Uncensored: Camille Paglia on Rihanna, Identity Politics, and Sexuality
The social critic and academic queen of controversy opens up in a candid interview with V.
The social critic and academic queen of controversy opens up in a candid interview with V.
Text: Alex Kazemi
Camille Paglia, feminism’s anti-hero, has wreaked havoc in world culture for decades but is now ready to hex the millennials with her new book, Free Women, Free Men—an anthology of her most iconic work plus some recent essays through the years. Paglia represents the poster woman of war in the Age of Aquarius, and she is here to scandalize us with her most controversial views on gender, sex, and pop culture. Read V's interview with the author below.
You have been famously open about your love for the allure of Rihanna. Would you say that "Skin" off of the Loud album is your favorite work of hers?
The songs I most admire on Rihanna’s latest album, Anti, are “Desperado,” “Never Ending” (with its lilting old Caribbean sea chanty refrain), and “Love on the Brain,” a piercing aria of retro-soul grand opera. Only the husky, soul-baring Adele right now is matching Rihanna’s emotional intensity and authenticity.
My favorite Rihanna song is probably the hypnotic “Pour It Up,” from Unapologetic. I think it is a true work of art, with a chilly avant-garde edge. The stunningly sensual strip-club setting of the official video has unfortunately distracted people from the eerie power of the song itself, which is about a state of mind rather than a banquet of vibrating flesh.
Certainly, I applaud the steely exhibitionism of the regally enthroned Rihanna and her phalanx of twerking pole-dancers: the video correctly represents strip-clubs as citadels of female power, not as pigsties for rutting male buffoons, as they were once routinely portrayed by feminist puritans. For an article called “Woman as Goddess” in the October 1994 issue of Penthouse magazine, I took a woman journalist on a tour of New York strip clubs to demonstrate how admiring and visibly cowed the men were in the pagan presence of a dynamic woman dancer. Men’s money in that ritual environment does not control women but rather the opposite: money is the poor tribute by which desperate men win a dominant woman’s momentary attention.
When one listens to “Pour It Up” without the video’s luscious visual stimulations, its infernal soundscape (almost like the jittery electronic soundtrack of Alfred Hichcock’s The Birds) is overwhelming. We are in The Twilight Zone, where a leading woman artist who grew up married to idyllic nature on a sun-drenched island is wandering in a murky, directionless urban world of overwhelming wealth and material display. No recent song to my knowledge has so directly confronted the contemporary search for meaning—which too many people have deflected into the toxic flux of an insanely polarized politics.
Rihanna is virtually the only performer today who consistently intrigues and fascinates me. My exacting high standards were formed by the golden age of the entertainment industry, which began in the 1920s (with jazz, radio, and sound movies) and which precipitously declined by the late 1990s, as the Web achieved hegemony. It’s as if the Muses have abandoned us: look at how painfully clumsy a proven genius like Madonna seems as she struggles to regain the creative brilliance and global impact of her early years, when every taboo-breaking video she released was electrifying.
At a time when too many Hollywood actors are hopelessly depthless and try to compensate for their mediocrity by hijacking arts-celebrating ceremonies for clichéd political rants, Rihanna exudes the complexity, mystery, and magic of classic stars like Ava Gardner, a country-girl renegade who lived and loved spontaneously, her stormy melodramas periodically erupting into the news. I love to monitor Rihanna’s transnational doings via the Daily Mail, with its pap shots of her enigmatic predawn exits from nightclubs or her grand arrivals in full drag at glittering events. What maverick fashion smarts she has—that startling profusion of sculptural looks and the ingenious array of accessories and makeup in dazzling rainbow colors. Rihanna is an instinctive performance artist born for the camera.
I wrote two cover stories on Rihanna four years ago, one in the Sunday Times Magazine in London (unfortunately still behind a pay wall) and the other in the magazine supplement of La Repubblica in Rome. There is a piquant saga attached to the London piece, in which I warned that by increasingly Instagramming fabulously sexy photos of herself to taunt her bad-boy ex, Chris Brown, Rihanna was ominously headed down the same path as Diana, Princess of Wales. The charismatic Diana seduced the media and skillfully used them as a propaganda tool against her errant husband, the callously adulterous Charles. But then Diana was stalked nonstop for years by the ravenous media wolf pack—leading directly to her fatal 1997 car crash in the Alma tunnel in Paris. In its resumé of my article, the Daily Mail published the most sensational of Rihanna’s Instagrams (from the superbly atmospheric fireplace series taken by her longtime close friend, the gifted Melissa Forde).
