Growing up as "a gender nonconforming entity" in Eisenhower's America wasn't easy for cultural critic and best-selling author Camille Paglia. Her adolescence in small-town upstate New York was marked by rejection, rebellion, and cross-dressing, all in reaction to the stultifying social norms of the 1950s and early '60s. She would go on to become one of America's most famous academics and cultural critics, an "anti-feminist feminist" and an incendiary atheist who once wrote that "God is man's greatest idea." From her perch at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, Paglia has befuddled orthodox partisans and ideologues for decades.
So what does this tireless provocateur think of contemporary culture, with its openness to a wide variety of ever-proliferating gender, racial, and sexual identities? Not so much. Whether the subject is feminism or the fate of Western civilization, Paglia is no Pollyanna. In this wide-ranging discussion, she says decadence is upon us, higher education is going to hell, LSD destroyed the baby boomers, millennials are myopic, contemporary criticism has croaked, and Hillary Clinton might singlehandedly destroy the universe. Even Madonna, once Paglia's ideal of sex-positive feminism, seems to have lost her way.
Does the celebrated author of Sexual Personae (1990) and Break Blow Burn (2005) have any reason to get out of bed in the morning? Does she have any hope at all? Reason TV's Nick Gillespie sat down with Paglia in March to find out.
reason: Let's talk about the state of contemporary feminism. You have been in a public life or in an intellectual life since the late 1960s, a proud feminist, often reviled by other feminists. Gloria Steinem most famously said you were an anti-feminist and when you denied that, she said that would be like a Nazi saying they're not anti-Semitic. If you look at from, say, the early '70s, things have gotten better for women: Men are less uptight about gender roles. Women are more in the workforce. Sexual assaults and sexual violence are down. Yet from sites like Jezebel or Feministing, all you hear is that things have never been worse.
Camille Paglia: Feminism has gone through many phases. Obviously the woman's suffrage movement of the 19th century fizzled after women gained the right to vote through the constitutional amendment in 1920. Then the movement revived in the 1960s through Betty Freidan co-founding [the National Organization for Women] in 1967. I preceded all that. I'm on record with a letter in Newsweek—I was in high school in 1963—where I called for equal rights for American women. I loved the generation of Amelia Earhart and all those emancipated women of the '20s and '30s. Because I had started my process of thought about gender so much earlier, I was out of sync with the women's movement when it suddenly burst forth.
reason: It became a huge kind of cultural moment in the late '60s. Before that…
Paglia: …it was literally nothing. There was no political activism of any kind [after] women getting the right to vote in 1920. When Simone de Beauvoir wrote her great magnum opus, The Second Sex, published in the early 1950s, she was thought to be hopelessly retrograde. [The prevailing view was that] nobody could possibly be interested again in gender issues.
reason: You were living in upstate New York. Did you already know what your sexuality was? What was it like to be a woman, a lesbian, in 1963?
Paglia: Well, the 1950s were a highly conformist period. Gender had repolarized after really great gains in the '20s and '30s. One must be more sympathetic to the situation of my parents' generation. They had known nothing but Depression and war throughout their entire lives. My father was a paratrooper; when he got out of the Army, everyone married. I'm the baby boom. They wanted normality. They just wanted to live like real people, man and wife in a home.
I found the 1950s utterly suffocating. I was a gender nonconforming entity, and I was signaling my rebellion by these transgender Halloween costumes that were absolutely unheard of. I was 5, 6, 7, 8 years old. My parents allowed me to do it because I was so intent on it.
reason: What were you dressing up as?
Paglia: A Roman soldier, the matador from Carmen. My best was Napoleon. I was Hamlet from the Classics Comics. Absolutely no one was doing stuff like this. I'm happy that this talk about medical sex changes was not in the air, because I would have become obsessed with that and assumed that that was my entire identity and problem. This is why I'm very concerned about the rush to surgical interventions today.
At any rate, I was attracted to men—I dated men—but I just fell in love with women and always have. Yes, there's absolutely no doubt: I was on the forefront of gay identification. When I arrived at graduate school at Yale, 1968–1972, I was the only openly gay person, and I didn't even have a sex life. To me, it was a badge of militance. And I was the only person doing a dissertation on a sexual topic. It's hard to believe this now.
reason: What was the topic?
Paglia: Sexual personae, which was the book finally published in 1990 after being rejected by seven publishers and five agents. I'm delighted I had the sponsorship of [Yale literary critic and scholar] Harold Bloom. That pushed the topic through the English department. That they allowed me to do such a thing on sex was actually kind of amazing.
