Political Animal


October 13, 2012 2:18 PM She’s baaacck … Salon’s interminable interview with Camille Paglia

By Kathleen Geier

You know, as a humble weekend blogger, I sometimes struggle about what in the world I should write about. Weekends are often slow news periods, and frequently I am at a loss. Sometimes I have what I think are good ideas, but some other every-day blogger gets to them before I have a chance to, and I don’t want to repeat something that’s already been done to death. The search for good material can be a challenge — it doesn’t just fall from the sky, people!

All of which explains why I was delighted when I stumbled upon an interminable interview with Camille Paglia that Salon.com saw fit to publish earlier this week. Oh what joy! It arrived like an early Christmas present, and I knew right away that it would be chockfull of enough stupidity, megalomania, and batsh*t crazy to keep me busy for weeks!

And true to form, la Paglia does not disappoint. She apparently is shilling for yet another of her rubbishy books, which explains her re-appearance on the scene. And actually, there is so much bizarre stuff in that interview that I hardly know where to begin. Paglia is in her high Classic Concern Troll mode throughout; she’s a self-described “feminist” who has never, ever had a single good thing to say about feminism, a so-called Democrat who does nothing but viciously attack each and every (living) Democrat, all the while behaving like a lovesick lapdog puppy to every deranged talk radio wingnut who ever came down the pike.

Here’s a modest sampling of some of her more risible comments in the Salon interview: Mitt Romney is “a moderate — like Nelson Rockefeller” and “an affable, successful businessman whose skills seem well-suited to this particular moment of economic crisis.” Obamacare is ” a massive, totalitarian takeover of the American medical system.” Conservatives are all passionate civil libertarians, and “protest against the surveillance state has, with only a few exceptions, been mainly coming from the Right and not from the Left!”

This is all standard Paglia-esque drivel. Indeed, the single biggest shock in the interview is that nowhere does she mention Madonna, whom in the past Paglia would bring up, with OCD-like inevitability, in every single interview she gave or article she wrote, no matter how inappropriate to the context. Nor does she bring up her previous fangurl obsession, Sarah Palin — who, wrote Paglia in 2008, represented:

the biggest step forward in feminism since Madonna channeled the dominatrix persona of high-glam Marlene Dietrich and rammed pro-sex, pro-beauty feminism down the throats of the prissy, victim-mongering, philistine feminist establishment.

You tell ‘em, Camille!

As I said, Paglia spews all kinds of of nonsense in this interview, but what I want to single out for particular notice is the single biggest falsehood she utters, which is this: Paglia claims that in 1990, she “invented the now widespread feminist term ‘pro-sex’.” This is risibly, demonstrably false. I had certainly heard the term way before 1990, and I seem to recall that the great Ellen Willis was the first feminist to use the term, or at least popularize it. Indeed, a 1981 Village Voice essay by Willis, “Lust Horizons: Is the Women’s Movement Pro-Sex?” was apparently the first appearance in print of the term “pro-sex feminism,” a fact that Wikipedia confirms. (Btw, Ellen Willis was seriously awesome and I strongly urge to check out her amazing, still-relevant essays as well her fantastic and highly underrated rock criticism.)

This is hardly the first time Paglia has made this claim; for years, she has repeated, ad nauseum, the story of how she “invented” pro-sex feminism. This rewriting of history shows not only her megalomania but her complete ignorance of feminism. Does she not remember the feminist sex wars of the late 70s and early 80s, when anti-porn feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon squared off against sex radicals like Ellen Willis and Gayle Rubin, and civil libertarians like Nadine Strossen, in debates about porn, sex work, BDSM, sexual identity, and sexual expression (issues like transgendered people and sexual subcultures like butch/femme)? Entire books have been written about this subject; a famously rowdy and deeply controversial 1982 Barnard conference was heralded as ground zero in the feminist sex wars. Throughout the 80s and 90s, many pro-sex feminists enjoyed prominence in the women’s movement. These feminists included Susie Bright, who wrote sex-positive sexual advice columnists; performance artists like Annie Sprinkle; activists like Tristan Taormino; and novelists like Dorothy Allison. Does Paglia not know this?

