Social critic and educator Camille Paglia (born 1947) has outraged or befuddled countless readers with her defiantly iconoclastic writings. She has, for example, argued that pornography constitutes sexual reality, that prostitutes enjoy their work, that bisexuality should be an accepted norm, and that all drugs should be legalized. But as anyone willing to read her books and essays soon discovers, her statements are more often than not well-reasoned conclusions that cannot be dismissed out-of-hand.
Camille Paglia was born on April 2, 1947, in Endicott, New York, to Pasquale and Lydia Paglia, who had immigrated to the United States from Italy. Her father was a professor of Romance languages at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York, while his wife, Lydia, worked at home sewing wedding dresses until their daughter was three; after that she worked as a bank teller.
Paglia's family had little money when she was growing up; by way of compensation her parents encouraged her to engage her intellectual curiosity. Paglia would later tell an interviewer for Playboy: "I was silent as a child. But it's true that my father was very opinionated, and he trained me in my earliest years to be an individual thinker. Italian culture is like Chinese culture. There is respect for elders. You never raise your voice to elders. There are no explosions. My father was totally in control."
Among Paglia's earliest memories, dating to the age of two and a half, is an episode of rage she experienced when she was not allowed to attend a film because she could not yet read. Rage is an emotion that would serve her well many years later when she became one of America's leading social critics.
Within a few years of the film brouhaha, Paglia had become something of a tomboy, frequently getting into scuffles with her male cohorts. It must have come as a relief to her father when she finally became interested in ancient Egypt. But by then she was just as much a devotee of Hollywood popular culture as of antiquity. Paglia recalled a lecture she received from her father regarding 18th-century Swiss writer Voltaire's poor opinion of actors that came just about the time she started collecting pictures of actress Elizabeth Taylor.
Paglia experienced the rebellious 1960s as a high school student. Because she was attracted to women in high school, she assumed she was a lesbian, but, as she told Playboy, "it wasn't possible for me to do anything about my attraction to women. Lesbianism didn't exist in that time, as far as I knew… . I always felt frustrated and excluded, looking in from a distance." This stance marked the beginning of her own rebellion against social norms. In later years she would find that lesbians disliked her because of her belief that most women are bisexual. Her relationships with men, on the other hand, continued to be compromised by her lack of patience and unwillingness to assume the role of nurturer.
Although feeling excluded socially, Paglia excelled academically and in college graduated valedictorian at the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1968. She went on to spent four years at Yale University, earning her Ph.D. in English before taking a teaching position at Bennington College in Vermont.
Paglia's seven years at Bennington were unsatisfying, to say the least. As she told Playboy, "I would go to a faculty meeting and be aware that everyone hated me. The men were appalled by a strong, loud woman… . [T]he men at the college were terrified because they are eunuchs, and I threatened every … one of them." Her interactions even became physical: in one case Paglia left an obnoxious male student sprawled on the cafeteria floor. After several such incidents, Bennington reportedly asked her to leave, but with legal intervention she managed to stay on until 1979. After Bennington College she landed a low-paying faculty position as professor of humanities at the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts (now the University of the Arts).
In 1990 Paglia earned the sobriquet "Hurricane Camille" after publishing the 700-page tome on sex, art, and literature titled Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. The book, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award, became a bestseller and propelled Paglia to celebrity status. This success did not come without persistence on Paglia's part, however. After she completed the manuscript in 1981, she submitted it to seven publishers, all of whom rejected it; she finally found a publisher, Yale University Press, to accept it nine years later.
Appropriately for a work that rivals the Bible in thickness, Sexual Personae opens with the lines: "In the beginning was nature. The background from which and against which our ideas of God were formed, nature remains the supreme moral problem. We cannot hope to understand sex and gender until we clarify our attitude toward nature. Sex is a subset to nature. Sex is the natural in man." She wastes no time in making her point: on the first page she writes, "Feminists grossly oversimplify the problem of sex when they reduce it to a matter of social convention: readjust society, eliminate sexual inequality, purify sex roles, and happiness and harmony will reign."
