“Marriage has given me an illusory sense of power. A married woman can flirt with men, tell them her troubles, presume on their friendship, and by the rules they can’t demand that she follow through. If she wants a man (especially a single man) it is not only acceptable, but almost expected, for her to make the first move. In no other situation does she have so much freedom. Furthermore the status marriage confers insulates her somewhat from rejection and humiliation. Whatever another man might think of her or do to her, at least one man has certified her Class A merchandise.”—This was my mother writing in 1969, and this is still so piercingly true. I basically got married by accident, and therefore have always had a certain amount of distance from Being a Wife, but one of the first things I noticed was how that title changes the dynamic with guy friends new and old. On one level it’s a relief—everything is innocent, unless you choose otherwise. But it also signifies a strange, depressing finality, like now that you’re married, you cease to be seen as a sexual, adventurous person. It’s an uncomfortable shift that I wish we could leave by the wayside, like girdles and segregated help-wanted ads.
“As she saw it, the most illuminating and urgent version of “the personal” is not so much “the domestic” as “the sexual”. Pleasure, she argued, is a human right. The sexual revolution must be a collective one or, as she wrote in 1967, a movement to fuse and energize “the politics of nations with the politics of our own bodies”. It was this honouring of the body and of sensory experience that led Willis to writing about rock. The music of the late 1960s and early 70s was a way for her to think about gender politics, both in the broad sense, and on a personal level. It was seeing Janis Joplin, for example, that “made me resolve, once and for all, not to get my hair straightened”.”—Lovely piece by Hermione Hoby in TLS.
Israel is probably the topic where my mom and I diverge the most. There have been some key developments in ten years —and it’s definitely brave of Tablet to repost this piece in the midst of all the Gaza news—but reading this 2003 Ellen Willis piece will 100% aid you in wrestling with your own (possible) mixed feelings about the Middle East conflict.
“One question I’m endlessly interested in is what rebellion and radicalism look like in the 21st century — a topic I explored in a piece for The Believer about the surprising subversion of production-library music, and also in my Pitchfork coverage of Pussy Riot. I’m a feminist, and yet I often find I’m most drawn to music that I disagree with politically and that sometimes even directly affronts my presence as a listener. (Last summer, Yeezus blew my mind while Janelle Monae’s The Electric Lady left me cold.) I think the great Ellen Willis said it best, when writing about the Sex Pistols in 1977: “And there lay the paradox: music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated — as good rock and roll did — challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was anti woman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation.””—Yay, Lindsay Zoladz is Vulture’s new pop music critic!
“Each sentence in this collection bears the mark of a writer haunted by the notion that without a constant search for clarity on what mattered most to her, she would never realize the life — or love, or society — she hoped for. If we persist in thinking that the members of her generation deceived themselves when they believed they were beginning to see the light, we deserve every bit of darkness that is blinding us now. For those of us who would rather not get fooled again, we have these 513 pages as a guide.”—
(Although it does take a jab at our generation and era of Internet journalism, calling it “self-congratulatory clique-building and fresh outrage every hour on the hour”—which is a maddeningly cynical way to think of an exciting, creative, participatory media climate about which Mom would have been thrilled.)
“To read her cultural criticism is to see her admitting insecurity, weakness. Willis wasn’t always sure where the boundaries fell between personal and political, if those boundaries even existed. She could grant, “My commitment to heterosexual sex is very basic and I want, need love and companionship.” And she could also observe when her own politics became more sophisticated. She later footnoted her celebrated article on Dylan as a “prefeminist essay,” critiquing her reference “with aplomb if not outright endorsement to Dylan’s characteristic bohemian contempt for women.” She calls another statement in the piece “absurd.” What other writer would inspect her shedded skin with such harsh and bracing honesty?”—Emily Greenhouse’s Dissent review of “The Essential Ellen Willis” is one of the most perceptive things written on the book so far, and it has now been liberated from the paywall!
“What if our politicians asked us to show our patriotism through dancing joyously, not shopping the sale racks? How about if public debates over discriminatory sodomy laws argued that anal sex should be legal not only because the opposite is homophobic but also because anal sex feels good? If we didn’t see self-denial as a moral imperative would we have more love for fellow people, more empathy? Would we be less anxious about our own spending habits? Happier?”—A beautiful essay on The Essential Ellen Willis in Tablet mag.