Moreover, even though the phrase “sex-positive feminism” was not coined until 1981, the concept existed long before that. Feminism is a big tent, and it has included 19th and early 20th century-era “free love” radicals like Victoria Woodhull and Emma Goldman, as well as their more sexually orthodox feminist sisters like Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt.The idea that, before Camille Paglia, no feminist ever advocated sexual liberation is patently absurd. (Also, the idea, which Paglia seems to believe, that anyone who critiques porn is somehow “sex-negative” is also highly debatable, but I’ll leave that aside for now).

The topper to all this? In the same interview, Camille Paglia, so-called “sex positive” feminist, attacks Naomi Wolf for … wait for it … writing about her sex life! Says Paglia about Wolf:

I was shocked at the grotesque sexual exhibitionism here of a woman who is turning 50 this year and who is the mother of two teenagers. Why would anyone do this to herself and her family?

So let me get this straight: Camille Paglia, fearless advocate of “sex-positive feminism,” hysterically clutches her pearls and rushes to the fainting couch because a woman who is 50 years old and has kids is writing about her sex life? In what way is Paglia’s desire to silence 50-year old women, or mothers, from writing about their sex lives “sex positive”? And does Paglia believe that 50-year old men, or men with children, should also be banned from writing about their sex lives? Ah, but to ask that question, is to answer it!

Paglia’s fawning interviewer doesn’t even bother addressing these bizarre inconsistencies, but that’s no surprise, since he didn’t take on her Big Lie about “inventing” sex positive in the first place. (Note to Salon: if you’re going to give Paglia all that bandwidth to spout off about feminism, could you at least bother to pair her with an interviewer who knows anything at all about that subject? Thanks!) And btw, another of the huge whoppers Paglia tells is this: she claims that feminist reviewers of Wolf’s new book:

revealed their own historical ignorance in their failure to call Wolf on her absurd portrayal of ancient vagina-worship — where it was brute procreation and never women’s pleasure that was being honored.

Wrong again! At least two reviews by major feminists do just that! In the Daily Beast, Michelle Goldberg’s review cites the great scholar of Hinduism, Wendy Doniger, to smack down Wolf’s silly claims about ancient, allegedly female-centric sexual rituals, and in The Nation Katha Pollitt gives a shout-out to Goldberg’s debunking on this point.

Paglia says plenty more mendacious, insane, and deeply idiotic things, but I’ll leave it to those of you interested in a good hate read to seek them out yourselves. I’ll close by asking this: why does Joan Walsh continue to subject us to to this ridiculous woman? I think Joan Walsh is awesome, and Salon is an excellent site that, over the years, has gotten better and better. It’s launched a number of wonderful female writers, like the aforementioned Goldberg, as well as Rebecca Traister, Irin Carmon, and others. I know Paglia is link bait, just as I know I am in fact rising to the bait by writing about her here. But really, Joan Walsh — Paglia is long past her sell date, and it’s well past time Salon cut the cord. You should be ashamed of yourself for allowing Salon to continue to publish Paglia’s malicious, misogynist, wingnutty nonsense.

Update: I meant to post a link this, Molly Ivins’ classic piece about Paglia, which is from 1991. It is definitely one of the greatest takedowns ever by anyone of anything, and it is an unparalleled pleasure to read. Enjoy, and Molly Ivins, you are missed!

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • c u n d gulag on October 13, 2012 4:49 PM:

    Jayzoos H. Keerist in a retirement facility!

    I'm old enough to remember when she was the darling of a lot of the Left.

    Then I read some of her stuff.

    And thought, "Either I'm not of the Left, or the Left that loves her is insane!"

    I remember some people lauding her, and I'd ask them, "You ever READ her stuff?"
    I'd get some blank stares.
    Of course not - they'd read OF her!

    She was mostly a self-serving whacko from Day 1!
    And yes, years and years ago, she had some good points to make - but they've long been drowned out in a tsunami of her own stupid.

    Somewhere, Nelson Rockefeller is spinning in his grave to have his name in the same sentence as Mitt Romeny.


