Camille Paglia is a woman of seeming contradictions. She’s a lesbian who thinks homosexuality is not normal, a Democrat who often criticizes the party’s 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, a self-described "transgender being" who calls sex changes for children "abuse," and a feminist who says abortion is "murder."
Decades after she burst onto the scene with her best-selling book Sexual Personae, Paglia is back with a timely commentary on sex and gender. Her recent book Free Women, Free Men argues, among other things, that feminism is "stunting the maturation of both girls and boys" and that "if women seek freedom, they must let men too be free."
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Paglia talked to the Washington Free Beacon about a variety of topics including Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D., Mass.) alleged populism, Megyn Kelly's performance as a moderator during the first Republican presidential primary debate, and whether misogyny played a role in Hillary Clinton's failed 2016 presidential bid.
You say in your new book that feminism’s "sex war" has stunted the maturation of both girls and boys. What do you think is the end result of that?
Second-wave feminism went off the track when it started to demonize men and blame them for all the evils in human history. It’s a neurotic world-view that was formulated in too many cases by women (including Gloria Steinem and Kate Millett) with troubled childhoods in unstable homes. First-wave feminism, in contrast, focused on systemic social problems that kept women in secondary or dependent status. My favorite period in feminism has always been the 1920s and 1930s, when American women energized by winning the vote gained worldwide prominence for their professional achievements. My early role models, Amelia Earhart and Katharine Hepburn, were fierce individualists and competitors who liked and admired men and who never indulged in the tiresome, snippy rote male-bashing that we constantly hear from today’s feminists. I am an equal opportunity feminist who opposes special protections for women. What I am saying throughout my work is that girls who are indoctrinated to see men not as equals but as oppressors and rapists are condemned to remain in a permanently juvenile condition for life. They have surrendered their own personal agency to a poisonous creed that claims to empower women but has ended by infantilizing them. Similarly, boys will have no motivation to mature if their potential romantic partners remain emotionally insecure, fragile, and fearful, forever looking to parental proxies (like campus grievance committees or government regulators) to make the world safe for them.
What impact, if any, do you think Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 had on feminism? Former Texas state senator Wendy Davis said Clinton faced a "misogynistic climate" during the election. Do you agree with this?
Misogyny played no significant role whatever in Hillary Clinton’s two defeats as a presidential candidate. This claim is such a crock! What a gross exploitation of feminism—in the service of an unaccomplished woman whose entire career was spent attached to her husband’s coat tails. Hillary was handed job after job but produced no tangible results in any of them—except of course for her destabilization of North Africa during her rocky tenure as secretary of state. And for all her lip service to women and children, what program serving their needs did Hillary ever conceive and promote? She routinely signed on to other people’s programs or legislative bills but spent the bulk of her time in fundraising and networking for her own personal ambitions. Beyond that, I fail to see how authentic feminism can ever be ascribed to a woman who turned a blind eye to the victims of her husband’s serial abuse and workplace seductions. The hypocrisy of feminist leaders was on full display during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which incontrovertibly demonstrated Bill Clinton’s gross violation of basic sexual harassment policy. Although I had voted for him twice, I was the only feminist at the time who publicly condemned Clinton for his squalid and unethical behavior with an intern whose life (it is now clear) he ruined. Gloria Steinem’s slick casuistry during that shocking episode did severe damage to feminism, from which it has never fully recovered.
In 2016, you said Donald Trump had a "swaggering retro machismo" that would give "hives" to people like Gloria Steinem. How do you foresee a President Trump impacting gender relations and perceptions of men in America?
First of all, I must emphasize that I am a registered Democrat who voted for Bernie Sanders in the primaries and Jill Stein in the general election. Having said that, I will don my political analyst hat and say that Donald Trump’s retro style of confident masculinity (which dates from the Frank Sinatra/Hugh Hefner period) was surely a major factor in his victory and represents what was probably an inevitable and necessary course correction in American gender relations. The delirious excesses of unscientific campus gender theory, translated into intrusive government regulations by elite school graduates saturating the Obama administration, finally hit a wall with the electorate. The mainstream big-city media too have become strident echo chambers of campus gender dogma, as demonstrated by last year’s New York Times fiasco, where two wet-behind-the-ears reporters fell on their faces in trying to prosecute the Trump of his casino days as a vile sexist. I mercilessly mocked that vacuous article in my Salon.com column and stand by every word I wrote.
The Guardian asked in 2010 whether Nancy Pelosi was the most powerful woman in U.S. history. More than ten years after she became the first female Speaker of the House, how do you think Pelosi has furthered perceptions of women in positions of power and leadership?