My clashes with other feminists began immediately. For example: It was 1970 or 1971, there was a feminist conference at the Yale Law School, and major feminists were there including Rita Mae Brown, who said to me, "The difference between you and me, Camille, is that you want to save the universities, and I want to burn them down." How can you have dialogue with these people? Later she became a rich lesbian novelist and has a horse farm in Virginia. And then I had a screaming fight with the New Haven Women's Liberation Rock Band over the Rolling Stones, because at that time, hard rock was seen as sexist. Now this argument seems so retrograde.
reason: Although it's true, right? The guitar's a phallus. The rock god is Dionysius. He's not a woman.
Paglia: But at that time, there were no woman musicians. That's why Patti Smith was so radical when she appeared in her Frank Sinatra garb for [photographer Robert] Mapplethorpe on the front of Horses. We had a screaming fight about [the Stones song] "Under My Thumb." I said, "Yes, yes, the lyrics are sexist, but this is a great song. This is a work of art." And these feminists cornered me with my back against the wall, practically spitting in my face, saying, "Nothing that demeans woman can be art." Now, as a student of art history, how can you have any dialogue with these people? That is the Nazi and Stalinist view of art, where art is subordinate to a pre-fab political agenda.
Next was the argument over hormones. Again, screaming argument over hormones. I was told by the founding members of the Women's Studies Department at the State University of New York at Albany that I had been brainwashed by male scientists to believe that hormones even existed, much less had any role in the shaping of our identity and character.
So I was banned from the women's movement from the start, but I kept going on. I was pro-pornography, pro-prostitution on libertarian grounds. For years, my wing of feminism—which had been silenced and ostracized by the Steinem wing, the establishment wing, partisans of the Democratic party, my party, but nevertheless, I don't feel that feminism should be subordinated to any party—finally, we rose in the '90s and the pro-sex wing of feminism won in the '90s thanks to Madonna having changed the culture.
reason: For you, what is the essence of feminism? Is it using the lens of gender to explore every given issue? Is it a formal gesture? Is it a methodology, or is it a set of political positions that can't change?
Paglia: I am an equal opportunity feminist. I believe that all barriers to women's advancement in the social and political realm must be removed. However, I don't feel that gender is sufficient to explain all of human life. This gender myopia has become a disease, a substitute for a religion, this whole cosmic view. It's impossible that the feminist agenda can ever be the total explanation for human life. Our problem now is that this monomania—the identity politics of the 1970s, so people see everything through the lens of race, gender, or class-this is an absolute madness, and in fact, it's a distortion of the '60s. I feel that the '60s had a vision, a large cosmic perspective that was absolutely lost in this degeneration, in this splintering of the 1970s into these identity politics.
reason: Was it just that the revolution eats its own? Or is it that there's a shrinking economic pie, so people started grabbing for whatever they could before the Titanic goes down? What explains that narrowing?
Paglia: I actually wrote an entire essay about the religious vision of America in the 1960s in "Cults and Cosmic Consciousness." I feel that the real visionary thinkers of my generation destroyed their brains on drugs. LSD just leveled all the truly talented people of my generation.
reason: I have to say that this conversation is over! So who were the people who destroyed themselves on drugs?
Paglia: My classmates. The authentic imaginations, the really innovative people of my generation, the most daring of my generation took the drug. Now I, for some reason, felt that the LSD was untested, and I did not want to experiment with it. But I was very interested in it. I was interested in all types of vision quests at the time. I went up with fellow students [from SUNY-Binghamton] to see Timothy Leary speak at Cornell. I saw him, and it made me uneasy that here was the guru with such a crowd around him, but his face was already twitching. I could see that this was not going to end well, and it did not.
So when I got to graduate school in 1968, I can attest to the fact that no authentically radical student of the 1960s ever went to graduate school. So all that were left were the time-servers, who parasitically [lived] on the achievements of the 1960s, for heaven's sake. Any authentic leftist who had a job at a university in the 1970s or '80s or '90s should have been opposing the entire evolution of the university-that is, toward this administrative bureaucracy that has totally robbed power from the faculty. The total speciousness and fraud of academic leftism is proven by the passivity of these people in every department of the university to that power play that happened.
reason: If you went to college up through the late '60s to mid-'80s, there was no in loco parentis. There were fewer and fewer required courses. It was a kind of temporary autonomous zone. Then it started getting ratcheted down. And then you hear about the student experience [now], and it's about required courses and making people think certain things or not express certain things. So much of the focus of undergraduate education seems to be on kind of indoctrinating people into the proper ways of thinking.