  • millekat on October 13, 2012 5:09 PM:

    Well, you know Charlie Pierce is off on weekends, so possibly we won't hear the further adventures of the drunk security guard at Salon. All hail Kathleen Geier for performing the toxicology check so we don't have to.

  • Nancy Cadet on October 13, 2012 5:09 PM:

    Right!I've never understood how these "feminist spokespersons" get nominated by the mainstream media. Paglia is a sloppy thinker and obviously right wing. She is a hack, but unlike the hacks employed by Heritage Foundation or others, she manages with a university affiliation.

  • millekat on October 13, 2012 5:10 PM:

    Well, you know Charlie Pierce is off on weekends, so possibly we won't hear the further adventures of the drunk security guard at Salon. All hail Kathleen Geier for performing the toxicology check so we don't have to.

  • Jim, FL on October 13, 2012 5:38 PM:

    Yawn. I saw the headline and figured someone was rearranging their office, dropped an old rolodex and Paglia's contact info fell out, so they threw her a bone. I mostly like Joan Walsh and agree Salon has gotten better under her stewardship, but she's not immune to the desire to troll, in every sense of the word, for hits. Hey, they gotta make a buck. As for Paglia, I can say without her, we'd never have had the late and much lamented Miss Molly Ivins' immortal takedown of Paglia. Everyone should read it, but it, and Paglia, can be summed up in the perfect closing sentence: "Sheesh! What an asshole!"

  • hells littlest angel on October 13, 2012 5:39 PM:

    "...enthusiastically fellates Camille Paglia ..."

    Ai yi yi. That will have me laughing for days.

  • SecularAnimist on October 13, 2012 5:39 PM:

    Well, on a "slow news" weekend you could always write about anthropogenic global warming, which is already causing unprecedented agricultural failures all over the world, and generating an onslaught of extremely destructive weather which is causing billions of dollars in damages year after year, and which threatens the very existence of human civilization -- and which is being utterly ignored by both Obama and Romney in this campaign.

    Or, you could write about the inanities of a self-indulgent right-wing pseudo-intellectual.

  • bos'n on October 13, 2012 6:00 PM:

    Would that Governor Rockefeller and others of his ilk had been less generous with the public purse and not allowed for the education of such as Ms. Paglia or Sarah Palin. If public education hadn't expanded as much (or lowered its standards as much) perhaps we would have been spared their exhortations. Ms. Paglia is like a barking mad justification for male chauvinism and right wing attacks on what passes for 'intellectuals' here in the US. But then, why should the likes of Todd Akin get all of the perks in our society? Ms. Paglia has acquired knowledge, and seemingly has rejected the lifestyle of her immediate forbears, but her writing suggests that she has retained many of the narrow prejudices of some apronned ancestress.

  • R on October 13, 2012 6:43 PM:

    Thanks, K.G, for the great headline and total takedown. I was disgusted to see Paglia reappear. It brings back unpleasant memories of supposedly liberal men in the 90's claiming that it was okay to entertain Paglia's misogyny because "she's a feminist!" Queen bee is more like it; get those drones to feed you the royal jelly and then you can conclude that you're really special.

  • Joe on October 13, 2012 6:59 PM:

    I was a Salon "Premium" member for many years until a read one too many pieces by Paglia the shrieking banshee. I stopped sending money to Salon and found other sites to read. I check in there from time to time, but the love affair ended long ago.

  • Douglas Moran on October 13, 2012 7:03 PM:

    And Sharon Stone; at least she didn't mention Sharon Stone again, either. Sharon Stone and Madonna; oy.

  • CRA on October 13, 2012 7:17 PM:

    She's often incoherent:

    "Well, I’m sorry, but that’s specious! [i.e. feminists' saying they're pro-sex, but anti-porn.] You are not authentically pro-sex until you can deal with all the visual language of sexuality. The anti-porn feminists have always been visual illiterates. If you’re used to looking at nudes in [art history], you’re not going to be that alarmed by what’s called pornography. How silly! It’s just sexual imagery of varying quality – from good to bad."