“The Lewinsky interview was, for network television, an extraordinary event. Drawn out by Barbara Walters’s alternately stern and sympathetic prodding, a vividly telegenic (plumpness notwithstanding) and self-possessed young woman firmly defends her sexuality and that of her former lover, who happens to be President of the United States. Despite the havoc, both national and personal, that ensued, she cannot bring herself to regret her passion, her pleasure or her boldness in pursuing the affair. She is still excited by the memory of Mr. Clinton’s ”energy” and ”sensuality.” She describes the progression from intense eye contact to first kiss as ”a dance,” the notorious thong-flashing incident as a ”subtle, flirtatious gesture” that meant ”I’m interested too. I’ll play.” She recalls her efforts to persuade the President to have intercourse. If her subtlety is in doubt, her exuberant lustiness is not. It’s easy to see why Mr. Clinton was attracted.”—Did you know that Ellen Willis was OBSESSED with Monica Lewinsky? (There are many pages in “The Essential Ellen Willis” devoted to why she and her affair with Clinton were so fascinating.) Bet you a million dollars that she’d be up at dawn tomorrow buying the new Vanity Fair. She’d definitely be enjoying, and probably participating in, our retrospective look at Monicagate this week.
“When I playacted with my girl friends, I always wanted a boy’s part. And my model was my father, who drew me diagrams of magnets and the digestive system, not my mother, who intruded on my life of the mind by making me dry the dishes. Later on things got more complicated. On one level I was determined to prove that except for a little accident of hormones, I was a perfectly good man: I was going to be a famous writer/actress/scientist. Domestic chores were contemptible (I would have servants, since I couldn’t have a wife), and children—who needed them? Women were pretty contemptible too, except those happy few of us who were really men.
At the same time, without any feeling of absurdity, I worked obsessively at making myself a desirable object. I followed all the rules—build up their egos, don’t be aggressive, don’t flaunt your brains, be charming, diet, dance, be with it, wear a girdle, never kiss goodnight on the first date—until I learned that breaking them a little, or better yet appearing to break them, attracted the more imaginative boys.”—Up from Radicalism by Ellen Willis - Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics (via guernicamag)
“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.”—Jen Vafidis on Ellen Willis, Pamela Anderson, and revived consciousness, in Vol. 1 Brooklyn.
“Our problem is not the excesses of talk shows but the brutality and emptiness of our political culture. Pop bashing is the humanism of fools: in the name of defending people’s dignity it attacks their pleasures and their meager store of power. On talk shows, whatever their drawbacks, the proles get to talk. The rest of the time they’re told in a thousand ways to shut up. By any honest reckoning, we need more noise, not less.”—
“Mrs., my ass!” our caller exclaimed. “That’s why I’m calling. The president is a liar! As he knows perfectly well, since his Secret Service thugs argued with me for five hours yesterday, I’m as single as the day I was born. And I have no plans to get married, either.”
This was news. Minutes later we were on our way to an exclusive interview with Ruby Tuesday, the last unmarried person in America. We caught up with Ruby, who makes her home in an empty car of the Lexington Avenue IRT, at the Union Square station. She was a striking-looking woman. It wasn’t the green hair so much as the fact that instead of the one scarlet S required by law—a requirement we had naively imagined was obsolete—she wore a see-through satin jumpsuit made entirely of scarlet S’s sewn together.
“Come on in,” she said. “Have a quiche. It’s okay—I make my own.”
”—Ellen Willis’s dystopian satire on our national marriage anxiety, from 1981, is up at Flavorwire. Another one of my favorites from “The Essential Ellen Willis.” (Only 9 days til publication! Yay!)
In the 1960s, prosperity and cultural radicalism were symbiotic: easy access to money and other resources fueled social and cultural experimentation, while an ethos that valued freedom and pleasure encouraged people’s sense of entitlement to all sorts of goods, economic and political…With a fifty-dollar-a-month rent-regulated East Village apartment, I could write one lucrative article for a mainstream magazine and support myself for weeks or even months while I did what I liked, whether that meant writing for countercultural publications that couldn’t pay or going to political meetings. When I did have jobs, I didn’t worry overmuch about losing them, and so felt no impulse, let alone need, to kiss anyone’s ass. There was always another job, or another assignment. At one point, while I was living with a group of people in Colorado, the money I made writing (sporadically) about rock for the New Yorker was supporting my entire household.
Since the early ’70s, however, the symbiosis has been working in reverse: a steady decline in Americans’ standard of living has fed political and cultural conservatism, and vice versa. Just as the widespread affluence of the post–World War II era was the product of deliberate social policy—an alliance of business, labor, and government aimed at stabilizing the economy and building a solid, patriotic middle class as a bulwark against Soviet Communism and domestic radicalism—the waning of affluence has reflected the resolve of capital to break away from this constraining alliance.
The lack of honest reporting on fun, mass experience seems lost in outdated discourse about authenticity. The question, “How can you enjoy Coachella when it’s something so fake?,” seems to guide the media’s coverage. But even Woodstock, the original festival experience, was a corporate one. As New Yorker critic Ellen Willis wrote in her 1969 coverage, it was spun by publicists as an utopian achievement of the youth counterculture to conceal the reality of its logistical breakdowns and lack of proper plumbing. Just like at Coachella, where reporters describe the crowd’s ADHD attitude toward performers as if it’s the decay of civilization, Willis noted that at Woodstock the music “was not the focal point of the festival but, rather, a pleasant background to the mass presence of the hip community.”
