Teen Talk with Camille Paglia

By Jeff Walsh, Oasis Editor
June 1996

"Are you taping, I hope?" Camille Paglia asks instantly upon answering the phone in her office in the Humanities Department at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Initially, it seems like an odd question, until the rapid-fire magical mystery tour through Paglia's thought process on gay teens begins.

She is upset by the new "fabulous" view of homosexuality and its origins, wants teens to "stop thinking about yourself and your adolescent problems" and look at your sexuality in the framework of a much larger perspective. And worst of all, she insists, are gay teens whose goal in regards to their sexuality is to be happy and well-adjusted. "People who are happy are slugs. They do not move the human race forward," she says.

Readers of Paglia's three best-selling books "Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson," "Sex, Art, and American Culture," and "Vamps and Tramps" won't be shocked by Paglia's remarks. Nor will people who read her regular columns in The Advocate, a national gay and lesbian magazine.

Paglia is used to controversy. More people hate her theories than have ever read them, she says. She is an open lesbian constantly accused of hating women and a pro-pornography feminist who especially loves gay male porn, pop culture and Madonna. An entire Internet mailing list even exists to discuss Paglia's various writings and theories.

Having viewed Oasis online prior to approving the interview, Paglia immediately dove into answering the questions posed. Her answers predicted their own follow-up questions and are presented in this article as unobtrusively as possible. A pure question and answer format would be too unwieldy. (Keep in mind when you read this, that she said everything in under 30 minutes)

Listening to Paglia speak is a fascination in and of itself, as her words bobble in her mouth like lottery balls -- until the winning phrase eventually finds its way out.

Your issue, your voice

Within the larger gay community, gay youth issues do not always rank highly, considering the focuses on marriage, the military and other pressing issues. Paglia says youth have to make the issue prominent, and shouldn't wait for anyone to do it for them.

"I think that young people themselves have to put it on the table. I very much oppose older people at any time speaking for younger people. I object to that as a 60's student," she says. "Where I've heard some gay activists talk about gay youth, I've disliked the tone, the paternalistic, condescending tone they have taken."

Paglia also dislikes how openly gay youth are sometimes presented by older gays on talk shows. "I've seen things where you see a gay teen sitting on a talk show here and then these people in their forties are making a big deal ... like they're trophies, trophies brought forward to prove some political point."

Maladjustment rules!

Paglia says many teens view their sexuality as a burden, as something that prevents them from being able to conform in school.

"But, again, it's a lack of perspective here. Every trauma that young people suffer can in the long run be very creative. The people in my high school who were the successful ones, who were the blonde WASP sorority queens/kings and all that... they didn't do anything with their lives. They peaked early. They were like magnificent gods and goddesses, what happened to them?" Paglia asks. "The people who were the misfits, the fire was in their belly because they were constantly being harassed or whatever. The people who were the misfits in the long run have this impulse to achieve. Look at Sandra Bernhard, the only Jew in Arizona apparently, as far as we know. Even Madonna. This impulse, energy to develop yourself and your talents is coming from maladjustment. That discourse has got to be brought back into this.

"What makes me a little uneasy about everyone getting together in high school and saying 'We're gay now, and we're happy about being gay' is that means all those people who are happy about being gay are taking that energy. They think being happy and adjusted is important. And that's not my idea at all. I'm a historian of the arts. People like Dante or Michelangelo or Keats, or whatever... all the great achievements... Blake? Blake was the biggest weirdo in the whole neighborhood!

"It's the person who doesn't fit in who eventually makes the achievement who has the outsider's view of the culture. So, I disapprove of a lot of ... I'm a Freudian, I love his insights, but I don't approve of therapy. I've never gone into therapy. I think a lot of Madonna's problems came when she got into therapy. The minute she got money, she went into therapy in Los Angeles and that was the end of it for her. While she was working out all of her conflicts in her videos and her art, it had tremendous mythological resonance. I still think she's a major artist, but I don't want people to adjust too quick.