Paglia: When I arrived in college in 1964, in loco parentis was operative. I was in a girl's dorm. We had a sign-in at 11:00 at night. The boys could run free. They had panty raids. We threw water at them out the windows and so on. My generation of women rose up and said, "Get out of our private lives!" And the university said, "No, the world is dangerous. We must protect you against rape and attack and all those things." And we said, "Give us freedom! Give us freedom to risk rape! That is true freedom!"
reason: Isn't it as true that what they were trying to restrain was not rape, but rather your sexual appetite?
Paglia: I think that they believed they were acting for the parents, that it was their obligation to protect, and this is why I went so much against the grain of contemporary feminists, when I wrote about the date rape hysteria. I wrote this inflammatory piece for Newsday in 1991 that I'm still being persecuted about everywhere; people are still angry about it. Basically what I said was free women must take personal responsibility for their own sex lives and keep the authority figures out of your sex life.
reason: And to be clear, in no way is this sanctioning sexual violence.
Paglia: Absolutely not.
reason: What you're talking about is cases where people retroactively reclassified a regrettable sexual experience that they would rather not have consented to as rape.
Paglia: I'm talking about date rape, what everyone is talking about right now, about this so-called rape culture. But that essay that I wrote begins, "Rape is an outrage that cannot be tolerated in any civilized society." That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about this new reclassification of people getting drunk, going on a date, going to fraternity houses, and women not taking responsibility for their own behavior. I said that gay men for thousands of years have been going out and having sex with strangers everywhere. They know they can be beaten up. They know they can be killed. What is this, where women are, "Oh, we must be protected against even our foolish choices. It's up to men to." This is ridiculous. This is an intrusion into the civil liberties of young people [to] have these vampiric parent figures and administrators hovering, watching, supervising people's sex lives. In Europe, there's nothing like this. There's no idea that the University of Paris is concerned about the dating lives of damn students.
reason: Well, they also don't have sports teams, and they don't have dorms.
Paglia: Exactly. It's this residential college thing, this vision of college as this summer camp, this Club Med. This is the folly of American education.
reason: It's more re-education camp now, right? Camp Wo-Chi-Cha?
Paglia: It's: "Let us hold your hand. Let us give you the incredible gym with exercise equipment. Let's give you the thousand choices in the cafeteria." This has nothing to do with education anymore.
reason: You talked about how in the '90s, your view of feminism—getting rid of legal or de jure restrictions on women's ability to rise or fall, cultural equality, things like that—burst out, and Madonna is one of the great change agents for you. Talk a little about Madonna's effect on the culture, which we're still feeling. One of the more interesting things that comes up is that before and after Madonna, in every popular movie and many popular and artistic novels, it's all about the "Virgin-Whore Complex." A woman can only be a virgin or whore, and in Madonna's wake, it seems the virgin-whore complex, which bedeviled Western Civilization for centuries, doesn't seem to really matter anymore.
Paglia: Madonna's great period was 1983-1992. She absolutely changed the world. There's no doubt about it. And since then, it's cringe-making when the current Madonna…it's embarrassing.
reason: I think you'll agree that when she started faking the English accent, the real Madonna died, every bit as much as Elvis died the day he went into the Army.
Paglia: But what Madonna did was to allow young women to flirt with men, to seduce men, to control men. She showed that you could be sexy but at the same time control the negotiations and territory between male and female, and that was really powerful. So now, we're in a period—this is what I don't understand, where women on campus, the institutionalized whining now, that's what it's turned into.
reason: Clarify what's the difference between a legitimate gripe and whining?
Paglia: Well, in my point of view, no college administration should be taking any interest whatever in the social lives of the students. None! If a crime's committed on campus, it should always be reported to the police. I absolutely do not agree with any committees investigating any charge of sexual assault. Either it's a real crime, or it's not a real crime. Get the hell out. So you get this expansion of the campus bureaucracy with this Stalinist oversight. But the students have been raised with helicopter parents. They want it. The students of today—they're utterly unformed. Not necessarily at my school, the art school. I'm talking about the elite schools.
I've encountered these graduates of Harvard, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton, I've encountered them in the media, and people in their 30s now, some of them, their minds are like Jell-O. They know nothing! They've not been trained in history. They have absolutely no structure to their minds. Their emotions are unfixed. The banality of contemporary cultural criticism, of academe, the absolute collapse of any kind of intellectual discourse in the U.S. is the result of these colleges, which should have been the best, instead having retracted into caretaking. The whole thing is about approved social positions in a kind of misty love of humanity, without any direct knowledge of history or economics or anthropology.
reason: Maybe the university is not the place where that sort of stuff is happening anymore. So, for instance, you have think tanks that do a lot of economic or policy work. You have popular historians who are not academic. Fiction and poetry are happening independently. Nobody looks to the university to be cutting edge on almost anything, really. So maybe it's just that you picked the wrong horse?
