Less Dogma, More Dissent: Paglia on ‘Sex, Gender, Feminism’

Contrary to what her critics might have one believe, Camille Paglia demands more, not less, of contemporary feminism.

Camille Paglia is an unapologetic iconoclast, described famously as a “dissent feminist”, but far more likely to describe herself as a “schoolmarm”, as she does in the introduction to Free Women, Free Men. With the publication of her most recent book, it’s surprising to recognize that this collection of essays is her first such compilation since her media heyday in the mid-’90s. In between Vamps and Tramps (1994) and Free Women, Free Men, Paglia (University Professor of Humanities & Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia) published three books devoted more to the subjects she teaches than to the subjects with which many people still most associate her: Sex, Gender, Feminism.

Free Women, Free Men ranges from excerpts of her famous Yale dissertation-turned-bestseller, Sexual Personae to essays published as recently as April 2016. The introduction is the only piece of writing entirely original to the collection, and although the subtitle may lead one to believe the overarching theme of the book is sex and gender, the introduction makes clear: “The title of this book exalts freedom as an indispensable condition for the incubation and flourishing of individualism.”

Beginning with excerpts from Sexual Personae on the centrality of sex and violence in art and nature, Paglia demonstrates her talents as a poetic interpreter of the human. “Romanticism always turns into decadence. Nature is a hard taskmaster. It is the hammer and the anvil, crushing individuality. Perfect freedom would be to die by earth, air, water, and fire.”

With an art professor’s breadth and trained eye, Paglia’s wide-ranging references demonstrate a woman capable of seeing the big picture and taking the longer view in her evaluation of human nature. When she criticizes millennial women for underestimating human nature in the modern “rape culture” dialogue (“Rape and Modern Sex War”, “The Modern Campus Cannot Comprehend Evil”) it is armed with ample evidence of history’s unwillingness to comply with Rousseaiun optimism.

The essays which stand out as most essential in this collection include classics that reveal how little has changed in a quarter century (“Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders”, “The Modern Battle of the Sexes”) and newer ones never-before-collected (“Feminism Past and Present”, “Southern Women”, “Feminist Trouble”). In “Feminist Trouble”, Paglia makes her professorial nature clear when she’s given the opportunity to give advice to young women today: “My advice, as in everything, is to read widely and think for yourself. We need more dissent and less dogma.” It’s a theme that is apparent both in Paglia’s writings and her own life: nothing can substitute for being well-read and individual in one’s thought.

Despite the sex and gender focused nature of Free Women, Free Men, Paglia has a chance to demonstrate her ability to deconstruct the culture, history, symbolism and message of an artistic object in “The Stiletto Heel”. In fact, it was her belief that more Americans need this well-trained artistic eye that partly prompted her to write her previous book Glittering Images. In “Stiletto Heel”, Paglia shows us how the accessory represents “a contemporary icon and perhaps our canonical objet d’art.”

It is, of course, difficult to read a book about the state (and future?) of Western feminism published in 2017 without peripherally considering the figure of Hillary Clinton. The woman who almost was President stands remarkably apart from this collection of essays, considering how vociferous Paglia has been about Mrs. Clinton throughout 2016. Although Paglia’s essay “What a Woman President Should Be” (written in 2015 and unquestionably in response to Clinton) is included, Paglia instead promotes women she views as more apt models of who just might break that “highest, hardest glass ceiling”.

Contrary to what her critics might have one believe, Paglia demands more, not less, of contemporary feminism. She expects a feminism that is both robust and assertive, reflective and self-challenging. In today’s environment, Paglia sees a return to the nannyish paternalism of the ’60s and ’70s. When Paglia cuts loose against Gloria Steinem’s intolerance of dissenting voices (including Paglia’s own), it’s hard to not remember how unforgivably Steinem dismissed young women who didn’t support Hillary Clinton in her 2016 race for the Presidency. Her insightful “Why is it assumed women always vote their private interest?” needs to be shouted from the rooftops in the wake of the disastrously miscalculated American election, in which women were unquestionably expected by many on the American Left to fall in behind Clinton (“Coddling Won’t Elect Women, Toughening Will”).

With one exception, the essays in Free Women, Free Men are arranged chronologically from 1994 to 2016. That exception, “What’s in a Picture: Robert Mapplethorpe’s Portrait of Patti Smith for Horses“, concludes the collection by offering a vision in place of all the objections Paglia has to contemporary, mainstream feminism: “The Mapplethorpe photo symbolizes my passions and my world-view…. Rumpled, tattered, unkempt, hirsute, Smith defies the rules of femininity. Soulful, haggard, and emaciated yet raffish, swaggering and seductive, she is mad saint, ephebe, dandy and troubadour, a complex woman alone and outward bound for culture war.”

One thing is clear: you may not always agree with Paglia, but you should always listen to her.

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RATING 9 / 10