As commentator, Willis was unique in her ability to navigate the space between skeptic and participant: “[T]he most exhilarating intoxicants were the warmth and fellow-feeling that allowed us to abandon our chronic defenses against other people,” she wrote. That abandonment of distance and separation from physical fun that’s now a prerequisite of belonging to today’s prudish media subculture did not de-legitimize Willis’s report; it enhanced it.
“It was the best, the worst, the most enlightening, the most bewildering of times. Feminism intensified my utopian sexual imagination, made me desperate to get what I really wanted, not “after the revolution” but now—even as it intensified my skepticism, chilling me with awareness of how deeply relations between the sexes were corrupted and, ultimately, calling into question the very nature of my images of desire. For my sexual fantasies were permeated with the iconography of masculine-feminine, seduction-surrender, were above all centered on the union of male and female genitals as the transcendent aim of sex (not, surely not, one form of joining among others). Why did I want “what I really wanted,” and did I really want it? And—oh, shit, forget about utopia— what were the chances of steering some sort of livable path between schizophrenia (or amnesia) and kill-joy self-consciousness in bed?”—Book Forum reprinted one of my favorite EW pieces, “Coming Down Again,” reprinted in “The Essential Ellen Willis”! (via mamonee)
“This tension between intellectual work and economic survival is thoroughly mundane and generally taken for granted by those who negotiate it every day; but to look at the history of the past thirty years or so is to be struck by the degree to which the social, cultural, and political trajectory of American life is bound up with this most ordinary of conflicts. During that time, the conditions of intellectual work have radically changed, as a culture operating on the assumption of continuing—indeed increasing—abundance has given way to a culture of austerity.”—From the first paragraph of “Intellectual Work in the Culture of Austerity,” a little-read but highly relevant Ellen Willis essay from 1999. I immediately thought of this piece when I heard about the new book “MFA vs. NYC,” a new essay collection about the different ways writers make and will make money.
The organized left, which should have known better, acted as if the way to change American society was for each person individually to renounce the family, material comfort, and social respectability. That most people were doing no such thing was glibly attributed to sexual repression, greed, and/or “brainwashing” by the mass media—the implication being that radicals and bohemians were sexier, smarter, less corrupt, and generally more terrific than everyone else.
Actually, what they mostly were was younger and more privileged; it was easy to be a self-righteous antimaterialist if you had never known anxiety about money; easy to sneer at the security of marriage if you had solicitous middle-class parents; easy, if you were twenty years old and childless, to blame those parents for the ills of the world. Not that radicals were wrong in believing that a sexually free, communal society was incompatible with capitalism, or in perceiving connections between sexual repression, obsessive concern with material goods, and social conformity. But they did not understand that, psychology aside, most people submit to the power of institutions because they suffer unpleasant consequences if they don’t.
”—a bit of Willis realtalk on the sixties hippies, from “The Family: Love It or Leave It,” Village Voice, 1979.
“In reducing rock-and-roll to its harshest essentials, the new wave took Lou Reed’s aesthete-punk conceit to a place he never intended. For the Velvets the aesthete-punk stance was a way of surviving in a world that was out to kill you; the point was not to glorify the punk, or even to say fuck you to the world, but to be honest about the strategies people adopt in a desperate situation. The Velvets were not nihilists but moralists. In their universe nihilism regularly appears as a vivid but unholy temptation, love and its attendant vulnerability as scary and poignant imperatives. Though Lou Reed rejected optimism, he was enough of his time to crave transcendence. And finally—as “Rock & Roll” makes explicit—the Velvets’ use of a mass art form was a metaphor for transcendence, for connection, for resistance to solipsism and despair.”—These sentences, from Ellen Willis’ essay “The Velvet Underground,” are exactly how I want to remember Lou Reed. The piece originally appeared in Greil Marcus’ ‘Stranded’ collection, but is reprinted in ‘Out of the Vinyl Deeps,’ the anthology of Willis’ music criticism edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz. (via judyxberman)
It was Reed who defined the band’s sensibility, embodied its contradictions. He was a romantic alienated bohemian and an antiromantic pop ironist, a middle-class Jewish kid from Brooklyn who came on like a streetwise punk in tight jeans and shades, a classical piano student turned rock and roller, Bob Dylan-cum-Nelson Algren-cum-Jean Genet. He talked his songs in an expressive semi-mumble that made you think of James Dean without the naiveté.
Not that Lou did not display his own kind of innocence. His songs hinted, when you least expected it, that underneath the meanness and paranoia, the affectless brutality that smothered pain, there was after all the possibility of love.
