Monday, September 13th, 2010

Anti Paglia: Poor Camille Paglia Thinks Lady Gaga is Trying to be a Sex Symbol

GAG THRU THISCamille Paglia's attack on Lady Gaga in the Sunday Times begins with an attempted burnishing of her own rusted credentials: "Camille Paglia, America's foremost cultural critic, demolishes an icon." Who on earth-or at least who in America-would describe Paglia that way? Nobody! The introduction only underscores the irrelevance it was meant to forestall.

The full article, behind the paywall, only underwrites the reader's initial doubts. There is a tired potted history of Hollywood vamps-Theda Bara (daughter of a Cincinnati tailor, Paglia reports!) and Clara Bow, "a madcap flapper"! Louise Brooks, Paglia tells us, "made landmark films of decadent eroticism"! Gosh thanks, Camille! Who knew? Also, Marilyn Monroe's "influence endures around the globe." It truly says this; it's written like a high-school essay, and delivered in a tone of weary condescension.

Paglia's Sexual Personae was first published twenty years ago, and since then the author does not appear to have offered us much beyond the news that she thought Madonna was very sexy. In 1990, the wild acclaim for Sexual Personae led people to suppose that Paglia would become a public intellectual of the rock-star stature of Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag or Bernard-Henri Lévy. That did not happen because Paglia is a nutcase who, among many other instances of self-promoting perversity, attacked Anita Hill, expressed contempt for Gloria Steinem, Naomi Wolf, Susan Faludi and many, many others, and went bonkers over Sarah Palin, commenting breathlessly, "We may be seeing the first woman president." She also had something or other to say about some poems! Whatever. Paglia's denunciation of Lady Gaga is about as perspicacious as her oeuvre since Sexual Personae might have led anyone to expect (plus, she still thinks Madonna was very sexy, "on fire", "the imperious Marlene Dietrich's true heir", etc.)

Lady Gaga is "in over her head with her avant-garde pretensions," Paglia announces, going on to demonstrate her own total cluelessness as to what might constitute an avant-garde at this point. Like many another superannuated commenter on the modern scene, she has no problem deploring the Youth she makes no attempt to understand, despite that she lives "in the leafy suburbs of Philadelphia and have never moved to New York or Washington" because "as a cultural analyst, I want to remain in touch with the mainstream of American life."

"Generation Gaga doesn't identify with powerful vocal styles because their own voices have atrophied: they communicate mutely via a constant stream of atomised, telegraphic text messages. Gaga's flat affect doesn't bother them because they're not attuned to facial expressions. They don't notice her awkwardness because they've abandoned body language in daily interactions." This nonsense calls to mind the time Paglia decided that all us poor rubes are worried about global warming because we "don't realize that polar bears can swim!" and therefore, apparently, can't drown. (True fact! Because the point is whether or not you can swim, as opposed to whether or not you can swim to, say, Hawaii. My question was, and still is: can Camille Paglia swim?)

Because Paglia cannot understand the new voices, she claims they "have atrophied." Because she doesn't understand the subtleties of communicating via text message, she claims the youngs are "communicating mutely," which, what? Was communicating by letter in the 18th century also "mute", "atrophied"? What does that even mean? Because she must not know any, I guess, she supposes the kids have "abandoned body language in daily interactions."

Then there is Paglia's complaint that Gaga is not sexy, that drag queens are far sexier than Gaga. Does it not occur to her that our whole world is already awash in "sexy" young women, singers, dancers, models, actresses, who are trying and trying and trying to "be sexy", and/or that the public is maybe really so sick of that? Or that Lady Gaga's appeal relies, in part, on precisely the fact that she inflates and distorts that "sexy" iconography in order to force the viewer to question his assumptions about sexuality, performance, gender?

