Interviewing the Vamp:
Camille Paglia speaks to theh Journal

Interview by Elana Zeide

Camille PagliaUs name function like a verbal Rorschach test. At its mention people will either smile or snarl; few fail to have any reaction at all. Many laugh, then quickly move on to heated debate. Odd quotes, heretic incidents, and public debacles are brought up. Her views serve as an even stronger catalyst in academic circles and media discourse. People can't seem to make up their minds. SheUs hilarious, sheUs evil, sheUs a goddess. The truth is that she lies somewhere in the center; her arguments are infinitely arguable, a mixture of macho pride and feminine aesthetics packaged in provocative snippets.

Her prose bristles with defiance. She has been hailed as feminismUs savior and antichrist. In Sexual Personae, she discusses the competing Puritan and Pagan aspects of Western culture. Her subsequent sets of essay collections, Sex, Art, and American Culture and Vamps and Tramps, continue her crusade against the standard rhetoric about sexual roles. She bases her aesthetic on the provocative Q both philosophical and physical. True to her 60s ideals, Paglia still questions authority and exalts paganism. She clearly enjoys the havoc she wreaks.

Yet for all her showmanship, Paglia has substance. Her sound bites cap detailed theories about gender and culture that run the gamut from Plato to pantyhose. Her exaltation of popular culture confounds classicists, while her defense of the canon angers multiculturalists. Is she a conservative or a liberal? It is better to judge her as an individual, on her own merits Q a philosophy that she espouses on a variety of issues, and which recurs frequently within her philosophy.

Even so, her sides are clearly demarked Q get on the wrong one and youUre liable to find your name at the end of a pointed phrase. She excels as a media maverick, twisting work and image to her own ends and the audienceUs entertainment. So sit back and enjoy the show.

YJE: How would you define feminism and do you consider yourself a feminist?

CP: Yes, I consider myself 100 percent a feminist, at odds with the feminist establishment in America. For me the great mission of feminism is to seek the full political and legal equality of women with men. However, I disagree with many of my fellow feminists as an equal opportunity feminist, who believes that feminism should only be interested in equal rights before the law. I utterly oppose special protection for women where I think that a lot of the feminist establishment has drifted in the last 20 years.

The hot button issue that I have become notorious for is date rape. The modern independent woman has to be fully responsible for her behavior and experiences in every social encounter. I do not want a situation where we have women running to authority figures to intervene for them with men.

In 1964, I arrived at college at a time when women were second class citizens and there was an elaborate system of protectionism. We were kept in sexually segregated dorms under lock and key. While the men could go out all night long, we had to be in at 11:00 p.m. and sign in. The colleges were acting in loco parentis Q in place of the parent Q and they in effect said to us, RWe must protect you. The world is a dangerous place Q you could be raped.S And what we women of the 60s said was, RGive us the freedom to risk rape Q we want equality with men.S

Truly free modern women must expect the possibility that they can be attacked if they are going to go out with strangers. I cannot stand the young feminists of the late 80s and 90s who demand that authority figures come back into sex. We women of the 60s shoved authority figures out of sex.

What I am saying is very radical. I feel that true rape is stranger rape or where violence is used as part of a sex act to coerce. We cannot have this fascist situation of Rhe said, she saidS in the absence of physical evidence of actual rape, even if there is evidence of sexual contact. One of the costs of modern feminism is that women must be like gay men who understand that every date is a sexual encounter. Every woman must regard a date as a possibility for mixed messages. If she is very religious, if she plans to be a virgin until marriage, if she is not sure about the person that she is with, she should be absolutely safe and she must guard herself. If a woman goes to a manUs apartment on the first time she meets him, she is consenting to sex. ThatUs what it means. I am sick and tired of women saying, RWell, he just invited me in for a drink.S ThatUs called mixed messages. If you want to be safe, stay out in the public lounge.

Why are women wanting to redefine themselves in nineteenth century terms? ItUs like these white middle class girls who are so innocent: "Oh, I'm afraid to hear any dirty words and dirty language. What if he tries to attack me?" Oh, protect yourself from the parent figures of society. It is an insult to women.