    Paglia totally ignores the substance of feminist critiques of porn. One way to "deal" with the "visual language of sexuality" is to analyze its content, not just esthetically (as qualitatively good or bad art), but morally, socio-economically, etc. And feminists do that, whether we agree with them or not, whether precious Paglia finds them "visually illiterate" or not.

    Porn objectifies people, it makes a commodity of sex, in a world of vastly unequal power and privilege. Now, it's my understanding that some people are earnestly arguing the merits; on this topic, Paglia is just glib and shallow.

  • Crusader1 on October 13, 2012 7:24 PM:

    Why oh why couldn't Molly Ivins still be alive today, if only to rip apart Romney and Ryan for all to read?

  • Rick B on October 13, 2012 7:33 PM:

    Regarding the statement

    ” Obamacare is” a massive, totalitarian takeover of the American medical system.”
    what I have not seen stated (but was recently told to me by the social worker who is one of my field instructors) is that the current Republican mantra is that health care can be improved and made cheaper by manipulating how people are paid.

    The result is that insurance companies restrict who gets care and restrict who can provide the care. See anything missing? I do. How is the care provided so that it is more efficient and at the same time less expensive? But this system gives massive profits to the insurance companies, their executives and to their investors. No medical knowledge is required to do this! Just stop people from getting more expensive care without regard to whether it is curative or is effective in the long term. It also cuts the physicians out of collecting the profits that come from reducing overall cost.

    The Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation is giving grants to projects that aim to deliver better health, improved care, and lower costs to people enrolled in Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), particularly those with the highest health care needs. Funding for these projects is for three years. The organizations are experimental and designed to both improve health care results and lower the cost of delivery of health care. They now give annual awards to the organizations which are most successful. This is part of the ACA that Romney/Ryan want to cancel. What I find especially interesting is that these organizations are planned and operated by physicians. The extent that they are successful, the doctors get the profits, not the financial wizards who did nothing to contribute to providing health care except stopping patients from getting treatments.

    Do we want richer insurance executives and investors largely by not paying for those patients who are the most expensive to treat, or do we want better and less expensive health care provided to everyone who needs it? The Republicans offer the first choice. The Affordable Care Act offers the second choice.

    I wonder which one Paglia would want?

  • Varecia on October 13, 2012 7:55 PM:

    Well, if she exasperates you with this kind of thing, don't watch her try to sound deep and insightful about art history. For some inexplicable reason the BBC turned to her for some of the art commentary in their otherwise excellent art history series, 'The Private Life of a Masterpiece.' Her contribution is a very pained and self-conscious effort at appearing profound, which is something quite a bit different from actually being profound.

  • Art Left on October 13, 2012 8:11 PM:

    Is Paglia auditioning for Promotional Book Circuit Housewives?

  • xpatriate on October 13, 2012 8:32 PM:

    Wait a darn minute here.How could somebody fellate Paglia anyway? Oops,never mind.

  • Chris on October 13, 2012 8:39 PM:

    Thank you for the link to Molly Ivins' Review. Priceless! Gosh, I miss reading her.

  • reidmc on October 13, 2012 9:42 PM:

    This post is about 10x longer than it needs to be.
    Why not pretend she isn't back?

  • reidmc on October 13, 2012 9:43 PM:

    This post is 10x longer than it needs to be.
    Why not ignore her?

  • Renai on October 13, 2012 10:08 PM:

    Agree, sounds like Salon wastes space on her over there, and writing about her wastes space over here. So two fellates for the price of being a faux feminist.

  • Michael on October 13, 2012 10:12 PM:

    I have been a huge Joan Walsh fan and $ supporter of Salon for more years than I care to remember. Yet I came thisclose to walking entirely several years back; thankfully, right at the exact time Salon announced the parting of ways with Paglia.

    I have never bought into the mystique surrounding Paglia, and have always derided her liberal bonafides (she reeks of right-wing claptrappery). Honestly? I've long assumed that Salon only hosted her crap in order to garner the clicks which ensue. Post a Paglia column, Drudge links to it, and Salon is inundated with hordes of mouth-breathing troglodytes.

