P.C. Backlash: A Woman's Story
P.C. Backlash: A Woman's Story

Leslie Simon reacts to the deluge of articles attacking
"feminist extremists" in the name of "new" feminism.

     By now, it's pretty old fare to bemoan how the left's
best joke about itself has been used and abused by
conservative pundits. It's a great subversive strategy --
using our own self-criticism against us. But when we coined
the term "P.C" it was meant as a playful jab at our self-
righteous moments; they have turned the phrase into the
centerpiece of a full-time propaganda campaign. And in the
last year the P.C. backlash industry, which first
concentrated mainly on "multicultural excess," has produced
several tracts aimed at "feminist extremists" -- by women
who call themselves feminists! The boys can't contain their
delight. They've produced a high class "cat fight," now
being waged not just on college campuses but in journals and
newspapers from Newsweek and Mother Jones to the New York
Times and the San Francisco Examiner.
     Camille Paglia started the scuffle with her 1990 tome,
Sexual Personae, which pilloried feminists as -- among other
things -- censors and puritans. Paglia's academic-jargon
assault preceded President Bush's infamous University of
Michigan speech bashing P.C. by an entire year. Paglia's
book soon went paperback and popular, and when articles
about her proliferated in the mainstream media the decision
to place them in my "P.C. Backlash" file came pretty easy.
Well, sort of.
     As I pushed my neatly collated and stapled xeroxes into
the bulging manila folder, I felt something was slightly
amiss. Did Paglia really belong next to Dinesh D'Souza,
(author of Illiberal Education), Roger Kimball (Tenured
Radicals) and Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American
Mind), prattling neoconservatives who claim "boys will be
boys" and women had better get used to it and stop all the
whining? Although categories often do get messy, this time
the spill-over troubled me more than usual. A bothersome
voice protested, reminding me that conservatives don't
usually get around to the topic of sex unless they're
planning to ban it, and Paglia likes talking sex. But her
brand of sex talk, my better self rebutted, is just a sex-
packaged version of the neoconservative line: According to
Paglia, male lust drives Western civilization and women
should be grateful for the fireworks that result. Lesbian
sex can never be as hot as any kind of sex involving a man,
she argues.
     And so I convinced myself that my first response to
Paglia had been the correct one, if you'll pardon the pun.
But there's more to this story than that, and, in drawing
out those devilish details, I will try to make some sense of
my discomfort, eventually landing on the right (read left)
side of the recent debate.

WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE...

