It’s doubtful whether Camille Paglia – cultural critic, academic and the author of several acclaimed books including, most recently, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars – has ever pulled a punch. Since she burst on to the cultural scene in the 1990s, following the publication of Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson – as she put it, the ‘most X-rated academic book ever written’ – Paglia has been a trenchant, principled voice in the Culture Wars, attacking, with one hand, the anti-sex illiberalism of her feminist peers, while, with the other, laying waste to the trendy, pomo relativism infecting the academy.
Above all, Paglia, who some have called the anti-feminist feminist, has remained a staunch defender of individual freedom. She has argued against laws prohibiting pornography, drugs and abortion. And, when political correctness was cutting a swathe through a host of institutions during the 1990s, she stood firmly on the side of free speech. So, what does she make of the political and cultural state of feminism today? What does she think of the revival of anti-sex sentiment among young feminists, their obsession with policing language, and their wholehearted embrace of victimhood? As spiked’s Ella Whelan discovered, Paglia’s convictions burn as brightly as ever…
Ella Whelan: On both sides of the Atlantic, feminism, especially on college campuses, appears to be undergoing a resurgence. As a long-term critic of political correctness, do you think today’s feminists are too focused on policing thought and speech?
Camille Paglia: After the ferocious Culture Wars of the 1980s to mid-1990s, feminism sank into a long period of relative obscurity. It was kept tangentially alive through scattered websites and blogs until it finally regained media visibility over the past five years, partly through splashy endorsements by pop figures like Beyoncé. The history of feminism has always been cyclic: after the suffrage movement gained the vote for women in Britain (1918 and 1928) and the US (1920), feminist activism faded away. Forty years passed before second-wave feminism was launched by Betty Friedan, when she co-founded the National Organization for Women in 1967.
The problem with too much current feminism, in my opinion, is that even when it strikes progressive poses, it emanates from an entitled, upper-middle-class point of view. It demands the intrusion and protection of paternalistic authority figures to project a hypothetical utopia that will be magically free from offence and hurt. Its rampant policing of thought and speech is completely reactionary, a gross betrayal of the radical principles of 1960s counterculture, which was inaugurated in the US by the incendiary Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley.
The anti-porn crusader Andrea Dworkin was a rabid fanatic, a self-destructive woman so consumed by her hatred of men that she tottered on the edge of psychosis
I am continually shocked and dismayed by the nearly Victorian notions promulgated by today’s feminists about the fragility of women and their naïve helplessness in asserting control over their own dating lives. Female undergraduates incapable of negotiating the oafish pleasures and perils of campus fraternity parties are hardly prepared to win leadership positions in business or government in the future.
Whelan: You’ve been critical of the likes of Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin in the past. To what extent do you think the seeds for feminism’s current turn towards censorship were sown in the 1960s and 1970s?
Paglia: Steinem, with her media-savvy aviator shades and blonde-streaked locks, pushed the far more pioneering Betty Friedan offstage to take charge of the nascent women’s movement in the US. At the start, Steinem was great – she normalised the image of feminism and made it seem like a rational cause rather than the ravings of frigid sexual freaks. But, by the mid-1970s, Steinem was ruling the roost like the Stalinist politburo. Dissenting voices like mine in feminism were banned from her magazine, Ms., which became the glossy Pravda of the movement – anti-male, anti-sex, anti-pop. My wing of pro-sex feminism was driven underground and wouldn’t surface again nationally until the early 1990s. Steinem has always been a networking careerist, packaging herself as a saintly, self-sacrificing humanitarian while privately schmoozing with the rich and famous and the media elite. She told the world, ‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’ – even while she was never without a man on the chic Manhattan party scene.
The anti-porn crusader Andrea Dworkin (who died a decade ago) was a rabid fanatic, a self-destructive woman so consumed by her hatred of men that she tottered on the edge of psychosis. Dworkin and her puritanical henchman Catharine MacKinnon (born into wealth and privilege) were extremely powerful in the US for a long time, culminating in the major media’s canonisation of MacKinnon in a 1991 New York Times Magazine cover story. When I burst on the scene after the release of my first book in 1990, I attacked Dworkin and MacKinnon with all guns blazing. I am very proud of the role I played in defending free speech and helping the pro-sex wing of feminism to go public and eventually win its great victory over both Dworkin-MacKinnon and the priggish feminist establishment typified by Steinem. Hence the unthinking backward turn of current feminism toward censorship is appalling and tragic. Young feminists seem to have little sense of the crucial battles that were waged and won a quarter century ago.