It’s been twenty years since Camille Paglia became a worldwide celebrity with her erudite doorstop of a book Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. Hardly a sentence of that ambitious work — in which she argued that civilization is essentially the product of male creativity, which in turn is the product of a fear of women — wasn’t provocative; and certainly nobody on earth agreed with every word of it. But that wasn’t the point. Paglia’s book was sui generis, staggering in its originality. Some of it might make you angry, but, at its best, it also made you think. Though Paglia was (and still is) a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, she’d managed to produce a work that broke all the academic rules. It was sweeping in its scope, taking in the whole of Western art and literature from ancient Greece to modern times, and encompassing both the highest of high culture and the lowest of the low. And it was flagrant in its political incorrectness, celebrating Shakespeare, Dante, and other canonical “Dead White Males” while dismissing those obscurantist Frenchmen — Derrida, Lacan, and company — who had become deities in the humanities departments of American universities. Though Paglia celebrated — and identified herself with — the rebellious spirit of the 1960s, she openly deplored the PC dogmas that had grown out of that era, infecting not only the academy but Western society generally.
Paglia outraged plenty of people, but few were more hostile to her than the leaders of the feminist establishment. For not only did she dismiss women’s contribution to Western civilization (“There are no female Mozarts”); she also took aim at the women’s movement under Gloria Steinem, which she accused of puritanism, philistinism, anti-male bias, and intellectual vacuity. In Paglia’s view, people like Steinem and NOW chairwoman Patricia Ireland were ridiculous yet dangerous figures who consistently represented women as victims, reinforcing Victorian notions of them as the weaker sex. For Paglia, the truth was precisely the opposite: women, she argued, were gifted with an innate power over men — the power of sex — and she idolized celebrities, Madonna above all, whose pagan eroticism, as she saw it, embodied that power. It was Madonna, not Steinem, Paglia insisted, who was the real feminist.
Almost overnight, Paglia became both a leading cultural critic and a prominent pop-culture figure. She made good copy and even better TV. She was so full of energy that she came off like a veritable force of nature, a living illustration of her own thesis that it was, indeed, women who were the powerful sex. (A 1991 profile of her in New York magazine was entitled “Woman Warrior.”) On two 1992 installments of Later with Bob Costas, a fervent, fast-talking, and proudly egomaniacal Paglia — who managed at once to be deadly serious and hilariously funny — said that she despised the “weepy, whiny, white-middle-class ideology” of the “Stalinist” women’s movement under Steinem and that she sought nothing less than its “complete destruction.” Unlike Steinem, who, she argued, spoke only for privileged white women, Paglia claimed to “speak for the ordinary woman out there.”
In those first years after Sexual Personae, Paglia seemed to turn up everyplace. By 1992 she had churned out enough irreverent, entertaining essays for a sizable collection, Sex, Art, and American Culture. Two years later along came another grab-bag, Vamps and Tramps. For a while, the pieces just seemed to pour out of her.
But Paglia was too hot not to cool down. As the years went by, her output declined. And what she did turn out seemed increasingly familiar. She was repeating herself. What had once been provocative was now stale. And her determination to inject herself and her personal history into everything she wrote grew tiresome. One became increasingly aware of her recycling of the same old self-referential phrases:
As an Italian-American, my premises are usually Mediterranean.
The Color Purple helped to displace complex, major world texts like Dante’s The Divine Comedy from introductory courses — a process that I, as an Italian-American, am ethnically entitled to protest.
I think the word minority is an insult. I’m speaking as an Italian-American.
As an Italian-American, as a very hot personality born under the sign of Aries, I’ve tried to drift things towards emotional extremes.
I feel Italian Catholic and will be Catholic until the day I die because it is inextricable from my cultural identity as an Italian American.
And then came 9/11. After the Twin Towers fell, some American writers woke up, took a good look at Islam, and started trying to figure out what we were up against. One of the major aspects of Islamic reality that began to receive widespread attention was the brutal oppression of women and girls in the Muslim world and in the fast-growing Muslim communities in Europe and North America. One gutsy woman after another — some of them Muslims, some ex-Muslims, and some non-Muslims — stepped forward and shone a harsh spotlight on the way Islam treated members of their sex. Oriana Fallaci wrote two blistering, unforgettable books. Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote The Caged Virgin, Infidel, and Nomad — not to mention the film Submission. Wafa Sultan wrote A God who Hates. Irshad Manji wrote The Trouble with Islam Today. Chahdortt Djavann wrote Bas les voiles! (Down with the Veils!) Nonie Darwish wrote Now They Call Me Infidel. And Hege Storhaug wrote Tilslørt. Avslørt (Veiled, Unveiled). Surely one might have expected that Paglia, who had so vociferously claimed to “speak for the ordinary woman out there,” would feel moved to join this swelling chorus.
