The quality of discourse for women today is poor. The many and varied reasons for this will make a post for another day, but for the moment, note that the Mommy Wars and hookup culture discussions might be heartfelt but rarely resolve anything.
Notable recent examples of unproductive chattering: Naomi Wolf has created a new range of vagina puns with her anecdotal account of her technicolor orgasms in her latest book Vagina. The Life of Julia is a left-looking faceless cartoon claiming that women need government to take care of them. (I linked to Iowahawk’s parody because the original is too depressing.) Hanna Rosin seeks to convince us that replacing domineering men with domineering women amounts to positive progress. And a fan fiction author addicted to “shouty capitals,” E.L. James, captured the imagination of women across the English-speaking world with a poor specimen of a bondage novel that has since spun off a line of sex toys with little Fifty Shades of Grey logo tags. (British comment threads are always informative. Why pay for trademarked logo pleasure balls when limes work just as well?)
Missing has been someone to show how absurd this all is. We, the most privileged and independent women in history, find those discussions compelling? Sure, the Right has been pointing out the absurdities in such discussions for a while, but we are written off as the bigoted and biased Other. Feminist thought needs some honest criticism from the inside.
Re-enter Camille Paglia, the “pro-sex, pro-porn, pro-art, pro-beauty, pro-pop” sixties feminist and heavily published art and culture critic, quiet for the past few years while writing her latest book due out on October 16th, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars. Our debates suffered from her absence.
Paglia offers no quarter for feminist conventional-wisdom generators. Women like Rosin and Wolf create and encourage our naiveté. Paglia exposes it. Witness these comments about Naomi Wolf’s Vagina:
I found many of the major U.S. reviews of Wolf’s book to be oddly naive in the way they forcefully critiqued her failures of research and reasoning and yet gullibly accepted everything she said about herself. They swallowed wholesale her tall tales of her fabulous sex life and didn’t seem to notice how viciously castrating to men the entire book is. And the reviewers revealed their own historical ignorance in their failure to call Wolf on her absurd portrayal of ancient vagina-worship—where it was brute procreation and never women’s pleasure that was being honored. …
Those chatty, snippy reviews revealed how watered down and banal feminist discourse has become in the decades since Freud was first rejected as sexist by second-wave feminists. … I was shocked at the grotesque sexual exhibitionism here of a woman who is turning 50 this year and who is the mother of two teenagers. Why would anyone do this to herself and her family? Shouldn’t it be obvious that anyone who is genuinely enjoying a wonderful love life would never expose those tender intimacies to the harsh spotlight of the world?
Paglia’s book is about art — all of it, not just the stuff deemed art by the coastal elites — but the range of issues she covered in that short Salon interview alone can spawn discussions ranging from the fate of publishing to protest voting for Green Party candidate Jill Stein to the “formidable and capable [homeschooling women driving the Tea Party] whom feminism has foolishly ignored.” In fact, Paglia wrote this book for those homeschooling moms.
I eagerly await Glittering Images in part because her commentary often reminds me of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes strips. Bill Watterson provided insightful cultural commentary and has been sorely missed since he retired the cartoon. I am also eager to read Paglia’s book because I get to dust and polish some old musings about the visual artistry of George Lucas. (Back when Star Wars fans were fighting pop despair about the dreadful prequels, we often clung to the visuals as a silver lining.) Mostly, however, I expect that Paglia will make us think and question conventional wisdom. She will inspire critical thinking that is long overdue.
Until the release, however, anyone unfamiliar with Paglia might wonder how an art critic from Philadelphia manages to affect our national conversations. Or, why does the Right respect Paglia while the Left tries to dismiss her as a mere provocateur?
Much of second- and third-wave Feminism clings either to the notion that women can and want to be like men or that there is no feminine or masculine nature. More broadly, much of modern liberalism relies on the fallacy that humans are essentially good, only corrupted by society. Paglia thinks this is nonsense on stilts. She believes that Nature exists, that it “indiscriminately exerts its force” on us.
She is not of the Right, because she disagrees on how to handle our dark nature — for example, Paglia would have society accept pornography as a release valve while conservatives typically would have us strive for self-control but both insist on confronting the darkness; to deny it, as the Left does, is naive and dangerous.
“Human beings are not nature’s favorites. We are merely one of a multitude of species upon which nature indiscriminately exerts its force.” This is the basis of her cultural criticism. She uses art as evidence. With Paglia on the interview circuit, women’s debates — and the rest of our cultural dialogues — should get more interesting again. They might even become productive.
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