Last week I attended a debate at American University between dissident feminist Camille Paglia and AU gender scholar Jane Flax. The topic: “Gender Roles: Nature or Nurture?” Flax gave a polite and respectable defense of an exhausted idea: “gender is a social construction.” But Paglia stole the show. She deftly reminded the audience that Mother Nature tends to get the final word—and is not a feminist. I watched the faces of astonished and fascinated undergraduates as Paglia shattered the sacred icons of contemporary gender studies. By the end of the evening, even three sullen hipsters sitting next to me seemed to be won over.
Paglia, a professor of humanities, is that rare intellectual who knows and loves high culture but also appreciates rock stars, drag queens, and soap operas. She has written brilliantly on art history, poetry, film, as well as sex and pop culture. When London’s Victoria & Albert Museum launched its record-breaking show of David Bowie’s costumes (now touring the world), it of course asked Paglia to write the catalog essay on Bowie and gender. She describes herself as a pro-sex, pro-porn, pro-beauty feminist. She is also an openly gay woman who loves men and who deems women’s studies intellectually bankrupt. My favorite Pagliaism: ”Leaving sex to feminists is like letting your dog vacation at the taxidermist.”
One critic referred to Paglia’s first book Sexual Personae as “a red comet in a smog-filled sky.” That is an equally good description of the author herself, and it was thrilling to catch a glimpse of her at American University last week.
Paglia’s complete opening remarks are attached below. Here are a few high points:
On women’s studies:
Women’s studies programs were rushed into existence in the 1970s partly because of national pressure to add more women to faculties that were often embarrassingly all-male. Administrators diverting funds to these new programs were less concerned with maintaining scholarly rigor than with solving a prickly public relations problem. Hence women’s studies was from the start flash-frozen at that early stage of ideology. . . . No deviation was permitted from the party line, which was that all gender differences are due to patriarchy, with its monolithic enslavement and abuse of women by men. . . .
On passive male academics:
Male academics, sensing which way the wind was blowing, were reluctant to challenge the new power structure and shrank back out of fear of being labeled sexist and retrograde. History will not be kind to their timidity and cowardice.
Boys in school:
Our present system of primary and secondary education should be stringently reviewed for its confinement of boys to a prison-like setting that curtails their energy and requires ideological renunciation of male traits. By the time young middleclass men emerge from college these days, they have been smoothed and ground down to obedient clones. The elite universities have become police states where an army of deans, sub-deans and faculty committees monitor and sanction male undergraduate speech and behavior if it violates the establishment feminist code. The now routine surveillance of students’ dating lives on American campuses would be unthinkable in Europe. Campus gender theorists can merrily wave their anti-male flag, when every man within ten miles has fled underground.
The hazards of gender-neutralized men:
Extravaganzas of gender experimentation sometimes precede cultural collapse, as they certainly did in Weimar Germany. Like late Rome, America too is an empire distracted by games and leisure pursuits. Now as then, there are forces aligning outside the borders, scattered fanatical hordes where the cult of heroic masculinity still has tremendous force. I close with this question: is a nation whose elite education is increasingly predicated on the neutralization of gender prepared to defend itself against that growing challenge?
Full text of Paglia’s opening remarks here.