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?