We women of the 60s were very bawdy: we used four letter words like sailors, we went out and picked up men. I picked up men P I picked up women P from bars. I saw danger as it was, but I wanted the sexual adventurism that has always been part of male experience and that can lead to beating and death.

Everyone in the gay male world knows that the price of sexual adventure can be death, so I am tired of young women regarding themselves as a special class that somehow wants a perfect experience. They want to be nice, they want to be cool, they want to be popular, and they donUt want any danger. They want the entire world to be a pacified bourgeois suburban zone. I am tired of this.

YJE: What about the double standard?

CP: The double standard that I felt my generation was all about demolishing has returned and I have had to conclude that the double standard is in fact roughly based on biological facts. When I was young, in the 50s and 60s, I thought that the double standard was the product of historical discrimination against women. I thought that it was simply a means for men to control the sex lives of women, because a man must be sure that the child his wife has given birth to is in fact his own. Therefore, here was a kind of literal imprisonment enforced on women, because only women really know if a pregnancy is because of a husband or a random encounter in a barn.

Over time, I realized that there were real biological distinctions, in terms of sexual fate Q that nature profits from male promiscuity where a male distributes his seed over a wide range. I began to realize that a woman who is promiscuous beyond the early experimental period and makes it a lifetime style in a way that gay men have done, is crazy, neurotic, psychotic Q a woman who has no sense of identity or integrity. I began to see and I was shocked.

My gay friends will say to me, RWhatUs the problem?S And I say that anal sex is not the same thing as vaginal sex because the vaginal canal goes right to the womb, to the heart of a womanUs sexual identity, the heart of nature itself. I began to feel that there was some invisible source keeping me from a numerical extreme of female sexual adventures. So reluctantly, as I say, year after year, decade after decade, I had to acknowledge that there were these biological differences. The folly of 70s and 80s feminism has been a failure to realize this.

I'm not a biological determinist because, as I say in the first page of Sexual Personae, sexuality is an intricate intersection of nature and culture. Both are very powerful elements in formation of our sexuality, and for too long feminism has scanted the biological side. Feminism has refused to acknowledge that the womanUs hormonal system is fantastically complex and affects our moods. We need much more of a balance between social science and natural science in feminism.

YJE: In Vamps and Tramps, you say that seduction needs encouragement in our society. Meaning what?

CP: For all the talk and hysteria about date rape, the reality is not overly libidinous men. The main problem is that men are shrinking. Not at the football schools where men are men, where athletes rule, where the woman are happy to be women and be very glamorous young women too. There are a very small number of sexual identity problems clustered in gay activist and feminist organizations.

It is different at the elite schools, however. When I returned to the Cross Campus Library in 1980, I saw the incredibly bizarre ladiesU room graffiti with all kinds of metaphors of nausea and disgusting hatred and isolation. I said something has gone wrong in feminism with these young women in turmoil. Only later did all the talk come out about the anorexia and bulimia and eating disorders.

There is a disastrous problem with sexual identity at the elite schools. I donUt know whether the young women see the kind of young men who are going to these schools as very sexually aggressive or intrusive, but that is not the case. From Williams to Brown to Yale, the young men are fresh faced, genteel bourgeois boys who were raised in professional households with very active mothers. They are boys with good manners, boys who are very sensitive, boys with their masculinity hardly visible.

When I teach in Philadelphia at Art School, and then go up to Harvard, the difference is hilarious. On the streets of central Philadelphia, I see real men, African-American men, Italian-American men from South Philly, real masculine men, and thatUs a compliment. They have no doubt about their sexual identity. Most men of the world donUt. The only men that are in doubt about their sexual identity are in the Ivy League schools, the professors and faculty as well. The women at Ivy League schools are constantly saying to the men, RYouUre being like this, youUre being like that, you shouldnUt be like that.S All the men are hectored; they are on womenUs leashes. It's hilarious that the virulent anti-male rhetoric is coming out of the Ivy League schools where there is not a virile masculine man in sight.