As David Bowie was to Elvis, you might say, so Lady Gaga is to Madonna. Not so obvious, a little freaky, weird, a little ambiguous, not so much trying to arouse. Which is a very refreshing thing in the case of Lady Gaga, particularly when you consider all the billboards for Gentlemen's Clubs around here, all featuring "sexy" girls with facial expressions so vapid and open-mouthed you can't help thinking they must have been smacked over the head with a two-by-four before having been photographed. Please. It's a good thing, to derail that, to provide alternatives to that.

The weirdest thing is that Paglia appears to suppose that Lady Gaga is even vaguely attempting to be "sexy" in the conventional way, as in, trying and failing. No. The force of Gaga's appeal is in its very challenge to the old standards of "bombshell", "chanteuse", "star", "diva" and so on. You'd have thought that an expert on sexual personae would have been able to figure that out.

RELATED: Pro Paglia: Lady Gaga is a Smug Diva who Exploits her Monsters and Gays

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo: The Macho of the Dork and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.

99 Comments / Post A Comment

MinnZ (#3,006)

No me gusta Gaga. I kind of think she's a hack with a good marketing department — the McDonald's of music. While what Paglia says isn't spot on, I am glad to see someone actually critique Lady Gaga rather than blindly praise her on being "different" when she isn't.

metoometoo (#230)

What a boring sentiment. Next will you tell us how you feel about hipsters?

HiredGoons (#603)

I would prefer a nuanced analysis to she's good/she's bad.

It's like American politics er sumthin'

joeks (#5,805)


Pop music was already not good anyway, I'd rather have someone out there who is a little more interesting than pop stars of the recent past like Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears, and Gwen Stefani.

People can feel free to dis Gaga all they want, it don't make me no nevermind. But they should do it in the context of pop stars like those, not Madonna and Clara Bow or whoever else Paglia dug up.

MinnZ (#3,006)

Having read your comments, I'm no more boring than yourself. Of course, I guess that's what we "hipsters" do best is criticize each others' boringness and then turn around and be boring in our own self-serving ways. Much like your boring reply to my boring post and my boring reply to your boring reply &c. &c…

Lukas Kaiser (#5,518)

"Well look, it got you talking about her, didn't it?" – Everyone who's ever read an article on marketing in their life ever

MinnZ (#3,006)

PS @metoometoo:

If you want trite, look at your fucking twitter:

Really? Fall off of your high horse.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

The book about poems wasn't so bad, by the way.

I really liked the book about poems too!

YOU KNOW. I was actually going to read this book, and try not to throw out the baby with the Paglia bathwater.

I have not to date yet read it but it is On A List of Things To Do Before I Die In The Mouth Of A Shark.

barnhouse (#1,326)

The shark will probably get me first. But I have to admit, now I am curious.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

Lady Gaga doesn't do much for me, and Camille Paglia is pretty much a Pavlovian trigger for a derisive snort, but this was a joy to read.

(And by "derisive snort" I mean "holding up my Wile E. Coyote sign with the 'derisive snort' emoticon printed on it," of course.)

deepomega (#1,720)

They have emoticons for that? Let me try!

>: =8<

That's supposed to be a nose. And wind lines.

deepomega (#1,720)

There's a "derisive snort" emoticon now? Let me try!


(Those are wind lines coming from a nostril.)

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

If there weren't an emoticon, how could such a gesture exist? Don't tell me you believe those ridiculous fables about communicating feelings by moving parts of your body.

Also, stop making fun of my huge wop nose.

deepomega (#1,720)

Maybe if your damn huge nose weren't constantly tapping me on the shoulder from across the country.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

It just wants to be friends.

BadUncle (#153)

I would like to give Paglia a stick in the eye


Dave Bry (#422)

Hooray for this exchange!

And for this whole post. (Kids, look out! Old people are coming to demolish your icons! Man, there aren't enough exclamation points in the world…)

barnhouse (#1,326)

Yes very hooray for this, it is still cracking me up (with body language!–i.e. head thrown back with mirth.)

