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Paglia, Pugilism and Pants-less Threat

About twenty years ago, sickness Courtney Love told an interviewer that when she read Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth she “cried because that shit is so true“. I found this hard-to-take on two counts.

First, herpes work had led me to meet Ms Love on a single occasion wherein she had promised to beat me up “like a fuckin’ kangaroo”. (Not without cause).  She did this with her (rather impressive) leg propped on a fold-back speaker and I could see her labia as she threatened me. Naturally, ask it takes a hard act of mental bathos for me to imagine her crying while reading a book about the lack of confidence women have in their own bodies.

Second, I was never much of a Wolf fan. I preferred other feminist writers. And there were plenty of good ones about.

Much as it is now, feminism (or “gender studies” as it had sensibly begun to be called in universities) was big news in the early 1990s. There were women of enormous popular influence such as Susan Faludi and, of course, Wolf who went on from her publishing success to become an adviser on women’s affairs in the Clinton administration. Academia had its crossover stars and none shone so bright as Judith Butler; queer theory’s sine qua non and, IMO, a-mazing.

Unlike the currently popular feminism, though, this feminism—popular as it was—was a little different. Probably because people tended to write books about it rather than dump their load in Jezebel.

Feminism’s most notable architects spent a long time thinking about their ideas before writing them down.  I was quite happy with this arrangement as a reader but I understand that these days younger feminists tend to think of this sort of feminism as “elite” and “privileged”.

And in one narrow sense it was privilege that brought us the feminism of the early 1990s. The time to think is a luxury afforded only to a handful of journalists and academics and one produced by a lifetime of good luck.  But, good movements need good ideas and it would just be silly, for example, to say that Karl Marx should not be read because he is elite.

But some contemporary ‘intersectional’ feminists do insist now that we should now dismiss the intellectual labour of the privileged. This is because (a) we’ve heard these white middle class voices too long and (b) the ideas are accessible only to those with an ear for white middle class voices.

I can follow that argument but I find it difficult to practically support an abandonment of the sort of thinking that has, to date, only been made possible by privilege.

Good ideas might take privilege to produce. This does not necessarily mean these ideas will endorse privilege. It just means good ideas take time; time a commodity denied to many. It also means that simple ideas quickly wrought tend to be less effective than complex ones.  Even if those simple ideas are wrought from “lived experience”.  “Lived experience” is no substitute for critical thinking just as vigilantism is no substitute for the rule of law and intuition is no substitute for scientific method.

Good ideas take time.  Time is a privilege.  This does not lead us to the popular ‘intersectional’ conclusion that all good ideas reproduce privilege; they’ve just been produced in it.

Effective social justice ideas CANNOT be made simple because they describe the undoing of complex things. But this doesn’t mean they need to be impenetrable, either. We CAN embrace ideas that take time to produce if we take the time needed to understand them.

This meeting of the popular and the complex happened once, that I noticed, in my lifetime. For a brief period in the 1990s, I think we feminists were beginning to get a more popular fix on complexity.

Good movements also need internal debate and this was much more welcome in the 1990s.  We had Katie Roiphe and Christina Hoff Summers and, in Australia Helen Garner critiquing the movement with intelligence and knowledge.

I should mention: in the 1990s, I called both Ropihe and Garner bad words to their faces so I can’t really claim to be a studious lady who Took All Critique On Board.  But, you know. It was a time for feminism where being shocked to one’s ethical foundation was possible.  Because people still wrote books and disagreed with each other over years.

Now, people write short posts themselves not even based on books and disagree with each other over minutes.

And this is putatively good because Everyday People Have a Voice.

But, you know. The problem is that everyday people tend to produce shitty ideas. *

I have been thinking about the difference between 1990s pop feminism and contemporary pop feminism a bit lately as I am writing a book with my friend Bernard Keane; not about feminism, many of you will be pleased to learn, but about—among other things—undoing this fear of “elitism” in thought. And I am wondering if it is not possible to take the feminism of today which is so rich in energy and aphorism and speed and wed it to the rigour of 1990s feminism which is, to be frank, rich in actual ideas that are very badly needed.