Paglia: [As a] writer of cultural criticism, I find that I'm happiest when I'm writing for the British press, and I write quite a bit for The Sunday Times magazine in London. I find that the general sense of cultural awareness means that I can have an authentic discourse about ideas with international journalists from Brazil or Germany or Italy or Norway or Canada even—somewhat, but they have a P.C. problem themselves. I can feel the vacuum and the nothingness of American cultural criticism at the present time. It is impossible—any journalist today, an American journalist, you cannot have any kind of deep discussion of ideas.
reason: Is that just a kind of hyper-exaggeration of the American disease, which goes back to early American literary criticism, that we're people who come from nowhere and we don't care about the past? We're freed from the burdens of the past, so we don't care about the past?
Paglia: Yes, I think this is true. The past is always present in Europe. To the extent that you're in Berlin, you can still see the bullet marks on buildings from World War II. And it's a terrible burden to have that there.
I think Americans are far more ingenious and open and daring. On the other hand…people abroad have a much more sophisticated idea about [politics and ideology in] Europe because they'll have 13 parties conflicting in parliament and so on. That's been a problem over here—it's either/or. You're either a liberal or a conservative. What?! You're combining things from both sides? Then obviously you're a traitor! It's become some sort of religion whether you're a Democrat or a Republican over here. And as you had the first conservative challenge coming from talk radio in the early '90s to the liberal hegemony in the mainstream media, I thought that was a very exciting period, because you start to get the clash of ideas. But now the right itself has become a victim of its own insularity, and I no longer feel that dialogue anymore.
reason: You did not exist in the mid-'60s; your cultural identity did not exist. And now there's a million types of people that you can be: You can be a conservative lesbian, you can be polyamorous, you can be bisexual, you can be this, you can be that…
reason: Would you agree that there's been a massive proliferation of legitimate cultural identities out there? Is that a good thing or a bad thing, and what's driving that move forward?
Paglia: At first, I was very excited about the ethnic identity movement, because I feel very Italian-American and have always been in revolt against the WASP style that dominated academe—Leslie Fiedler himself was a victim of this, Harold Bloom was—there weren't any Jews hired in the Yale English department in the mid-1950s, there were quotas on Jewish students admitted to Harvard, all things like that. But over time, what's happened, I think, is that gender identity has become really almost fascist. It's to me a very shrunk and miniaturized way of perceiving your position in the world and in the universe.
There [comes] a time when these fine gradations of gender identity—I'm a male trans doing this, etc.—this is a symbol of decadence, I'm sorry. Sexual Personae talks about this: That was in fact the inspiration for it, was that my overview of history and my noticing that in late phases, you all of a sudden get a proliferation of homosexuality, of sadomasochism, or gendered games, impersonations and masks, and so on. I think we're in a really kind of late phase of culture.
reason: So that the proliferation of cultural identities, the proliferation of all sorts of possibilities is actually a sign that we're…
Paglia: On the verge of collapse? Yes! Western culture is in decline. There's absolutely no doubt about it, in my view, looking at the history of Egypt, of Babylon, of Byzantium, and so on. And so what's happening is everyone's so busy-busy-busy with themselves, with this narcissistic sense of who they are in terms of sexual orientation or gender, and this intense gender consciousness, woman consciousness at the same time, and meanwhile…
reason: Is that also racial or ethnic consciousness as well?
Paglia: Right now, to me, the real obsessions have to do with gender orientation. Although I think there's been this flare-up [regarding race]. I voted for Obama, but I've been disappointed. I think we had hoped that he would inaugurate a period of racial harmony, and I think the situation has actually become even worse over recent years. It seems to be overt inflammatory actions by the administration to pit the races against each other, so I think there's a lot of damage that needs to be healed.
But I think most of the problems as I perceive them in my students and so on, is that there's this new obsession with where you are on this wide gender spectrum. That view of gender seems to me to be unrealistic because it's so divorced from any biological referent. I do believe in biology, and I say in the first paragraph of Sexual Personae that sexuality is an intricate intersection of nature and culture. But what's happened now is that the way the universities are teaching, it's nothing but culture, and nothing's from biology. It's madness! It's a form of madness, because women who want to marry and have children are going to have to encounter their own hormonal realities at a certain point.
reason: Do you see your personal liberation as having helped to grease the skids for decadence, for the collapse of Western civilization?
Paglia: I have, yes.
reason: Do you feel at all ambivalent about that?
