For a while I have been thinking about writing a column about Michel Houellebecq. I was going to talk about how I came to Houellebecq’s work while working as an intern at a French magazine that ran GQ-ish features and creatively softcore photos of women. I was going to tie together something about voyeurism and objectification, both in Houellebecq’s novels and in my life at the time. To wrap up I was going to mention a party I attended a year after graduating college, where, among expensive wines and even more expensive attire, some guy spoke at length to me about Houellebecq, about how sex was a matter of winning and losing, and about how love simply did not exist in a free market. There wasn’t really an ending after that; I kind of assumed I’d have found my way by that point.
I can’t write the piece. There’s some colorful imagery to be mined in my blip in France, but the bit about objectification always feels a little forced. I haven’t been able to figure out what to say about a scene like this: I’m in the magazine office, barely 21 years old but still qualifying as the only woman in the room, and all of us are looking at a series of photographs taken by David La Chappelle of Pamela Anderson, who is completely nude against a wild green frond, posing like an animal in some shots but always uncanny like a doll. Her 40th birthday is the occasion. A man I work with observes that she’s “grotesque.” Everyone agrees. The editor-in-chief doesn’t go with the pictures though, not because he objects to their content, but because he’s bored with the idea. Nude sex symbol descending into a new decade: it’s too obvious. The editors are going for a Playboy-in-the-60s vibe, so the theme is be sexy, be unexpected, be cool, and we’re defining unexpected as mid-century masculinity.
At some point in this internship, I learned about Dian Hanson. The editor-in-chief talked about her to me like she was an institution, and she is. Before she started editing “sexy books” for Taschen, her name was on the masthead of the following publications: Puritan, Partner, OUI, Outlaw Biker, Juggs, and less imaginatively titled rags like Leg Show and Big Butt. She shows up memorably in Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, confirming the size of R. Crumb’s penis. While I don’t think my boss was telling me about her to suggest a role model—I worked on the articles only, I was treated wonderfully—it was hard not to take it that way. This made me feel a little uncomfortable, but mostly it made me feel misunderstood.
In retrospect, it’s not so coincidental that I started stockpiling books by Ellen Willis around this time. Her music criticism for The New Yorker was my focus then, because I felt more knowledgeable about music than anything else, and being someone who wrote about music seemed attainable, viable, not too far from who I was already. I read her political work too but found it less relevant to my quest for what might come naturally to me. That was my chief concern: I wanted to know what would come naturally.
Until last week I hadn’t read Willis’s conversion diary, a document of her gradual shift to radical feminist politics. Published in conjunction with the release of The Essential Ellen Willis, “Up from Radicalism” is a good example of the sort of thinker Willis was: bright and enviably pithy. She walks through her restlessness and her hang-ups with charm and precision. She frankly discusses the trials of her first marriage. And she consistently describes the past in the present tense, which created a superimposed effect for me, as I related too closely to her problems.
I used to find this kind of thing exhilarating. There was nothing better than someone intelligent expressing something I always had thought but never had said. But with this I got somewhat depressed, partially because decades later the same problems exist, and partially because I can’t know if they ever won’t.
Take this section about Willis’s discovery of her talent via the encouragement of a boyfriend (Robert Christgau, I presume). “I am amazed,” Willis writes, “when my stuff is actually accepted, and then chagrined at my defeatism. Why does B. have to tell me twenty-five times that my writing is good before I’ll believe it? Why did I accept W.’s opinion of me, even while I was fighting it?” I can recall so many times I have felt that same amazement, that same chagrin, that same resistance to a positive truth because I had bought the negative lie. God, I’m still like this. Worse, I know other women can recall this too. That takes away any good feeling that seeing myself somewhere, anywhere, might inspire.
“Up from Radicalism” eventually suggests action, bringing the reader up to speed, up to the present. The specifics of the action aren’t clear. It doesn’t matter though: the piece functions differently in 2014, as people discover that it feels too current for something published so many years ago. She writes that, “to avoid both the humiliation of being treated as an object and the frustration of celibacy, we have to be supersensitive game players.” This is “nerve-wracking and not much fun” except for a happy few. These aren’t obsolete ideas. To read Ellen Willis now reacquaints you with those attractive or pervasive fictions that obscure real power relations and halt progress. I read those lines and I think of looking at pictures of the body of Pamela Anderson, whose thoughts I can’t guess. I don’t know if she was having fun, if she felt humiliated, or if she has ever felt frustrated.
I know what I felt, which was nothing. I was dulled to the weirdness of the moment. If you asked me now, or even then, what was happening there, I would have called the situation mean on one level and bizarre on every other. But I didn’t feel that; I just knew it. I was outside myself, watching the whole thing, as if any emotional response would have been a hassle. These days consciousness does not need to be raised as much or as often as it needs to be revived. I often think of this one part in “Slouching toward Bethlehem” where Joan Didion introduces a hippie named Barbara who is smitten with the idea of “the woman’s thing.” Barbara does the shitwork, as Ellen Willis would call it, and she’s deliriously happy. Didion disapproves: “Whenever I hear of the woman’s trip, which is often, I think a lot about nothin’-says-lovin’-like-something-from-the-oven and the Feminine Mystique and how it is possible for people to be the unconscious instruments of values they would strenuously reject on a conscious level, but I do not mention this to Barbara.”
“It must be nice to be able to be casual,” Willis says about casual sex. It’s nice to be dulled. It’s a way to survive. “But we’ve never had that option,” she says. What now are the options? Which of the hassles are truly necessary? What is ultimately wrong with changing your head?