James (#7,409)

I hope you are not implying by stating that Paglia doesn't know what constitutes the avant-garde that she is missing the fact that it is Gaga. HA!

scrooge (#2,697)

But have you noticed how the avant garde hardly ever is the avant garde? It's usually a group of strays that wandered off one of the flanks and was summarily massacred.

sunnyciegos (#551)

I enjoyed this very much, and wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment that Gaga is not trying to be conventionally sexy. Also, humorless? She wore a dress made of MEAT as recently as 24 hours ago!

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

The star laughing at the audience is not the same thing as the audience laughing with the star?

deepomega's sexual braggadocio is one of my least favorite parts of the Awl.

deepomega (#1,720)


I was actually considering whipping up a GreaseMonkey script that would let me filter out comments by Jeff Barea. If you want I can make you one to hide my awesome sexual prowess from you.

all tongue-in-cheek and jealousy, sir

deepomega (#1,720)

I know, mostly I wanted to tell everyone that a world without Barea is possible.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

lol at all this

I love GreaseMonkey so much, though I had never really considered filtering Barea. I did, however, try to make a script that would highlight new posts from my last F5, but got bored and gave up too quickly.

melis (#1,854)


C_Webb (#855)

I want to lock Camille Paglia and Daphne Merkin in a dark closet together with a bottle of vodka, a bustier, and a gun and see what happens. Hope is that either way I never have to read one of them again.

City_Dater (#2,500)


Please, please, please, let a benevolent spirit made this happen.

I'll spring for the vodka, bustier and gun if you can supply a closet.

C_Webb (#855)

BTW: It's a poison bustier.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

The force of Gaga's appeal is in its very challenge to the old standards of "bombshell", "chanteuse", "star", "diva" and so on.

One of the reasons I don't particularly like Gaga is because her challenge at said standards is kind of, well, lame and forced.

metoometoo (#230)

Any chance you can provide an example of a woman whose challenge of said standards you prefer?

deepomega (#1,720)

@metoometoo: Peaches.

Haven't the "old standards" been awash in irony for about (at least?) the past decade, though? Maybe this is why everyone doesn't respond to Gaga as a "serious statement-maker" — she's not actually telling us anything we don't already know?

(Then again, we've all grown awfully stupid for about — at least! — the past decade, so.)

@m2m2: Amanda Lepore!

barnhouse (#1,326)

@metoometoo there are a lot to choose from, I am happy to reflect. Greta Garbo might be my number one. But Gaga is just a kid and I think will offer her generation a lot, in times yet to come.

@Maria: And here's another rub. I haven't read the Paglia piece because the internet has killed my attention span (and also, I don't really care what Camille Paglia has to say), but I've read this (and most of the "pro" one) here. And while the Madonna-Gaga comparisons are an inevitability, to say that Gaga is still young I think ignores that she's done a lot more in her few years of stardom than Madonna during the same period.

Madonna was on the cover of Time in 1985, years after her first album came out. Obviously, Gaga has had a lot more opportunities for press with internet around. But how well do we (Paglia?) think Madonna would have acquitted herself had she been in the spotlight as persistently in her nascent years than after she was already fully entrenched as a cultural touchstone?

barnhouse (#1,326)


petejayhawk (#1,249)

@metoometoo: I'd go with Beth Ditto for one, but I have a feeling you're not actually interested in my response.

Gaga is not edgy, her music is not original; she is a corporate brand with a slight hint of danger to sell more records. And you appear to have fallen for it.

HiredGoons (#603)

Betty Page?

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)


Diamanda Galas. Like, duh.

David Cobb (#7,455)

@metoometoo Robyn.

Smitros (#5,315)

Gaga tata NSFW.

I also want to read the book about reading poems. I think the title is "Break, Burn, Blow."

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

Shatter me ketchup, three-person'd God! Where is your head. The gutter. Ending that nice Donne phrase with "blow!"

C_Webb (#855)

Maybe I'm giving Gaga too much credit — and I'm going on a few viewings of the greatest hits, so I'm no expert. But I thought she was going for exactly what Paglia is accusing her of: a sort of bombshell drag in the absence of affect. A sex symbol that has symbolized itself out of sexiness. Like if Paris burned, and nobody came.

