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Do I ever like Camille Paglia, this time on Elizabeth Taylor.  Paglia is one of our most insightful scholars of contemporary culture.
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Discussions - 19 Comments

A very good interview... And while I suppose Ms. Paglia will always know more about things gendered and sexual and "popified" than yours truly, there is a basic contradiction to what she's laying out here.

On one hand, (scroll to the end) she understandably wants to claim credit for women like Madonna and herself consigning anti-starlet, anti-porn, etc. feminism to the "dustbin of history." She was the intellectual who explained what Madonna's artistry with identity/celebrity was about. So she claims.

But, on the other, she's going after today's Hollywood and today's contemporary culture for giving us a model of womanhood that is "taut," somewhat "androgenous," men-antagonistic and not "maternally" sexual, i.e., never Taylor-like (or Sharon Stone-like) pagan icons of the female wielding of heterosexual power in a way men never can, a la Helen and Salome.

Uh...but then how again can we say that she and the Madonna-women WON their battle against 70s/80s feminism? Why is that no new Taylor has emerged? Is it that not enough people have read Paglia? Is it that humorless feminazis, as our Rush L. would say, are dominating Hollywood and other pop-industry career paths?

What was it that that pornographic French novelist Houllebeck said? That all the joys of the sexual revolution came in its first phase, say, late 50s early 80s, wherein the cultural losing of virginity was possible, wherein purely lustful sex and romantic sex were more easily mixed-up, and less subject to today's calculation and jadedness? Back in the day when young Miss Paglia was looking up to Taylor as a role-model for modern womanhood's natural employment of sexuality's power? Could it be that Taylor's power was in someway linked to older codes of sexual restraint? So that a Taylor is impossible now, thanks in part to Taylors past?

Well, I suppose Ms. Paglia, as she becomes a wizened older woman, will continue to do her best to help our culture break through to a place where a new sort of Taylor can emerge, but you have wonder if she's not swimming upstream, if she's not too much longing to live in 1963...ever in the glorious first days of the Revolution...and too much refusing to take serious stock of what it really did to us.

Or as Joe Biden put, a president who attacks a nation (if it hasn't attacked us or is about to) w/o Congressional approval should be impeached.

Thanks Ken. I like Paglia too. I find her fascinating, even if a little antic.

As usual, Paglia is at least half right, with her insight into the faux sexuality of today's elites. But her worship of eroticism is ultimately self destructive. Which brings me to Liz Taylor. Bill Buckley wrote, after her seventh marriage (to a guy she met in rehab), that any relationship between Taylor and self control was purely coincidental.

Slate: "You famously collected 599 photos of Elizabeth Taylor when you were a teenager. Which one should we use to illustrate this interview?"

Paglia: "The canonical shot of Elizabeth Taylor sewn into that white slip in "Butterfield 8" is one of the major art images of my entire life! She is Babylonian pagan woman -- the goddess Ishtar, the anti-Mary!

That photo heralds the dawning sexual revolution, among other things." (emphasis mine)

Heralded it and doomed it from the start. The trouble with the overt exploits and "luscious, opulent, ripe fruit" that Elizabeth Taylor and her Hollywood type displayed was that "luscious, opulent, and ripe" things are rare and have a short shelf-life. She made everyone want one--nay, demand one. And this is as much as to say that she allowed no one to appreciate one when they got it. How many women could mimic the kind of thing Taylor portrayed and actually carry it off? What Paglia may be missing is that, in the end, not even Taylor, herself, could do it. Taylor didbecome (what appalled Paglia to hear suggested from today's youth) little more than "Michael Jackson's friend" and that "old lady in the wheelchair."

Whatever she once was is now, by a new generation (one that, ironically, she helped to create), completely lost. Erotic things remain erotic only when they are private. Elizabeth Taylor, in that sense, was the opposite of erotic. She was like a little girl given an all-powerful and omnipotent sexual scepter--with no real concept how to wield it or the power it imputed to her. And maybe that explains the attraction between her and male homosexuals--another form of squandering potential. For her, everything was all so over-the-top. She was all about burning out, never a smoldering, lasting and eternal fire.

