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.