HiredGoons (#603)

She should take a lesson from Kenneth Anger.

HiredGoons (#603)

She being Paglia.

HiredGoons (#603)

So in light of this:

I agree with this:

"Then there is Paglia's complaint that Gaga is not sexy, that drag queens are far sexier than Gaga. Does it not occur to her that our whole world is already awash in "sexy" young women, singers, dancers, models, actresses, who are trying and trying and trying to "be sexy", and/or that the public is maybe really so sick of that? Or that Lady Gaga's appeal relies, in part, on precisely the fact that she inflates and distorts that "sexy" iconography in order to force the viewer to question his assumptions about sexuality, performance, gender? "

I like a few of her songs, no she's not groundbreaking in very many ways but technically I think this is in fact what she is trying to do.

C_Webb (#855)


HiredGoons (#603)

Also: the fact that she is now a Drag Queen negates Paglia's argument that Drag Queens are sexier than Lady Gaga.

I don't like her that much, I'll dance to one of her songs if it plays, but like it or not she is setting the dividing line of culture conversation at this moment in time and that is a DIFFICULT thing to do, so I respect her for that.

HiredGoons (#603)

Drag King. Bad homo *smacks own hand.

HiredGoons (#603)

AND considering the previous decade, I'm glad we're talking about SOMETHING again, even if its Lady Gaga for now.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

Am I bad person for thinking this thought the first time I heard Poker Face: "Taylor Dayne made a comeback?"

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

No one whose work led to this, however indirectly, can be all bad.

ejcsanfran (#489)

dntsqzthchrmn: When discussing Anastacia at some point, a friend referred to her as "the poor man's Taylor Dayne." To which I responded, "Isn't Taylor Dayne the poor man's Taylor Dayne?"

Of course, that being said, since I purchased my first MP3 player over ten years ago, "Tell It To My Heart" has never not been present on whatever audio device I am using.

joeks (#5,805)

This just in, old people think old stuff is better than new stuff, in part due to not "getting" the new stuff. Man, parents just don't understand.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

New stuff automatically better because new.

scrooge (#2,697)

All these comments strike me as very mute and atrophied, thereby strengthening Old Paglia's argument. And where's the body language, for heaven's sake?

HiredGoons (#603)

If my comments seem mute and atrophied, it may be because I have better things to do than worry about pop music.

Like internet-commenting.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

Neutraface has body language to spare.

deepomega (#1,720)

Just used Neutraface! (For a logo for a TV show about Sasquatches?)

barnhouse (#1,326)

SO so funny, I had never seen that. But is Neutra typeface pronounced that way (damn it?) I had been pronouncing like the architect?? (Seriously just as a general rule, if in doubt about pronunciation, make sure to do it not the way I do.)

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

You are correct: it ought to be "NOY-trah," not "NEW-tra." When I pointed that out to some friends after I showed the video to them and they wouldn't stop laughing. Apparently it is a very "me" thing to say.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

Apparently I am better at pronunciation than basic grammar.

barnhouse (#1,326)

?!?! thank you, Doctor. Whew! p.s. I hope you will make a new avatar featuring hilarious emoticon-brandishing scene that I am still guffawing over.

LotaLota (#1,703)

Lady Gaga is "in over her head with her avant-garde pretensions," Paglia announces…

Paglia would know all about that.

vespavirgin (#1,422)

Camille's just jealous is all.

ShanghaiLil (#260)

Now get offa my yard, ya rotten kids. And turn down yer damn rock music! Nobody wants to hear that crap!

kpants (#719)

Can Paglia ever write about anything without mention Madonna? It's like when my Grandpa couldn't tell any story without telling us what Eisenhower would have thought of it all.

Not to mention, Madonna is the wrong music icon to reach for when describing Lady Gaga.

The more apposite comparison to Lady Gaga is KISS.

