An Elegy for Two Once-Divine Female Critics
As recently as five years ago, I counted Ann Coulter and Camille Paglia among my favorite authors, and my guiltiest but most delicious reading pleasures.
In the famous tome Sexual Personae (1991), Camille Paglia drove a fearless bulldozer over the grove of feminist shibboleths, celebrating a street-smart feminism poised against the frigid and increasingly tiresome academic left. For much of the Clinton era, it was refreshing to hear her devilish witticisms. Her main target was the ironic puritanism of leftists who sought to liberate sex yet ended up ruining love with political guilt. Among the feminists Camille pilloried, men were to be lectured about sexism when they found females pretty. The lectures were worse than Catholic sermons against impure thoughts. The antidote was naturally Paglia's own blend of impishness and erudition.
I must admit, I took the medicine gleefully. Who can resist an enfant terrible who publishes books like Vamps and Tramps (1994)? Paglia was fabulous.
On the other end of the political spectrum, a different Venus crawled out of the swamp of Bill and Hillary's bimbo eruptions like Botticelli's deity washing up on the shores of Cyprus. Blonde, leggy, and unapologetic about any perceived contradictions, Ann Coulter was born -- like Paglia, a ferocious huntress with her arrows aimed squarely at the liberal elite's hypocrisy. Just as Camille would spare no scrutiny of feminists' self-defeating phobias about heterosexuality, so Ann was unflinching about the feminists' bargain with Bill Clinton, not to mention the rest of the left's smelly gaggle of womanizing creeps. Blessed with a wit no less sharp than Alexander Pope's, Coulter delighted self-discovering conservatives with appropriately titled invectives like Slander (2003), Treason (2004), Godless (2007), and Guilty (2008).
There is something about true wit, of the kind one remembers from Pope's Dunciad or Juvenal's sixteen satires, which runs roughshod over partisan boundaries. Paglia was irresistible to many conservatives. Coulter was a clandestine addiction for many liberals, who would read her Wednesday columns while never admitting to it at cocktail parties.
But it's been a bad year for both women. Watching great people fall is excruciating, whether it's David Petraeus suddenly exposed as a "Pentagon peacock" seeking shameless adulation from a starry-eyed groupie twenty years his junior or Paglia publishing a strange screed in The Hollywood Reporter. The latter got more play than usual because Drudge reposted it.
Paglia feels offended, even disgusted, by young female singers who are "winsome" and the "latest sweetheart." Gone is the playfulness of Camille's earlier attacks against people like Andrea Dworkin and Hillary Clinton. Oblivious to the fact that a younger generation of Americans, born in the 1980s, saw how much women actually benefited from acting like a perpetual sex-crazed succubus à la Madonna -- they got lots of guilt-ridden abortions, chlamydia, babies without responsible daddies, and still no magical equality to men at the office -- and largely decided to opt out of relentless vixenhood, Camille chastises them for monstrous vices such as "modesty." Here's a blast from her piece (boldface in original):
Despite the passage of time since second-wave feminism erupted in the late 1960s, we've somehow been thrown back to the demure girly-girl days of the white-bread 1950s. It feels positively nightmarish to survivors like me of that rigidly conformist and man-pleasing era, when girls had to be simple, peppy, cheerful and modest. Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Dee formed the national template -- that trinity of blond oppressors!
As if flashed forward by some terrifying time machine, there's Taylor Swift, America's latest sweetheart, beaming beatifically in all her winsome 1950s glory from the cover of Parade magazine in the Thanksgiving weekend newspapers. In TV interviews, Swift affects a "golly, gee whiz" persona of cultivated blandness and self-deprecation, which is completely at odds with her shrewd glam dress sense. Indeed, without her mannequin posturing at industry events, it's doubtful that Swift could have attained her high profile.
It is a sure sign that Camille Paglia has jumped the shark when she gets history terribly wrong. Doris Day in Calamity Jane (1953) could hardly be simplified to a case of only "peppy and modest." She wasn't necessarily all that modest. She was, most importantly, a phenomenal performer who could sing, dance, and act -- a trivium of talents possessed by few present-day divas (certainly not the ones that Paglia romanticizes, like acting-deficient Jennifer Lopez or Madonna, who can't really sing and ruins every movie she stars in).
In Calamity Jane, Day's persona wins Wild Bill Hickok's love by staying transgendered and coarse, tearing off her frilly pink ballroom gown and shooting the cognac glass out of a showgirl's hand, then jumping back into her manly leather riding gear. Yes, in that movie, Doris sings a duet called "a woman's touch," which might seem to romanticize sweeping the floor and watering potted flowers. But the song is also about Calamity Jane teaming up with another woman and building a house without needing a man to protect them. Behind the "beaming" and "simple, peppy" modesty, there was a complicated message. Maybe it wasn't A Clockwork Orange or Showgirls, but there is much in that 1950s ethos to inspire a young female performer today. Doris Day had class; doesn't that matter?