"I don't like all this hand-holding where people have groups and say how fabulous they all are. And what the gay people do now is think 'we are the cool people now in high school. we're cool because we're gay.' I hate that! I mean, because it diverts energy away from self-development ultimately. I believe in personal responsibility with everything. I believe in personal engagement with things and not this huge theater in the high school of Us vs. Them and so on. There's something wrong with it. But, at the same time, it's good to find other people who are supportive and encouraging. But I think a lot of the problems that gay teens think they're suffering in high school is also being suffered by the straight ones. And that they think, 'Oh, finally, someone who respects my gayness,' actually they're just looking for somebody who will just be supportive to them and will help them articulate all the agonies of being young."

'People who are happy are slugs'

Paglia said one of the reasons she liked Oasis was its approach to helping teens without being too overbearing.

"I think it's a really good idea, and it's really dignified," she says. "You got people's pictures there, people are speaking in a rational voice to each other, rather than 'Oh, help me, heal my pain,' and that sort of thing.

"That pain can't ever be fully healed. Woody Allen and Barbra Streisand have been in psychoanalysis for like 30 years, it's like a lifetime commitment. You never get to the point where you feel no pain, because there's always pain and separation. There's always something there. Everyone's carrying wounds of some sort.

"The people who are happy are slugs. This is my message to gay teens, okay? People who are happy and adjusted are inert. They do not move the human race forward. The human race is moved forward by people who have suffered and who take their suffering as a kind of spring for self-development, creativity and production. That's my message.

"My God, when I look back on the chaos of being a teen. It was horrendous! I was lucky in a way because I was funny. So, I got off with a lot just by being funny, but I was like this tomboy, nerdy, socially inept person. I was the editor of the school newspaper and I was in the band. I played clarinet terribly. I was the last chair of the third section. I was awful. The whole dating scene was much more powerful back then, in the late 50s and early 60s and so on. That was teenage life.

"So, I think it's great that the Internet allows desperate, lonely, gay-tending youth everywhere ... When I looked at your thing on the web site, you see people in Canada being able to communicate with someone in Pennsylvania. I think that's absolutely great for people to be able to express themselves, because it's not just being gay that's traumatic when you're young. It's like being an artist or a writer in a high school of jocks or something. Being Jewish in a high school of WASPs. Being awkward, overweight, too tall, too short, it's a million things."

"But if you're on the Internet, obviously young gay people have a way of directly making their voice heard, in ways that were not the case before."

Origins and interpretations

Paglia says many people in the gay community also place too high a value on providing positive role models to gay youth.

"I don't think the terrors teens are experiencing are going to be solved by positive role models," she says. "I think it has to come from learning about general human life. I'd give them Jane Austen. I'd say 'Stop thinking about yourself and your adolescent problems. Read about ancient Egypt. Read a book about India.' That's the way to solve their problems, you have to have a much larger perspective. I think that's the issue right now. People are focusing too much on merely identifying themselves in terms of sexual orientation. What I want is young gays, and older gays too, with a broader perspective and understand the larger culture.

"Before Stonewall, I felt there was a larger sophistication that gay men in particular had. They understood they belonged to a very small splinter of a larger society, but they had this rich, rich culture they belonged to, this underground culture. And they were so wary, because it was so dangerous at that time to be out as a gay man, they were so wary about the larger culture, they studied it. They had this wary sense about it, and their observations about the larger culture were so accurate. Their insights, their perceptions about straight men, straight women and family life and the way society worked and so on.

"So, what I've been complaining about is sort of this after-Stonewall navel-gazing thing. It's like sort of like 'We are fabulous, the gay world. We are so fabulous. And we can understand the history of homosexuality and the origins of homosexuality, we understand it very simply, really. Once there was oppression, and now there's freedom. And where there isn't freedom, the problem is ignorance and darkness and intolerance. And someday we'll clear all that up.' This is such a naive view. It's a lousy, ludicrous view of oppression. It's like 'there are the people who have power and the people who don't have power, and the people in power have been preventing the powerless people from expressing themselves sexually.' This is madness. This is not the way homosexuality has developed.

"As far as I'm concerned, homosexuality has psychological roots as well as some disposition to something from birth. I don't think they're going to find a homosexuality gene. I think they're going to find something that causes certain personality types. Of course, one of my theories about gay men is that it's related to the art gene. I notice in teaching in art schools for 25 years that you get a kind of sensitive son who is born, who is then brutalized by his environment, because of whatever reasons, the brothers and fathers reject him and then you get him drifting toward women a little bit because he can talk with women and women sort of see the world in the way that he does, whatever. And then later, this adaptation that we call homosexuality, when the sexual impulses start to form later on and so on.

