Book Review: Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism

Camille Paglia has the instincts of a court jester and the tastes of a bank manager. Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism is her third and latest collection of essays (although most the pieces in it have already appeared in print, either as chapters from previous books or in her two other collections: Sex, Art, and American Culture and Vamps and Tramps). For those already familiar with Paglia’s worldview, Free Women, Free Men will offer nothing new. All the usual suspects (political correctness, identity politics, feminism) are accused of causing civilizational decay. Modern feminist theory “routinely denigrates masculinity and malehood,” leaving men with “no incentive to mature or to honor their commitments.” The media-academic complex is “currently patrolled by well-meaning but ruthless thought police, as dogmatic in their views as agents of the Spanish Inquisition.” And gender studies are a “comfy, chummy morass of unchallenged groupthink” from which “a lost generation of women” is just now emerging. Paglia utters these agreed-upon audacities as if she were saying something skeptical, original, and far-reaching (“heterodox” is the word she uses to describe them), which raises the question: How much longer will people feign outrage in reaction to this cheap bluster?

Although in her writings Paglia regurgitates the same fatuous insults (“Stalinist fanatics”), childhood anecdotes (“My eccentric symbols of gender protest via transvestite Halloween costumes”), and pig-ignorant falsehoods (“contemporary American feminism…began by rejecting Freud because of his alleged sexism”),  the pieces in Free Women, Free Men do at least cover a broad array of topics. There’s a 1991 Philadelphia Inquirer column on the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill confirmation hearings drama, an expansive review of multiple books on bondage and domination for The Chronicle of Higher Education, and a section from her overrated dissertation Sexual Personae on the Venus of Wilendorf (a female statuette from the Stone Age).

In included newspaper op-eds, Paglia laments the cultural gaudiness of plastic surgery and stiletto heels, while in others she praises the moral credentials of glittery spectacles like reality television and professional football. As a matter of fact, she draws particular hope and inspiration from America’s declining pastime. Here’s the hope: “As the Pentagon has become infested with gender-equity propaganda, disastrously compromising military readiness, only football retains the old heroic values of excellence, fortitude, and valor.” And here’s the inspiration: “I have learned an enormous amount from watching football since childhood and have usefully applied those lessons in my war against the feminist and academic establishment. I block and tackle with pleasure and love in particular to run ‘misdirection’ plays on feminist leaders.”

Paglia delivers this last sentence with complete earnestness. And it’s hardly the only time her tactless self-worth gets in the way of the point she’s trying to make. For instance, she begins a lecture on the “Crisis in the American Universities” by telling the audience that she is “the Sixties back to haunt the present.” Shortly after that, she causes even more sympathetic discomfort when she adds, “What I represent is independent thought.”

Of course, Paglia’s distinctive obsession with her own critical perspicacity is of little importance to the merits and demerits of her social analysis—a surprising feature of which is how often she echoes the grievances of her alleged opponents. She claims, for example, to take issue with the “social constructionism” of academic feminism but then says things like “beauty is dependent on the conditions of the age” (i.e., it’s socially constructed) and “men become masculine only when other men say they are” (i.e., it’s socially determined). What’s more, she claims to loathe today’s overly sensitive, “victim-centered” culture but then draws attention to things such as the “unrealistic expectations of women’s bodies” in the media (particularly in video games) and the perverse psychological effects these things might cause: “When fat is the enemy, young women are at war with their own fragile, life-creating physiology.” She expresses contempt for what she sees as feminism’s negative rhetoric regarding motherhood and homemaking but then calls procreation “nature’s fascist scheme” against women.

Perhaps Paglia agrees with the so-called Stalinist fanatics of political correctness and identity politics more than she realizes, or at least more than she hopes her sneering and gullible readership realizes. However, it isn’t important to discern whether it’s hypocrisy, inconsistency or mere ignorance that causes Paglia’s fondness for holding the same opinions that she relishes attacking in others, because that is far from her gravest intellectual vice. Like all aged rebels, she has convinced herself that conservatism is the new counter-culture, and that rebelling now means standing up for the landlord, the corporate bureaucrat, and the established artistic canon. On the other hand, she still has certain avant-garde pretensions to uphold. This attempt at synthesizing bohemianism and conservative nostalgia forces Paglia into some peculiar intellectual positions, such as hailing the sexual subversion of Madonna’s popular music while still agreeing with the censor that it shouldn’t be played on a “mainstream music channel watched around the clock by children.” Thus moralism and a justification for institutional depravities are reconciled with a radical posture.

Paglia is at her most ridiculous when she’s preaching for an ideology-free approach to social and political problems at the very same time as she’s mouthing conservative commonplaces about what ought to be done about them. A perfect example of this can be found in her take on sex education in public schools. See if you can miss the obvious verbal chicanery:

Sex education has triggered recurrent controversy, partly because it is seen by religious conservatives as an instrument of secular cultural imperialism, undermining moral values. It’s time for liberals to admit that there is some truth to this and that public schools should not promulgate any ideology. The liberal response to conservatives’ demand for abstinence-only sex education has been to condemn the imposition of “fear and shame” on young people. But perhaps a bit more self-preserving fear and shame might be helpful in today’s hedonistic, media-saturated environment.

In just two sentences Paglia’s curricular preference swings from “schools should not promulgate any ideology” to “but perhaps a bit more self-preserving fear and shame might be helpful.”

This lazy and cowardly way of “arguing” has been a staple of Paglia’s rhetorical style since she stumbled onto the public scene in the early nineties. Since then, she has benefited from having her speeches perpetually protested, enabling her to hide behind concerns over free speech and political tolerance while ducking genuine criticisms. Free Women, Free Men is a strange succession of sanctimonious effusions about gender, sex, and politics that reveals nothing of lasting importance besides what the mad mind in the corner of every coffee shop might write if he or she just had tenure.