Unlike Hillary Clinton, both Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and Senator Dianne Feinstein owe their national prominence to their own skills, tenacity, and achievement in the political world. I have repeatedly said that Feinstein, with her even temper, natural gravitas, and long experience with military affairs, should have been the first woman president. Pelosi, who emerged from a prominent political family in Maryland (her father was a U.S. Congressman and mayor of Baltimore, and her brother was also Baltimore mayor), has an amazing aptitude for deft insider maneuvering and bare-knuckles power plays, without ever losing that cool, unflappable persona, always so primly ladylike and stylish. She smiles and smiles—even as she shoves the stiletto in! Even when I’ve found her too predictably partisan, I have been continually impressed by her poise and aplomb. However, Pelosi herself, to some reports, has been frustrated by her difficulties in giving formal speeches, and perhaps this has held her back from running for president. The main point here is that we should have had our first woman president way back in the 1990s, but neither Pelosi nor Feinstein, the leading female candidates, chose to run, as even Elizabeth Dole bravely did. There is absolutely no mythical "misogyny" holding back American women from the presidency: for heaven’s sake, the U.S. has had women mayors, senators, and governors for decades now. But our money-grubbing presidential campaigns, which must cover an immense geography (far vaster than any European nation), are both too prolonged and too arduous for most women to want to tackle. Perhaps both Pelosi and Feinstein (unlike Hillary) are too happy and content in their personal relationships to want that kind of crazed derangement of their private lives.
Could you envision Elizabeth Warren running successfully as a populist candidate in 2020 against Donald Trump?
Elizabeth Warren, a smug Harvard professor, is no populist. She doesn’t have an iota of Bernie Sanders’ authentic empathic populism—but Sanders will be too old to run next time around. I tried to take Warren seriously during the run-up to the primaries, but her outrageous silence about Sanders’ candidacy when he was battling the corrupt Hillary machine made me see Warren as the facile opportunist that she is. She craftily hid from sight throughout the primaries—until Hillary won the nomination. Then all of a sudden, there was bouncy, grinning Warren, popping in and out of Hillary’s Washington mansion as vice-presidential possibilities were being vetted. What an arrant hypocrite! Warren stands for nothing but Warren. My eye is on the new senator from California, Kamala Harris, who seems to have far more character and substance than Warren. I hope to vote for Harris in the next presidential primary.
What do you think of Megyn Kelly and her decision to leave Fox News?
I long ago stopped watching TV news and chat shows because of the tedium of their hackneyed polarized politics and smarmy personnel. Hence the first time I ever laid eyes on Megyn Kelly was when she was narcissistically snorting and snickering on air in the ten-minute prelude to the first GOP presidential debate in August 2015. The nation’s selection of presidential candidates should be treated as serious business—not as a platform for adolescent exhibitionism by the TV hosts. Hence when the very first question to Donald Trump, as posed by Kelly, was "You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals," I thought it was grounds for Kelly’s instant termination from her job. The tenor of the entire national campaign, from that moment forward, was lowered by Kelly’s sloppy ad hominem crudity. Ironically, it was because of her unprofessional behavior at that first debate that I discovered the unsparing podcast commentary of Diamond and Silk, two pro-Trump African-American sisters in North Carolina who satirically lambasted Kelly the next day for her rudeness.
That one video by Diamond and Silk woke me up hard about Trump, whom I had already dismissed as a "carnival barker" in my Salon column. I suddenly saw Trump’s populist appeal—and from that moment forward, month after month, I felt the slow movement in the country toward him. As for Megyn Kelly, I have no idea what her appeal is. She seems shallow and self-absorbed—one of those glib types (not unlike Rachel Maddow) who has somehow been led to think she’s much smarter than she really is. As a college teacher with red pen in hand, I’m not impressed.
You say in the abortion chapter in your new book that pro-lifers have the "moral high ground" in trying to protect the innocent. Yet you've also argued that overcoming nature is a moral imperative and that we should "thwart nature’s procreative compulsions" through activities like abortion. How do you reconcile those two views?
In ethics, one of the many branches of philosophy invented by the ancient Greeks, we are usually faced not with a simple, reassuring scheme of right versus wrong but rather an often painfully conflicted choice between morally mixed options. I stated in Vamps & Tramps (1994): "Women’s modern liberation is inextricably linked to their ability to control reproduction, which has enslaved them from the origin of the species." However, as an atheist who nevertheless respects religion, I see and respect the contrary position. As I went on to say: "We career women are arguing from expedience: it is personally and professionally inconvenient or onerous to bear an unwanted child. The pro-life movement, in contrast, is arguing that every conception is sacred and that society has a responsibility to protect the defenseless."
Contemporary American feminism has distorted and desensitized itself by its inability or refusal to recognize the ethical weight of the pro-life position, which it routinely mischaracterizes as "anti-woman." In contrast, I wrote (again in Vamps & Tramps): "Modern woman has become an agent of Darwinian triage. It is or should be ethically troubling: abortion pits the stronger against the weaker, and only one survives." The inflammatory abortion issue has consumed far too much of feminism, to the point of monomania. I used to be a contributing member of Planned Parenthood, until I realized that it had become a covert arm of the Democratic party. If Planned Parenthood is as vital to American women’s health as feminist leaders claim, then why can’t it be removed from the violent political arena altogether and fully funded by wealthy liberal donors? Let the glitterati from Hollywood to Manhattan step up to the plate and put their money where their mouths are.
