A S K C A M I L L E
| Camille Paglia's online advice for the culturally disgruntled |
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Illustration by Zach Trenholm
WHY I GO FOR WOMEN
WITH BIG BEAKS
Have you heard? Ellen DeGeneres is gay!! This seems the biggest "No Duh" story of the year. That Time magazine deems this news is more shocking than the story itself. Announcing that Ellen is gay is the equivalent of saying that the Jeffersons were black, or that Archie Bunker was a bigot.
I don't care one way or another whether she is gay. The story would carry so much more meaning, however, if Ellen's show was actually funny. If coming out means that Ellen can really break free and now be funny in ways that were previously unavailable to her, then I say "Terrific! Go for it!"
Call me skeptical, but I predict "Ellen" will remain as unfunny as it currently is and will fade into obscurity. Ellen herself will remain a TV "personality" if only for this public "coming out" party.
Then we can only hope that news organizations will once again go back to reporting news rather than having it spoon-fed to them by some PR hack.
Newsflash: Ru Paul is a man!!
I share your fatigue and impatience with the media overload on The Lesbianization of Miss Ellen. The whole thing has dragged on far too long, so that the actual coming-out episode (Wednesday night on ABC) feels wearily anticlimactic. Ellen herself is partly to blame, since her somewhat haggard, test-the-waters sojourn across the talk shows last fall was unnecessarily coy and relied on endlessly repeated bad jokes ("I'm ... Lebanese!").
But in all fairness, Ellen has been trying to chart new territory entirely on her own. She did not want or need the paternalistic guidance of the shadowy male figures who have shaped the careers of so many women stars -- notably Ann-Margret, Suzanne Somers, Bo Derek and even Jane Fonda.
The show "Ellen" seems dead as a doornail, creatively. The reason it's slid in the ratings is that it's boring and banal. Its heroine is so dithery, neurotic and asexual, who the hell CARES if she's gay? That antiseptic, claustrophobic bookstore is the real-life Ellen's sexual closet writ large.
Speaking of Ellen's closets, the buttery, soignée Diane Sawyer's curiously anthropological, nosily Joan-Rivers-like survey of them on "20/20" last week was certainly rather revealing. Nothing but lines upon lines of jeans, T-shirts and Hush Puppies: Is this really the persona modern lesbianism wants to put forward? Don't Ellen's androgynous closets confirm the old view that homosexuality is nothing but gender dysfunction and arrested adolescence?
However, as a notoriously gender-dysfunctional, mental teenager myself, I identify with Ellen's struggles. I have closely followed her career since she won national attention with her television comedy specials in the early 1990s. I studied them again and again and was deeply impressed with her discerning analyses of American culture, as well as her ingenious body language and dead-on mimicry of middle-class vocal intonations. Ellen reminded me of early Lily Tomlin -- when Lily was still under the spell of catty, witty gay men and not that awful, pedestrian, feminist sentimentalist, Jane Wagner, who has more Important Messages for us than Queen Victoria.
Ironically, Ellen was most beautifully charismatic as a stage presence when she was most secretive about her sex life. She positively glittered in the spotlight. When "60 Minutes" followed me around the West Coast on my book tour for "Sex, Art, and American Culture" in 1992, it caught me "doing" Ellen for a few moments as I walked onstage at San Francisco's Herbst Theater: It's in my intimate approach to the mike and my (uncharacteristic) archly ambiguous smile at the audience -- which was just emerging from the Neanderthal era of political correctness, so none of us knew what on earth to expect that evening.
I pray that after this deafeningly thunderous climax to the TV season, "Ellen" will be put out of its misery and not be renewed, so that the brilliantly gifted Ellen DeGeneres can return to her real artistic vocation as a stand-up comedian -- an archetypal figure who since the era of Lenny Bruce has been of far greater cultural centrality in America than any "serious" novelist.
