that, she said that would be like a Nazi saying they're not anti-Semitic. If you look at from, say, the early '70s, things have gotten better for women: Men are less uptight about gender roles. Women are more in the workforce. Sexual assaults and sexual violence are down. Yet from sites like Jezebel or Feministing, all you hear is that things have never been worse.
Camille Paglia: Feminism has gone through many phases. Obviously the woman's suffrage movement of the 19th century fizzled after women gained the right to vote through the constitutional amendment in 1920. Then the movement revived in the 1960s through Betty Freidan co-founding [the National Organization for Women] in 1967.1 preceded all that. I'm on record with a letter in Newsweek--I was in high school in 1963--where I called for equal rights for American women. I loved the generation of Amelia Earhart and all those emancipated women of the '20s and '30s. Because I had started my process of thought about gender so much earlier, I was out of sync with the women's movement when it suddenly burst forth.
reason: It became a huge kind of cultural moment in the late '60s. Before that...
Paglia: ...it was literally nothing. There was no political activism of any kind [after] women getting the right to vote in 1920. When Simone de Beauvoir wrote her great magnum opus, The Second Sex, published in the early 1950s, she was thought to be hopelessly retrograde. [The prevailing view was that] nobody could possibly be interested again in gender issues.
reason: You were living in upstate New York. Did you already know what your sexuality was? What was it like to be a woman, a lesbian, in 1963?
Paglia: Well, the 1950s were a highly conformist period. Gender had repolarized after really great gains in the '20s and '30s. One must be more sympathetic to the situation of my parents' generation. They had known nothing but Depression and war throughout their entire lives. My father was a paratrooper; when he got out of the Army, everyone married. I'm the baby boom. They wanted normality. They just wanted to live like real people, man and wife in a home.
I found the 1950s utterly suffocating. I was a gender nonconforming entity, and I was signaling my rebellion by these transgender Halloween costumes that were absolutely unheard of. I was 5, 6, 7, 8 years old. My parents allowed me to do it because I was so intent on it.
reason: What were you dressing up as?
Paglia: A Roman solider, the matador from Carmen. My best was Napoleon. I was Hamlet from the Classics Comics. Absolutely no one was doing stuff like this. I'm happy that this talk about medical sex changes was not in the air, because I would have become obsessed with that and assumed that that was my entire identity and problem. This is why I'm very concerned about the rush to surgical interventions today.
At any rate, I was attracted to men--I dated men--but I just fell in love with women and always have. Yes, there's absolutely no doubt: I was on the forefront of gay identification. When I arrived at graduate school at Yale, 1968-1972,1 was the only openly gay person, and I didn't even have a sex life. To me, it was a badge of militance. And I was the only person doing a dissertation on a sexual topic. It's hard to believe this now.
reason: What was the topic?
Paglia: Sexual personae, which was the book finally published in 1990 after being rejected by seven publishers and five agents. I'm delighted I had the sponsorship of [Yale literary critic and scholar] Harold Bloom. That pushed the topic through the English department. That they allowed me to do such a thing on sex was actually kind of amazing.
My clashes with other feminists began immediately. For example: It was 1970 or 1971, there was a feminist conference at the Yale Law School, and major feminists were there including Rita Mae Brown, who said to me, "The difference between you and me, Camille, is that you want to save the universities, and I want to burn them down." How can you have dialogue with these people? Later she became a rich lesbian novelist and has a horse farm in Virginia. And then I had a screaming fight with the New Haven Women's Liberation Rock Band over the Rolling Stones, because at that time, hard rock was seen as sexist. Now this argument seems so retrograde.
reason: Although it's true, right? The guitar's a phallus.The rock god is Dionysius. He's not a woman.