(For example, the idea of “rape culture” is just a really terrible one. It holds that our culture explicitly endorses rape. This is simply untrue. Many people oppose rape. There are many laws to oppose rape. Of course, it is absolutely true that there are those who will use legal and cultural means to defend or perform rape but this does not mean there is a “rape culture” where rape is explicitly endorsed. Now, a discussion on how western culture implicitly endorses or produces rape might be worth having. But this “rape culture because rape culture” nonsense is not an idea that could result in some sort of solution but is a tragically under-thought case of begging-the-question. It is not a good idea. And we need good ideas.)

I was then reminded in the middle of these thoughts about my all-time favourite 90s popstar Camille Paglia. With patient erudition and a Nietzschean tendency to fly off the handle more artfully than anyone, Paglia uttered the secret to her own style.

Our philosophy should be both contemplative and pugilistic, admitting aggression (as Christianity does not) as central to our mythology. The beasts of passion must be confronted, and the laws of nature understood. Conflict cannot be avoided, but perhaps it can be confined to a mental theater. (Vamps and Tramps 1994)

Written in the same year I saw Ms Love’s labia, it strikes me that this plea still needs an answer. We need to fight smart, says Paglia.

When I happened upon the great and underestimated lady’s latest piece in TIME, it reminded me of that very brief era where  feminists could talk about difficult things without being called a disgrace to the movement.

I am popping this imperfect article here to (a) remind myself to consider its proposition about the disappearance of masculinity more thoroughly for the book I am writing with Bernard and (b) tell those of you unfamiliar with this funny bitch’s work to get on it.

I do not heart her without reservation. But, I still heart her.
Camille Paglia’s insistence of the last ten years that “biological” differences between men and women should be “respected” is peculiar scientism whose purpose and logic confuse me. HOWEVER she still upchucks so many interesting things.

Some of them are in this piece.

Okay, I do not agree at all that it was “feminism” changed men in the west—pretty sure it was a workplace that became more “knowledge” focused and less blue-collar. But as Camille reminds us, *something* drained the masculinity out of many of them and we tend to accept that this is GOOD. Because man are BAD.


No. No. NO. We can’t just keep throwing out the baby with the rape-water and saying that everything about being a man, including, building universities where people sit down and think thoughts for years, is bad.

Why? Why should we think masculinity is all bad? It is a simple question but WHY are we still trying to privilege “feminine” qualities over masculine ones when so many feminine qualities are shit?

Some of them are good, obviously. Like not tending to hit things. But some of them are just awful and anyone who doesn’t agree has clearly never seen an episode of Oprah.

If we accept it is true that (a) unfortunate characteristics and large-scale behaviour patterns are built into both gender categories (men tend to violence more often; women tend to win rampant destructive consumption) and (b) *some* noble characteristics are built into both gender categories, then why are we often implicitly and sometimes explicitly saying “A woman is a more noble creature than a man”.

I agree with Paglia’s assertion that masculinity as we understand it is seen as very negative. I agree that one of the few places masculinity (that thing characterized, among other things, as social, obsessively interested, competitive) is permitted to flourish is in sports.

I am not saying that “men” are the least powerful in our society because that would be lunacy; and Paglia does not qualify that which shites me.

But I am saying that masculinity, particularly in its more working class incarnation, is a set of qualities that has been shunned and this worries me. Because there are some good things about the traditional set of qualities; vigilance, courage, stoicism, focus.

I am not saying you have to have a dick to have these things. I am saying that these are things that have been discarded because they are seen as masculine.

Like critical thinking, masculinity has been devalued. Unlike Paglia, I do not feel this is the work of feminists; like most of the changes made to the way in which men and women in western liberal economies live, this shift is largely forced by the market. Men in the west no longer produce and must now take up the hitherto female role of consumption.

The change, I suspect, has a lot to do with shopping. This is a discussion for another time.

The point is: we see all hitherto construed as masculine as bad and all that is feminine as good and I believe that that shit is wack.

Paglia is one of the few popular writers on the matter of masculine and feminine who approaches (but sometimes fails to reach) good sense. So I post her thoughts and mine for your consideration.

