Feminist thinker Camille Paglia “burst on the scene” (her words) in the early 1990s, amid simmering sex wars and debates over campus free speech. She put her own first-wave, working class, libertarian spin on gender issues and quickly became an academic celeb, writing for publications including The New York Times and Playboy. Her views on matters such as sexual assault on campus have always stoked controversy; for example, in 1991 she wrote an essay for Newsday arguing: “A girl who lets herself get dead drunk at a fraternity party is a fool … Feminists call this ‘blaming the victim.’ I call it common sense.”
The social critic, lecturer and professor at the University of the Arts in Pennsylvania has likened women speaking out against campus date rape to “melting sticks of butter” and hurled insults at establishment feminists such as Gloria Steinem. Now, decades later, the 70-year-old has published a collection of her most controversial arguments and ideas called, Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, and stands behind every one of them. “It’s kind of eerie how things I was writing 25 years ago seem right out of today’s debates,” Paglia says.
Paglia spoke with Chatelaine about everything from rape culture to The Real Housewives (noting that she always seems to argue with middle-class female journalists). Here are are some of the hot topics — and, yes, arguments — we got into.
I’m going to ask you a question we’ve asked dozens of women: Is it okay to objectify Prime Minister Justin Trudeau?
Yes! I believe in objectification. The human eye makes objects. That’s kind of my philosophy of art. There’s all this demonization of the so-called “male gaze.” It’s such a bunch of malarkey. Human visual faculties are very tied up with eroticism as well as idealization of every kind. So I have no problem whatsoever with people gazing at Justin Trudeau.
Oh, so you and Gloria Steinem agree on one thing — she told Chatelaine it’s cool with her, too.
Maybe age is slowly mellowing her. But we would’ve been at loggerheads about this many decades ago because her magazine, Ms. Magazine, would not publish views of people like me. She’s learned how to maybe modify her extreme positions.
You love the The Real Housewives (Steinem, for the record, does not). Why?
I adore The Real Housewives. When you bring women together, they suddenly snap back to a style of conversation with each other that is the way women have talked to each other for thousands of years. Of course there are rivalries. But anyone who looks at the The Real Housewives and sees only the negativity is missing the whole point. [The show reveals] what women are concerned with, what they observe about each other, how visually aware they are of each other and the way they dress… Women have lost the ancient solidarity they had with each other.
You’re famous for coining the term “Amazon feminism.” What do you mean by that?
I also call it “street smart Amazon feminism,” by which I mean every woman must think of herself as a warrior at every moment. If women want equality on college campuses, to be treated as minds equal to men, they must behave as equals meaning that they, too, expect every danger, every risk of life. Women will never be taken seriously as potential future leaders if they continue to be incapable of governing their own social lives and ceding to grievance committees, to parental proxy figures and the government.
The Amazon argument sounds a lot like ‘women should behave more like men.’
No, it’s ‘act like human beings who have a sense of their own dignity.’ Not like a man, but act like you know you’re the equal of a man. I am an equity feminist. I want the sexes to be treated exactly the same at college or in the workplace. I want equality of opportunity for women. However, I totally oppose special protections for women, including quotas, which I have condemned as ultimately disabling to women in the long run. This idea of ‘you’re going to run to the human resource department to complain about sexual harassment in the workplace?’ No, you stop it in the moment. Your human dignity is more important than your job.
More important than putting food on the table or paying rent?
If every woman conveyed her displeasure at something that made her uncomfortable in the workplace, we wouldn’t have these escalating problems. My family came out of the working-class Italian immigrant culture — they never had any power in their workplace. Immigrant Italian working-class women would not tolerate anything off-colour said in their presence.
And you don’t consider Hillary Clinton an Amazon feminist?
What?! Give me a break! Oh my god! She lives like Marie Antoinette! This is someone completely insulated from real life. This woman is a fraud! She’s an illusion created by the media.
You’ve voiced some pretty controversial opinions about rape culture on university campuses. Can you explain your position?
All this stuff about rape culture on campus is absolute madness. Most of the cases that are being called rape are simply miscommunications — each one misreading the other one’s desires. Women cannot just put themselves passively into situations where they could be overpowered by a stronger person, whether it’s a man or a woman. You don’t do that! And if you do that – if you’ve made a mistake — you don’t just sit on it and six months later, or a year later, decide ‘Oh, it was rape’ and run to a clinic. This is not the way feminism should conduct itself.
Come on. That hardly seems fair — you don’t think a woman can ever can realize it was assault after the fact, or change her mind in the moment?
No, she cannot. The body has its own desires. And a girl can think one thing, and what she wants in her body can be responding in a different way. Her body is giving signals and her brain is doing something else. That’s why she shouldn’t be putting herself into situations that are compromising.
And men can keep going about their lives and not change any of their behaviour?
No, men have a responsibility to behave honourably.
That doesn’t always happen.
The knights in the medieval period after the Dark Ages [produced] rough and crude warriors, and so the code of chivalry began. But a man cannot just behave like a Viking. We’re past that. But the point is, if there’s so much suspicion between the sexes and so much ignorance between the sexes, you’re going to get this [problem between men and women]. What I don’t like is the feminist reduction of every discussion of dating to rape.
You’ve written a lot about Madonna. What’s your beef with her?
I don’t have a beef with Madonna! I said in the early 1990s that Madonna is the future of feminism. And it happened. The 1990s were the age of pro-sex feminism, Madonna feminism. But then we somehow seem to have receded from it, I’m not sure why. She’s a major historical figure and when she passes, the retrospectives will loom larger and larger in history because right now we just see the present Madonna and it’s, like, cringe-making.
This Madonna dropped the ball and is no longer thinking for herself as a major artist. [She] just wants to remain in the news at any cost and is competing with the young. It’s like a post-menopausal identity crisis.
You don’t like that she’s speaking out about sexism and wearing revealing clothing to the Met Gala?
Yeah, she’s wearing this outfit with her butt hanging out! She got to this feminist thing pretty late, during the Hillary campaign. She’s never talked feminism before, and then she gave this bleary speech when she was getting some award and was criticizing me, saying that I had accused her of objectification… She got me mixed up with Gloria Steinem.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.