Camille Paglia's Second Wave
The iconoclastic feminist is seeing a resurgence in popularity among young people tired of ideological conformity.
The internet was set abuzz with Camille Paglia’s name when two characters on HBO’s popular recent series The White Lotus appeared poolside reading a copy of her 1990 seminal tome Sexual Personae. It was only one of many recent examples of the dissident feminist writer and provocateur’s resurgence in popularity among millennials and older zoomers, long after her first wave of notoriety in the early ’90s.
Upon finishing the book in 1980, after nearly twenty years of toilsome research and refinement, Camille Paglia has said she didn’t expect it to receive acclaim until after her death. Having in mind other writers like Emily Dickinson whose writings gained readers posthumously, she didn’t find herself despairing when it was consecutively rejected by seven publishers. Paglia has compared her commitment to scholarship for its own sake to that of medieval monks, eschewing the careerism of academics whose goal is to attain mass readership and to work their way up the university ladder. In her eyes, a true scholar is much like a prophet: she won’t be fully understood or appreciated for generations to come.
When Sexual Personae went on to be published in 1990 by Yale University Press, Paglia’s career skyrocketed nearly overnight. Though she was lambasted by establishment feminists, her work and public persona were well received by those whose views toward art, pop culture, and gender were deemed politically incorrect.
Paglia’s media presence has waned over the last few years to making sparse appearances publicizing her latest collection of essays, Provocations (published in 2018). Some wondered whether her career had reached its end when some of her students at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts attempted to “cancel” her in April of 2019. The change.org petition demanded she be removed from her position in light of her “triggering” comments on transgenderism and sexual assault, and be replaced by a queer woman of color. But university president David Yager refused to appease the students, citing the way “artists over the centuries have suffered censorship, and even persecution, for the expression of their beliefs through their work.”
Despite her fading from the public spotlight, Paglia’s work has been resurfacing—a mouthpiece for a new “voiceless” generation. Similarly to her first surge of popularity in 1990, her commitment to the importance of metaphysics, aesthetics, a broad view of history, and sexual dimorphism, as well as her criticism of poststructuralist theory and political correctness, are filling a gaping void in academia and the mass media—a void which has only deepened over the last thirty years, thus proving her work even more prophetic than when it first emerged.
This new generation of devotees have discovered her through various outlets. Some through a nearly two hour long interview with Dr. Jordan Peterson in which the two engage in a spirited discussion on Freudian psychoanalysis, Jungian archetypes, and the hegemony of poststructuralism in universities. Others found her through an adoring profile in City Journal written in 2019 by journalist Emily Esfahani Smith, who highlighted the fact that “the world may be less enchanted than it was when Paglia was a child, but she still stands in awe of it. Her life’s work has been to share that message with others.”
She has grown in popularity among millennial gay men thanks in part to Milo Yiannopoulos, whom some label as a male version of Paglia. Yiannopoulos lauds Paglia’s “pre-Stonewall” understanding of homosexuality as an attempt to transgress against the status quo, thus calling into question the naive claim that homosexuality is a neutral form of sexual expression on par with heterosexuality.
Paglia has also amassed fans thanks to the hosts of the Red Scare podcast. Dasha Nekrasova and Anna Khachiyan, both of whom were born in the USSR, have made a name for their ironic hot takes on “libfem” girlbosses, the performative sincerity of social justice warriors, and the extent to which “woke-ism” is a projection of psychological, aesthetic, and spiritual decay. They frequently quote Paglia when lambasting the fragility of WASPish middle-class feminists, pulling popular lines from Free Women, Free Men and Sexual Personae like, “if civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts,” and “there is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.”
She has been a source of inspiration for other millennial podcasters, including Perfume Nationalist, Evil Thespian, and Contra Gentiles, and is the subject of Instagram meme pages like @camillepagliaquotes, which posts short, succinct Paglian hot takes on a daily basis. The page admin (who prefers to remain anonymous) attributes Paglia’s surge in popularity to the fact that “she offers an antidote to the stale jargon and stagnant ideology of the Social Justice movement. Paglia represents individuality, dissent, passion, humor, wit, a love of art, an interest in history, and an appetite for learning. In contrast, the Year Zero, collectivist mentality of the Social Justice Left is a dead end.”
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The “Madonna of academe” is not without her millennial critics. In her recent book Boomers: The men and women who promised freedom and delivered disaster, The American Conservative senior editor Helen Andrews offers a critique of what she sees as Paglia’s self-contradictions. Andrews insists that “Paglia, of all people,” as a proponent of so-called decadent, “sex positive” amoral feminism, “should have known that this escalating licentiousness would not come to rest in happy equilibrium.” The unleashing of pornography, abortion, prostitution, and homosexuality, and the proliferation of low-brow entertainment and mass media—all of which Paglia claims to support ardently—has only served to weaken academic integrity and democratic principles like free speech, which Paglia has dedicated her career to defending. But even in her censure of Paglia, Andrews still recognizes her brilliance, affirming that she is more of an acute critic and writer than most of her contemporaries.
A feminist who believes that biology must form the foundation of Gender Studies, a self-identified transgender who thinks that prescribing puberty blockers to children is “criminal,” a pro-choice Democrat who thinks abortion is murder, and an atheist pagan who thinks that comparative religion ought to form the basis of a multicultural curriculum, Paglia’s paradoxical sensibilities did not fit well into the simplistic orthodoxies drawn up by culture warriors during her first wave of popularity, and fit even less so today.
Thus her new legion of fans, who find themselves increasingly suffocated by the lack of nuance and intellectual integrity in today’s mainstream discourse. Though Paglia’s age and cultural background may prevent her from fully grasping the many facets of issues faced by young people today, her fidelity to reality over ideology sets an iconoclastic example for people of all cultural and political persuasions to schlep their way through the turbid cognitive dissonance of our times.