Young women in the non-Ivy League schools have no doubt about their sexual identities either. The girls tend to dress more sexually. They are overtly female in the way they dress. They scorn the androgynous style that is popular in the Ivy League. They wear so much perfume that I had to speak to them about it. It would be considered vulgar for any undergraduate woman of an elite school to wear that much perfume P it means that you are trying to trap a man. The same with hair spray and cosmetics and so on.

People in the Ivy League world then go off into media or into the law, moving in this weirdly special zone of demasculinized men who have planed down their personalities to fit in with powerful women. These are literate men, men who may jog, may go to health clubs, but theyUre not particularly physical men, not aggressive men.

There is a kind of eunuchization of men on those campuses, and discourse is pouring out from the feminists classes about men and the effects about sexual identity and how the sexes donUt really exist. The discourse is everywhere, even when people are not taking womenUs studies courses. Then they take it into the media with them. There is this creepy PC empty genteel rhetoric about sex that is so removed from reality, okay? It is no wonder. It is coming out of the most bizarre kind of eunuchUs ghetto.

In my work, I try to remain in touch with every day people, constantly testing my theories against what I see as a live ordinary people, on buses, in shopping malls, in the audiences of talk shows on T.V. I am constantly trying to test my theories against the norm. You have the post-structuralists influencing classes at Yale, saying there is no norm. There is a norm and most of the world lives according to that norm. Billions and billions of people in the world know what men are and what women are, and they are happy to be men and women. They are happy within traditional roles and a lot of my arguments with the feminist establishment and academic feminists come from the fact that I regard them as fiddling while Rome burns. These people are off in a little room talking at each other and not realizing that no one pays any attention to them, that they satisfy only each other, and their theories about sex are garbage.

YJE: Which brings me to the Canon debate. What in your opinion makes a work of art great and suitable to put on a rating list?

CP: Arguments about course contents have been going on obviously since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The word canon is usually used only by people who are opposed to it. Professors have an obligation to choose from the abundance of achievements of world cultures. Professors have an obligation to choose the premiere work which is not the result of some conspiracy by white heterosexual men sitting in a room trying to promote the power of their own in-group. That is absolute nonsense. The greatness of a work is defined by how much influence itUs had over other work and other artists. ItUs artists who make the canon, not critics.

I think it is crucial that college education be about the past, not about the present. The fundamental error of a lot of educational reform in the last twenty years has been a mad panic to be relevant. But relevance in the classroom is created by the teacher in dealing with great works of the past. The teachers should constantly be trying to tie in that great work to the studentsU lives and things that are happening now. That is the way you make relevance. There is no reason that young peopleUs time should be taken up in the classroom to be teaching Toni Morrison. For Heaven's sake, say, "Those of you interested in African-American literature, here's a reading list. Go buy the book."

You do need guidance in reading extremely difficult works of the remote past. The teacher is there to help you through the complex works of the great past. I believe it enlightens the multiculturals.

In Sex, Art, and American Culture, I talk about a course called "East and West" that I team taught with the artist Lilly Yeh. We were searching for ways to present multicultural material not in ideological or dogmatic fashion. I am completely immersed in the world of pop, so the second volume Sexual Personae is all about popular culture.

I believe very strongly that some works are greater than others, and that greatness has always been defined as something which attained a universal or global impact. For example, the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century classical music produced by European composers that are revered in Japan. In no way are we saying that this is a conspiracy by us to put that music forward.

Saul Bellow got into a lot of trouble by saying, "Where is the Tolstoy of the Zulu's? If you could find him, I would be happy to read him." People said that was a racist remark. He could have put it a little more eloquently.

My reply is simply that interpretation relies upon the idea that western culture is a complex combination of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Greco-Roman. These two traditions are in conflict and so we have this terrible tension going on in our culture, particularly about sex and aggression. Much of our artwork P the titanic achievements of Michelangelo or Picasso or Rubens P is wrestling with the inner conflicts of our tradition. So the greatness of western art is not due to western myopia P it is due to the neuroticism thatUs built into the western brain. So I am saying that there is no Tolstoy of the Zulus. There is no other culture in the history of the world that has ever produced gigantic complex novels like War and Peace or Wuthering Heights. It is just one of the characteristics of western culture.

