In an interview in Playboy, in 1995, American scholar Camille Paglia said: ‘The more a woman takes off her clothes, the more power she has.’ Women’s capacity to inflame men with sexual desire, gives them ‘cosmic dominance of the emotional and sexual realm’, while men are always going to have the edge in the social realm.’
Some of you may remember Paglia’s heavy attacks in the 1990’s on what she called PC-feminism. In her book Sexual Personae (1990), she accused feminism of being Rousseauist in its rosy conception of nature. Wrong, she said. Nature is ‘no picnic’ (1990, 5). We should adopt Hobbes’ and De Sade’s views: nature – and sex as nature in man – is all about aggression. ‘Men do look at women as rapists.’ (1995) Paglia, unlike the feminists, was not against date rape, pornography and SM, since they are the reality of sex. And in her book she shows at length how in art and culture women are represented as nature, as sexual beings which have to be tamed and conquered by men.
Elsewhere Paglia told that she was a great admirer of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex from 1949, and she placed herself at the same footage as Beauvoir. Without any reference to The Second Sex, Paglia in her book Sexual Personae copied much of Beauvoir’s myths chapter, which deals with literature, saga’s, film, religion and art. Beauvoir demonstrated that in that realm typically men are to women as Spirit to body, as culture to nature. Like nature, women have to be tamed, that is, they either have to marry or die.
We find a similar analysis throughout Paglia’s work. However, their approaches are totally different. Whereas Paglia talks about nature’s laws all the time, Beauvoir introduced a Hegelian, historical approach. In 1949, she argued that things would change for the better, because of contraceptives and access to education and jobs for women. She announced that old myths of femininity would disappear, and that new myths of love and eroticism would arise. But was she right? Beauvoir in her analysis of myths – described as deep rooted beliefs and dreams – was also talking about films.
So let’s have a look at today’s dream machine, Hollywood. As a political philosopher mostly interested in dominant patterns and dreams, I rather prefer to discuss popular films than avant-garde ones. As Laura Mulvey famously analysed in the 1970s, echoing Beauvoir’s analysis of myths, in traditional Hollywood-films girls and women either die or marry.
If we look at current Hollywood films, how far have we come? What about the Twilight saga, a series of books and films that created a worldwide hype these last years? You may have heard of them if you have a teenager at home, like me. Or you may have heard of the infamous Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, a hype among women, which originally began as Twilight fan fiction. The Twilight saga is all about love and death. It is about a human girl and a superior vampire man, who cannot reach each other. It is about love at first sight, about irrevocable, impossible and all the more passionate love. It is about the girl constantly being guarded in the vampire world, by her husband-to-be and his family, until she dies and then finally turns into a vampire herself.
What about this new myth on eroticism and love? It is so appealing to women and girls but it destroys everything feminism wanted. The girl has to be protected all the time. She sacrifices her career, her friends, her family, and her life as a human, only to marry him. It’s not about the girl having to marry or die: she has to do both! Where Beauvoir explictly argued for women to create their own new myths, Paglia predicted that the same old stories would be recycled and pop up again the more we tried to suppress them.
When I asked my students last semester to present visual material from the popular media, showing that we have moved on from the stereotypical gender images, they instead presented, week after week, the opposite: that in advertisements, television shows, real life tv, games, Hollywood films, music clips and so on, the stereotypical myths about women are recycled. And girls and women more than ever identify with being sexy, and with the old myths about sexual love, which surely affect their own hopes and fears.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that Beauvoir started writing her book with a chapter on myths. Perhaps she suspected that these deeply rooted sexual phantasies were most resistant to change. But are we simply dealing here with ingrained patterns and dreams, and nothing else, as Beauvoir would have it? Or was Paglia right, and are these myths based on the reality of sex? And if so, how should we re-think feminism?
For the moment, when asked who is right Beauvoir or Paglia, I have to say: I wish it is Beauvoir but I am afraid it is Paglia.
(Crossposted from Karen Vintges’ website)