Martha Duffy, reviewing Sexual Personae for Time, attributed the book's popularity to an emergent backlash among those who had become fed up with feminism. According to Duffy, "Paglia articulates positions that many people of both genders seem to want to hear… . To them feminism has gone quite far enough, and they like Personae 's neoconservative cultural message: Men have done the work of civilization and can take credit for most of its glories. Women are powerful too, but as the inchoate forces of nature are powerful. Religion and marriage are historically the best defenses against chaos."
After setting forth her views in Sexual Personae, Paglia went on to author more essays dealing with feminist issues. Published in 1992, Sex, Art, and American Culture takes on the testimony of Anita Hill, who accused a soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice of sexual harassment, the so-called "beauty myth" coined by feminist author Naomi Wolf, and the decline of education in America while offering personal commentary on Paglia's own career in journalism and academia. Ann Oakley, writing in Sociology, dubbed the work "essentially an autobiographical record of Paglia's professional life to date as she sees it." The 1994 collection Vamps and Tramps: New Essays deals with the arts, gay activism, and such celebrity figures as Bill and Hillary Clinton. Mimi Udovitch, writing in Artforum International, found this collection to be Paglia's "most enjoyable work to date" and praised it for demonstrating that the author has a joie de vivre that can effectively counterbalance "her excesses." Paglia is also the author of The Birds, a study of Alfred Hitchcock's movie of the same name.
By the mid-1990s Paglia was a celebrity considered among the most well-known social philosophers in the United States. With a popular image that the Playboy interviewer described as "antifeminist feminist, antigay lesbian and antiliberal liberal," she had acquired a reputation as an academic attack dog. For her part, Paglia told the interviewer that she considered herself a feminist, but added that other feminists disliked her because she had criticized the women's movement. Unlike most mainstream feminists, she believes feminism has betrayed women by replacing dialogue between the sexes with political correctness. Given the sacrifices that so-called sexual liberation entails, Paglia maintained that, in the end, it was the children—by way of neglect—who suffered most from the women's movement.
She has also faulted the movement for the division it has caused between the sexes and traces much of the ongoing confusion about gender identity to the sexual revolution of the 1960s. As she told Playboy, "After the sixties there was a collapse in almost everything we believed in… . It all unraveled in the seventies. AIDS, appearing in the early eighties, was the period at the end of the sentence. AIDS forced most people to wake up to the fact that the sexual revolution had failed." Still, she has remained optimistic about social progress. "Social change is evolutionary, not revolutionary," Paglia explained. "Deep social change takes time. And slowly the culture is changing."
While considered to be at once a humorist, pedant, iconoclast, egotist, and exhibitionist, Paglia and her essays on art, politics, and society were taken seriously by readers frustrated by the false humility characteristic of the late 20th century, and she has continued to inspire others to reconsider society. From the left, Paglia's writings have provoked animosity, contempt, and outrage. As First Lady of feminism Betty Friedan told the Playboy interviewer: "How can you take [Paglia] seriously? She is an exhibitionist, and she takes the most extreme elements of the women's movement and tries to make the whole movement antisexual, antilife, antijoy. And neither I nor most of the women I know are that way." Paglia, for her part, prefers to compare herself to conservative radio talk-show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern, viewing herself as a champion of unbridled discussion.
Feminist Writers, St. James Press, 1996.
Paglia, Camille, Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays, Vintage, 1992.
Paglia, Camille, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Yale University Press, 1990.
Paglia, Camille, Vamps and Tramps: New Essays, Vintage, 1994.
Artforum International, Summer 1995.
Publishers Weekly, November 28, 1994.
Sociology, November 1994.
Time, January 13, 1992.
"Interview with Camille Paglia," Playboy Web site, http://privat.ub.uib.no/BUBSY/playboy.htm. □