My issue with the video isn’t that naked women are inappropriate. It’s that featuring naked models and clothed men in party mode is … boring. Uninventive. Slightly alienating. But when I also considered the lyrics, which are about a woman who doesn’t want to admit she really wants it, I started to feel icky about this song’s presence on my summer playlist. Culture writer Julianne Escobedo Shepherd tweeted, “i predict ‘Blurred Lines’ will be huge among the drunk-dads-at-weddings set for years to come.” Channeling that apologetic-drunk-married-guy vibe, Thicke explained, “it was actually the director’s idea, Diane Martel,” as if it’s impossible for anything directed by a woman to be sexist. “I had mentioned to her that I wanted to do a very funny and silly video. … And she said, ‘well, what if we have the girls take their clothes off?’”
Funny! Silly! Except if you’re a woman who is not really offended, per se, but certainly kind of annoyed at the lazy trope of prancing, naked female bodies. This, as Anupa Mistry said in a roundtable of women critics discussing Kanye West’s Yeezus, “is the kind of tiresome racist, sexist shit that really dumbs down otherwise good songs.” I want to like popular music. I want to participate in it. But paradoxically, in order to consume and enjoy it, I often have to disengage from lyrics or accompanying videos. Or, at the very least, think about them separately. Compartmentalize.
“Feminism and gay liberation have already seriously weakened marriage as a transmission belt of patriarchal, religious values; conferring the legitimacy of marriage on homosexual relations will introduce an implicit revolt against the institution into its very heart, further promoting the democratization and secularization of personal and sexual life.”—
“Music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated — as good rock ’n’ roll did — challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation.”—
Feels like fate that I read this part of Out of the Vinyl Deeps the morning before listening to Yeezus for the first time.
“It was only when I was working on a book investigating what it means to have, and to be, an only child that I realized how many of the writers I revere had only children themselves. Alongside Sontag: Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Margaret Atwood, Ellen Willis, and more. Someone once asked Alice Walker if women (well, female artists) should have children. She replied, “They should have children—assuming this is of interest to them—but only one.” Why? “Because with one you can move,” she said. “With more than one you’re a sitting duck.””—#singletonpride. (via theothernwa)
One, rad feminists of the 1960s and 1970s did not all look alike. That cliched Norman Mailer-esque view overlooks the fact that it’s war-paint makeup and girdles that cause women to look like clones, not going au naturel. I get so sick of people saying rad fems were not beautiful — have they ever seen pictures of the young Ellen Willis, Shulamith Firestone, or Jill Johnston? How about Michele Wallace when she wrote “Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman?” Hot!! I’d burn my bra for any of them.
Two, if Dowd thinks that only non-feminists like “Desperate Housewives” clothing — i.e. sexy retro duds — then she’s never met Carol Queen. Or Nellie McKay. Or these ladies.
For someone with fewer family demands than Sandberg, freedom is depicted not as a pleasure but a problem to be resolved by getting a family. The single woman goes out to a bar goes not to have fun or be with friends (the main reason most women I know attend a bar), but to find a husband with whom to procreate. “My coworkers should understand that I need to go to a party tonight…because going to a party is the only way I might meet someone and start a family!” Astonishingly for a book published in 2013, there are no self-identified lesbians, gay men, or even intentionally unmarried or child-free people in Lean In’s vision of the workplace. It’s not clear why Sandberg thinks that everyone should be in the business of getting a family, since the book argues that family gets in the way of work. But it seems that Sandberg can only imagine the dreaded “leaning back” as a product of family demands. Who would take a vacation voluntarily?
Has definite Ellen Willis-like pleasure politics vibes.
“Besides, most people made endless assumptions about married couples and treated them accordingly; it wasn’t so easy to get married and pretend you weren’t.”—My mother, summing up my feelings about matrimony 5 years before I was born. (From “The Family: Love It Or Leave It,” included in the forthcoming collection!)
“Under present conditions, people are preoccupied with consumer goods not because they are brainwashed but because buying is the one pleasurable activity not only permitted but actively encouraged by our rulers.”—Ellen Willis
“For a year I cut myself off from men altogether. Perhaps I had to plunge so deeply into the negative side of my ambivalence in order to say good-bye to it, or try to. When I began to be with someone again it was a bit like moving to a strange country. In the intervening years aloneness had become my norm, my taken-for-granted context. And yet those same years had changed my sense of myself, of men, of the ground rules for relationships, making it impossible to simply pick up where I left off.”—Ellen Willis, “Escape from New York” (via rightnow-forever)
It’s my mom Ellen Willis’ birthday today. She would have been 71. Every year, I figure the best way of honoring her is to read my favorite pieces she’s written—things that push me to consider every moment of my life, and to fit together cultural forces like puzzle pieces. Here’s what I’m reading this year: