Street Fighting Woman

Once a publishers’ reject, the best-selling Paglia is out for revenge

PARTLY CLAD IN CRIMSON, THE SMALL, frenetic figure clutched at the mike, her words bursting forth like machine-gun fire. “OK, OK, let me say, I have so many things to talk about, I could hold you hostage for 12 hours, right? Like Madonna in that hotel room in Justify MY Lore”?

Scholar and provocateur Camille Paglia came to Harvard last month to lecture on the ills of the Ivy League and, as usual, she was loaded for bear. “We’re dealing with Kremlin minds,” she said, ridiculing professors in Cambridge as isolated, shallow-minded opportunists. Then she blasted other targets, including the feminist establishment, writer Susan Faludi (“That book Backlash is a piece of crap”), and the concept of date rape (an issue, she says, trumped up by “sex-phobic, irrational, borderline personalities”).

The performance was pure Paglia—a dizzying melange of stand-up comedy, social commentary and theater of the absurd. Then again, outrageousness is the norm for the author of the controversial cultural history Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. Both brilliant and exasperating, the 673-page tome became an unlikely best-selling paperback last fall, putting the once obscure, 45-year-old humanities professor from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts squarely on the cultural map. Flamboyant erudition aside, Paglia’s book also makes good copy because it brims with caustic one-liners such as “If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts.”

Paglia’s big ticket to fame has been her rabid attacks on feminist orthodoxy. In The New York Times and Esquire, on the lecture circuit and on Donahue, she has cast many feminists as whining prudes who think all will be fine between the sexes once men change their savage ways. Paglia insists that men will always be beasts, and so it’s a woman’s responsibility to rebuff sexual harassment, to avoid any situation that could lead to date rape. Those extreme views have critics howling that Paglia is part of the antifeminist backlash, a poseur claiming to be a member of the movement who gleefully distorts its aims and stereotypes its supporters so that she can claim to be the voice of reason.

Paglia has a ready answer for the public’s love-hate relationship with her. “I’m an Annie Oakley figure,” she says. “I shoot from the hip in a Yankee, cut-through-the-crap, classically American way.” Moreover, she can confuse people pretty thoroughly. “I’ve been called butthead, antifeminist, idiot, neoconservative. But I’m pro-porn, pro-homosexuality, pro-abortion, pro—legalization of drugs, OK? I offend everybody.”

What has made Paglia so mad? The older daughter of Pasquale Paglia, a first-generation Italian-American who was professor of Romance languages at Le Moyne, a Jesuit college in Syracuse, N.Y., and his wife, Lydia, a bank teller, she was a quiet child who felt more like a boy than a girl. At 8, she dressed up as Napoleon for Halloween; the next year she was Hamlet. “Then I reached puberty,” she says, “and I went wild in rejection of my sex role. I’ve been a maniac ever since.”

After attending the State University of New York at Binghamton, Paglia arrived at Yale in 1968 to begin graduate studies in English—and clashed head-on with the women’s movement over, of all things, misogyny and the Rolling Stones. “I said they were a great rock band, and I was shouted down,” she says. “How could I join such a movement? It had a Stalinist view that art must serve political correctness. It refused to listen to dissident voices.” While teaching at Bennington College from 1972 to 1980, she got into a series of intellectual brawls in the name of her own brand of feminism. Most infamous was the time she got back at a male student who had insulted her, when she cornered him days later in a campus café and, literally, kicked him in the behind.

But it was her involvement in a fist-fight at a dance in 1978 that led to her quietly negotiated departure from Bennington. She spent the next few years on the unemployment line and teaching at Wesleyan and part-time at Yale. Meanwhile, the manuscript of Sexual Personae, begun as her Ph.D. dissertation, was rejected by seven New York publishers. Her bitterness at academia and the feminists grew exponentially. “I couldn’t get a job in women’s studies because I’m loud, obnoxious, and I deviated from the party line,” she says. “I hung on by my fingernails.”

In 1984 she landed in Philadelphia; the next year Yale bought her book, which was published in 1990. Finally, Paglia could hawk her philosophy to the world—and bash everyone who had held her down. “I’m like a jack-in-the-box—whaack! Like a vampire out of the grave after 20 years of isolation and neglect,” she says. “You see, Italians, we invented the vendetta. People have dishonored me. I want revenge.”

Paglia does have a provocative, naughty-girl charm. “There’s the delight of saying what you’re not supposed to, the sensation of watching someone tell off the boss. You participate vicariously in her fearlessness,” says Harvard government professor Harvey Mansfield. Her critics, including feminist author Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth), are not amused. “She’s not getting attention because of her theories on romantic imagination but because she’s willing to say feminists arc hangdog dowdies and dale rape is women’s fault,” says Wolf. “She’s participating in truly cynical and corrupt distortion. Either she’s ignorant or dishonest.”

Paglia hopes that her second book, Sex, Art and American Culture: Essays, a collection due this fall, will help clean up her bizarre, madwoman image. Meantime she’s busy updating part two of Sexual Personae, which will include sports, movies, TV and rock and roll. Work aside, she spends most of her time in her rented attic apartment in Swarthmore, Pa., where she relaxes by listening to Guns N’ Roses and watching soap operas. Describing herself as a former lesbian who is now bisexual, Paglia admits years often pass between affaire. She accepts that aloneness as the price of brilliance. “I’m a deviation—from the sexual and the human norm,” she says. “There’s a fine line between creativity and insanity, and I’m right on the edge.”

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