"What I hate is this very simplistic formula, which you hear from gay men all the time on talk shows: 'I've been gay for my whole life ... as far back as I can remember... since I was five.' And I go, since you were five? This is ridiculous. Even the classic Freudian analysis says everything is fixed by the time you are three, the shadowy realms before you even have a personality. You can't possibly go back and determine you were born gay, it's ludicrous. It's like saying you remember life in the womb.

"So, I think that's another of my complaints, with the intrusion of gay activists and their ideology into high schools. Where you have young gay teens in high school who are looking for something, and they have very few weapons, so the weapon they're picking up is this disgustingly clumsy PC weapon that is being forced on them essentially by gay activists who don't know what the hell they're talking about. It's a lot better to discover who you are through psychological means, through art, through literature, through looking at movies ... and not necessarily looking at contemporary movies, either. There are a lot of great films.

Paglia said it is not Hollywood's role to provide positive gay roles in its movies. We need to make our own movies, provide our own voices. Some voices Paglia would like to stifle...

"Like these crappy lesbian movies, 'Go Fish.' You think 'Go Fish' is a positive image for young people? It's the most depressing, embarrassing piece of crap, girls dragging themselves around, depressed losers. You have to get out of that."

Nuclear family meltdown

Paglia also hates assertions about gay suicide rates being higher than they are for their straight counterparts. She blames the whole phenomenon not on sexuality, but on other societal problems.

"The thing is, adolescence, high school, is horrible for everybody. It is a nightmare for straight youth as well," she says. "So when I hear all these figures about gay suicides, I'm like 'What are they talking about?' The suicide rate for non-gay teens is also high. It's a nightmare to make that transition from childhood to adolescence to adulthood in this culture where there's like this overprotective period.

"Adolescence is a modern, artificially demarcated state. There was never in history a situation where you have a class of young people being herded in this group at a time where their sex hormones are surging. It is this caging of the young, with all these surging sexual impulses going on among them, and then not to mention there's been an entire collapse of the entire family structure in the past 30 years. Divorce is at epic proportions and so on, and I believe that a lot of contemporary homosexuality is related to that collapse of the family structure.

"I have written about how I think the nuclear family, which the far right esteems so much, the two parents and their kids -- I think that is toxic and was never meant to be. Never in history was it meant to be, except you find it in pioneer families -- people on farms in the middle of homesteads or something like that. That's completely different. You're on a farm, you have two parents and six to ten kids all working in the field all day long.

"You don't have all this psychological problem that you get with this business of these two parents and these kids sitting in a tract house in the middle of a development with this manicured lawn around them in this suburban area with nothing but the mall as a prescription for the absolute cultural collapse... there's nothing there. So, what I feel contemporary homosexuality is about is the search for the missing parent figures who aren't there. The search for your sexual identity.

"I think that young men in particular are looking for their manhood, looking for a father and what it means to be a man. In this period where people are sitting at computers, and a girl sitting at a computer is the same as a guy sitting at a computer, there's been this androgynous washout between them. There's no physicality to it. Physicality has been mutilated. You have to go to the gym and hyper-develop yourself -- to make an effort to develop the body which is withering. So, that's why I feel very interested in gay male porn iconography and so on, because you get this idealism of the beautiful body, which is the only place left where there's anything masculine in the culture is in these icons. Lesbians aren't producing that, no matter how much they try. Lesbians are not oriented to the visual in that sense."

'A pretty charged issue'

In most major cities, support groups exist for gay youth. Most of them have strict rules about interaction between the counselors and the teens. No touching, talking outside the group, phone calls. Paglia said the precautions are not pedophobic, but valid.

"That's a pretty charged issue. It's very charged because it's a battle that still has not concluded, the issue of pedophilia. Even in the gay community, adult gay world, there's differing opinions on that," she says. "I've signed documents supporting NAMBLA, I'm on that side. NAMBLA was attracted to my work because from Sexual Personae on, I've been talking about the issue in the gay male world, not in the lesbian world, of the beauty of the adolescent male, the figure hovering between childhood and adulthood. I pointed out how frequent those images are in the past whether you're talking about Greek sculpture or Caravaggio or Michelangelo. There's no parallel to that in lesbian sensibility.

