Ellen Willis, the Gate Opener: ‘Beginning to See the Light’ and ‘No More Nice Girls’

Ellen Willis believes that social change happens but the need to reevaluate the fight remains. She was a gate-opener who projected the voices that promoted social and political progress. As a journalist, feminist, rock critic and radical, she used her articles for the Villiage Voice, Rolling Stone and The Nation as catalysts for inspiring political, social, and cultural change. Willis’ texts are important, her insight and critiques ring of an equal balance of prophecy and lucidity while constantly inspiring and enraging. Perhaps Willis’ own response to Bob Dylan can justifiably be reappropriated to describe her own work and legacy: “the songs [words] did not preach: Dylan [Willis] was no longer rebel but seismograph, registering his [her] emotions – fascination, confusion, pity, annoyance, exuberance, anguish – with sardonic lucidity” (21).

Thus the University of Minnesota Press re-released Willis’ essays in the form of two editions Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock-and-Roll and No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays . Both contain a range of essays and diverse topics. For example, Willis offers a critique of Janis Joplin before and after Big Brother and the Holding Company, an exact examinations of the traditional family structure and sequential gender roles, lively responses to popular culture, and disagreements with notorious feminists such as Betty Friedan and Catherine MacKinnon. Willis’ writing encourages rule breaking and the destruction of socially sanctioned norms and policing. Her work ensures “the power to reimagine the world, to reclaim a human identity that’s neither victim nor oppressor, to affirm the difference not as separation but as variation on a theme” (xxii).

Beginning to See the Light collects Willis’ essays from the ’60s through the ’70s. In Part I, she juxtaposes the commodificaton of culture and the gratification of consumerism to the belief that mass art and popular music “given the right sort of cultural conditions, it can act as a catalyst that transforms its mass audience into an oppositional community” (xvii). Accordingly, Willis calls for a cultural revolution that “requires a radical alternative to capitalism” (xv). To strengthen her argument, the author uses examples ranging from Bob Dylan, Easy Rider , Tom Wolfe, The Velvet Underground (which is where the title for her text and essay emerge), and critiques of everyday sexuality. She connects these disparate subjects through her vision of freedom.

Utilizing the movie Thelma and Louise as her case study, Willis writes that “this freedom- however qualified, however tenuous – enlarge our idea of what was possible. But as realities get grimmer, the possibilities tend to be forgotten. I offer my version of the sixties and seventies in the hope of resisting that amnesia- and the resignation that goes with it” (xxii). Thus Willis uses Part I of her book to set the cultural stage for Part II, which focuses more intently on politics and the politics of sex. Advocating for a pro-sex society, one that places value on pleasure, desire, and a release from sexual oppression and shame, Willis believes “that over the long haul social change happens, and political conflicts are resolved, only through transforming people’s consciousness” (210). These essays serve as a reminder: some battles are over but the constant need to reevaluate the fight remains.

In No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays Willis continues the reminder that the legacy of struggle and oppression remains. This collection captures her essays from the ’80s to the ’90s and undeniably this text is much more politically motivated than Beginning to See the Light . Here Willis forces the readers to reengaged the personal and political while critiquing the powers that bifurcate society. Whereas the preceding trope of freedom is not forgotten, Willis complicates her previous standpoint by now focusing on democracy. According to the author:

Democracy, as I envision it, assumes that the purpose of community is to foster individual happiness and self-development; that the meaning of life lies in our capacity to experience and enjoy it fully; that freedom and eros are fundamentally intertwined, and that a genuine sense of responsibility to other human beings flows from the connection, not subordination to family, Caesar or God” (xxi).

Again, Willis toys with a variety of topics including the promotion of a pro-sex stance one in which sex is enjoyable, equal, and sexual inhibition is no longer synonymous with feminine identity, disavowing the rights of fetuses over women’s rights, the war on drugs, and critiques of the political and social issues that reinforce the fragility of civil rights. Despite moments where she finds brief comfort in solipsism and self-gain, Willis maintains an emphasis on the importance of collectivity as a means to create change. Her intention is to unbalance “the social system that organizes our lives, and as far as possible channel our desire” (226).

Arguably one of the most influential essays in this collection is “Radical Feminism and Feminist Radicalism”, wherein Willis recaps the history of the Women’s Movement and radical feminism. Here Willis comes clean with the sordid history between feminist activists on a large and small scale. More so, her writing is clear and accessible, creating a relationship between the reader, feminism, and radicalism. She also renders her politics as relatable while dismantling the negative and derisive stereotypes muddying radical feminism.

Ultimately in this essay, she reminds readers that authentic self-representation demonstrates the importance of visibility. In order to regain subjectivity and radically alter accepted forms of knowing and behaving, it’s imperative that women make their physical, intimate, social, political, and cultural experiences evident without trivialization. The process begins when one is introduced to examples of information, experiences, or ways of seeing that differ from dominant assumptions and normative ways of being. This involves questioning our most deeply held beliefs, understanding our own locations of privilege, and listening to others’ ideas.

