If You See My Superhero On The Street, Kill Her

The women whom I love and admire for their strength and grace did not get that way because shit worked out.  They got that way because shit went wrong, and they handled it.  They handled it in a thousand different ways on a thousand different days, but they handled it.  Those women are my superheroes.

—Elizabeth Gilbert (Facebook Post, March 26, 2015)

Women are not required to suffer and “handle it” for me to admire them. They do not need to be superheroes.  They do not need to do anything to serve me.

We all suffer and manage as we can—or not. If one is going to invoke the greatness of “handling it” when “s*** happens,” it might be useful to distinguish between the inconvenience of waiting for the bus in the rain or finding that one’s favorite restaurant is out of squid pasta and the outrage of being undervalued, overlooked, underpaid, harassed, threatened, stalked, abused, beaten, raped, or killed—all of which happen to women every day simply because they are women. Idealizing “superheroes” who “handle it,” without elaboration, risks giving the impression that one approves of those things, that one is content with inequity, exploitation, even atrocity.

Replace “women” with “men,” and see how that sounds.

By admiring “s*** handling,” one disregards the matter of injustice—and we are not obliged to “handle” that either.  Not on our own.

Sure, rhapsodize about the gifts of suffering—there are many—but rhapsodize over one’s own, not someone else’s.

There is a tired old myth still circulating out there about women—a myth that says that we must be rescued, that we are fragile and helpless, that without external validation we collapse, and that disappointment and heartbreak and loss will destroy us.

—Elizabeth Gilbert (Facebook Post, March 26, 2015)

Another tired myth is that it is noble for us to withstand, to endure, without any expectation of relief or release.

If a woman loses her nerve, falls short of her goals, crumples in despair, or takes her own life, she is not failing to serve her purpose as my “superhero.”  She does not have to “handle it” for my sake.  She has the right be destroyed when destruction finds her.

Women (and others) who romanticize women’s suffering and endurance in the face of adversity—or outright injustice—have my compassion but not my admiration.

No matter; their value is not dependent on my admiration.  My opinion is irrelevant.

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A Paglia Reduction

Chuck Jones Dover Boys Pimiento U
Listening to Dark Powers: Camille Paglia on CBC’s Ideas

 

Rather than illuminate her dark women, Paglia turns the light on her true subject: herself. She offers reductive comment after reductive comment, promoting herself and smearing the intellectual community, while claiming other scholars are reducing art to ideology. Did no one advise her to cite sources?  Who is it who claims that “a few laws and sexual harassment committees will make it all [misogyny] go away?”  Is she unable to distinguish between opinion and idea, between attitude and inquiry? And how is it that with all her time on the stage she cannot deliver a single sentence without “uh, ok, you know” and a parade of em dashes?

 

Paglia claims, “Academics on the whole have absolutely no idea about how art is made or how the artistic mind works. This is one of the main reasons for the utter incompetence and sterility of so much academic criticism about the arts.” Apparently, all scholars, except Paglia, lack any understanding whatsoever of vision, ecstasy and peak moments: “All of that is completely gone from any kind of discourse on the arts. What passes for criticism of the arts in the academy is absolutely,—ok—it’s useless, and it has driven away several generations of young people from the arts.” Well, there are plenty of young people in my arts community, at my university, in my courses and private lessons.  They are mentored by devoted, probing scholars and artists who refrain from—fasten your seat belts—reductively reducing all other scholars to ideologues who see nothing but ideology in art.

 

Paglia claims that “art is deeply interconnected with the dream process.” Indeed, her fictional account of a uniformly bumbling, incompetent, unimaginative academic community is quite a dream.  (Bumbling comes easily, but one of the many things we academics are not good at is consistency and unity.  [Oh, that’s two things.  See what I mean?])

 

Perhaps Paglia would like to read Brandon LaBelle’s commentary on the dream nature of Hildegard Westerkamp’s sound art; or Daniel Albright on the “inhumanly intense orgasm” in Yeats’s pseudo-Noh plays; or Malcolm Turvey’s account of the “machine aesthetic” in Ballet Mécanique.  I’m sure she could find a full reading list if she were to give a moment’s notice to the scholars she terms “incompetent” and “provincial.”  There are many subtle and invigorating critical writings to be found.  Or are listening and nuance also “useless” to Paglia?

 

And what about those of us who are both creative artists and scholars? Does Paglia understand art-making better than those of us who . . . um, ok . . . practice it? And who sometimes collaborate with full-time scholars to consider exactly the phenomena she insists are “completely gone” from the sterile work of us blunderers who have “absolutely no idea about how art is made or how the artistic mind works”?  I guess, when I step out of my studio and into class, the composer region of my mind goes to sleep and I am suddenly seized by the delusion that all artists are “political sign wavers” in order to “drive away several generations of young people from the arts.”  No wonder I have been so tired lately.

 

It is telling that Paglia casts ad hominem aspersions rather than exploring the ideas and insights of these unnamed scholars.  We hear about “the people who are teaching in humanities departments,” accompanied by crude, unattributed caricatures.  I would rather focus on Paglia’s inquiries rather than her infantile persona, but it is difficult to do so when she herself cannot get past the players to see the play.  Paglia energetically describes herself as “persona non grata in academia”: apparently that self-description gives her street cred.  At a time when universities are becoming more and more corporatized; when academic freedom and intellectual inquiry face extinction; and when most higher-education instructors are overextended, under-compensated adjuncts with little time available to misunderstand art in the way Paglia condemns,—and when dozens of universities have been investigated for Title IX violations for mishandling sexual assaults—it is not only sensationalistic, not only irresponsible, but abhorrent to flog the entire scholarly community for imagined sins.  Who is it, again, who is driving young people away?

 

Has Paglia based her own ideology on scholarship about bondage?  Has she noticed that we did not agree to her terms?  And does she know that that makes her words an assault?  Or does her insistence that revulsion is part of our “dream life” extend to fantasies of whipping her comrades, enacted through words?  What about the “dream life” that depicts students overpowered and violated by their peers in their own dorm rooms?

 

Few women are accorded a stage where they can construct themselves as rebels and iconoclasts, where they can believe their own hype. Such honors usually go to the Steven Pinkers and . . . those other guys. One does not want to come down harder on Paglia than on the unbuttoned noblemen who—you might want to sit down for this—trade on their institutional privilege to pretend to puncture the very establishment that provides the pulpit from which to do so.  But why Paglia? Is it because she proffers shallow, vacuous, easily digestible propaganda, bullying the tenants of the university rather than scrutinizing the master’s house? Does her hemming and hawing invite the spectator to look down on her inarticulate bluster even as he makes an ostentatious display of cheering her wild transgressions?  Does the anti-intellectual state maintain order by “allowing” her to play the maverick, as long as her performance does not threaten the royals who continue to exclude true iconoclasts and risk-takers from the banquet? (A meal laid out on a table being dismantled even as she critiques the entrée.)

 

Now that would be reductive. And ideological. And useless. To some of us, at least.

 

—Posted by Barbara White