One could say, moreover, that Debbie Reynolds in Singin' in the Rain (1952) is more complex than a mere second fiddle to Gene Kelly. When we first see her driving her convertible through Los Angeles, she is an independent working girl, paying the bills by jumping out of birthday cakes but also not afraid to slug a man in the face with a pie (unfortunately, she misses Don Lockwood and instead hits Lina Lamont.)
It's Paglia that has lost the ability to understand feminine complexity. As she has turned sourer in the last few years, I have tried to psychologize her Orphic descent from edginess to banality. I can't reduce the problem to a simple case of self-pitying bitterness, though she does write, "Paradoxically, a key problem with the current youth cult, which is devouring both entertainment and fashion, is that aging women have become progressively invisible." It seems that Paglia has trouble understanding that Taylor Swift, and many of the other women Paglia derides, are not vain old women trying to pass as young. They are really young, and it's their turn now. They are from a different generation and don't want the faux, fruitless feminism of the second wave.
Which brings me to Ann Coulter. After trumpeting Mitt Romney to conservatives for a year, her sharpness has dulled. Pessimistic and out of ideas, she gets even Laura Ingraham to say tha she is "demoralized." Ann is convinced that America is lost forever because Mitt, as she told Laura Ingraham, was a "magnificent candidate."
Thus reads the text box inside my head as I listen to Ann clinging to the mystique of robotic, multiple-mansion-dwelling, and squiggly-as-spaghetti Romney as the man that any sane conservative should be leaping for joy to elect: "Earth to Ann! We're just not that into him. He was a bad choice. He was squishy and all he did was talk about Bain Capital at choreographed cheerleading conventions, always in the swing states. He didn't go after Barack Obama about Benghazi or Fast & Furious in those debates because he was a lousy, weak candidate and he didn't have a strong vision to sell people!"
Like Camille Paglia blaming Taylor Swift for not wanting to be a second-wave Barbarella, Ann Coulter is convinced that people who don't vote for Romney are simply unsalvageable heathens. Bereft of her old acuity with qualitative cultural critique, she resorts to one of her weaker suits, number-crunching, and then arrives, this week, at the conclusion that Hispanics are ruining America. Here's her cry from the wilderness:
On closer examination, it turns out that young voters, aged 18-29, overwhelmingly supported Romney. But only the white ones.
According to Pew Research, 54 percent of white voters under 30 voted for Romney and only 41 percent for Obama. That's the same percentage Reagan got from the entire white population in 1980. ...
Perhaps the reason elections maven Michael Barone was so shockingly off in his election prediction this year was that, in the biggest mistake of his career, Barone has been assuring us for years that most of these Third World immigrants pouring into the country would go the way of Italian immigrants and become Republicans. They're hardworking! They have family values!
Maybe at first, but not after coming here, having illegitimate children and going on welfare.
This too is shark-jumping. Mitt Romney performed worse among Latinos than did McCain, who performed worse among Latinos than did Bush or Reagan. The problem was the candidate, not the voters.
I happened to vote for Mitt Romney, as did almost 30% of "Hispanics" or whatever you want to call us. Maybe instead of kvetching interminably about the 70% of our community that voted for Obama, Ann and her acolytes ought to concentrate on understanding the three out of ten Hispanic voters who were willing to support a Republican candidate as unappealing to us as Romney. Nowhere is it written in law that conservatives can continue to bloviate against us in wildly unfair blanket statements, crossing the line into the very "racial demagoguery" that Ann decries in Mugged, and not drive down the rate of Republican-voting Latinos to 20%, or 12%, or 5%. Why rush into a self-fulfilling prophecy and damn yourself when you could just as easily look for a better candidate?
It isn't a racial issue. It's a generational issue, and this is where I see a disturbing parallel between Ann Coulter and Camille Paglia: both once-marvelous writers have fallen into a sad trap. They are blaming a new generation for thinkers who are as smart as Coulter and Paglia, and who simply don't agree with them or want their brew anymore. Perhaps 54% of whites below thirty did vote for Romney; I don't know, because I am wary of all these polls. (I am especially suspicious of the Asian-American figures.) But whichever way you choose to dissect the situation, the fact is that people born after 1980, as a whole, aren't buying what Romney -- and increasingly, Ann -- tried to sell them in 2012. They are one generation, not several generations separated by race, so we have to analyze them as an organic whole.
Whatever happens to Ann and Camille, one thing is clear: it's time for a new generation of critics. Whatever transpired in the case of Laura Ingraham, I must say I respect her immensely for stepping away from the radio mic for a while. It is a natural thing for life to move in cycles, for older generations to quiet down and soften. There are new ideas out there. I'm all ears.