     Last year saw two new contenders for the "with feminist
friends like these, who needs enemies?" territory that
Paglia had staked out so well. Katie Roiphe ranted against
rape awareness programs and other projects that allegedly
encourage women to see themselves only as victims in The
Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus, a widely
promoted book from [publisher]; and Karen Lehrman attacked
women's studies programs for sloppy scholarship and worse in
Mother Jones ("Off Course," Sept-Oct. 1993). The battle was
joined and feminists across the country shot back sharp and
fast: Katha Pollitt in The New Yorker (Oct. 4, 1993); June
Jordan in The Progressive (Nov., 1993); Ann Powers in the
Voice Literary Supplement (Oct., 1993); L. A. Kauffman in
the SF Weekly (Nov. 24, 1993) and Julie Phillips in The
Women's Review of Books (Nov., 1993), and more.
     One of the frustrating aspects of all of the media hype
that Paglia, Roiphe and Lehrman have received is that none
of them feel like worthy opponents. Paglia (whose second
volume, Sex, Art, and American Culture, appeared in 1992)
repeats herself ad nauseam, trying to prove that, without
the restlessness of the male libido, we girls would still be
living in grass huts. Roiphe embarrasses herself by
insisting that safe sex AIDS activists are missing all the
fun of living on the edge. Lehrman contradicts herself by,
on the one hand, complaining that women's studies classes
are not rigorous enough and, on the other, arguing that they
are filled with difficult post-structuralist language.
     So why have these three authors garnered so much
attention? The answer lies somewhere between why Paglia
didn't quite fit into the neat category of "P.C. Backlash"
and why you can't really put her anywhere else.
     The fact is, there is some truth in the complaints of
these anti-feminist feminists. Paglia and Roiphe's charges
of an anti-sex, puritan strain in the feminist movement and
Lehrman's protest against "unintelligible post-structuralist
jargon" cannot be completely dismissed as irrelevant or
reactionary. Even their impatience with "victimology" merits
some examination.
     But '90s-style hype aside, Paglia, Roiphe and Lehrman
are hardly the first to raise these concerns. The secret
that the mass media is so good at keeping is that socialist
feminists, feminists of color, lesbian feminists, and pro-
sex feminists have been examining these issues for years.
And. I might add, more thoughtfully and in more depth than
today's trio of media stars.
     Take the easy shots Paglia and Roiphe take at Catherine
MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. In MacKinnon and Dworkin's
crusade against pornography and their insistence that it
causes violence against women, they represent an anti-sex,
pro-censorship position that Paglia can breezily stereotype
as a kind of suffocating puritanism.
     But -- as Roiphe, at least, admits -- a large
contingent of feminists have long offered a sophisticated
alternative to MacKinnon and Dworkin. As early as 1982, many
of these feminists organized a major conference on sexuality
at Barnard College because they wanted "to create a movement
that [spoke] as powerfully in favor of sexual pleasure as it
[did] against sexual danger." (Carol Vance, Pleasure and
Danger, 1984). But when women really begin to talk to each
other about sexual pleasure, we threaten a power structure
that relies on fear of sexual violence to restrict women.
The sponsoring Helena Rubenstein Foundation withdrew its
support from future conferences, and Barnard itself tried to
suppress a release of the conference papers.

POVERTY AND RACISM

     As for socialist feminists, part of their criticism of
the anti-pornography movement is that it overshadows issues
of racism, poverty, and the actual violence affecting many
women's lives (see, for example, Leanne Katz in CrossRoads
No. 29). This point doesn't fit in will with the mass
media's portrait of feminism -- so Roiphe and Paglia get all
the attention because they don't discuss poverty when they
criticize MacKinnon and Dworkin. And when Roiphe comes close
to bringing up racism, she leaves out a crucial part of the
story.
      Katie Roiphe claims that what she sees as an obsession
with the phenomenon of date rape stems partly from a fear of
"cultural mixing." If you read between her lines, what she's
saying is that rich, white girls are afraid of poor, Black
men on their campus.
     But -- more than a decade ago -- Angela Davis
articulated what Roiphe was trying to get at when she took
on Susan Brownmiller, Diana Russell and "the myth of the
Black rapist" in Women, Race, and Class (1981).
Overwhelmingly, when white women are raped, their assailants
are white, but Brownmiller's Against Our Will (1975) and
Russell's Politics of Rape (1975) had encouraged the myth
that white women's main fear should be of African American
men (and other men of color). Many white anti-rape activists
take their cues from these two feminist writers, ignoring
how this myth hurts Black women, Latina women, Asian
American women and Native American women. Davis argued: "The
fictional image of the Black man as rapist has always
strengthened its inseparable companion: the image of the
Black woman as chronically promiscuous."
     Davis went further and, with far more sophistication
than Roiphe, analyzed how the capitalist class structure
encourages men with economic and political power and
privilege to perpetuate sexual exploitation. Paglia
complains about whining, pampered white girls who don't
understand the realities of the world of sex. She claims
that Black and Latina women don't get upset about rape
because they see it as a fact of life. Davis does not accept
rape as a fact of life; instead, she deplores the fact that,
because of racism and class inequality, Black women and
women of color generally are even more vulnerable to it.
     When Steven Spielberg re-wrote The Color Purple, he
removed the scene in which a Black woman is raped by a
privileged, white man -- but he kept intact the sexual
assaults by Black men against Black women. Granted, Alice
Walker means to critique sexual coercion within the Black
community, but she does not stop there. When women of color
speak out against rape, their charges against rich, white
men usually go ignored. But if we were to adopt Paglia's
perspective, Spielberg, with his creative male libido,
driving him to ever higher heights of Western civilization,
would understand the complexities of rape, race and sex
better than Alice Walker.
     In addition to railing against anti-rape activism,
Paglia denounces post-modern discourse. She charges that the
adoption of French theory and language by U.S. feminist and
other critics has caused academic careerists to narrow their
concentrations and overlook broad patterns and connections.
     Again, Paglia is a shallow latecomer to this
discussion. In 1987, Black feminist critic Barbara Christian
(author of Black Women Novelists: The Development of a
Tradition) published an essay in Cultural Critique entitled
"The Race for Theory." She mourned the shift that had taken
place, noting that in generations past, critics wrote
poetry, plays, and novels; now they are professional
academics, churning out ever more obscure theories.
     Christian also deplored the fact that just when novels
written by and for women of color began to be published in
significant numbers -- novels that placed working class
women of color at their centers -- critics put forward the
notion that the concept of a center is illusory. Paglia,
meanwhile, can do no better than look backward and rejoice
in a white, male center. As for women writers, she says, to
the extent that we even need to read them, we don't have to
go beyond Simone de Beauvoir.
     Christian, like Paglia and Lehrman, criticizes post-
structuralist jargon. But, instead of simply dismissing it
as unintelligible, she questions the value of an academic
language so encoded only an elite corps can decipher it. She
also insists that literature is political while Lehrman
resents what she sees as politicization of women's studies.
Included in Lehrman's fear of politics invading the women's
studies classroom is a concern that multiculturalism has
exerted too much of influence on women's studies students.
She belittles a feminist canon that includes bell hooks and
Audre Lorde, authors central to Christian's work as a
literary critic.