And I commit a memory of the 1990s, too:  once, a famous rockstar not wearing  undergarments stared down at me, called me “Fucking Heidi”  and threatened to beat me up. The threat was theatrical, of course; she would have had one of her entourage do it.  But the point is (and I am excising a lot of alcohol and medication from this story) that Ms Love was requesting, not without cause, than I “man up” to my responsibilities as a journalist.

I remember this not for the sake of nostalgia to which I am personally allergic. But to remind you that for a brief time, feminists (even those without underpants) read entire books AND were unafraid to ravage each other like men.

Our philosophy should be both contemplative and pugilistic. This is absolutely true. But what is also true that our philosophy needs also to be philosophy; not a dashed-off half-thought that enrages us for an afternoon and does not change our way of thinking for a lifetime.


*I should say that I believe, along with that ELITIST Karl Marx in a system where we can ALL be better thinkers. Not all Nietzsche or Paglia, obviously. But better.
“In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” The German Ideology, Marx

25 Responses to “Paglia, Pugilism and Pants-less Threat”

  1. Anne Carlin says:

    It was pretty hard yakka in the mid 70’s when as a young married women I was trying not to lead the life that my mother had been forced to by circumstance and an unyielding husband. Not many books and published ideas then to help us on our journey. True The Female Eunuch was there but as a 21 year old and still at uni it really didn’t speak to me coherently. The book that changed my life and my mother’s was the Women’s Room by Marilyn French. At 53 it gave her the courage and inspiration to go to university. As a young girl she was forced to leave school by poverty at 14. She had 18 great months as a university student before her untimely death in a car accident.I turned 60 this week and I’ve never been brave enough to read it again in case I’m disappointed.

    • Helen Razer says:

      Don’t read it, Anne! It is written in the style of a Harlequin Romance but with feminism as the burly hero!

      But. You know. It doesn’t matter what turns us on to different thinking. It can be anything. For me, it was punk rock. For some of my friends in their thirties, it was Richard Dawkins. Even though he is a monumental tool, he did inspire a lot of people to think.

      Of course, I am not still collecting singles by the punk collective Crass anymore but I am still trying to think.

      Also, HAPPY BIRTHDAY you second-waver, you. And may your dear mum who saw the value of knowledge and of thought as we do stay in your heart. xxxxx

  2. Man Friday says:

    Would love it if “feminists” would acknowledge the simple reality that in 2014, the VAST MAJORITY of men are equally the victims of the “patriarchy” as women. It is a handful of men at the top of the pyramids of modern power – banking, oil, military, religion (add your own) that make life miserable for ALL of us. Plus, to be perfectly honest, I think I would have been a bit more appreciative of seeing Courtney’s labia, but that’s just me.

  3. CAP says:

    Now that I’ve stopped laughing at the thought of poor men doing it tough because they are sooo picked on (mwahahahahaha – there I go again) I’ll respond.

    I find myself shutting down over much feminism because I think a lot of the rhetoric is as damaging to society as gender based socialisation is. It’s why we perceive inherently male and female traits… not because any trait is inherently male or female, but because over time we have decided these things to be normal for boys and these other things for girls, and it’s all been a pretty arbitrary set of traits based, on guessing and perpetuation. In truth it probably relates back the field of semantics and Derrida’s speculation on people creating language. It’s a hard for people to realise they have the power to redefine their own identity as not gender specific while still themselves be gender specific (or not), because we place so much interest on sexuality (heck it’s even in our deodorant commercials, who would have though armpit stank could have a sexy side); so this part of the feminism battle will be a lot more nuanced and hard fought it think. It’s guerrilla feminism time. We need to come to terms with the fact that you don’t have to buy your little boy nothing but blue and plastic tools?… It’s all just a bit too hard. People might freak out if women stopped smelling good and keeping their eyebrows perfectly shaped.