I always saw her more as "over-ripe" than ripe--the exception, maybe, being in National Velvet where there was still all this potential bursting from her and her eyes could still flash with expectation and promise . . . of what, we're not quite sure . . . but surely something erotic and captivating to come. You don't dare grope to find out (as even Mickey Rooney cast away his embarrassed glances) because you know, somehow, it is too hot to touch and forbidden. It was all longing and wanting and tease; a thing that would consume you if you allowed it.

And that's precisely what it did when unleashed. It consumed itself--and used her up. Nothing was kept in reserve. (I love that Buckley line, btw, Ric!)

In a way that is almost more grotesque than the way that Hugh Hefner's wannabe sirens stupidly market their wares before the swine, she marketed the entirety of her soul. It wasn't just her body. It was everything about her; her life, her heart, and her being was exposed nakedly and raw before the public consumption. She couldn't even have a tracheotomy in private! There was almost no mystery to her . . . until, as she grew old and unattractive, she seemed to wish to create this weird sort of mystery around herself (a la, Michael Jackson, etc.) but even that that was also very stupidly open and public. So consuming was her desire to be admired and petted, that she allowed herself, in old age, to become a laughing stock through marriages that were obviously more to the convenience of the young men who were using her (and her fortune) than adoring her.

Perhaps she did have some sort of deep inner life that was not revealed to the public. But she left almost no one (save, maybe, Paglia) desperate to find out.

When I think of Elizabeth Taylor, I think of saturation. This doesn't make Paglia's discussion of Taylor's contrast with today's Hollywood archetype wrong. But what I think Paglia misses is that Taylor--maybe more than anyone else--unwittingly helped to create today's archetype--the one which Paglia most (and rightly) deplores.

Paglia has never understood what Carl outlines above--the role that the "stuffy" conventions and notions of goodness played in making Paglia's forbidden pleasures, pleasurable. All that tension is now gone--except for the remnants of a nature that no convention (even the abandonment of convention) can undermine. So today's Hollywood and "counter-culture" (whatever that now means) has to create this phony "pilates honed" tautness in order to make up for the deficit of meaning that could not now translate if a woman were to grind her stiletto into a man's shoe. A flash those fiery eyes that beckoned even as the scorched would, today, be called--prosaically--a "dirty look." Such drama and such cards are the ones to be held in the hole and in reserve. When that is your ordinary mode of operation, it gets boring and beckons no one.

I don't think of Taylor's life as interesting. I think of it as sad.

Sorry--that Anonymous above, was me. Forgot to fill in the field.

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Julie,

there are some points you made that you need to expand upon, because they're not self-evident, such as for starters your observation that "Erotic things remain erotic only when they are private." Before you expand upon what you were intending with that, first it would be helpful were you to be a bit more specific in what you encompass as "erotic."

For me, a guy, a shapely pair of legs on a woman are tremendously erotic, throw in some high heels into the picture and I can get, shall we say, uncomfortable, real quick like. In fact the first thing I ever noticed on the woman I fell the hardest for, back in school, was her legs. I was looking down at something at the time and as my eyes rose, they took in her legs, her skirt, ------------ her everything.

In addition, you seem to imply that it was Elizabeth Taylor's public life that led her to lose her status as this erotic symbol, and that somehow if she had managed to remain more private, she would have retained that status longer than she had. But that overlooks an important factor here, id est, that she was getting older. Lauren Bacall maintained her figure and her style for many, many years, but that didn't mean she retained the sexual pull that she possessed in her prime.

O.k., Dan . . . let me see if I can explain a little more. In the first place, a woman being able to encourage men to want to have sex with her is not the same thing as being erotic. What is the great or distinguishing challenge in that, anyway? I suppose some women will always have more "pull" in that respect than others, but given the right set of circumstances and enough time alone together nearly any healthy woman could inspire most any man to at least be open to the possibility of sex. At minimum (if, for example, he was a very disciplined and moral man) she could still get him to think about it. And the kicker is that she may not even know that she is doing this! Most of the time, she doesn't even have to try.

