A self-professed “Amazonian feminist,” Camille Paglia GRD ’74 claims to have once initiated a fistfight with a dissenting colleague. Her discussion of gender roles during the Yale Political Union’s’s Tuesday night debate was no less spirited.
The feminist author and provocative cultural critic, who describes herself as an “old grizzled warhorse” of the 1950s, urged a crowd of about 100 undergraduates gathered in Linsley-Chittenden Hall to consider gender roles as intrinsic to human biology rather than imposed by society. Throughout her address, Paglia railed against traditional feminist theory and its dependence on social psychology rather than hard scientific evidence.
“Those who espouse the idea that the model for human life should be gender-neutral — that we have been born blank slates and society prescribes upon us gender roles — have never made the slightest inquiry into science, history or anthropology,” she said.
Paglia plunged into her critique of what she deemed traditional feminist theory by mocking the latest book from author Naomi Wolf ’84, with whom Paglia has an established rivalry. She condemned Wolf’s lack of “objective” evidence in her latest release, “Vagina,” and her goddess-like characterizations of women.
But then Paglia turned to her own scholarship of ancient mythology, heralding the concept of the femme fatale and asserting that women should not fear “overwhelming charismatic sexuality.” Her commentary echoed her past praises of female pop culture icons such as Madonna, whom Paglia hailed in a New York Times op-ed as the “savior” of an entire generation of women who struggled to come to terms with their femininity.
Paglia contrasted the ideals of the femme fatale and sexual liberation with the “neutered” American environment of the “white, upper-middle-class” workplace in which women are trained to quash their own “vitality and assertiveness.”
“Girls have been trained how to be nice,” Paglia said. “They have to learn how to say no.”
Drawing laughter from the audience, Paglia peppered her discussion with blunt descriptions of sexual encounters and her own nonconformity with regard to gender norms — as a child, she said she viewed dolls as peculiar “chunks of humanoid rubber” and consistently chose “transsexual Halloween costumes,” such as Hamlet.
Ella Wood ’15, vice chairman of the YPU’s Independent Party, spearheaded the opposition argument, asserting that gender roles are “prescriptive” rather than “descriptive” and provide additional “obstacles to self-expression.” She argued that certain prescriptive norms — such as citizenship — can be unifying, but that gender roles are “self-reinforcing” and “divisive.”
Mark DiPlacido ’15, secretary-treasurer of the Party of the Right, dismissed Wood’s notion that gender roles are prescriptive, citing “natural realities” like a woman’s ability to carry a child.
“Feminism tries to dictate that it is oppressive to have children,” DiPlacido said. “Is it something we should try to control and eliminate? Shouldn’t we celebrate it rather than view it as a burden?”
The biological basis of gender roles was a theme of the debate, which members of the audience said they found refreshing.
Jacob Stai ’16 said he thought Paglia was right to question the lack of scientific research generally cited in feminist theory.
But Ryan Pollock’13, a member of the Liberal Party and former YPU speaker, said he was disappointed by Paglia’s interpretation of gender roles. While he said her discussion focused too heavily on the physical biological factors, like sex, he also said it was likely that the mostly liberal audience identified with her argument.
“She definitely made a good point against pure androgyny, though some argue that it’s not necessarily incompatible with feminism,” Kelsey Larson ’16 said.
Tuesday marked Paglia’s second fete with the YPU — she supported the afYfirmative of the resolution “Are women are better than men?” at a 1995 debate.
Correction: Sept. 12, 2012
An earlier version of this article misidentified the debate as being held by the Independent Party and not the Yale Political Union. It also misidentified Ryan Pollock ’13 as Harry Graver ’14.