Sweeping the Prudes into the Dust Bin of History: Camille Paglia on Elizabeth Taylor

Camille Paglia has been working on a book and, consequently, her Internet presence has been near to zip for more than a year. But Salon recently interviewed her on the death of Elizabeth Taylor, and here’s part of what she had to say about one of Taylor’s classic films, Butterfield 8:

“Butterfield 8” was my Bible. She didn’t want to make that film. She hated it her whole life. But “Butterfield 8” meant everything to me as an adolescent. It formed so many of my ideas about the pagan tradition descending to us from Babylon and surviving the Christian onslaught of the Middle Ages. The first time you see her in the film, in that tight, white, sewed-on slip, it’s so amazing. Her dress is ripped on the floor, she brushes her teeth with scotch, and she goes up to the mirror and angrily writes “No sale!” on it in lipstick! To me she represented the ultimate power of the sexual woman.

Paglia, as a teen, collected 599 photographs of Elizabeth Taylor, and you can see that the title of her legendary debut book, Sexual Personae, may have come in part from meditating on the meaning of Elizabeth Taylor:

“Butterfield 8” sizzles with eroticism, because of the psychological distance and animal attraction between male and female. The businessmen in that film are all in their uniforms, their black suits. They’re like a horde of identical and characterless myrmidons or clones. They have wealth, they have power, but they’re nothing compared to her!

That’s a Dionysian sexual persona facing off against the armored Apollonian male—and kicking ass.

And here’s Palgia tartly tracing Taylor’s pro-sex pagan legacy through Raquel Welch and Madonna:

The canonical shot of Elizabeth Taylor sewn into that white slip in “Butterfield 8” is one of the major art images of my entire life! She is Babylonian pagan woman — the goddess Ishtar, the anti-Mary!

That photo heralds the dawning sexual revolution, among other things. But the leading feminists totally rejected the Hollywood sex symbols from the start. Raquel Welch was still complaining about that when I interviewed her for Tatler in 1994. Gloria Steinem wouldn’t even let Raquel speak at an abortion rights rally in the 1970s. Puritanical fools! But thanks to Madonna, the pro-sex, pro-pop wing of feminism rose with a vengeance in the 1990s and swept the prudes into the dust bin of history.

I like Paglia’s Virgin Mary v. the Whore of Babylon (Ishtar) conceptualizing, and perhaps this is why she is so apparently uninterested in reflecting on puritanical Islam (a criticism that she has fairly recently received)—and viscerally disliked, as a teen, Debbie Reynolds and Doris Day:

I couldn’t stand them! They represented the saccharine, good-girl style that was being forced on me and my generation by our parents and teachers and every voice in the culture, which was telling us to be like them. Elizabeth Taylor was bad! She was a bad girl!

I myself am raising daughters, and Paglia’s observations here make me a tad nervous. When my own kids reach their teens, will I be relieved to walk in on them sitting in the living room watching, on Turner Classic Movies, an Elizabeth Taylor film—or one with Doris Day in it?

Hmm.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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12 Responses to Sweeping the Prudes into the Dust Bin of History: Camille Paglia on Elizabeth Taylor

  1. Paradigm says:

    Lets’ not glorify Elisabeth Taylor or any other of the Dionysian kind. This essentially boils down to instant gratification, which never creates anything of lasting value. In short: the bad girl is also the stupid girl. I don’t think Taylor will be remembered as one of the big names of her time. She will slowly morph into the gay icon she really is. And later bad girls like Madonna or Lady Gaga are even less memorable – 99 percent marketing and 1 percent substance.

    Maybe you should recommend your daughters to see The Song of Bernadette with Jennifer Jones? A powerful and spiritual drama that will remind them that there are other things in life than all this dionysian crap we are bombarded with every day.

    • santitafarella says:

      Thanks for the Jennifer Jones suggestion. I don’t know that film. I’ll check it out.

      I’m not sure about your judgment of the iconic mother/sex goddess trope being “crap.” I think it unsticks the psyche into self-assertion. And good, healthy, energetic and image-based paganism helps keep the puritanical religionists at bay in the broader culture (Islamic fundamentalist and otherwise). Yes, it energizes them and pisses them off, but imagistic paganism is also so much more appealing, seductive, and powerful than the anti-imagistic world they put on offer (I exclude Catholicism from this observation, which is deeply enmeshed in art itself and shares in the pagan tradition).

      Oh, and did you hear that Westboro Baptist Church will be picketing her funeral?

      —Santi

      • barniegilkrek says:

        Able to outrage bitter clingerers fifty years after the fact?
        Legend. That alone should prove that “the woman had IT”.

