I had kind of assumed/hoped that Camille Paglia had disappeared from the face of the earth. I was justifiably disappointed to find, thanks to Mark Liberman, that she is alive and well and writing a column over at Salon.com. She does give me a good excuse to write another post, though, and I’m wont to take such an opportunity (whatever that means).
Whenever Paglia calls herself a feminist, it reminds me of what is, in my opinion, one of the biggest problems facing the feminist movement today. That millions of young people have turned away from the movement because of the stereotypical view of feminists as man-hating lesbians is symptomatic of a larger problem with feminism’s general incommensurability. The extension of the term “feminist” covers such a wide and internally disparate set of people and views that it’s next to impossible to infer from someone calling themselves a feminist what it is that they mean by that. Paglia serves as a good example herself, but an even better example is her characterization of Sarah and Todd Palin as “powerful new symbols of a revived contemporary feminism.” This is the case, she argues, because of they way they both reconfigured their gender roles:
That the macho Todd, with his champion athleticism and working-class cred, can so amiably cradle babies and care for children is a huge step forward in American sexual symbolism.
Similarly, Palin’s “Amazon warrior” sensibilities reconfigured female leadership:
Palin has made the biggest step forward in reshaping the persona of female authority since Madonna danced her dominatrix way through the shattered puritan barricades of the feminist establishment.
While both those statements are true, I could make the same argument about a lot of dads and a lot of female leaders, both liberal and conservative, but I would not necessarily equate their behaviours with feminist leadership; rather, I think both of the phenomena that Paglia cites are more than anything symptomatic — outcomes, in other words — of the gains of second wave feminism that have been in the works for years.
Considering that Palin is expressly working against many of the core elements of the feminist movement, notably “women’s rights,” it seems kind of disingenuous to give her credit for doing feminist work when she’s more accurately in a position of benefitting from the work of others. Although Paglia’s arguments in the ’80s that Madonna was “the future of feminism” were well-founded, considering that the second wave had a reputation for “increasing moralism and desexualization of critical analysis,”* it’s unclear, at best, whether Madonna was the cause of the sexualization of feminism or if she was the result of a transformation that was already taking place in the feminist movement. I would tend toward the latter.
Note that I’m not trying to argue that Camille Paglia is not a feminist – that would be futile considering that I don’t have any solid ground against which I could make such an argument. But her example does lend credence to the idea I’m personally fond of that “feminist” has now become an identity category that is deployed strategically according to Chela Sandoval’s concept of differential consciousness. (“Differential consciousness” was a term Sandoval came up with to describe the movement of activists through and between different types of oppositional consciousness, “like the clutch of an automobile.”) And the strategic use of the term by conservatives would suggest that it is being appropriated, to some degree, as a form of counter-hegemony against what those people perceive as the doctrinaire threat of contemporary feminism against “feminine values” like heterosexuality, promiscuity, beauty, and femininity. Of course, this perception is a result of, again, feminism’s incommensurability, especially considering the prevalence of liberal feminists who have done a great deal of work on reconfiguring the discourses of feminism from within the movement, without repudiating women’s rights.
*Robyn Wiegman, “The Progress of Gender: Whither Women?”