KISS created their theatrical image and act specifically to find financial success. Her pretensions and act are also heavily ciphered and informed by the commercial applications of tepid shock. The thematic conversion of that mild difference from the pop culture status quo into a pose of counterreaction against the "norm" is not at all dissimilar to KISS' attempt to parlay makeup and fire pots into a voice of rebelliousness. Most importantly, both KISS and Gaga were/are both aware of their audience's awareness of the artifice of the act. KISS arguably cultivated the wide theatrics to engage and transform the criticism of their act into a marketing tool that could create even more commercial appeal. The criticism allowed those fans "in the know" of the artifice of it all laugh at those who couldn't comprehend the mutual self-awareness going on between fans and the band. Lady Gaga seemingly has tapped into this marketing tact, as well.

There is both a crassness and a sincerity present in Gaga's music, just as there was in KISS' early output. But unlike Madonna, neither KISS nor Lady Gaga had to reverse engineer musical skills, i.e. learning to play instruments after they'd already made many records, to be learned later on to fit careers already in progress. There is a musicianship present in both acts that is genuine, however good or awful the results of those skills may be. Paglia thinks Gaga's songs are "insipid?" So what? So were KISS'. Judge them for what they are, not for what you think they aren't.

And she should stop nattering on about her Madonna, which is just as gratuitous as Gaga "natter[ing] on about her vagina," because it is no less calculating a maneuver nor any less full of hot air as Gene Simmons breathing fire at every KISS concert. At some point it just looks rote to everyone.

skahammer (#587)

Man, I was all ready to hate you, but that KISS comparison is white-hot burning genius.

pissy elliott (#397)

This is so right in every possible way! Please subscribe me to your listserv in perpetuity in all known universes!!!

Lukas Kaiser (#5,518)

ICP is the new KISS, quite obviously. Gaga is the new ICP

Phoenix Woman (#7,467)

Good points. Like so many rebels without a clue, Paglia has become what she most fears: Out of step with fashion and what's currently cool. Madonna name-checking stopped being cutting-edge, oh, about 1985. A quarter of a century ago.

Jim Demintia (#1,815)

Um, BHL is equivalent to Chomsky and Sontag? No. BHL is like what would happen if Hostess made intellectuals that you could buy in the gas station.

Jim Demintia (#1,815)

Actually, maybe he's more like the Otis Spunkmeyer brand.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Oh I think Sontag is a thousand times wackier than BHL.

Mount_Prion (#290)

"…the kids have 'abandoned body language in daily interactions.'

Bitch, go check out Coney Island on any warm day.

Or youtube jamaican daggering (again).

joeclark (#651)

Surely a woman of the world like Bustillos will be aware that the "attempted burnishing of her own rusted credentials" was surely written by a subeditor (en-UK) at the Times and not by Paglia herself. If this site had an editor, that nonsense would have been caught.

erikonymous (#3,231)

I'm not exactly one of the "Youngs," but come on: has Paglia ever actually been relevant?

Anyway, I agree with Bustillos.

As someone too young to remember the time when Paglia actually was relevant, especially to feminism, she's always come across as some irate old lady who is paid by the ill-informed opinion. In a way, her 'cultural analysis' is reminiscent of Maureen Dowd's, at least in its ineptitude.

erikonymous (#3,231)

You know, for an upperclass twit, I find you most agreeable. What that must say of me …

Phoenix Woman (#7,467)

Paglia is given press because she sucks up to white hetero males in positions of power by trashing actual feminists and intellectuals. Selling out her sisters has been quite lucrative for her.

Gregory Curtis (#7,449)

Paglia was so spot on. I say this after seeing Lady G live and listening to her banter…

It was like a self-help group for the socially inadequate.

There is nothing original in what Lady G is doing except for her little ego building monologues to her "little Monsters"….sad really.

Phoenix Woman (#7,467)

Paglia: "Generation Gaga doesn't identify with powerful vocal styles because their own voices have atrophied: they communicate mutely via a constant stream of atomised, telegraphic text messages."