  2. andrewclunn says:

    Sexuality in women who are seeking sexual gratification is hardly a good role model. Women who see their sexual wiles as a tool in the social arsenal are the ones I respect. For them, the sex is not a controlling or driving force, but an asset and skill to be controlled. I feel the same way about male sexuality. There are plenty of people out there who seek carnal pleasures. Many obsesses over these just as the overweight indulge in their hunger. Use this to your advantage, know how to stimulate other’s biologically hardwired desires. Even enjoy sex as you do good food, but the ability to decline and control such desires is paramount to have them as assets rather than liabilities.

    I intend to say as much to any children I have.

    • barniegilkrek says:

      You’ve succinctly stated how the dionysian can be eliminated from life without appearing to: let it be all pretense and fabulation, designed to abuse suckers who don’t get it. But always remain “in control” intellectually.

  3. Paradigm says:

    Well, it’s not the one or the other; it’s about balance. It’s not healthy to live in abstinence but it is not the problem today – quite the opposite. Elizabeth Taylor was perhaps the first well-known actress who was famous just as much for her personal life as for her acting. Then we Madonna, Lady Gaga, Paris Hilton. These are just salespeople, thinly veiled pornographers, who uses the decline of Western culture as a means of making money. Unlike Andrew, I can’t say that impresses me.

    And what happens after Paris Hilton? Human culture is not something that comes from just letting go. And not from holding back (and dreaming of 47 virgins in heaven) either. It comes from a balance between these Appollonian and Diosynian forces.

    • santitafarella says:

      Paradigm,

      Western culture is not in decline; it’s in Renaissance. It has been since the Enlightenment. And all art is sublimated eros (and thus a “thinly veiled” form of pornography). And there is an alternative to the angel-whore dichotomy. It’s called the intellectual woman: the woman who takes the mind seriously. I think that women like Camille Paglia, Gloria Steinem, and Rachel Maddow are all far more sexy than either the retiring religious virgins or the pop culture sex icons.

      If you know the old television series, Petticoat Junction, the bookish brunette outsizzles the blondie sister and the Doris Day clean sister by a mile.

      —Santi

  4. Cody Deitz says:

    I really enjoyed this one. Kinda funny, I’ve been rereading “Sexual Personae” lately. Such a stimulating book.

  5. Paradigm says:

    Well, you’re the eternal optimist. But look at it this way: you can have a 50s, 60s, 70s or 1980s theme to your party. But after that there are no distinctive features. Now we are just recycling old stuff. When did you last here some artist on the same level as David Bowie, Beatles, Abba, Pink Floyd, Queen or Black Sabbath? Does not exist.

    Also, I don’t think the idea of art being sublimination is correct. The fact that this old Freudian notion is still in use is a clear indication of decline. Studies finding psychoanalysis useless have been around since the 1950s. Sure, sublimation does exist, but a lot of energy bears little or no evidence of its origin. And there is what Jung called disposable energy as well. As well as other sources that have nothing to do with sex. If you are sad and write a sad song – is that Eros? No that’s Sadness (or whatever she is called in Greek mythology).

    As for the sexy intellectuals you mention, none of them have been able or interested in forming a long term relationship with a man. They are just another form of virgins. Prominent feminists in Sweden show a similar pattern: they are either single, divorced or hypocritically married to one of the few men who have more money and/or education than they have. They are simply out of touch with reality.

    • barniegilkrek says:

      They’re only virgins if you count marriage as the only legitimate “breaking in” of a woman because it’s under the eyes of god, which, on and off for the past century and variously before that, it has not been.

      It’s another thing to consider “lesbians” as virgins, but Gloria steinem?

      Women who jump from man to man being called virgins is just about the most topsy turvy interpretation of loose sexual mores I’ve ever heard. Love it! Thanks for the chuckles today, on Good Friday of all days!

      • Paradigm says:

        I forgot lesbians. So they are alone, with another woman or with one of the few men who are higher up in the social hierarchy. Don’t you find that a bit odd? After all their theories are supposed to be generalizable to most women, right?

        Women jumping from man to man are not connecting, in that way they are similar to virgins. But you knew that, you just pretended not to. Also as a joke it wasn’t that funny. I’ve heard the he-so-funny-ergo-I’m-right laughter before. It’s a lame trick.

    • andrewclunn says:

      Paradigm,

      I’m really not seeing how the term virgin can be altered o mean one who has never been emotionally attached. Though I will say that feminist theory is a load of crap that usually results in bitter, lonely, out of touch women. You know, much like Catholicism with nuns.

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