Free Women, Free Men by Camille Paglia
Updated: Aug 22
In a recent, much-publicised debate, psychologist Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Zizek went head to head on Capitalism, Marxism and happiness (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsHJ3LvUWTs). In a room of sycophantic punters, Zizek was applauded for his unique style of intellectual whimsy. I am not sure what he thinks about communism anymore, only that I have heard his analogy of Western civilisation many times: we are facing the light at the end of the tunnel without realising that it’s a train heading directly towards us (or words to that effect). I think he means we are lost and clinging to false hopes. That’s not very specific, and Zizek is anti-Brexit so perhaps he means that Brexit is the light which turns out to be the oncoming train.
It is worth considering why academic people seem to have a greater distance than ever from non academics, as though the two worlds have nothing to do with one another.
The most interesting thing that Zizek says in the debate (for me) is in pointing out that, despite huge popularity with youtube audiences, both Peterson and Zizek are marginalised from academic circles. I’ll take his word for it that academics have distanced themselves from Zizek and Peterson’s views, but certainly their online discussions and lectures are widely viewed. Still, if this is true it is worth considering why academic people seem to have a greater distance than ever from non academics, as though the two worlds have nothing to do with one another.
Regarding Jordan Peterson, there is a much more interesting discussion (in my opinion) on youtube with the feminist, Camille Paglia (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-hIVnmUdXM). The label feminist is precarious at best. It depends on which feminism you mean. Paglia is concerned with the empowerment of women, and in her recent book, Free Women, Free Men she produces a collection of essays, dating back to 1990, which I thought were fascinating. Paglia’s book is packed with insight and views on current topics, celebrities and 'high' art - views that certainly do not get widely expressed.
In her youtube discussion with Peterson, Paglia describes how the worlds of men and women have merged; at the same time, this merging has weakened the way that men and women understand one another. In the “agrarian era”, she says, “there was the world of men and the world of women”. Men and women interacted less and tended to mix only with the same gender, but crucially: “each had status in its own realm.” Men and women experienced a sense of power, whilst occupying very different roles and places. Of course the world had changed: men and women now share workplaces, and there is greater sharing of domestic and child-rearing roles.
These changes are to be celebrated, but also reveal how men and women might, paradoxically, understand one another less and less despite spending more time together. After women started to work and live independently of men in the nineteenth century this freedom coincided with a growing animosity towards men. To paraphrase, Paglia claims that she witnesses many young, middle class women looking miserable and blaming men for their problems. The answer, she says, is not to make men more like women.
Sexual intercourse, far from being about male empowerment, is “a drain of male energy”.
In the first, fascinating chapter of Free Women, Free Men, called 'Sex and Violence, on Nature and Art', Paglia portrays male empowerment as a reaction to their mothers: “It is against the mother that men have erected their towering edifice of politics and sky-cult.” Since men are indebted to their mothers their creation of language, culture and art are an attempt to project some sort of power. The reason for exhibiting a sense of power is therefore a perceived lack of it. Sexual intercourse, far from being about male empowerment, is “a drain of male energy”. Women, meanwhile, are restricted by only one thing: nature (specifically the lunar cycle) which tells her “do not dare to be free! For your body does not belong to you.” This chapter appears first because the articles are organised chronologically, but it sets the tone of the book when it comes to the relationship between women and men. Men and women are not only different, but they rely on each other to find their (different) identity.
In Free Women, Free Men, Paglia elaborates upon that theme, with a fascinating chapter called 'Men’s Sport Vanishing'. As far back as 1993, Princeton University abandoned a traditional men’s wrestling program. Princeton had justified the decision as an economic one, but still refused a 2.3 million donation from Princeton alumni, until much later. Paglia’s point is that physical contact sports, traditionally enjoyed by men, are under threat from educational values which try to effeminise men. Consequently, a chapter called, ‘Gridiron Feminism’ ends with the exclamation: “Football will keep us strong!” If only more women played (American) football, she argues, their knowledge of the competitive nature of the sport would aid them in asserting themselves in politics and business. ‘Gridiron feminism’ was published in 1997, and I am sure that Paglia would be aware of the number of women in the UK who play rugby and football (soccer). Her point is that competitive sport should be an important part of an educational institution, for both genders.
Paglia describes her stance as “pro-sex feminism”, which means empowering women to make choices for themselves
Perhaps what is more controversial is Paglia’s views on pornography: “Pornography is a pagan arena of beauty, vitality, and brutality, of the archaic visor or nature. It should break every rule, offend all morality.” Quite frankly, this is not a view on pornography that one hears very often. The current concern in the UK seems to be that young people are exposed to such material, especially when new technologies facilitate access. Paglia is not suggesting that minors accessing such material is appropriate. Her argument is that pornography is an art form, and it does not benefit women to prohibit it. In a more recent interview with Ella Whelan, Paglia describes her stance as “pro-sex feminism”, which means empowering women to make choices for themselves, not trying to protect them through legislation all of the time.
According to Paglia, many of the recent developments associated to feminism, the Metoo movement, Hilary Clinton’s election defeat and sex on the university campus, have not benefited women or men in terms of freedom. Controversial and confrontational, Paglia shows that feminism integrates a number of 'waves' and perspectives. The discussion with Jordan Peterson is especially entertaining, better than the Zizek one in my opinion.
Free Women, Free Men by Camille Paglia is published by Canongate Books