Saturday, July 10, 2010

Paglia Blames the White, Middle Class for…Viagra?

Camille Paglia, professor of humanities for the University of the Arts and New York Times contributor, has recently written an opinion piece that identifies middle class values as the sociological reason for America’s search to find a pharmaceutical remedy for our epidemically waning libidos.

Well, that’s one way to describe the piece. Another way would be to describe it as an elitist’s indictment of the American middle class, purposefully delivered in what is perceived as high-brow lexicon, seasoned with liberal doses of Marxist disdain for anything “bourgeois.”

Her opinion seems to be that specifically the white, upper-middle class is the root of sexual anxiety that causes our culture to seek a pill that can increase our sexual desire. “The real culprit,” as she describes, began with the “bourgeois propriety” that became prevalent in the nineteenth century. Paglia relates that “as respectability became the central middle-class value, censorship and repression became the norm.” This trend is what she believes led to the “social conformism and religious Puritanism” that attributed to female aloofness from sexual expression in the 1950’s.

She is quick to note that sexual repression of the 50’s “erased the liberated flappers of the Jazz Age from cultural memory,” and suggests that “since the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, American society has become increasing secular, with a media environment drenched in sex.” She goes on to lament, “only the diffuse New Age movement, inspired by nature-keyed Asian practices, has preserved the radical vision of the modern sexual revolution.”

She hearkens to the days of flappers and flower children, as if these eras were periods of sexual enlightenment, and vigorous sex was practiced by all. I would wager, however, that the “sexual liberation” in those eras was largely centralized in speakeasies and universities, respectively, and among the younger, unmarried crowd.

And from that perspective, it doesn’t appear that much has changed. From tweens to forty-somethings, American singles today are practicing wild, random, and uninhibited sex copiously, and our cultural media slather this fact in our face by delivering everything from youthful sex romps to “Sex and the City.”

Kids and singles are still having plenty of sex, so Ms. Paglia must deduce that, outside of older singles that yearn for the sex drive of their younger years, the majority of those seeking pharmaceutical means to have more sex are married men and women.

There are two reasons for this. The first, which she recognizes, is that marriage and family assure that any couple will be forced to meet exhaustive and difficult challenges with children, career, monogamy and monotony, and dealing with those challenges often takes precedence over the desire to satisfy their own primal desires. The second, which she does not seem to recognize, is that there is a multimedia complex that goes to great lengths to convince them that they should be having more sex than they do, because doing so would make their lives much more enjoyable. And it is the social elite, not the middle class, that choreographs this multimedia campaign that has fabricated a sexual crisis in America.

Thanks to technological advances, there is a global trend of people wanting quick solutions to make their lives easier. Given this trend and the middle class’ propensity for juggling jobs, kids, social engagements, housekeeping, and hundreds more obligations, can we blame them for embracing the idea of a magic pill that could make them as sexually satisfied as those happy and interesting people they see on television?

Camille Paglia can blame them. She suggests that it is their fault they’re not as sexually happy as the enlightened ones that are unhindered by such shackles. You see, family life and the obligations therein are precisely the white, middle class’ problem, according to Paglia. She claims that America will never find healthy, sensual bliss until they forego the middle class values that have “driven and drained” our culture. She seems to chide the middle class for their go-go attitude, their drive to excel, their craving of the utmost efficiency in maintaining a family, career, and social life. She bemoans the androgynous relationship between men and women in the workplace, where both sexes populate a professional playing field in their quest to achieve money and success. She contends that such “bourgeois” sensibilities must be the cause of America’s sexual frustration.

But she doesn’t stop there with her assault. She goes on to blame the contemporary white, middle class influences in rock and roll for taking the sexiness out of music. Paglia writes, “The Rolling Stones’ hypnotic recording of Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster,” with its titillating phallic exhibitionism, throbs and shimmers with sultry heat. But with the huge commercial success of rock, the blues receded as a direct influence on young musicians, who simply imitated the white guitar gods without exploring their roots.”

My guess is that for Paglia, when Clapton drew upon the source of Delta bluesman Robert Johnson, it was sexy and cool. But when rock bands today draw upon the source of the legendary Clapton, the music somehow loses its flavor. Perhaps she would conclude that Clapton isn’t poor enough or soulful enough to be the source of passionate music.

Ridiculous as that is, she continues her condemnation by holding white, middle class tastes responsible for Hollywood making a practice of turning boyish waifs into Aphrodites. She says of actresses, “Their current Pilates-honed look is taut and tense — a boy’s thin limbs and narrow hips combined with amplified breasts. Contrast that with Latino and African-American taste, which runs toward the healthy silhouette of the bootylicious Beyoncé.”

She conveys this opinion very matter-of-factly. But the truth is that there are huge swathes of middle class whites that find Beyoncé sexy, and legions of both rich people and poor people, white people and black people, who find Megan Fox sexy. What people find exciting and sexy is extremely personal, ever-evolving culturally, and the variations often transcend race and social class. But Ms. Paglia thinks that only the voluptuous female frame can be found sexy, and the white culture’s apparent inability to agree with her is part of the reason for their sexual woes.

And this highlights the most significant fact that escapes her. American society, including the middle class that makes up its majority, is extremely complex, comprised of many people of different cultures, races, sexual orientations, preferences, and levels of wealth. These aspects of our culture cannot be painted with a broad brush and a palette of ideological generalizations, but those seem to be the only tools at Paglia’s disposal.

Camille Paglia is a very eloquent, talented author, but she is obviously and absolutely disconnected from the middle class, and thereby disconnected from the majority of Americans. And in this article, she simply uses the recent explosion of interest in pharmaceutical aphrodisiacs as a platform to express her vehement disgust for white, middle class’ values, aspirations, and most of all, its utterly “bourgeois” doldrums.

And why shouldn’t that work for her? It’s enough to appease the likewise disconnected editors and readers of the floundering New York Times.

William Sullivan

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