Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Paglia on Palin

Camille Paglia thinks that Sarah Palin is a feminist. Camille Paglia is wrong.

Conservative though she may be, I felt that Palin represented an explosion of a brand new style of muscular American feminism. At her startling debut on that day, she was combining male and female qualities in ways that I have never seen before. And she was somehow able to seem simultaneously reassuringly traditional and gung-ho futurist. In terms of redefining the persona for female authority and leadership, Palin has made 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.

In the U.S., the ultimate glass ceiling has been fiendishly complicated for women by the unique peculiarity that our president must also serve as commander in chief of the armed forces. Women have risen to the top in other countries by securing the leadership of their parties and then being routinely promoted to prime minister when that party won at the polls. But a woman candidate for president of the U.S. must show a potential capacity for military affairs and decision-making. Our president also symbolically represents the entire history of the nation -- a half-mystical role often filled elsewhere by a revered if politically powerless monarch.

Paglia's making the exact same mistakes that I listed in my earlier comments on this same topic of Palin's ostensible feminist credentials: she doesn't realize that it's problematic - and decidedly unfeminist - to suggest that a woman needs to become a masculine-feminine hybrid in order to succeed when a man need not be anything buy masculine, nor does she seem to realize that Palin's rise, while undoubtedly important for its symbolism, confirms her exceptionalism rather than her exemplariness.

For this reason, the Madonna comparison is an unexpectedly good one - Madonna is so singular and unique that she strikes us as very nearly unreal or artificial. She's a woman that has built a career out of projecting a future-woman or counter-cultural sexuality rather than reflecting the mainstream. If this is Palin's metaphorical match, then she hardly proves Paglia's point.

Madonna also offers the mainstream a sort of cultural catharsis - having allowed her threaten the center with her saucy lyrics and cone-shaped bras, conservative media bodies can point to their acceptance - even promotion - of Madonna as proof of their tolerance. And this is especially effective when we try to judge the sort of material effect that Madonna has produced: sincerely, now, what sort of socio-cultural change - beyond those to high-fashion or the producing and selling of pop music - has Madonna actually managed?*

And Paglia's implicit suggestion, that getting a woman to the president's office is somehow de facto feminist, is also totally wrong-headed. And not just because Palin is not a feminist. As an example: A woman, Kim Campbell, became Prime Minister of Canada for six months in 1993 and every Canadian got to pat themselves on the back for their increasing tolerance and sensitivity to gender inequality. And Canadians have been so impressed with themselves that in the 15 years since only one woman has even had the chance to lead one of our four major parties. (And she never had a realistic chance of winning control of Parliament.)

Some powerful symbolism offered by those six months in 1993: they allowed us to go back to excluding women from the boys' games without having to even admit that we were doing so.

*I fully expect that my casual dismissal of Madonna will get me in trouble with someone at some point in the future, and I'm probably be unfair in failing to consider all of the people that she's inspired. Granted. But I do think it's important that there hasn't been a Madonna-like figure since Madonna - that 25 years after Madonna's debut, no one has arrived to take the pop-feminism crown from her and run with it.


Omar Karindu said...

I'm fairly sure that "Camille Paglia is wrong." is a critical judgment that rarely runs the risk of being termed a guilty displeasure.

n this case, it's not terribly hard to see the tactical move Paglia's rehearsing: she made her own name, such as it was, as an anti-feminist who self-labeled as "feminist" and championed Madonna as some sort of alternative feminist performance.

All she's doing is the lazy work of reminding everyone of Paglia's last moment of relevance, and then, rather ludicrously, trying to confer the structure of Madonna's coronation by Paglia upon Palin as if anyone still cared one whit for Paglia's original, problematic, and ultimately risible analysis of the ancien regime of Ms. Ciccione.

Crhist, Paglia really is something like an unwitting parody of a public intellectual, isn't she?

neilshyminsky said...

Granted - Paglia is almost always wrong, and in this case "guilty displeasure" should be regarded less as a totally appropriate designation and more as an only somewhat-clever title. I enjoy bitching about the displeasure that Paglia brings me in the much the same way that I enjoy complaining about Ann Coulter - and no, I don't feel guilty about raking her over the coals either. It's a wholly justified displeasure.

As for Paglia being an unwitting parody of a public intellectual - aren't most contemporary "public intellectuals" already unwitting parodies of the public intellectual tradition? Maybe Paglia is a particularly sad example, but there's a certain desperation for fame/relevance (I don't know if I should go so far as to add "superficiality", because that strikes me as an unfair generalization) among the work of people who dub themselves public intellectuals. Public intellectuals used to matter because they were public intellectuals; now they just want to matter.

Omar Karindu said...

I don't know that many of them are unwitting. The fluidity and inconsistency in so many soi-disant "ublic intellectuals" suggests at the very least an utter inattention to anything resembling rigor or architecture.

Paglia, by contrast, seems to still hold to the same Bloom-with-a-dash-of-identity-politicking-contrarianism shtick that took up so many inches on so many bookshelves in the early 1990s. It's one thing to be intellectually inconsistent in pursuit of nonintellectual goals; it's another thing entirely to be so committed to one's shallow rigor and weak analysis that it's still supposed to work fifteen years after everyone stopped listening to you.