Not wanting to insult the opposite sex at all in this--and of course I understand that there is a moral component to men that distinguishes them from dogs--but tempting a man with sex is about as easy a thing to do as tempting a dog with a bone. Obviously, the more attractive a woman is, the easier it is for her to tempt . . . but this is a distinction of degrees and not of kind. So if ability to inspire sexual thoughts is what you consider to be "erotic" then every woman is erotic (and often without effort). And if every woman is, by definition, erotic . . . then no one and nothing is erotic. It just "is."

Eros is about a great desire of the soul--not just of the body--because eros is a kind of love that is exclusive of others and can even be transformative. As I hinted at above, there are no great distinctions between bodies. They all, more or less, have the same parts and perform the same functions. Animals do not feel eros for precisely this reason--they just rut and procreate according to instinct. Humans are more complex than that--whatever we do to try and deny it.

We all sort of instinctively know this--even as we attempt, in vain and per the popular culture to deny it. It is evident in our language when we note things like, "Oh, the way she is acting makes her look cheap." Of course, it's less common to hear that kind of remark today . . . but even those who profess to be thoroughly revolutionized sexually still sometimes tend to lapse into this way of speaking and the desire to distinguish themselves from common harlots . . . and that's because there is a truth in it that refuses to die. What we mean, in saying things like that, is that the person in question is behaving like an animal and is unworthy of genuine human erotic attachment. She is not elevating or distinguishing herself as something truly desirable. She might be good enough for a roll in the hay, perhaps . . . but she is "not someone you would bring home to mother." And this is not just because she is too wild for Dear Old Mom . . . it's because she is not worthy of Mom or, in many cases, even of the suitor. Once used for the obvious purposes, there is likely nothing very interesting left to discover. It's all there to behold . . . and on the surface.

A truly erotic woman, for all her powers, would never satiate the appetite of her beloved with surface exploits. Since most women (even including Elizabeth Taylor) may not be in themselves all that amazing or interesting, it is prudent then to keep something in reserve; to keep building on her reserves (i.e., to become more interesting and womanly and less child-like . . . in short, to grow up); to hold back a little; and to strive to maintain some mystery about her so she can also maintain the pull.

My favorite quote about women being sexy: "Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid." -- Hedy Lamarr

Kate,

now I like Heddy, always have, but she was dead wrong there Kate, dead wrong.

"Any girl?" "ANY girl??????????????"

Now maybe Heddy might get away with such a witticism in Hollywood, back in its glamour years, where shapely women were commonplace. But she wouldn't even think of offering such a line today. She'd be appalled at how many American women have let themselves go.

I'll get around to responding to Julie a bit later. But I

Two words Ms. Paglia:

Christina Hendricks.

Lamarr was a smart woman. Read about her life as an inventor of an early form of wireless transmission -- the frequency-hopping spread-spectrum invention. She had six husbands and left many quotes that indicate a low opinion of men. I have not been able to look at glamor photos of beautiful women in the same way since.

But I agree that beauty takes work. And I agree that age does beauty no service. You can work what is left, and I hear plastic surgery really does help. Being old, when someone tells me I am beautiful or especially use the idiom of youth, "hot", I think of Mae West and gag -- with a polite smile.

I think Julie is very right about this: "Could it be that Taylor's power was in someway linked to older codes of sexual restraint?" In an era when sexuality was restrained by propriety and supply did not meet demand; when women were not so available, there was more real heat.

JJV -- I had to find a picture of her, but that is a very pretty woman.

Thanks for the plug, Kate, but that was actually Carl's statement . . . a very good one, though.

I apologize, Carl, for misreading and misquoting.

Eroticism is the capability of a woman to drop you 20 points of IQ, and leave you stammering like a 5th grader. It still exists but I don't have to like it:)

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