The most popular feminist among undergraduates must be either Camille Paglia, the iconoclastic cultural commentator, or Courtney Love, the lead singer of the grunge band Hole. Not far behind are Naomi Wolf (author of The Beauty Myth) and Susan Faludi (Backlash: the Undeclared War Against American Women). Despite the charms of the younger contestants, Paglia would seem to be queen if only because her work usefully matches the agendas of so many 19-year-olds in the 1990s.
Paglia's third book, Vamps and Tramps, is a rich but ramshackle collection of journalism which includes transcripts from Channel Four documentaries and CNN chat shows, short essays on celebrities and mass-mediated court cases, book reviews, week-in-the-life diaries, and a lot of autobiographically inflected diatribes against the feminist "establishment".
Herein lies the first clue to the undergraduate predilection for Paglia. For many young women, the word feminist conjures an image of a dowdy, man-hating, humourless shrew. Paglia's writing confirms this negative stereotype, condemning establishment feminists for their "ugly, clumsy ideology", "middlebrow mediocrity", "mushy do-gooder" activities and "yuppie" Stalinism.
Neither Paglia nor her young readers can bear to be identified with this sexless group, so Paglia invites affiliation with her brand of "enlightened", "equal opportunity", "streetwise", "lusty" feminism. Feminists of the Paglian persuasion do not need a bourgeois "room of one's own" - what a pathetically drab, hopelessly domestic aspiration! On the contrary, they want to "get out of the house, and keep on running". All they need is "a car of one's own".
For Paglia, the archetypal old-fashioned feminist is anti-pornography campaigner, Catharine MacKinnon. In an article originally published in Playboy, Paglia accuses MacKinnon of being a "pinched, body-denying Protestant" as well as a "totalitarian" who has "the dull instincts of and tastes of a bureaucrat". This suggests another reason why Paglia wins the student union vote. She is a good-time girl who wants freedom from parents and the state. Her rock'n'roll politics support the legalisation of drugs, prostitution and pornography. As a libertarian, her highest ideals are free thought and free speech, although her pre-eminent gift is for sloganeering. As she says, "Offensiveness is a democratic right".
A third reason for Paglia's huge appeal to first-year students is that she relentlessly ridicules academics, particularly "academic pseudo-leftists whose idea of political action is nattering about Foucault to each other at conferences". Like undergraduates, she resists the elitism of academe - the exclusionary degrees, the difficult theory, the defensive jargon. In an open letter to the students of Harvard University published in the Harvard Crimson, Paglia laments the cronyism and conservatism (dressed up in politically correct clothes) of their English department: "Harvard students are sadly mistaken if they think the literature faculty in their thirties and forties are the best America has to offer. It was the cliquish conference circuit . . . that put those opportunistic trend-chasers into your classrooms."
For all her talk of flouting convention, Paglia espouses a traditional notion of the artist as a bohemian genius whose role in life is to epater les bourgeois. In her essay defending Woody Allen against the puritanism of the tabloid press, she pleads for an end to "this provincial abuse of artists" and continues, "like those other small-statured collectors of nymphets, Charlie Chaplin and Roman Polanski . . . Allen has the right to seek his muse wherever he may find her. The quiet, dreamy Soon-yi . . . may represent simplicity and emotional truth to Allen."
Thankfully, Paglia usually slips in the small joke, momentarily distracting the reader from her shamless cliches. More violent than her assault on the traditional literary elite is Paglia's attack on the lower orders of the academe, within which she arguably most probably belongs: women's studies is a "corrupt autocracy"; gay studies are full of "victimology"; and cultural studies is "an amateurish mish-mash of this and that". But perhaps her most shocking assertion - given the example set by this book - is that these disciplines fail to maintain "scholarly standards" and "objective criteria".
However, generosity is not Paglia's strong point; self-aggrandisement is. In a previously unpublished and thoroughly entertaining essay called "Sontag, Bloody Sontag", Paglia slaughters the critical grande dame. She offers insightful criticisms of Susan Sontag's books and career, but the main reason behind the attack would seem to be that back in 1971, when the lofty Sontag first met the fledgling Paglia, Sontag did not "have the wit to realise" that she had met "her successor". Paglia admits that she has a "raging egomania", but defends it with the contention that it has "helped restore free speech to America". Her conceit leaves one wondering whether she has not confused her personal advancement with the feminist cause.
The main constituency Paglia appears keen to woo is students. Not only does she repeatedly and refreshingly address students, she also empowers them. For example, in her introduction she declares that "Professors have no business telling students about the present. The students are the present, and month by month, they are creating the future. Stop oppressing them with exhausted paradigms of the recent past. Each time a professor sets foot in the classroom, he or she is already history."
Before and during the many years that Paglia sought a publisher for her first book, Sexual Personae, she was a teacher in universities not known for their research or their high-flying student bodies. It would seem that the time she spent learning how to keep these American students awake and how to inspire them to read and research has paid off. Having honed her skills in the academic backwaters, Paglia is now exceptionally good at engaging and provoking. She is vain, vitriolic and silly, but she can also be disarmingly comic and clever.
Vamps and Tramps is worth selective reading if only to observe Paglia's charismatic pedagogic style.
Sarah Thornton is a lecturer in media studies, University of Sussex.
Vamps and Tramps: New Essays
Author - Camille Paglia
ISBN - 0 670 86267 3
Publisher - Viking
Price - £17.00
Pages - 532pp