    Unfortunately, that same formula has worked again. Further, since the VP debate, Salon has been FLOODED by a wave of R/W trolls such as I've never experienced in all my years there. And Salon, being good liberals, has allowed the vermin to run riot. I'm pissed as hell.

  • Some Gal on October 13, 2012 10:24 PM:


    Dude, I'm on your side. But have you ever heard the term "One Note Johnnie"?

    You're rapidly approaching that territory.

  • Keith M Ellis on October 13, 2012 11:49 PM:

    Paglia is a notorious example of the widespread human phenomenon of the contrarian who becomes the aggrieved contrarian who becomes the apologist for the opposition.

    I was a sex-positive feminist during the 80s and 90s and, notably, when MacKinnon and Dworkin were ascendent. There was a time and place when people needed to be saying some of the things that Paglia was saying. Alas, that position was better served by Willis and Bright and others. Paglia, in contrast, was always someone who was at least as interested in her worldview as a means of promoting herself as she was for its own value and so, inevitably, her place in that argument became immediately and forever All About Her, which it probably always has been with everything.

    I'm reminded of Andrew Sullivan. There's a kind of public intellectual who is both just independent enough to be honestly contrarian (though it's hard to tell when it's an opportunistic affectation as opposed to being genuine) who is also narcissistic. They walk a fine line when they take a contrarian position, reaping the rewards of attention for it while exposing themselves to attack from their supposed allies. Oftentimes, they react badly to attack, especially when they've judged wrongly about how far they can safely take their criticisms, or when they've hastily, unwisely and defensively entrenched themselves into an even more outre position, and find themselves truly cornered. At this point they begin to see themselves as martyrs and they begin to nurture a hate for their ostensive allies that far exceeds any animosity they might ever have felt against their ostensive foes. But they're prideful, too, and so usually don't fully capitulate to the other side but, rather, create for themselves a mythology of being the true Outsider, the one person unafraid to speak truth to power and suffer the unjust barbs of the small-minded and envious. You can see a lot of this in Ayn Rand, too, come to think of it.

    These are noxious people. They really are, fundamentally, narcissists. Ivins's critique is spot-on in that regard.

    Susie Bright just collected everything she's ever written about Dworkin and related and I think her example is very revealing and instructive when compared to Paglia. Bright is as opposed to Dworkin's view as anyone ever was, but she also is generous in her appraisal and doesn't question either Dworkin's motives, nor the truth of the underlying problems that Dworkin is aiming to address. Paglia, though, demonizes her foes, mocks them, while simultaneously elevating herself to a kind of intellectual paragon and reduces these arguments to slogans and posturing. In this she's very definitely not along, as people who aspire to this kind of public intellectual role are often monstrous egotists, to the point of toxic narcissism. But narcissists can be entertaining for a time, and very personally persuasive when they want something from you. They're good at manipulating editors.

  • kindness on October 14, 2012 12:32 AM:

    God I miss Molly.

    There's been no one take her place and probably never will.

  • smartalek on October 14, 2012 2:34 AM:

    Ms Paglia is apparently doing the full court press w/ the press (broadly defined); she was on NPR last nite as well.
    The high point of the interview was when she claimed -- apparently in earnest -- that the 3rd of the Star Wars prequel-trilogy ("Revenge of the Sith," was it?) was, in her words, the single greatest work of art, in all media (specifically including literature), of the current generation.
    The people around me, obviously not having a clue what was playing in my headphones, must have thought I was having a psychotic break, and/or on some very potent substances.
    I can't imagine who takes her seriously.

  • bluestatedon on October 14, 2012 5:39 AM:

    "Revenge of the Sith," was, in her words, the single greatest work of art, in all media (specifically including literature), of the current generation."

    It's too bad she has tenure, because this idiotic assertion is reason enough to boot her from even a community college faculty.

  • bdop4 on October 14, 2012 8:36 AM:

    Having endured a couple of inane articles in the past, I refuse to read a word of what comes out of Paglia's addled head. In fact, halfway through reading this post, I started wondering what the hell I was doing wasting my time reading about her.

