Camille Paglia
In the midst of cancel culture, where saying the wrong thing can ruin your life, Camille Paglia speaks her mind, no matter the consequences. (Illustration by James O’Toole, Grand Valley State University)
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Camille Paglia

Smart, eloquent and openly antagonistic, Paglia lives to complicate feminist ideology.

I credit my mother for introducing me to the ideas of Camille Paglia. Disillusioned with the prevailing strains within feminist literature that seemed to hold an implicit contempt for stay-at-home moms, my mom came across Paglia, an outspoken feminist who seemed to sympathize with the decision of women to embrace motherhood.

A couple of weeks later, my mother had relayed to me, in the form of lengthy phone calls, the main ideas she had identified in Paglia’s canon. To my mother, Paglia was someone who didn’t regurgitate the same tired clichés that many feminist figures seemed to have in endless supply. To me, it became increasingly clear that I disagreed with a majority of what this woman had to say. Even so, she grew to become a strangely compelling character to me.

Paglia is incredibly tricky to pin down. The controversial American feminist and social critic boasts a wealth of opinions, some of which are intuitively antithetical. A staunch libertarian revered by political conservatives, she admitted to feeling the Bern in the 2016 Democratic Primary and voting for Jill Stein in the 2016 election.

An openly gay woman, she’s declared no particular loyalty to the LGBTQ community and has even stated she doesn’t “get along with lesbians.” Somewhat rigid in her idea of the sexual polarization of the genders, she is at the same time adamantly pro-sex, pro-pornography and supports the legalization of prostitution.

She puzzles many, offends many more and is dismissed for being both too conservative and too liberal. (You’ll find more than one YouTube compilation out there of Paglia taking down feminists.)

It must be said, though: A formidable feature of Paglia is that, in spite of attempts by supporters and detractors alike to placate her contradictions and package her a certain way, she continually defies boundaries. Similarly, she refuses to pledge any kind of allegiance to the resounding political platforms that both second- and third-wave feminism abide by. In fact, Paglia has consistently labeled herself a glaring outlier of second-wave feminism.

In an op-ed to Salon Magazine, she infamously branded feminist figurehead Gloria Steinem a “mummified fascist” that forewent her earlier accomplishments and betrayed the universality of the movement by marrying her own partisan politics with the feminism she was espousing. Paglia credits this growing disappointment with Steinem as the turning point where she began to distance herself from what she considered to be the “power elite who had hijacked and stunted second-wave feminism.”

Arguably, one of the driving forces for this broader divide within second-wave feminism was Paglia’s own contentious stance on the importance of biological sex in the understanding of feminism. To Paglia, your sex defines your gender, and both sex and sexuality lie at the very core of what it means to be a woman.

This draws a marked contrast to the trans-inclusive feminism of today, which maintains that the experience of womanhood is not limited to the possession of female genitals but rests instead on how you choose to identify yourself.

Widely conceived as being the most alienating of her positions, Paglia repeatedly advocated for the fundamental synonymy of sex and gender and rejected the call for protections of transgender people even though — in another one of her “say what?” statements — she claimed to identify as transgender. Paglia’s mistrust of the “transgender wave” corresponds to her broader view of resenting feminism’s proclivity to demand special protections under the law.

Another one of her positions that has come under fire in recent years is her attack on the #MeToo movement, something that ignited backlash and led to popular disavowal of Paglia by younger feminists.

A movement initially built around women’s accounts of past instances of sexual assault (ranging from mere confessions to concrete accusations), #MeToo is considered a wide-scale means to bring to light the pervasive and normalized sexual violence that women are collectively subjected to. Unsurprisingly, Paglia found much to admonish about the movement.

In an op-ed for The Hollywood Reporter, she described the movement as inciting a “sexual war” that placed the sexual relationship between men and women on a tight leash and unfairly placed the brunt of the blame on the men. “Speak up now or shut up later!” was her sermonizing call to those who professed to be part of the movement. Ultimately, she chalked it up to an amalgamation of women’s worst possible traits: whining, men-blaming and self-victimization.

The impulse to dismiss Paglia’s brand of feminism as a reactionary one, with the desire to spark provocation for the sake of provocation, is frankly understandable. For one, the list of disparaging — yet admittedly creative — insults Paglia has flung at various public figures over the years is extensive. (One need only recall a statement she made dubbing Taylor Swift an “obnoxious Barbie Nazi.”)

However, anyone even remotely familiar with her work would know better than to discredit her based on tone alone. With six published materials (one of them being a 700-page dissertation-turned-book on sexuality throughout Western civilization), Paglia has been a lifelong scholar and has an impressive grasp of history. This effectively complicates efforts to dismiss her under the pretext of being a shallow rabble-rouser.

Nevertheless, the question of her legacy within the feminist movement persists. As she herself attests to, she was and has been pushed out from mainstream feminism, and many would even go as far as to argue that she is not deserving of a role in the current feminist pantheon. Her statements on #MeToo have even succeeded in painting her as an enemy against survivors of abuse and a tacit enabler of “rape culture.”

Despite the many critiques levied at Paglia, even in her moralizing stance on the alleged victimhood of women, it seems to be coming from an innate belief that women need to, at all times, take responsibility for themselves and their actions. Although she manages to sound like a paternalistic father instead of an understanding mother, sister or friend, I’d argue that a feminist’s ethos — one urging women to think, feel and act for themselves — still lies underneath the surface of even the most condemnatory of her statements.

There’s just no sugarcoating it: Paglia has probably said something you vigorously disagree with. Perhaps she’ll even make comments you find personally offensive. Yet, in spite of all of her hostile characteristics, she remains someone dedicated to challenging the orthodoxy of the feminist movement and vocally questioning the direction it’s heading in.

As incendiary as some of her commentary may come off, is there not some value to be found in someone who defies conventions and unapologetically speaks their mind? Does discourse not benefit from someone like that?

In our current social climate, where the lingering fear of saying anything that might be deemed politically incorrect stifles dialogue, Paglia — an unapologetic warrior of words — contributes, albeit at times distastefully, some novelty to the ongoing conversation.

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