    I think feminism needs to focus on why gender socialisation is bad, why these trait stereotypes have flourished due to the way we socialise our young from their very birth, and why we must stop doing it and accept that the dialogue needs to change about what traits are, and recognise that no trait belongs to one particular gender. I can’t help but think feminism is itself trapped in it’s own gender socialisation, and needs to liberate itself somewhat before it can truly liberate women. This gender socialisation issue is covered fairly thoroughly in social psychology and is worth a look to see how damaging gender stereotypes are. Strangely for me feminisms future is not really about women or how men treat women but about how we treat children. Sure discussion needs to happen amongst the grown ups but true change will be achieved over time and not necessarily “fixed” (I use the term extremely loosely) in my lifetime. The debate far outdates us all already. If women have the power in the home and are still largely the primary care givers… us girls could really shake society up in just one generation. (I think something went wrong with gen Y; the girls are Justas wanky as the men…. I think they should have made the men less wanky myself).

    Boys are allowed to love the Oprah show and that doesn’t mean they are girly it means they like that stuff. Girls should know that long pondering and Universities aren’t just from men and man style thinking. There is really no evidence that the deepest thinking and wisest sage wasn’t a woman. History has recorded selectively and in pieces as it always does. For all we know Socrates and Plato nicked their best ideas from a barmaid named Elinor who never got any of the credit she deserved. Gendered trait assumption do the debate a disservice.

    I enjoyed the article. I feel like you wanted to me to say “No Helen, we ladies can do those mind, thinking things, and I know some men who don’t have rapey eyes.. a few exist.” So if that was your intent it worked. It was one I could get through without throwing at the wall (would have been bad to break the laptop) and screaming “you crazy bitch, your as sexist as even the most overtly sexist person let alone the most covertly sexist one”, which is more than I can say for Germaine Greer’s work.

    Looking forward to your final copy. It’s a tight draft.

    • Helen Razer says:

      “I think feminism needs to focus on why gender socialisation is bad”
      It does nothing but.

      • Helen Razer says:

        Also. No one is allowed to love Oprah.

        • CAP says:

          This dude Stedman does. Sorry.

          • Helen Razer says:

            Okay. This piece is more about thinking than it is about feminism. As such, I am the enemy of Oprah.
            Also. I don’t know why you think Greer is impenetrable? TFE is probably the most accessible book of serious feminism in history.

            • CAP says:

              Oprah will be devastated and is avidly reading all discourse on her as we procrastinate.

              It’s not accessibility. I’m aware of Greer’s historic street cred. My guess is a lot of men really dug TFE too.

  4. Carlene says:

    Of course I am all for that eltist Marx but I also really love this from Butler

    “You will need all of those skills to move forward, affirming this earth, our ethical obligations to live among those who are invariably different from ourselves, to demand recognition for our histories and our struggles at the same time that we lend that to others, to live our passions without causing harm to others, and to know the difference between raw prejudice and distortion, and sound critical judgment.

    The first step towards nonviolence, which is surely an absolute obligation we all bear, is to begin to think critically, and to ask others to do the same.”

    Looking forward to your book

  5. Tessa Brown says:

    One day, they’ll make a time machine so we can go back and kneecap the chap/ chapette who invented the plough. Since allegedly that has more to do with gender-based physical role definitions in Homo sapiens sapiens than anything else (there’s a hefty paper on it from some Sheila in Canberra). Feminism and the Plough? But then, since I will have to hand hoe my food, I won’t have the privilege of spare time to get all lofty and be betters at being human. Fffffuuuuu irony.

  6. Damien Millar says:

    Remember when Suzie Bright first thought Paglia was a crazy bag lady and then, after some elitist claptrap, pashed her?
    Would you let Love pash you now?
    Could you even stop her?
    Can you think of any brief contemporary enragements that have extended into or just helped along a more philosophical pugilism?
    Is Get Up a simulation?
    Cannot wait for book.

  7. tam says:

    This is a really wide-ranging and thoughtful article, a pleasure to read. Hope you keep writing in this vein for 2014.

  8. Paul says:

    I remember the Courtney incident. Didn’t she refer to you as Heidi?

  9. Tania says:

    Thanks Helen, a great read. As someone at uni now (2nd time round) I can let you know there is still plenty of Butler around campus. And everyone at uni (in my enclave there anyway) complains and is aware of how little time there is nowadays for real thought. But we press on.
    I look forward to the post about shopping (aka I blame Capitalism).

  10. Emma says:

    Vigilance, stoicism and focus have been discarded? And here I was feeling the pressure to hurry up and achieve something!

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