Book Review: Free Women, Free Men by Camille Paglia

free women free menOver twenty years have passed since Camille Paglia’s last essay collection, Vamps and Tramps; in the interim she published books on film, poetry and the visual arts. In a politically polarized moment that regurgitates the issues of the 80s and 90s “culture wars,” Paglia returns with an essay collection she hopes will speak to our present concerns. The pieces selected for Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism show that Paglia has been consistent in her critiques of feminism throughout her career, including the years after her previous collection in 1994, where feminism receded in prominence from mainstream discourse. The book is not a “greatest hits,” as some reviewers have described it, but is typical of Paglia’s previous two collections, where excellent essays (“Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders,” “No Law In The Arena”) were mixed with shorter articles and reviews as well as outright ephemera (transcripts of documentaries that Paglia appeared in, notes from a course Paglia taught with another professor, etc.). The truth is that the best essays and articles from her three collections could be culled to produce one single volume that would better demonstrate her strengths as a social critic.

The collection starts with excerpts from Paglia’s first book, Sexual Personae, and they remind readers that nature (which includes biological realities) is essential to Paglia’s considerations of sex, gender and feminism. “Sexuality and eroticism are the intricate intersection of nature and culture,” she declares early on, putting her at odds with feminist and transgender activists who favour social constructionist theories. Following the pieces from Sexual Personae are famous articles on Madonna and date rape that continue to be controversial. The current notion of “rape culture” posits that rape is a failure of a patriarchal society that is inherently permissive of barbaric sexual violence; Paglia theorizes the opposite, that “Society is not the enemy, as feminism ignorantly claims. Society is woman’s protection against rape.” Paglia argues that the feminist focus on society as the source of social ills is influenced by Rousseau. Paglia rejects Rousseau throughout her work in favour of thinkers and writers like Freud and Sade, who acknowledge the aggression inherent in humanity and, ultimately, nature.

Paglia’s championing of Madonna in the early 90s continues to generate detractors. Mark Judge, in his review for Liberty Law Site, critiques Paglia’s 1990 article on Madonna, remarking “Madonna’s videos are lazy clichés larded with hilariously bad acting and soft-porn imagery intended to scandalize audiences. For someone who insists on high standards for art, Paglia is willing, in Madonna’s case, to overlook something as fundamental as poor singing.” Judge is partially correct here, in that he identifies Paglia’s weakness as an art critic—someone who is able to identify and discourse on qualitative differences in art. As evidenced by the contemporary selections in her books on poetry and art (Break, Blow, Burn and Glittering Images), Paglia has a vast knowledge of art history but does not have the ability to discern what makes individual works worthy of anthologizing.

As for Madonna, she is not gifted as a singer, but to isolate her vocal is to ignore the fusion of dance, music and visuals that made her a (mostly) effective entertainer, and one whose career was more interesting than conventionally talented pop singers like Celine Dion or Mariah Carey. Outside of art criticism, Paglia’s prophetic 1990 essay declaring Madonna “the future of feminism” was correct, because as a trained dancer, Madonna’s work, in dance music and as the subject in music videos and still photography, was grounded in the body. The carnality in Madonna, popular culture, and pornography represent for Paglia expressions of the pagan elements of Western Culture. Puritan strains of feminism, which Paglia critiques in her essay on Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon (“The Return of Carry Nation”), would suppress these sexually charged cultural manifestations under the pretense that they are harmful to women. While Paglia’s qualitative assessments of Madonna’s art can be questionable, her understanding of Madonna’s social and political importance were prescient.

In his review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Donald E. Simpson argues that the older essays are dated, merely because they discuss figures like Dworkin and MacKinnon, whose war on pornography is now firmly relegated to the pre-internet era. In fact, Free Women, Free Men outlines how there have always been repressive elements in feminism that have lead to activist efforts to control individual behaviour. Paglia explores this starting from first wave feminist involvement in the Prohibition years in the United States, to the anti-porn efforts in the 1980s and 1990s, through to current attempts to regulate sexuality on university campuses following theories of “rape culture.” An article for Time magazine on the age 21 rule for drinking in the US cleverly links this regressive regulation to the rise of binge drinking on campuses, where intoxicated young women are vulnerable to sexual attack. As indicated in the book’s title, there is a constant tension between the pursuit of “social justice” and maintaining individual freedoms.