By some strange alchemy, my Sunday Times Magazine cover story was published by chance on the very weekend that Rihanna arrived in London to debut her fashion line. Returning to her hotel early Sunday morning after a heavy night of pub-crawling, she found the newspaper waiting outside her room and was amazed to see herself linked on the front page to the legendary Diana, whom she loved. She tweeted two images to her millions of followers—the magazine section lying on her bed and the front page where she was flagged above the headline—the big surprise that greeted her when (as she tweeted) she “came home drunk” to her hotel.
There is a melancholy coda to this story. Rihanna’s conservative, church-going mother in Barbados eventually saw the sexy fireplace photos and came down hard on her. Rihanna told Elle magazine, “I’m not afraid of any person in this world but my mother—I’m terrified of her…She went crazy on me…I felt like I got my ass whipped in front of the class in school.” So Rihanna’s blazing career in ultra-sophisticated soft-core online porn seems, alas, to be over. If I played any role, however small, in that major cultural loss, I do publicly repent here and now!
The rise in identity politics and a demand for reparation coming from this generation seems to be an endless fight. Do you think all this focus on our identities comes from a lack of control of other areas in their lives or an inability to be equipped to accept the uncertainties and violence of Mother Nature?
Identity politics was created with all good intentions in the 1970s following a series of cultural revolutions in the prior decade. The civil rights movement of the late 1950s and '60s had targeted racial segregation and the disenfranchisement of African-Americans in the South. Its strategies of organized protest and civil disobedience, modeled by Martin Luther King, Jr. on Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign to free India from British imperialism, were later adopted in the U.S. by antiwar protestors, second-wave feminism, the gay liberation movement, and Native American activists.
During the mid to late 1960s, when I was in college and early graduate school, it felt amazingly exhilarating to assert ethnic pride after the oppressive conformism of the 1950s and early '60s, when genteel WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) values and style dominated American business, education, religion, and politics. (I have repeatedly attacked that time as the “Doris Day-Debbie Reynolds era”, when chirpy blondeness ruled.) Many of my fellow students at Harpur College (the State University of New York at Binghamton) were progressive, boldly outspoken Jewish-Americans from metropolitan New York who were wrangling with their parents (as I was with my Italian-American family) about our proper adult persona. We categorically refused to adopt the WASP style to “pass.” We rejected the bland politesse, subdued, passionless voices, and stiff, repressed body language of the WASP elite. Indeed, to this day I go out of my way to be loud and abrasive—which is why the fearless Joan Rivers would be such a role model for me.
Unfortunately, identity politics became institutionalized on college campuses in the 1970s—and that would become the principal source of our present scourge of political correctness, which has spread to Canada, the U.K., and now even Brazil. Bureaucracy always leads to authoritarianism. Bureaucracy is inherently mechanical, stupid, parasitically self-replicating, and outrageously wasteful. True progressives should hate bureaucracy and not, as has been happening with baffling regularity, embrace it as an instrument of their political goals. In the 1970s, college administrations, embarrassed by the lopsided over-representation of white males on their faculties, abandoned any pretense of scholarly principles and simply created women’s studies and African-American studies departments virtually overnight. It was a naked public relations ploy—just throw money at those important new subjects, and who the hell cares what happens? The administrators were off the hook.
But new areas of study require much more time and detailed effort to develop: it took the modern English department a century to establish its curriculum and methodology. In retrospect, when will people see that the unilateral dictates of arrogant, intrusive, and self-interested college administrations actually froze those vital new fields at a 1970s stage of political ideology, which has ended up by isolating and ultimately marginalizing them? I continue to maintain that the true radical project for the 1970s (which I was advocating) was to smash the entire departmental structure of North American universities and return knowledge to flexibly broad fields of interest (art, literature, history).
By the 1980s, “critical theory,” derived from the pre-World War Two Frankfurt School, was in the ascendant even at major U.S. law schools. This antiquated approach, with its openly Marxist premises, produced the schematic tic-tac-toe routine now universally taught to college students: race, class, gender—which of course automatically turns into angry shouts of racism, sexism, homophobia! These bloated jargon terms are now the prayer wheels of today’s compulsory creed of political correctness.
Young people today have been trained by academic Marxism to see nothing in the universe but society—an artificial construct that we have an urgent ethical obligation to challenge and reform but that all the great world religions teach us is ultimately partial, limited, and evanescent. It is sad indeed to witness how many progressive-minded people have evidently invested their faith, hopes, and deepest emotions in blatantly flawed, mendacious politicians.