Self-definition is central to Willis’ ethos. The ability to describe yourself and using your own voice as an individual mode of self-representation is essential in taking account of and valuing women’s experiences. Willis reiterates this point when she writes, “self-definition is the necessary starting point for any liberation movement” (xv). This strongly echoes Audre Lorde who demonstrates the power of self-representation as a method to combat oppression: “It is axiomatic that if we do not define ourselves for ourselves, we will be defined by others – for their use and to our detriment” (Lorde 45). For Willis, self-definition is a resolution to incorporating women’s voices and identities while delineating legacies of struggle, histories of capitalism, and defining standpoints. She contends that the engagement of cultural criticism as built from multiple subject locations must include and reflect varying cultural and political realities.

Since both books span an almost 30 year period, Willis’ mind changes and she revisits past statements and admits her rethinking of certain standpoints. For example, she includes in a footnote in Beginning to See the Light that clarifies her understanding of proper terminology has changed: “When I wrote this piece, I had not yet stopped using ‘man’ ‘he’ as generic terms applying to both sexes. In interest of historical accuracy I’ve left these locutions intact, though they grate on me aesthetically as well as politically” (7).

Or another example finds Willis’ preemptive assumption of Elvis Presley’s performance in Las Vegas as a glittery and aging lesson in commodification. But rather, “Presley came on and immediately shook up all my expectations and preconceived categories” (43). What Willis demonstrates is an important reminder that reconsidering one’s stances or identifying the preconceived notions clouding one’s perspective is not a weakness or a show of indecisiveness. On the contrary, the ability to develop and change, to play with and experiment with personal opinion, will strengthen the standpoint and also fortify the person’s identity.

Horrifyingly, the majority of the social problems and political bedlam Willis describes are still contemporary occurrences or even the same problem espoused by a different political figure. For example in the essay “Beginning to See the Light”, Willis describes the framing of Jimmy Carter as “democratic and supposedly a liberal” (90) despite his anti-abortion stance and enforcement of the ‘traditional’ family. A similar misgiving can be applied to the heralding of President Obama as a woman-centric and somewhat gay-friendly democrat, yet he’s also a democrat who enforces draconian drone-combat warfare.

However, the most startling similarity to contemporary politics is the lack of progress, or even more accurately, the backsliding of issues pertaining to women’s physical, mental, and spiritual equality. The essays “Abortion: Is a Woman a Person?” and “Putting Women Back in the Abortion Debate” disavows the rhetoric calling for the rights of fetuses, demonstrates the crisis in decentralizing the health and well-being of the woman, and the overbearing influence of religious doctrines. Much as contemporary reproductive justice advocates work for, Willis also argues that the reformation of the abortion debate needs “to invent safer, more reliable contraceptives, ensure universal access to all birth control methods, eliminate sexual arrogance and guilt, and change the social and economic conditions…” (210). While reaffirming that the majority of reproductive justice legislation sees “that men have the power to set the terms of their participation in child-rearing and women don’t” (87). This is probably best exemplified in the most recent election debate when candidate Mitt Romney suggested he would allow his female employees the luxury to leave work early to care for their families. Puzzlingly, male employees were not privileged with the same ‘benefit.’

This is where Willis inspires, if you can read these essays without being drastically exasperated by the lack of social and political progress, then these books won’t appeal to you. However for others, Willis’ essays remind us that complacently and comforts are easy but superficial while the fight for civil and individual rights is constant and necessary.

The anthology lacks historical context. Willis herself writes very in-depth and detailed introductions to her work, thereby providing some historical background in which to situate her essays. However, her focus here is uniting the essays based on larger themes such as freedom, true democracy, feminism, etc. rather than clarifying the more antiquated albeit important historical or social events. As one example, the essay “Ministries of Fear” critiques sanctioned violence and the differing, if not hypocritical, responses to terrorism. Willis calls upon the Achille Lauro hijacking, the Palestinian Liberation Front’s retaliation for the Israeli bombing of the PLO headquarters in 1985. As a case study she does not successfully situate the event or explain the history of the relationships between Israeli, Palestine, the US, and other countries. This is primarily due to the nature of Willis’ writing and the fact that this essay was originally published a month after the hijacking occurred.

Willis writes with the assumption that her audience is informed with these occurrences and does not bother to waste print space on recapping any key points. This proves for successful journalism at that particular moment, but does not translate well to a reprinting 25 years later. Thus, many readers not familiar with the surrounding circumstances may be lost and miss the importance and magnitude of these events. Additionally, some of Willis’ larger points are obscured when there is no relationship developed between the reader and the history. To circumvent this problem, the texts need a forward written by someone who is not Willis in order to provide some basic context and explanation for her writing.

Willis’ original journalistic work in addition to the re-release of her essays in the form of Beginning to See the Light and No More Nice Girls suggests that we must consider dissident voices and audible critiques as a viable form of knowledge. For Willis, writing, music, and critique become central resolutions in creating the self-representational societies that require radically altering knowledge production and manipulating the oppressive paradigms. Thus, she denotes a transition from passive actor to active voice, from objective consumer to subjective producer of knowledge. In the nature of her feminism and political positions, she retakes control of the systems of oppression.

Indeed, Willis inspires her readers to want to be more than Facebook activists or believers in the female-body-will-naturally-shutdown-after-rape myth. And it is for this reason that the work of Ellen Willis must be read. This will enable the shifting of perspectives and structures of oppression while making way for real democracy and freedom.

RATING 9 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.