"It's been a huge issue as to what extent gay men are interested in underage youth. Some gay men are not. Some gay men are. It's very clearly there, you can see it in Oscar Wilde, the late 19th century gay men and so forth. This whole thing about the Boy Scouts, should the Boy Scouts be allowed to have openly gay troop leaders and so on. So, it's a huge issue that's all tangled up.

"You have to realize it's an amazing public relations problem for gay activism, because the far right would like to stereotype all gay men as child molesters and they would like to identify homosexuality with pedophilia. So, what I've done, and this is why I'm not very popular with a lot of gay activists, is say: To try and sweep that issue under the rug simply for political gains against the far right is not a good idea, because this pedophiliac eroticism is deeply, deeply, deeply imbedded in the history of male homosexuality, and to try and erase it or deny that it's there is unwise.

"So, in order to get groups for gay teens recognized in high school, the sacrifice is that the counselors have to watch out that the slightest thing they do can be misinterpreted, or perhaps correctly interpreted. After all, the Catholic church is filled with priests who have taken vows of celibacy but obviously have crossed the line toward both men and women. It's a very complex situation, but there are reasons for legitimate anxiety about it. It's not just 'Oh, there's absolutely no problem. This is homophobia, anybody who would dream that the counselor of a gay group in high school would be interested in his or her charges sexually.' I think there's legitimate reasons for concerns. For heaven's sake, I remember when I was in high school in the sixties, there was a guidance counselor who was like a real letch with the girls, so people can cross that line. And it's easier for people to recognize that because more people know about heterosexual impulses than they do about homosexual impulses, you see."

Media queen revisited

Paglia's Advocate columns usually spark vitriolic letters calling her a tired media queen whose half-baked views are not welcome. After she was featured on the Advocate's cover story (in issue #666, no less), the following two issues were filled with pages of scornful letters. Paglia says reaction to her Advocate columns is nothing compared to what life was like when Sexual Personae first arrived on the scene.

"For me, this is a piece of cake right now, as opposed to what it was when I came on the scene. I've only been on the scene for like six years."

As for claims she launched herself onto the scene with a planned media attack, Paglia said it's so untrue, it's laughable.

"It seems like centuries, but I was like 43 by the time I got my first book published. It took forever to get published. My history is horrendous, my first book was rejected by seven New York publishers, five agents, and even parts of it I couldn't get published. There are still tiny little bits of it that have never been published anywhere. So, I was in my 40s, and I had been in the unemployment line, so suddenly my book comes out in 1990, and it took about a year.

"One of the accusations against me is that -- which is like so stupid -- 'Oh, the reason she got famous is because she attacked other women.' This is just a bunch of baloney, or 'She postured herself in the media.' My picture wasn't even on the book. There's nothing known about me. The book was put out for $35, Yale Press, no publicity budget, and the book sold and sold and sold. It was by word of mouth.

"And a lot of it was gay men, there's no doubt in my mind that gay men discovered that book. The gay men that were in the bookstores somehow ... because there's a lot in it that's very scandalous about Michelangelo being a pornographer and all sorts of gay stuff, and they began putting the book forward. Mysteriously, I would get reports: Bookstore in Seattle, mysteriously Sexual Personae is being well displayed on a table near the door. So, by word of mouth, it was getting out there.

"But then, one year after the publication date, I started to be asked to write for the media. People who had been reading it asked me, I wasn't putting myself out there. There was no publicity. I had no publicist, nothing. The Times called, would I write on Madonna? It was one thing after another, people asking me, who were reading the book, to write on different topics. And all of the sudden I 'burst' into the media, it was like a year later.

"So, the point is, that's when it was vicious. You can't believe the beginning of the 90's for me. That's when The Advocate was calling me a Nazi for heaven's sake. I was on the front of The Village Voice, it was like a WANTED! poster. 'Wanted for intellectual fraud,' there were six faces there. I was the only woman, all the others were sort of conservatives, and this is the beginning of when people really understood what PC is. Now, everyone understands what PC is. But I was one of the first voices that was out there not from the right denouncing these excesses. So, people love to lump me with conservatives.