Diana Vreeland once pointed out that "the little nose was considered cute because it reminded one of piglets and kittens." She compared it to "a bit of putty stuck in the center of a face of dough," and said that the strong face has a nose with "a real bone in it."
Many young actresses today have small noses and others have pointless, ordinary, Caucasian noses. I know of only one young actress who has a strong, definitive nose: Gillian Anderson of "The X-Files." Is it just a coincidence that kitten-nosed Pamela Lee is a sex goddess while Anderson, with her strong profile, plays an agent for the FBI? What does it say about American culture that the little nose is so highly esteemed, seen not only on Hollywood's sex kittens but also popular personalities such as Katie Couric and, uh, Michael Jackson?
In interviews here and abroad, I have constantly denounced America's fetish for small female noses, a phenomenon that may be fairly recent in origin. It seems to belong to the Betty Crocker period following World War II, when domesticity was a primary value and when ethnics wanted to assimilate and become just as bland as the ruling, Protestant country-club class.
Diana Vreeland, one of the great, stentorian dragon ladies of the century, had a granite profile and a will of steel. Who is a better role model for young women today -- Fashion Empress Vreeland or NOW's sanctimonious Patricia Ireland, with her blankly decorous, WASP features and breathy little treacly voice? Vreeland, with her soaring imagination and theatrical flair, was a survivor of those two splendid decades after the passage of suffrage when female power ran the gamut from Martha Graham to Joan Crawford.
While growing up, I was inundated with detestably perky, button-nosed blondes like Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Dee, who seemed like sticky, walking marshmallows. (As an adult, I learned to appreciate the talents of all three women.) Barbra Streisand's arrival on the scene in the early 1960s was revolutionary: That aggressive beak of a nose, which she refused to change, was the prow of the battleship of the New Woman, whose feisty spirit preceded the feminist organizations that are falsely credited with all the energy, aspirations and achievements of my generation.
My opinion is that a strong woman should have a strong nose. Look at Sarah Bernhardt, Virginia Woolf, Edith Sitwell, Maria Callas, Joan Baez, Betty Friedan, Monica Vitti, Raquel Welch, Princess Diana, Sandra Bernhard, Niki Taylor. Now look at Meg Ryan -- no, don't! Thank God for Heroin Chic, after the Meg Ryan era of Saccharine Snippiness.
I'm concerned about young girls having nose jobs too early and getting stuck for life with unfixably juvenile features. Even Cher, who had a fabulous, haughty profile, succumbed to the social pressure and dully evened her nose out at midlife. Downtown Julie Brown is another fashion victim: She was very striking when first on MTV after emigrating from England but then immediately bobbed her nose. Now Courtney Love has done the same thing and reportedly has had to be dissuaded from a second operation -- the Michael Jackson Surgical Addiction Syndrome.
Actresses are very short-sighted when they over-reduce their noses to get cutesy, ingénue roles. Michele Lee and Connie Sellecca are good examples of handsome women whose forceful, ethnic features have matured dramatically but who are stuck with the teeny-bopper pug noses that won them early popularity. The great roles for adult actresses -- Euripides' Medea, Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth, Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, Strindberg's Miss Julie -- require strong, assertive noses.
As an Italian-American, my premises are usually Mediterranean. I've always loved the aquiline Roman nose of senators and generals, as well as the sharp Greek nose, extending evenly without a break from the brow, that one sees on ancient statues of the Olympian gods. It's interesting that you mention Gillian Anderson, since strangers often tell my partner, Alison Maddex, that she resembles Anderson's Scully. All the women I've been involved with in a major way have had strong noses; it seems to be one of my romantic motifs.
Until women in the television and film industry come to their senses and stop mutilating their noses, America will be stuck with this bunny-rabbit model of womanhood -- harmless, appealing and hopelessly fluffy. The Woman Who Would Be President knows better: Gov. Christine Todd Whitman may take that Duke of Wellington profile right into the Oval Office.