Paglia: I've defined myself as a decadent. One of my first influences was Oscar Wilde. I stumbled on a little book called The Epigrams of Oscar Wilde in a secondhand bookstore in Syracuse, New York, when I was like 14, and I was fascinated by his statements. So I am a Wildean, and he identifies himself as a kind of decadent in that period of aestheticism.
reason: And certainly he was toward the end of the great hegemony of England as a world power, at least in a cultural sense.
Paglia: Yes, that's true too, the decline of an empire. Absolutely.
reason: A libertarian may be defined as socially liberal and fiscally conservative or as socially tolerant and fiscally responsible. Is that a political or ideological position that can actually offer something good to the future?
Paglia: Well it appears that Rand Paul is drawing excited college crowds. It would be interesting to see whether young people have the old style of sense of identification with Democrat or Republican. I have the sense—it's not an entirely comfortable one—that my students have slowly morphed away from even paying attention to politics over the past, let's say, 15 years. It's worried me, because the crises around the world are actually intensifying, and how are they going to cope as a generation?
reason: Is it a bad thing that they forget politics? Because there was a huge element of the '60s revolution, which was like, "Politics? That's old men duking it out and trying to throw our bodies in front of each other." One of the promises of libertarianism is that we squeeze politics down to the smallest sphere possible so we can get on with more meaningful parts of our lives.
Paglia: I'm just concerned if you're not interested at all in the news or in political sparring and maneuverings and so on, then how can you possibly have any influence on the future? I'm worried that we're heading toward a kind of Big Brother empire where you have the career politicians at the top in league with the puppet masters of the media, the ability to manage the news, the complete drop of journalistic standards now that the newspapers are vanishing. No young person reads a newspaper. That's on the way out.
reason: Is Hillary Clinton kind of your worst nightmare as a woman?
Paglia: No, she's exactly my age. I feel I know her completely. Our accents are kind of the same. I understand her completely. So I see all the games and falsehoods and so forth; I've enjoyed it. I've made an entire career, practically—in fact I wrote the cover story for The New Republic, "Ice Queen, Drag Queen." That was 1996, it was way back there.
reason: So what is it about Hillary that bothers you?
Paglia: She's a fraud!
reason: Explain how.
Paglia: She can't have an opinion without poll-testing it. She's a liar. This is not a strong candidate for our first woman president. To me, Dianne Feinstein should have presented herself.
reason: Ah! Are you kidding?
Paglia: No. I don't care what her views are. What I'm saying is, for the post of president—that's commander in chief of the military. It's got to be a woman with a familiarity with military matters and [who] also has gravitas. And Dianne Feinstein, I first became aware of her after those murders [of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk] that occurred in City Hall…
reason: She certainly never lets you forget that she was there.
Paglia: No. But I have never forgotten because it was one of the great moments where a woman took charge in absolute chaos after a barbarous murder. The whole government was falling apart, and she came to the media and gave the news and was steady. And I said, "That's it. That's the formula for the first woman president."
So what I'm interested in is what is very important in this modern era: How do you use the media to communicate? If you're going to be a woman president, she must communicate strength, reserve, and yet compassion. That formula—I've been waiting, and waiting, and waiting for it. The only person in America who's had it as far as I'm concerned was Dianne Feinstein, and she didn't put herself forward for whatever reason as president.
But Hillary does not have it. Hillary is a mess. And we're going to award the presidency to a woman who's enabled the depredations and exploitation of women by that cornpone husband of hers? The way feminists have spoken makes us blind to Hillary's record of trashing [women]. They were going to try to destroy Monica Lewinsky. It's a scandal! Anyone who believes in sexual harassment guidelines should have seen that the disparity of power between [Bill] Clinton and Monica Lewinsky was one of the most grotesque ever in the history of sex crime. He's a sex criminal! We're going to put that guy back in the White House? Hillary's ridden on his coattails. This is not a woman who has made her own career. The woman failed the bar exam in Washington! The only reason she went to Arkansas and got a job in the Rose Law Firm was because her husband was a politician.
reason: What are you excited about or optimistic about in this twilight of the American century?
Paglia: What am I optimistic about?
reason: Is there any reason for us to be getting up other than to fight an existential battle against darkness? What's good? Is anything good in your life?
Paglia: I enjoy living in America. I could only live in America, because you can feel accepted in academe, you can think whatever you want, and I think it's still a very fertile area for entrepreneurship. People with new ideas can come out of nowhere and become millionaires overnight, and some of our most interesting people did not even graduate from college. Matt Drudge didn't go to college.
America is, to me, full of fresh and creative energies. But we're being saddled with an incompetent government that's sort of sapping [those energies]. The less you think about the government, maybe the better. I still feel I wouldn't live anywhere else but the U.S.