"Other people said 'She's in it for the money,' I was on the unemployment line... it was just every kind of lie, every kind of abuse. I needed security guards to go on campuses in the early part of the 90s, literally. At Brown, you can't believe the chaos. People were screaming, so now it's like nothing. It's really very mild right now. Some people write and they bitch at me, but I'm very well-established. People know my views at this point. There are people who don't, especially a lot of lesbians. They go, 'Oh, I know all about her,' and they don't bother opening a book. You still hear some lies now and then, she's this or she's that, people who are lazy. If you're going to be an original thinker, you've got to expect to get a lot of opposition. That goes with the territory, but right now, it's very much settled down.

"Actually, the biggest thing I've caused recently was not in The Advocate, it was in the New Republic, where I wrote this piece about Hillary Clinton as a drag queen. Actually, it was a little piece I did for the Internet that started it all, for Salon magazine in San Francisco. They asked me to write about the Hillary thing and I wrote a little op-ed piece for them calling Hillary a drag queen. So, then the New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan asked me to expand that into a longer piece for the New Republic, and it came out in March as a cover story. I have never in five years gotten that much abuse.

"People went bananas about that! 'To call Hillary Clinton a drag queen!' It was too much for the mind to take in, and the abuse was insane, so then other people wrote in against the letters against me. My specialty is essentially psychological interpretations of literature, art and culture and so on, and that automatically upsets people anyway, on no matter what level it upsets people. So, I'm used to that."

Paglia's attack

Paglia says The Advocate placing her on its cover with the headline "Attack Of The 50 Foot Lesbian" was pivotal for her. It happened around the launch of her most recent book "Vamps and Tramps."

"People thought they'd gotten rid of me and then all of the sudden I'm on the cover of the Advocate. People were infuriated of course. The people who like Urvashi Vaid, those people have been bitches to me since I've arrived on the scene. The entire gay activism establishment treated me like dirt. There's something really wrong here, when you have the kind of intolerance and dissent and so on. They think they have the truth. They have this one view of seeing the world. So, that was a big turning point, it really was, for The Advocate to do that to someone they had tried to destroy. They had been so nasty to me before, so that was an amazing turnaround.

"There's still huge animosity and huge abuse, there are pockets of it everywhere. Usually, at this point, people who are talking like that against me are people who don't read, literally don't read and who take their opinions second hand. For example, there was a little dust-up last week with this new movie, 'I Shot Andy Warhol,' about this lesbian Valerie Solanas who shot Andy Warhol, whom I had often spoke of as a peer of mine, a late sixties kind-of crackpot, individualist, very physical. A very dykey type that touches people, that's really my type.

"So, anyway, the star of this little independent film obviously heard from other people ... someone asked her in this profile last week about a comparison to her character and Camille Paglia. And she said, 'No, there's no comparison, because Valerie Solanas loved women, and Camille Paglia hates them.' Now, where is she getting this? This is a 28-year-old girl, apparently a talented actress, who obviously never opened a book of mine. I've written three best-selling books now. So, they called me up and they want me to respond. I said, 'What? You want to start a catfight up between me and this young actress who's never opened a book? This is ridiculous.'

"So, I gave them a comment. I said, 'That's a ridiculous statement to make about a person who's an open lesbian who has written adoringly about Madonna, Liz Taylor, Princess Diana, and the list goes on ... Raquel Welch, Sandra Bernhard.' I've written nothing but glowingly about women. Where do they get that I hate women? Why? Because I criticize Gloria Steinem? Yeah, I hate some women, but I also hate some men. There are such stereotyped ways of thinking in the gay and the feminist worlds, it's appalling how rigid it is, and the stupid clichˇs repeated again and again.

"So, you know, what can I say?"

Our thirty minutes were now up, but rather than giving her mouth a rest, she was expecting another interviewer to call for a 30-minute rant session. After that, she had students ready to take their finals.

Just another day in the life of an original thinker...

The author, Jeff Walsh, may be contacted at jeff@oasismag.com.
General information: Jeff Walsh
Design and HTML: Jase Pittman-Wells
©1996 Oasis. All Rights Reserved.