VICTIMS AND AGENTS

     All three of the backlash feminists criticize the
"victimization" label, which they allege is worn as a badge
and used as an excuse for not overcoming obstacles. Roiphe
complains feminists working on rape issues are attempting to
legislate risk out of the lives of young women and are
disempowering them by increasing their fear and insecurity.
Paglia and Lehrman blame feminists for viewing the world in
the simplistic terms of male oppression and female
victimization. (Unfortunately, it looks like Naomi Wolf,
whose first book The Beauty Myth offered a tough critique of
the beauty industry, has stepped into the backlash camp. Her
new book, Fire with Fire, pits her so-called "power
feminism," -- basically a version of earlier elite liberal
feminism recycled in '90s language -- against what she calls
"victim feminism.")
     But once again there's not much here that earlier
feminists haven't already noted, with a slightly different
twist, of course. Gerda Lerner, writing in The Creation of
Patriarchy (1986), observes: "Some women have been
`oppressed' in one aspect of their lives by husbands or
fathers, while they themselves have held power over other
women and men." Lerner prefers the term "subordination" to
"oppression," pointing out that the latter word implies
victimization and criticizing its use to describe the lives
of all women because it erases class differences.
     How does it all add up? In terms of ideas, the more
radical, class- and race-conscious wing of the feminist
movement has brought far more to the discussion of women's
condition than Paglia, Roiphe and Lehrman. Unfortunately,
these ideas are not today reflected in the kind of broad,
visible movement that would compel the mainstream media to
wake up and take notice. So the backlash feminists, whose
opportunistic tirades include points that speak to real
problems in the feminist movement, are showcased as voices
of a so-called "new feminism."
     And that's the underlying reason why my "P.C. Backlash"
file keeps getting thicker and thicker. Those of us who
insist on linking issues of gender, sexuality, race and
class in a progressive, feminist vision and practice have
our work cut out for us.