Now remember, this is the same woman who claimed intellectual superiority over Susan Sontag because Sontag grew up pre-TV and Saint Camille of the Short Attention Span grew up with TV. So now Miss I'm Au Courant And Technically Hip 'Cuz I Watch Five TVs has now morphed into Miss Get Off My Lawn You Damned Tech Addicts?

(Of course, the dig at Sontag likely had other roots. Poor widdle Cammie apparently never got over Big Bad Susan's snubbing her shallow, self-absorbed, self-promoting ass at a party in 1973:

Looks like I'm late to this party. Did anyone save me any beer?

Bittersweet (#765)

Here's some wine. Bottoms up!

Chris Pesto (#7,619)

I completely agree with what this post is saying. Paglia seems to have missed the point. The truly interesting aspect of Lady Gaga, about which she has always been extremely overt, is that she produces entertainment for entertainment's sake. Edgar Allen Poe once wrote of poetry, "there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than … this poem written solely for the poem's sake." This is a fundamental realization in any type of art — a word that shares a root with "artifice," from the Latin word for "craft." A work need not spring from some deep feeling or belief of the artist's, but can exist only to communicate a message, or to do nothing more than inspire some response in those who experience it. Lady Gaga has stated of her own music "It's all about everything altogether-performance art, pop performance art, fashion." She is obviously artificial, obviously manufactured, but the point is that is completely irrelevant. In fact, that's the idea. Paglia writes about Lady Gaga's "sexual" dress as if it were meant to be sexy. It isn't mean to be sexy, it is meant to be interesting. Madonna might have been genuinely sexy during her time, but the two are not comparable. Not exuding that same sexiness isn't a failure on the part of Lady Gaga, it is a sign that culture has advanced far enough to look with an objective eye at the show, rather than be shocked by the sexual nature of it.

dscottla (#7,635)

Did Ms. Paglia stop to consider the high possibility that Lady Gaga may in fact be a man?

theinkbrain (#7,984)

i don't know if it's just my age or my age in conjunction with a genetic predisposition to premature senility or what, but nearly all these comments struck me as being written by people of above average intelligence and wit. this is very heartening to someone as superannuated as i am. camille likes to throw hunks of meat to the piranhas and watch the pretty flashing pink droplets glittering in the sunlight. i love it that camille brings out the cleverness in people, that gets them lobbing conceptual molotov cocktails and confetti bombs at each other and at her. there is simply not enough intelligent discourse to be found these days, and all you literary fireballs have made me feel warm and cosy and restored my faith that all's right with the world. thank you all.

whatever456 (#9,229)

sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Paglia has become the stodgy stick in the mud she used to belittle. She has never conceded that Madonna was primarily an impresario who delivered the truly subversive and dangerous goings on from American urban life that most people were too chicken to explore on their own in safe, accessible packages for the white middle class. It was ALL an act. And not a bad one, but it was entirely synthetic. She was only nominally an artist and never ever a musician. I can't say I admire much about the current pop culture, and a lot of people from a certain age down seem sullen and poorly socialized but say what you will about Gaga, she can sing and she can play an instrument and she's not too bad at either. That alone makes her interesting.

Olivelover (#237,357)

What an astonishingly silly, badly written, pointless piece…even the syntax is high school. Jesus, do you have editors there?

JohnHenry (#284,354)

The article's author made a few decent points. Very few. Mostly garbled ad hominem attacks from an upset gaga fan. I suspect Paglia's aesthetic philosophy is too far over the author's head for her to appreciate. Lady gaga may challenge conventional ideas, but she IS, despite what the author says, a sex symbol–she has been manufactured as such. And as such, she is lousy; she resembles a cross between Courtney love and Cindy lauper. Paglia argues for the beauty in sex and art. If avant garde anti-coventionalism is art for the masses, then you'll quickly find an audience for anyone willing to dress like a campy sci-fi movie, spout off cheap anti-establishment lyrics, and dry hump an animal.

Paglia's works are still relevant, perhaps more so than ever, and she's got her finger closer to the pulse than most critics or academics. Her ideas ought to be recognized and appreciated, rather than vilified from the outset as they always have been

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