The thing that I want is an enlightened multiculturalism. I want everyone to know the culture of the world. My plan is that comparative religion is the best way to truly give an international perspective to the young. Hinduism and Islam and Judeo-Christianity, African traditional religions, and Shintoism and native American culture should all be studied, because that is the best entree into a grasp of world history.

Instruction at the college level should begin in the most remote past and only barely touch the present. No teacher has any business telling the young about the present: the young are the present and they are making the future day by day. Every teacher, the moment that he or she steps from the classroom, is already history.

YJE: What about movements like multiculturalism?

CP: What is post-colonial, what is that? It is the only area where graduate students can get jobs. It is horrible the amount of time that people are spending reading this crappy stuff when they should be immersed in the great works.

I've written three books now that are best sellers. How was I able to develop my prose style at the level that it is at so I can just use it like a sword? From immersion in great works. Thank God when I was trained in college my professors believed in their obligations to expose us to the greatest art and the greatest music, the greatest paintings, the greatest novels, the greatest thinkers, regardless of gender and race, and that produced me.

So now Generation X is in a state of collapse. ItUs like sending people to a gym and saying, ROh, weUre tired of those big heavy weights P weUre going to give you these little weights. WeUll give you a lot of interesting little weights.S There is no way you can ever obtain champion status without dealing with the hard heavy weights.

YJE: In your works you often talk about the role and importance of art in culture. What would you say to people who say that art like ballet, opera, and museums, is no longer relevant to the general American public?

CP: My argument in Sexual Personae and all my books is that the high art tradition collapsed after modernism. Popular culture is the great heir to the western past.

And so I love advertising. Advertising is an art form. Everyone should take a course in mass media. Every student should be informed of this now 200 year history of mass media, going back to the great newspapers of the nineteenth century. Everyone should know how T.V. news is shaped, manipulated and edited before you see it on the screen, the intricate connection between advertising and the magazines, and how reporters gather news. That is absolutely crucial.

But I do not believe that classroom time should be taken up studying popular culture. Sure, itUs fine to write about it. IUve always encouraged papers to be done on popular culture. In teaching my course on RThe History of Images of Women,S I might do a little bit of the images of Madonna at the end, but to have a whole course about Madonna is a scam.

I think that teachers have to make the hard decisions in Humanities Q what are the basic facts that one should know? Q and then I want everyone to be teaching in that core. I am a great defender of the classics. I believe there are very great works or art that must be known. At the same time, I realize that that age is over and that after modernism is the age of popular culture. Its great art forms are cinema and rock and roll. I am a great lover of television, soap opera.

I hate serious novels. No important serious novels have been written after World War II. I donUt care how many people have gotten Nobel Prizes. To me the most important novel written after World War II is Auntie Mamie and I am serious. The only serious literature after World War II that I like at all is either decadent or it is comedic Q the age of the serious novel is long gone and people who think theyUre teaching through contemporary novels in their class, get out of here. Instead, turn on the TV and the soap opera. I go to "The Young and the Restless" to learn about contemporary mores. Or I listen to comedians who know what is happening right now.

YJE: How do you reconcile your enthusiasm for advertising with the traditional feminist claim that it objectifies women and fosters unrealistic expectations?

CP: Again, I agree with Andy Warhol about advertising as art. I never made any distinction in my mind between the paintings and the sculptures, the pictures of the great treasures of the Louvre, and the advertising that I saw. The imagery of woman, of glamorous or naked or semi-naked women, seems no different to me than BotticelliUs RBirth of VenusS or Delacroix nudes. It is not possible to have a degrading or demeaning picture of a nude person. That is a puritanical Judeo-Christian delusion of the nude body, and if you look at Hindu art youUll see nude bodies on Hindu temples often in copulating positions of threesomes and foursomes. And you will realize that we are sick. The idea that a woman lying with her legs open Q a beaver shot Q is degrading to her is the sickness of the West. In most world culture it is a symbol of fertility, a symbol of power, and not of weakness.

We are dealing here with women who are so alienated from their own bodies. Whose brains are being poisoned with this nonsense? Young women, what are they being told? They are being told that their bodies and the display of their bodies, is extremely degrading and theyUre being objectified by it. This is one of the biggest canards in contemporary feminism, like the idea that the male gaze turns you into an object, makes you passive, and reduces your status.