Dearest Ms. Paglia:
What a thrill it is to communicate directly with you! I cannot tell you what an inspiration and comfort you've been since you burst, stridently and victoriously, into the temple of American popular culture.
I am 29, a heterosexual male who likes football, smokes and eats red meat. As you know, in our current climate of historical blindness, hysteria and fear this makes me an intellectual pariah.
Furthur alienating me from the culture-at-large is my choice of celibacy. For the last few years, I have chosen to severely restrict my dating, limiting most of my physical encounters to what would have once been termed "heavy petting." I have found it's much easier to focus on my (still) unfinished novel when I am not too distracted by the incredibly enticing presence of the female.
My questions concern your own, personal religious beliefs. Do you acknowledge the existence of a Living Power in the Universe greater than ourselves? Do you believe there is a consciousness behind this power, in any traditional sense? Is the human soul immortal? Is love merely a necessary illusion? I would be fascinated to hear any responses you may have. Thank you so much for all your liberating work!
Dear Mr. Stevens:
I applaud your devotion to my favorite sport, football, which has been under feminist attack in recent years. As for tobacco and red meat, two of the finer things in life, South America remains wonderfully untouched by the fascist puritanism that has swept the North American professional middle classes in the past 20 years. On my first trip to Brazil last year (a book tour for the Portuguese edition of "Vamps & Tramps"), I was in seventh heaven over the fine cigars and delicious, succulent, flavorful antibiotic- and chemical-free meats of every kind and cut. I think Amazon feminists, like Homeric heroes, should be robust meat-eaters -- hunters, not gatherers!
Now for something completely different: God. Well, maybe not such a stretch, since the Christian Communion service is all about compulsory, divine meat-eating. It's the legacy of Dionysian mystery religion -- all that bloody sparagmos and omophagy (see my discussion of Euripides' "Bacchae" in "Sexual Personae," which apparently ended up in the program for that play at England's Stratford Festival Theatre last year).
I don't believe in an immortal soul or a personal God or higher being, but I do think there's some weird force at work that we can't yet understand or explain. Babylonian astrology comes closest to capturing it for me, with its charting of huge, cyclic rhythms and its assumption of the elemental integration of man and nature. We still don't know how electromagnetism, which is disrupted by solar flares, works on the brain and body; nor have we begun to explore the complexities of the time-space continuum, quirks that may account for what we falsely call "supernatural" or occult phenomena.
Comparative religion is my model for multicultural education, because I think that every world religion contains some basic truths about the universe. As a student in the 1960s, I learned an enormous amount from Hinduism and Buddhism, but I saw the limitations in these systems too, particularly in regard to individualism and civil rights, where the West has pioneered. (Feminism is the legacy of that tradition.) Nevertheless, I'm still profoundly influenced by Asian principles of karma, the wheel of fate, and Maya, the "veil of illusion" that is the material world. There does indeed seem to be some strange principle of retribution: What goes around, comes around.
I believe in Nature, the cycle of birth and death, and I worship the sublime -- tremendous demonstrations of stormy natural power, whose ancient effects we trace in the sacred book of geology. As for love, the Greeks identified Venus with the physical power of attraction, pulling people or objects out of isolation and into at least temporary, creative unity. In the modern West, love has been burdened with stifling, bourgeois notions of "relationships" -- which don't always work and hence have spawned an enormous therapeutic industry to keep them going. But that, of course, is another story!
April 29, 1997
Bewitched? Bothered? Bewildered? Ask Camille for psychic directions.
The Purity of Allen Ginsberg's Boy-Love (04/15/97)
The Heaven's Gate castrati community (04/02/97)
More cleavage and glitz! Less Crystal! (03/25/97)
The tyranny of racial categories (03/18/97)
How do you handle a hungry man? (03/04/97)
Why does female homosexuality turn me on? (02/18/97)
Politically incorrect desires (02/04/97)