Yes, admittedly, there’s been a bit of a feminist theme in my reading material of late. And while Camille Paglia, the writer of Free Women Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism, regards herself a feminist, I would put this specific book (which is a collection of her essays ranging from 1990 to 2016) more in the ‘gender studies’ realm. Which I guess is an area feminism does need to have a foot in. I found the book’s beginning very ‘intellectual’ and heavy with psychological, mythological and theoretical language, which was not a surprising product coming from a university professor.
While I outlined my desire to read and learn more about the feminist movement of past and present in my post about the book We Were Feminists Once, I do also want to make sure my reading material is wide and varied, as you can’t truly learn about a thing (especially something as socially-charged as feminism) from one view-point only. So I picked up Free Women Free Men with the idea it would give me a wider picture of feminism, one which includes men in the discussion in greater quantities to what I am used to from other feminist writers/ideas.
Camille begins the book with an essay from 1990, which discusses at great length ‘what it’s like for men’; dealing with their own hormones, growth, and finding a place in the world, independent of their mother’s nest. And her disdain for ‘soft, weepy feminists’ is palpable. There’s is no sugar in her writing. Her beliefs about our intrinsic connection to nature, and how modern society is an attempt to depart ourselves from those base behaviours, while also acting as a shield for the weak against said base behaviours, rings loud and clear.
Reading this sort of idea rubbed me up the wrong way to begin with, as what she was saying was in stark contrast to the ideas I’m used to seeing from the feminist movement, and society’s current progressive ideals. Things that sounded like: it is in man’s true nature to pursue power through aggression, and sex and power are ever-linked, meaning it is in man’s true nature to act with sexual violence. And: that it is in woman’s best interest to embrace her non-negotiable connection with the waves of nature, as our body is barely our own, and nature will always win out in the end. It all came across pretty effin’ grim. My heart sank, with thoughts of ‘what is the fight all for then?!’ clouding my mind.
Then, I had to take stock that these first were writings from the 1990’s, when feminism was riding its third wave; the wave that followed the 1970’s wave, which fallout had given feminism a bad, man-hating name. The 1990’s feminism wave hadn’t figured all of that out yet, and this current wave hasn’t either, as you will always get different generations of feminists involved in the one movement, who have all seen and experienced different things, and come from different angles when fighting for what they view as ‘equality’. Camille’s writing appears to be in protest to the 1970’s-stye of feminist, and her desire for true gender equality is demonstrated by her watchful eye over female progression not coming at the cost of male endeavors, and not resulting in ‘special treatment’ for women.
When reading The Modern Battle of the Sexes essay Camille wrote in the late 1990’s, I had a lightbulb moment about the current left vs right turmoil sweeping the States and on a much smaller scale (by comparison) here at home in NZ. If you look at news like the White Nationalist vs Black Rights clash in Charlottesville last month, and the (perceived) MADNESS that follows Trump around, I wonder if Camille predicted this social upheaval (some twenty years early) with her below musing:
“There are many parallels between our time and that of the Roman empire. Whenever you get cosmopolitan cultures that are very tolerant and permissive, where women begin to move forward, where there is open homosexuality, it seems to be the case that such cultures are ripe for collapse! So we must negotiate a very fine line here. Too much tolerance too fast can produce a puritanical or fascist backlash.”
– From The Modern Battle of the Sexes (1998)
I mean, f*ck. What I would otherwise view as positive progress, to create a safe society for people from all walks of life, can actually be a society’s undoing, as Camille points out that a society that progresses too quickly into high tolerance is risking some nasty fascist backlash. What do you do with an idea like that? Racism, homophobia, and sexism all sound like crazy ideas to me, so it seems crazy to me that people would violently oppose the decrease of tolerance to that sort of behaviour. Which is where you get into the current debates over ‘free speech’; where one person’s ‘positive progress’ is another person’s ‘attacked freedoms’, where one person’s ‘nasty racism’ is another person’s ‘civil liberty’. Perhaps it makes more sense when you also take into account that people hold certain powers and enjoy certain wealth and privileges because of societal racism and sexism. And perhaps ‘human nature’ (which Camille implores we cannot ignore the realities of) dictates that people will do what they need to to survive, and to hold onto what’s ‘theirs’. Grim.
On a more hopeful, positive note from Camille, she recognises that previous waves of feminism have created all sorts of messes (especially when causes became more radicalised and less inclusive), and that those messes, gripes, in-fighting and poor language need to be left in the past, for a brighter feminist future:
“One thing is clear: the feminism of the future will be created by women who a young now. The doctrinal disputes and turf wars of the older generation (including me) must be set aside.”
– From Feminism Past and Present (2008)
The future is female, the future is now.
Like I said before, some of Camille’s writing rubbed me up the wrong way, but still I persisted through her book and was not at all surprised when in one of the very last pieces Ellan Whelan from Spiked Review introduced Camille as someone “who some have called the anti-feminist feminist”. I was not the least bit surprised by that statement, as I went into this book not knowing anything about Camille other than she regarded herself a feminist, and boy did I get a shock when I started reading through her thoughts and theories!
So while some of Camille’s ideas have been shocking to my mind and my ideals, they do highlight that there is nuance in what ideals humans and society hold dear; i.e. ideals surrounding female sexuality, family structures, what to do in the face of conflict. There is no one clear picture of ‘what is good for everyone’, we haven’t gotten there yet, it’s still a work-in-progress, OR we may never reach resolution. The one major win of this current age of feminism is that it is doing a faaarrrr better job of acknowledging and embracing intersectionality. And more modern feminist writing appears to be doing a better job of addressing the nuances we face in the worlds that have been created around us, rather than being current-day ‘man-haters’. Yes, we could regress back to violence and natural order, but perhaps there is greater merit in the fight we as humans have against ‘the nature of things’. The small get to prosper alongside the strong, there are pockets of calmness and love, and space for ‘higher’ thinking.
The world of today looks like a mess, to be fair, but we’re not at the bottom yet, and continuing the good fight is the only way to keep from slipping into nature’s chaos.
If broad-scope feminism and gender equality discussions that include male realities alongside female are a bit of you, then I would recommend having a read of Camille’s work. If you are liberal of mind, then you have also been warned of the shock you may receive. But truth isn’t pretty, and it’s worth keeping your eyes and ears open to all discussions, in my view.