    What promise Salon EVER saw in her is completely beyond me. All she ever did was stoke readership rage.

  • CRA on October 14, 2012 8:59 AM:

    "Revenge of the Sith," was, in her words, the single greatest work of art, in all media (specifically including literature), of the current generation.

    That's funny, I wasn't moved by it. I must be "visually illiterate" or something.

  • PTate in MN on October 14, 2012 9:49 AM:

    Wow, I never thought I'd find a community of like-minded Paglia-phobes. I have always just assumed it was me, that I was the only liberal in America who found her obnoxious, destructive and deceitful. I had seen her compared to Susan Sontag (whom I admired) so I read some of her stuff when she first hit the public forums, but I disliked what I read enough that I have tuned her out for years, like you stop hearing the horns blaring outside your apartment if you stop paying attention. I disliked her so much that I didn't even bother to read her critics.

    Suspicious, I just checked out her wikipedia bio. She is so much the conservative's idea of a useful tool--a lesbian academic who criticizes feminism!!!--that I wanted to see if her elevation to Public Intellectual had any Koch money behind it. The answer is No, she is just a self-generated nasty piece of work. Early in her career, she figured out that the SCLM media has an insatiable appetite for academics who articulate the contrarian position on liberal positions (the feminist who criticizes feminism! the African-American who criticizes Democrats! the economist who criticizes the welfare state!) And it was brilliant of her to write about Sex, a topic which never fails to sell product (the product, in this case, being Camille Paglia.) Yuck.

    Well, now I can put Camille Paglia back out of my mind. What a relief to know that others also depise her.

  • bos'n on October 14, 2012 10:37 AM:

    Paglia is just another one of those vulgar self-promoters who seem to have imposed themselves on everything these days, including academe. It's no wonder that she admired Madonna so much. Pop music critics long said Ms. Ciccone used tawdry self promotion to disguise a lack of talent. Since she managed to sell records and concert tickets, she got away with it. Now that she's not as commercially successful, don't know what her fans will do, but she might thankfully fade into some sort of obscurity. Would that Ms. Paglia would do the same. A poster above says she has academic tenure, sadly a fact that plays into the hands of right-wing academia haters.

  • Steve P on October 14, 2012 11:08 AM:

    "Camille Paglia, fearless advocate of “sex-positive feminism,” hysterically clutches her pearls and rushes to the fainting couch because a woman who is 50 years old and has kids is writing about her sex life?"

    Beyotches be crazee.

  • TCinLA on October 14, 2012 1:48 PM:

    News flash: Camille Paglia is a worthless pile of untelleckshooal bullshit.

    In other news, sun continues to rise in the east.

    And people wonder why I continue to believe that if New York dropped into the Atlantic Ocean the world would be a better place.

  • Robb on October 14, 2012 3:29 PM:

    Never heard of her.
    Usually I get my hate-reading from Katie Roiphe.
    Now it looks like Roiphe is just a carbon copy of another pseudo-feminist?

  • T-Rex on October 14, 2012 9:17 PM:

    And you never even got as far as the reason for the interview, which is that Paglia has a new book to hawk, called "Glittering Images," in which she claims to rescue art history from all those nasty post-modern deconstructionist feminists and such, and get back to the good old basics of the art that she, the great Camille Paglia, has decided is good art. And how good is her judgment? Put it this way. She thinks George Lucas is the greatest living artist in the world, and that Star Wars III, Revenge of the Sith -- in other words, the last of the "prequel" trilogy, the one that won Hayden Christiansen a "worst actor of the year award" -- is Lucas's greatest work. She now has another book to name-drop in every single article she writes from now on, with a helpful link to Amazon, besides "Sexual Personae" and "Break [wind], Blow [me], Burn [this book]."

  • Whippoorwill on October 17, 2012 6:25 PM:

    Poor Kathleen Geier, she will never be as significant as Camille Paglia - and it irks her (Kathleen, that is)greatly. Camille Paglia is an American treasure. And Kathleen? Well...you know.