Paglia often directs criticism at the feminism that is embedded within academia in North America, via Women’s Studies and Gender Studies departments. Her contribution to a debate titled “Are Men Obsolete?” rightly identifies the lingering classism in feminism, which persists in spite of the recent attempts at “intersectionality.” Feminists who argue that men are no longer necessary are ignoring the labour of working class men who maintain “the infrastructure that makes [feminists’] own work lives possible.” In her lecture “Southern Women: Old Myths and New Frontiers,” Paglia boldly argues that women should reconsider female archetypes from the American South that have been dismissed as stereotypes, including the mammy figure. Her analysis of Aunt Jemima indentifies the limitations in conventional, politicized readings of culture:

“It is dismaying to find African-American women academics assailing Aunt Jemima with elite theoretical jargon explicitly borrowed from Michel Foucault while neglecting to do wider anthropological investigations into the African diaspora.”

This type of comment encapsulates what one can expect when reading Camille Paglia—comedy mixed with interpretations of culture that veer away from typical politically correct academic analysis. The issues in scholarship that Paglia discusses here reiterate what Paglia spoke of in the book’s excerpt from her 1991 MIT lecture, where Paglia attacked the philistinism of academic Diana Fuss’s approach to fashion photography. In the review of three books on BDSM, “Scholars In Bondage,” Paglia again confronts the issue of academics self-limiting their work by latching onto politicized poststructuralist theory; the consequence for the three female authors that Paglia reviews is that “their natural voices have been squelched by the dreary protocols of gender studies.”

Free Women, Free Men encapsulates both the strengths and weaknesses in Paglia’s own writing. One reviewer is correct in noting that Paglia will use clichés in her work, which weakens what can otherwise be solid points and observations. Her use of cliché, such as in “The Dionysian is no picnic,” or “nature is always pulling the rug out from under our pompous ideals,” appears to be done to inject a sense of common, everyday speech into academic work or heady subject matter. It is unfortunate that she doesn’t always creatively manipulate the language to avoid such trite phrasing, as she otherwise has a gift for pithy and memorable sentences that are perfect for the Twitter age.

Reviews of the book have not always been successful at identifying the merits and flaws of the book. Mark Dunbar’s review for portrays Paglia as a conservative, even though her own writings in this book and others exhaustively document that she is not, with her pro-porn, pro-prostitution, pro-abortion and pro-sex arguments. Writer Kathy Shaidle remarks in her review that “Free Women is made up of speeches and other occasional writings, and some critics are complaining that its contents are repetitive. A peevish objection: Professional speakers rarely deliver a completely original address on every occasion. Duh.” While it may be true that a thinker will repeat their key ideas across spoken lectures, a collection of printed material must take into account how redundancies and repetitions can weaken the power of the overall book.

The restatement of certain themes and ideas, as well as the reprints from her first three tomes, takes space away from what might have been more compelling and less repetitious material. In her introduction to Free Women, Free Men, Paglia notes that an essay commissioned for a 2013 museum exhibit on David Bowie could not be included due to space considerations; it is exactly this type of piece that could have made the book more varied and interesting. Additionally, Paglia’s remarks on transgenderism for assorted interviews and lectures are some of the most popular videos of her work that circulate on social media platforms like Twitter; the issue is touched upon in her introductory essay and some later pieces in the collection, but a new essay expanding her thoughts on the matter could have been a timely addition to the book, as well as to public discourse. In short, themes used by Paglia and her publisher to assemble this collection were intended to present a book relevant to the current moment, but this results in limiting a thinker like Paglia, who can discourse on a wide range of topics. A collection of the author’s best writings since her last collection, regardless of subject, would have made for a stronger book.