A Clearly Confused Paglia: Examining Her Latest Critique of Popstars

by: Mariann Devlin 

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Camille Paglia, in a piece for the Hollywood Reporter, slammed both Taylor Swift and Katy Perry for lacking the kind of gritty eroticism as their pop-music colleagues Rhianna, J. Lo and Beyonce. As a friend said, she’s pretty much the “grumpiest person alive,” but that’s not what makes her indictment against “nice white girls from comfortable bourgeois homes ” so frustrating. It’s that, despite her appreciation for women of color (an appreciation that actually sounds more like fetishization), her preferences are also contingent on her existence as a middle-class white feminist and a member of the intellectual elite.

Paglia is right that popstars like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift appeal to middle-class white girl sensibilities, but as always, her critique is based on a romantization of a bygone era.

“It angers me because I fought a bitter fight to get feminism back on track and be pro-sex at the same time. This is degrading the entire pro-sex wing of feminism,”Paglia has said of the antics of celebrities like Lindsay Lohan. Yet it’s ironic that Paglia longs for the imaginary Good Ol’ Days in much the same way as the conservative pre-baby-boomer generation she fought so hard against. The only difference is that she doesn’t yearn for the “demure girly-girl days of the whitebread 1950′s” but the feminist sexual revolution of the 1960′s– a movement she never ceases to boast she was a part of.

I’m as thankful as any feminist for the strides made by sex-positive feminism, but Paglia ought to take a look at the rise of celebrities like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift as evidence of its limitations, and of her own pop culture heroine Madonna who she hailed in 1990 as the “future of feminism” and “fully female.”  (Paglia, for all her talk of sexual and gender “ambiguity” and “androgyny” will never cease to think within the male/female binary.)

Paglia can’t admit that without the sexual revolution, and without an icon like Madonna who showed girls how to be “attractive, sensual, energetic, ambitious, aggressive and funny — all at the same time” (and here I thought men expected women to be everything) there would be no Katy Perry, and there would also be no reactionary pop figure like Taylor Swift. Swift’s good-girl schitck is admittedly tired now, but there was a reason we breathed a sigh of relief when young girls everywhere wanted to emulate her instead of sexed-up Perry. The unique appeal of the innocent Swift in a sea of banal party-girls reveals that, in the world of pop music, the aggressive, erotic, ambitious female persona that Madonna paved the way for has degenerated into the new cookie-cutter female.

One of Paglia’s complaints is that Perry is starting to look like an “aging, hard-bitten Joan Crawford,” but the same can be said about Madonna, whose on-stage protests Paglia has admitted is gimmicky. Again, perhaps what was once a radical image is now just a cheap act, and it’s no longer fair to critique this heir of sexual empowerment a la Madonna without addressing what Paglia overlooked (perhaps innocently): that glitzy, glamorous sexual empowerment does have its limitations, and can easily be commodified.

The meaning of the 60′s sexual revolution and of Madonna is subject to change, as all meanings are. If it wasn’t for pro-sex feminism and MTV we would have neither the “trash and flash” of Katy Perry nor would we have the “good-girl mask” of Taylor Swift, which forces us to confront the boundaries of these radical cultural events- events which have, arguably, given birth to the “raunch culture” that Ariel Levy convincingly attacked in Female Chauvinist Pigs.   Paglia also fails, as one Guardian essayist said , to appreciate that Madonna herself was a celebrity indebted to other pop culture icons. Paglia simply can’t locate her own “taste” (and that’s ultimately the foundation for most of her so-called theorizing about sexuality and feminism) within even a short span of history. Her criticism of Lady Gaga also reveals Paglia to be fearful and priggish of the next step we’ve taken in sexually ambiguous pop images.

I love the fact that I can write that now. Paglia, someone who has accused her critics of being prudish Betty Crockers, showed her true colors when she bashed Lady Gaga. She is someone who resists the power of truly androgynous images that can’t be immediately identified as femininely erotic.

Interestingly, even though Paglia insists that both Perry and Swift are emblematic of the trivialities of the banal white middle-class, feminists of color and queer theorists alike have slammed third-wave feminism for being a movement for white middle-class women like herself. And even though Paglia hails J. Lo, Rhianna and Beyonce for being beacons of feminine sexual strength, her embrace reeks of fetishization. Paglia’s eroticization of these performers- J. Lo’s “bulbous” butt, the belief that Rhianna’s homeland drips with the exotic, the idea that Beyonce’s African-American culture has blessed her with a hidden feminine strength- is mired in ethnocentric cultural myths and only contribute to a sense of Otherness for women of color.

Paglia will always conflate female empowerment with the worship of sexually-charged, feminine glam images, to the detriment of those whose gender and sexuality are more ambiguous, more understated, less understood through mere images, and relatively untainted by mixed messages sent by the media of what it means to be a good girl and a bad girl; mixed messages which Paglia also sends, because she herself is clearly confused.

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