But no. On this all-important subject, Paglia was all but silent. Although every now and then she served up a sentence or two that hinted at something less than total approval of Islam, she was plainly unwilling to take it on with the kind of vigor she had devoted to combating Steinem and company (or, for that matter, to singing the praises of Madonna and Elizabeth Taylor). It was as if Islam was just too grave, too momentous, a topic for her. It was also a topic that did not easily lend itself to her self-referential, self-celebratory approach — a topic, in other words, into which she couldn’t easily inject herself. And so she just kept on writing about Madonna. And as a result she very quickly came to look like a back number, a defining figure of the 1990s, that decade between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11 — a decade that, viewed from a post-9/11 perspective, can seem to have been preoccupied largely with frivolous nonsense.
For some years now, Paglia’s chief forum has been a monthly column on the salon.com website in which she’s combined pop-culture commentary with political opinions. Though she continues to try to sound boldly irreverent, her schtick is old, her voice is tired, and her politics are more consistent with the official liberal line than any Paglia enthusiast of twenty years ago would ever have expected. In an interview on Canadian TV earlier this year, the once feisty, vivacious Paglia looked sad and exhausted, and came off as an old grouch, carping that Christopher Hitchens and other critics of religion are “cynics” who “just sneer. … I don’t want young people learning how to sneer” — this from a woman who became famous for sneering at icons and ideologies. Her Canadian interviewer had just taped a talk with Hitchens, whose fiery denunciation of religion in general and of Islam in particular formed a dramatic contrast with Paglia, whose admission to the same interviewer that we in the West “need to be concerned about the passion in jihadism” was itself curiously, uncharacteristically dispassionate, and whose focus was, in any event, not on jihad but on what she described as the failure of secular humanism.
Then, on the Sunday before last, the London Times ran what seems to be the longest essay Paglia has published in years. It was touted by the newspaper as “explosive.” What was it about? Banning burkas? Suicide bombing? Female genital mutilation? No, it was about Lady Gaga. Paglia, who had once celebrated Madonna — and herself — as products of savvy marketing, now attacked Lady Gaga as a “manufactured personality.” If Madonna embodied sensuality, Lady Gaga, Paglia charged, is plastic and post-sexual. The essay bore the absurdly overblown title “Lady Gaga and the Death of Sex.” Online, most of it was behind the Times’s pay wall, but more than enough of it was available for free — nine hundred-odd words — to give readers a fair idea of where Paglia was going. The piece reeked of desperation: one had the impression that she was going all-out to appear with-it, to communicate to the world that she was still, as the Times put it, “America’s foremost cultural critic.” But instead, all her Lady Gaga piece accomplished was to affirm her irrelevance.
It’s a sad development, for Paglia’s voice is one that has been sorely missed in the genuinely important public conversations of the last nine years. It’s truly lamentable that the woman who claimed to be the spokesperson for the ordinary woman has been virtually AWOL from discussions of Islamic gender oppression. It’s grimly ironic now to look back at her 1992 interview with Bob Costas. Commenting on leading members of the women’s movement “who should have developed and evolved in their thinking,” Paglia told Costas that “celebrity seems to have stopped their development.” Would she be willing now to consider that her own celebrity has perhaps limited her growth? Similarly, Paglia told Costas that Susan Sontag had “been living for twenty years off a reputation that’s completely gone.” Twenty years after Paglia herself stepped onto the international stage — and nine years after the destruction of the World Trade Center — what can we say about the state of her own reputation? Is there still hope that Paglia will step up to the plate and produce anything remotely resembling a major work about the religion that represents the greatest threat to women’s equality in the world today? Or is it time to write her off as a trivial-minded sniper at vapid celebrities, a has-been who, quite simply, has nothing useful whatsoever to say about the most serious issues of our time?