All you have to do is shift that idea over to the gay male world and you will see how stupid it is. In the gay male world there is a tremendous iconography of beautiful young boys everywhere. Gorgeous hunks lying so languidly in magazines and newspapers. Not one person in the gay male world would ever believe that the beautiful boy is passive and inert and objectified. Everyone knows that the older men are looking up, up at this beautiful specimen, that his value is high, he is a god. He is worshipped.

Young people are being trained to look around them at all the visual pleasure, in graphic design and advertising. You are being taught insanity, to resist, to hate, and to be afraid, to resent and to see this conspiracy of degrading womenUs bodies.

In fact, the reason why women have been used to sell products is that everyone wants to look at a beautiful woman. Placing a woman next to a car is a sign of womenUs power, that you want to associate your product with a womanUs beauty. It's not a sign of women's commodification. These are crazed delusions fostered by afraid individuals, word-centered people coming out of puritanical Protestant or very religious Jewish traditions.

The ability to pick up pleasure in the visual seems to be beyond those who are coming out of the Anglo-American Protestant traditions. Puritanism hangs very, very heavy in America, especially in the Ivy League schools which were founded in the seventeenth century.

What are we doing to young women? This form of brainwashing to make them go against their own aesthetic impulses is a terrible thing to do to young women. You want to respond with pleasure to a beautiful image in an ad, but they say, "You can't, that's wrong, here's what you must think."

YJE: What was your opinion on the controversy surrounding the implications of PlayboyUs RWomen of the Ivy LeagueS feature (October 1995)?

CP: I havenUt seen it, but I support Playboy in all its manifestations. I have gone out of my way to write for and to appear in both Playboy and Penthouse, not of course in the nude form because I am far too old for that. There is nothing wrong with women who have good bodies posing for Playboy. If Playboy were kidnapping people to pose, that would be different. But since it is consentual, it's fine with me.

The true feminism of the twenty-first century cannot be in opposition to the menUs magazines. Everyone wants feminist theory to interpret them as degrading to women, but that is not the way the men look at it. The criticism is a ridiculous kind of projection by professional white middle class women who I believe have a jealousy factor. They want to say, RThose are bimbos, they're not important to culture, we are the ones more important. How dare you men be interested in these bimbos!S WomenUs sexual power is there whether professional white women like it or not.

By the time professional women gain the position they want in the world, they have begun to lose their sexual allure and feel very insecure about this. This is the reality principle. We have to get over this, in the gay male world as well. All this stuff about lookism Q Roh thatUs terrible, we shouldnUt judge by looksS Q but itUs not just about women. The gay male world is one of the most ruthless of them all. An aging gay man is totally valueless, and people say, RWell, thatUs not right.S Guess what? All the cultures in the history of the world have valued youth and beauty. We want a culture where elders are also valued for their wisdom, but we canUt go on denying that thereUs tremendous prestige in every culture to youth and beauty and I think that is the way it should be because theyUre transient principles. If someone has a beautiful body and wants to show it, I applaud them.

YJE: So you would say that beauty is a physical, objective essence rather than an attitude?

CP: All the talk that real beauty comes from within is a bunch of malarkey. It's ridiculous. There are genuinely beautiful people. I am coming out of the Hellenistic tradition, with conception of beauty like Plato. Beauty is something sacred, a temporary thatUs gone very fast. Very rarely do you see someone like Catherine Deneuve who is still beautiful. Over time you can only stay beautiful if you have something from within. People who are just physically beautiful on the outside will cease being beautiful by the time theyUre thirty or so, but nevertheless, I have adopted the gay male perspective on this: I believe that enormous beauty is a great gift and I honor it wherever I see it. I value youth and beauty, and I think that it is about time that the word-obsessed neurotics from academia start realizing that most of the world does too.

All these stupid technical feminist film critics want to grind all of art down to things that have approved and moral messages. In fact, life is more complex than that. It cannot be reduced to political agendas. Life is bigger than politics. YJE


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