Camille Paglia Takes on the Herd (again)
Camille Paglia leads a tutorial in 1977. Note the pack of Marlboros on her right.
Ever since the eruption of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment and abuse scandal, the entertainment industry, the corporate world, and even Congress have been knee-deep in new charges of sexual misconduct by powerful men. Social media is flooded with #metoo hashtags of women stepping forward to share their own stories of sexual assault. Men have even written apologies on behalf of, well, the male race. All of this goes against feminist and public intellectual Camille Paglia’s philosophy that women should not demonize men or play the victim.
Although Paglia has roots in academia (including Bennington) and still speaks at universities, she often criticizes academic culture for its emphasis on theory over practical, real-world knowledge. As far back as 1976, when Paglia taught at Bennington, she wrote in a letter to Bernard Malamud, a long-time member of the literature faculty, “I will never dilute my work in the direction of ho-hum academic conventionalism.” Here, she was responding to Malamud’s suggestion that a lecture she had delivered was too intense and emotional by stating that the lack of emotion in most academic writing is precisely what makes it so dull. "[W]hat I am trying to do," she argues in the letter, "is to attempt to discover just how much emotion--or fiction--the medium of scholarship can bear."
While Paglia acknowledges that sexual assault and rape are problems in society, she has always advocated for personal responsibility first. She encourages women to not put themselves into compromising positions, such as wearing short skirts and stilettos in the workplace, or drunkenly going to a man’s room when she is unsure if she wants to have sex him. This puts Paglia's thinking in line with more conservative Christian commentators, who emphasize the need for young women to "live chastely." It also reflects Paglia's defiant opposition to current trends in feminism and her penchant for being deliberately provocative. Paglia provides a refreshing voice of authenticity in a culture that has become increasingly driven by herd mentality. You don't have at agree with her (and I don't on this issue) to appreciate the nerve.
As the last presidential election was approaching, Paglia attacked Hillary Clinton, stating that Clinton shouldn’t be so widely admired among women because she “has ridden her husband's coattails her entire life … She's never accomplished a thing.” This statement is consistent with Paglia’s philosophy of personal responsibility. Just as she believes that women shouldn’t blame men for everything, she also supports the idea that women shouldn’t rely on men to help them advance in life.
Interestingly, when a person thinks of a feminist in the purest sense of the word, the first thing that comes to mind is a woman who is independent and stands up for herself. Over the years, though, feminism has come to take on a variety of meanings, to the point where virtually any woman who has achieved success in some way could be considered a feminist. Even actresses and pop singers who clearly rose to fame because of their beauty and who vocally tear down men are considered feminists because of this. Paglia, by contrast, has remained true to her belief over the years that a true feminist is a woman, like Amelia Earhart, who accomplishes great things on her own terms without relying upon men or feeling the need to harshly condemn men.
She extends this criticism of academic elitism to politics, blaming Clinton’s loss on the fact that the Democratic party has fallen out of touch with ordinary, working-class Americans. By contrast, she identified the ways in which Donald Trump appealed to the working class. As she says in an interview with the Weekly Standard, “These elite Democrats occupy an amorphous meta-realm of subjective emotion, theoretical abstractions, and refined language,” while “Trump is by trade a builder who deals in the tangible, obdurate, objective world of physical materials, geometry, and construction projects.” In other words, Trump won over the working-class because he literally and metaphorically spoke their language, while the Democrats, with their elitist language and attitudes, kept their followers at an arm’s distance.
Speaking of elitism, another beef Paglia has with the current state of feminism is that she feels it’s been taken over by elitist, upper-class women who have never experienced economic difficulty in their lives. In her latest essay collection, Free Women, Free Men, Paglia honors working class Southern women who were loud, outspoken, and weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Similarly, she praises working-class men who work in fields such as construction and plumbing, stating that elitist “feminists” neglect to mention the contributions of these men to our country.
In short, Paglia makes us realize that both men and women have experienced privileges (as well as drawbacks) distinct to their gender, and, therefore, there is no use in continuing to fight the gender wars that our nation has been embroiled in, particularly these last few months. Instead, men and women alike should embrace who they are and use the privileges afforded them to their advantage.
Literary Bennington has also written about Paglia's never-dull moments at Bennington here.