Essays, reviews, and interviews chronicle the career of a self-described “libertarian feminist.”
Since Sexual Personae (1990), Paglia (Humanities and Media Studies/Univ. of the Arts, Philadelphia; Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, 2012, etc.) has argued relentlessly against what she sees as puerile and uninformed ideas about sexuality, freedom, and gender. The pieces collected here, all previously published, include three sections from her first wide-ranging book on art, decadence, sex, and nature; various newspaper and magazine articles; and a few lectures, interviews, and book reviews. Unfortunately, to read a few is to read them all, as Paglia repeats views that have contributed to her reputation as “abrasive, strident, and obnoxious.” She critiques women’s studies programs, for example, as “a comfy, chummy morass of unchallenged groupthink.” Bereft of grounding in science, the programs began, she asserts, to bring more female hires into academia, by administrators who did not much care about the intellectual content. “Women’s studies is a jumble of vulgarians, bunglers, whiners, French faddists, apparatchiks, doughface party-liners, pie-in-the-sky utopianists, and bullying sanctimonious sermonizers,” she wrote in 1991. Paglia softened her assessment somewhat by 2008, when, in an address at Harvard, she proposed reasonable reforms for the programs that included science as “a fundamental component” as well as the “writings of conservative opponents of feminism.” Essays that touch on biography reveal elements of the author’s childhood and adolescence in the repressive 1950s, when her role models were Amelia Earhart and Katharine Hepburn; and that she imbibed “the essence of the Sixties, which is free thought and free speech.” With apparent delight, Paglia skewers some icons of the women’s movement, such as Gloria Steinem, Hélène Cixous (“that damp sob sister”), and Carolyn Heilbrun, reserving praise for Madonna (“the true feminist”) and Germaine Greer (“witty, learned, stylish, and sexy”). An album of media photographs suggests that Paglia would like to be described in exactly those terms.
Controversial views on women’s lives and nature that may appeal to Paglia’s fans but not win her many more.