What seems completely forgotten is that the radical 1960s counterculture was about much more than politics. It opposed materialism and the career system and sought higher meanings about human existence. My generation inherited the Beat poets’ interest in Zen Buddhism, and we extended our multicultural exploration to Hinduism, whose tonalities saturated rock music for years. Although I am an atheist, I have always been committed to that expansive spiritual opening toward world religions, which I have repeatedly proposed as a core educational curriculum, here and abroad. Historical background to all of this can be found in my 2003 essay in Arion, “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Vision in the American 1960s.”
Marxism is merely a praxis—an analytic technique that is very useful when done well, as it was by the great German Marxist scholar Arnold Hauser in his magisterial The Social History of Art (which had a huge impact on me in graduate school). But today’s academic Marxism is full of pious rote formulas and elitist gobbledygook, divorced from contemporary social realities. And most crucially, Marxism is inherently blind to nature—without which we can know nothing about the universe or ourselves.
So in response to your question, yes, today’s young people, marooned in a transient, fragmented, cynical culture, have been maneuvered by coercive self-appointed humanitarians to believe that they must define themselves in hackneyed 40-year-old terms of identity politics, contracted and claustrophobic. But ever more microscopic self-labeling is a psychological trap that will never advance the general social welfare.
Even astrology, which was widely popular during the 1960s, had a cosmic vision: the pagan zodiac tied human personality types to animal nature and connected humanity to the stars. Each individual, in my view, has an obligation to seek truth outside of current ideologies and orthodoxies. My own project for the past nine years has been to study the scattered traces of Native American culture in the prehistoric Northeastern United States, long before the European arrival. To see Native Americans only through a political lens of grievance and genocide is a condescending injustice, because the vast Native American vision of nature is one of the great religious systems of the world. Nature is no passive victim of polluting humanity but a gigantic, self-purging force that both creates and destroys.
There has been an uproar in the gay community, specifically online, with sites posting about straight men confessing about their homosexual escapades. A recent study even came out saying that more than ever, straight-identifying men are having sex with other men. This drives the gay community insane, as most of them do not believe it is possible for someone to share a same-sex experience and return to heterosexuality at the end of it. Do you think because human nature has never had such a public forum to express all variations of human sexuality issues, this is a return to “the beast”?
These hard lines drawn between heterosexuality and homosexuality are so tiresome. Everyone, male or female, is capable of bisexual experience and pleasure. Classical Athenians certainly behaved like that at the height of ancient Greek culture. Surely gay men should project a more hospitable attitude toward bi-curious straight men. Why not maximize potential erotic adventures?
If more and more straight men are straying, it may be because middle-class heterosexual women have gotten so boring. Everything has become slickly professionalized—from beauty routines to Pilates workouts. Exactly what do well-educated heterosexual women in the U.S. or Canada have to offer these days, aside from rote complaints about men? There is no intriguing allure or mystery left to pursue. And of course, one false step or blurted word and they’ll have you up on sexual harassment charges. North American sexual relations have increasingly become scorched earth.
One might expect gay men, by virtue of their dissident perspective, to have greater psychological insight than straight men, but psychology is long gone from discussion of sex in academe and the media. Everything is ruled by the strangling octopus of politics. No one can ask questions about the etiology of exclusive homosexuality, because to do so is to be instantly labeled homophobic. Hence gay men and lesbians are now blocked from embarking on the road to self-knowledge: “Know thyself” was the maxim (adopted by Socrates) that was inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Indeed, it was even one of the fabulous lines, recited in Greek, in that gay cult classic, Auntie Mame (one of my all-time favorite films).
As I argued in my manifesto, “No Law in the Arena” in Vamps & Tramps (1994), no one is born gay. Homosexuality is an adaptation, resulting from a mercurial interaction of inborn traits with unpredictable familial and cultural conditions. In my libertarian system, government has no right whatever to dictate what we do with our bodies, which we own and which were endowed upon us by nature. Indeed, I contend that homosexuality is perfectly natural, as copiously demonstrated by its historical frequency during periods of overpopulation worldwide.
What I see as inborn in so many (but of course not all) gay men is actually the artistic gene, a perceptual sensitivity that separates or alienates them from other boys in childhood and that leads much later to gay identity at puberty. Gay men whom I have met over my lifetime in Europe and Brazil as well as in North America seem startlingly often to have a visual acuteness, mental mobility, and verbal aptitude that straight men rarely have unless they are artists.
Just to take one example: Architectural Digest, to which I subscribe, does lavishly illustrated features on prominent interior designers and their home lives. The preponderance of glamorous gay male couples in interior design is a global phenomenon. There is an occasional stray lesbian, but it’s not the norm. What exactly accounts for this—and for the overwhelming number of ultra-sophisticated gay male connoisseurs in all of the arts, from opera to antiques? Inquiring minds want to know!
Camille Paglia's Free Women, Free Men is out now from Penguin Random House.