What do you think of 50 Shades of Grey and highlighting sadomasochism in a popular film?
Neither the original novel nor the two bland films of 50 Shades of Grey interest me in the least, because I was fortunately exposed during my college and graduate school years to far more sophisticated and substantive literature about sadomasochism, such as The Story of O and the collected works of the Marquis de Sade, then widely available in Grove Press paperbacks. It is intriguing, however, that at a time when feminist rhetoric blankets the culture, the tremendous worldwide success of 50 Shades of Grey seems to suggest that many women of all ages still secretly long for the old-fashioned sizzle of traditional polarized sex roles. In my first book, Sexual Personae (1990), based on extensive research into history, anthropology, and psychology, I correctly predicted the return of sadomasochism, a prophecy that seemed baffling at the time: "My theory is that whenever sexual freedom is sought or achieved, sadomasochism will not be far behind." My long review-essay, "Scholars in Bondage," commissioned by the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2013 and reprinted in my new book, dissects the current chic trend for academic studies of sadomasochism, which I find both faulty in scholarship and lacking in basic common sense.
You say you were never encouraged by "misguided adults" to believe that you were actually a boy or "that medical interventions could bring that hidden truth to life." Do we have an obligation to not participate in or encourage someone’s gender dysphoria in adulthood, or just childhood?
My lifelong gender dysphoria has certainly been a primary inspiration for my entire career as a researcher and writer. I have never for a moment felt female—but neither have I ever felt male either. I regard my ambiguous position between the sexes as a privilege that has given me special access to and insight into a broad range of human thought and response. If a third gender option ("Other") were ever added to government documents, I would be happy to check it. However, I have never believed, and do not now, that society has any obligation to bend over backwards to accommodate my particular singularity of identity. I am very concerned about current gender theory rhetoric that convinces young people that if they feel uneasy about or alienated from their assignment to one sex, then they must take concrete steps, from hormone therapy to alarmingly irreversible surgery, to become the other sex. I find this an oddly simplistic and indeed reactionary response to what should be regarded as a golden opportunity for flexibility and fluidity. Furthermore, it is scientifically impossible to change sex. Except for very rare cases of intersex, which are developmental anomalies, every cell of the human body remains coded with one’s birth sex for life.
Beyond that, I believe that my art-based theory of "sexual personae" is far more expansive and truthful about human psychology than is current campus ideology: who we are or want to be exceeds mere gender, because every experimental persona that we devise contains elements of gesture, dress, and attitude rich with historical and cultural associations. (For Halloween in childhood, for example, I defiantly dressed as Robin Hood, a Roman soldier, a matador, Napoleon, and Hamlet.) Because of my own personal odyssey, I am horrified by the escalating prescription of puberty-blockers to children with gender dysphoria like my own: I consider this practice to be a criminal violation of human rights. Have the adults gone mad? Children are now being callously used for fashionable medical experiments with unknown long-term results.
In regard to the vexed issue of toilets and locker rooms, if private unisex facilities can be conveniently provided through simple relabeling, it would be humane to do so, but I fail to see why any school district, restaurant, or business should be legally obligated to go to excess expense (which ultimately penalizes the public) to serve such a minuscule proportion of the population, however loud their voices. And speaking of voices: as a libertarian, I oppose all intrusion by government into the realm of language, which belongs to the people and which evolves organically over time. Thus the term "Ms." eventually became standard English, but another 1970s feminist hybrid, "womyn", did not: the populace as a whole made that decision, as it always does with argot or slang filtering up from ethnic or avant-garde subgroups. The same principle applies to preferred transgender pronouns: they are a courtesy that we may choose to defer to, but in a modern democracy, no authority has the right to compel their usage.
What do you think of Kate Upton?
Believe it or not, I had no idea who you were referring to! After consulting the Web, I realize that the lady in question is a lively but rather gawky, chipmunk-toothed Taylor Swift clone who gained fame as a Sports Illustrated cover model. In her gum-baring goofiness, she is somewhat reminiscent of model Margaux Hemingway, one of the "It" girls of the 1970s. But alas, Upton has never risen above the tide of banality to register on my radar screen.
There once was a time (during the resurgence of pro-sex feminism in the 1990s) when I never missed the luscious Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and enjoyed twitting feminist prudes by publicly celebrating it. But the great age of dynamic, distinctive super-models is long gone. My all-time favorite swimsuit model was Stacey Williams, an alluring brunette whom Sports Illustrated featured for a record eight years. Today, traces of Stacey’s sensual mystique can perhaps be seen in Chanel Iman Robinson, the half Korean, half African-American Victoria’s Secret model who has vivaciously adorned three annual swimsuit issues thus far.