September 19, 2020

The feminist Susan Sontag against Norman Mailer | Ideas

The feminist Susan Sontag against Norman Mailer | Ideas


It is difficult to overlook to what extent what it has been written about Susan Sontag it has to do with its appearance. Even the most serious essays about her usually include some commentary on her physique. The rivers of ink can be summarized as follows: it was exceptionally attractive. But I think he had a more complicated relationship with the beauty of what the observers' admiration and the beauty of his photographs suggest. Your notebooks they are full of exhortations to themselves to bathe more; her contemporaries pointed out that she often looked disheveled, with her hair pulled back from her face, but not combed, loose. He even showed up on television; in an interview, her disheveled hair and lack of makeup contrast vividly with the careful short hair of film director Agnès Varda.

Many of the intellectuals in New York saw with revulsion the furious, chaotic energy of the feminist movement of the seventies

Sontag always dressed in black, the strategy of those who do not want to spend time thinking about what to wear. At older age, they say that she liked to lift her skirt and show her surgical scars. Although attractive people often have the privilege of not having to worry about their appearance, there was something in Sontag's indifference that was genuine, unstudied. She liked that her physical appearance opened doors, but she was not willing to spend time with him.

Also from the beginning he was worried about the image that his publicists wanted to project from her. The photographs began to overwhelm her. A British publisher offered to release a limited edition of Against the interpretation with reproductions of Rauschenberg's photographs, but Sontag refused: "Is it one of those moments ultrachic -Ruschenberg and I- which is likely to end up appearing in Life and in Time that will confirm that image of me girl it, the new Mary McCarthy, the queen of McLuhanismo + camp, that I am trying to fight? ".

Luckily or unfortunately, Sontag's reluctance to be a it girl It did not work In his interviews he used to cite the occurrence of someone that Sontag was the "Natalie Wood of the American avant-garde." (…)

The literary career of Sontag had just taken off when second-wave feminism It began to gain strength in the late 1960s. As an organized movement, feminism had been in the habit of wintering for almost 40 years. The energy of the suffragettes had been crushed by the heels of the flappers, as historians saw: once the right to vote was obtained, younger women found it difficult to identify with the struggle of their ancestors. This meant that a female writer was no longer asked, as is almost usual today, whether or not she was a "feminist". Dorothy Parker and Rebecca West had made public their sympathies towards the suffrage movement, but feminists demanded little from them. Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt they had not had occasion to decide whether or not they would join, as writers, an organized feminist movement. There simply was none during most of their professional careers.

But by the early 1970s, when Sontag was becoming the most prominent intellectual woman in the entire United States, the women's liberation movement was in full boil, with marches, demonstrations and collectives emerging everywhere, especially in New York. . New York Radical Women, a collective formed by, among others, the critic and journalist Ellen Willis, was beginning to be known in the city. The awareness circles were the last cry. And little by little, as these debates began to dominate the media, he began to expect Sontag to declare his support for the movement.

The feminist Susan Sontag against Norman Mailer

Many of the intellectuals in New York saw with repulsion the furious, chaotic energy of the movement. They did not understand it For the most part they found it vulgar. And it is here where Sontag began to cultivate a vein of contestation not very different from that of that writer who "never interested her too much", Mary McCarthy. He adopted it with greater enthusiasm and freedom than almost any other member of the circle of Partisan Review Y The New York Review of Books.

The first time that Sontag spoke openly as a feminist was in 1971. She was part of a feminist panel at City Hall formed to stand up to Norman Mailer by a disdainful essay he had published in Harper's about the women's movement titled: 'The Prisoner of Sex' [prisionera del sexo]. Like a schoolboy, Mailer, 40, was still trying to get women's attention by insulting them. In the article she reviewed many of the great figures of the feminist movement whose degree of physical attractiveness she did not stop evaluating, while attacking and discrediting her ideas. For example, Kate Millett, a well-known feminist critic and author of Sexual Policy, said she was a "bored cow". Bella Abzug, a lawyer and congresswoman, was a "witch".

That night Sontag was not at the table, but among the audience. He stood up and asked Mailer a question. "Norman, the truth is that women, however willing we may be, your way of speaking is condescending," he said in a calm, almost amused tone, from someone who knows what he is talking about. "One of the reasons is that you use the term lady [señora]"He continued. "I do not like that they call me 'writer lady', Norman. I know that it seems gallant to you, but it does not sound good to us. We prefer woman [mujer] writer I do not know why, but you know that words matter, we are writers and we know those things. "

Later also Sontag gave an extensive interview to Vogue in which she insisted that she had felt discriminated against in her career as a writer. The interviewer tried to say that, until that night, she had had the impression that Sontag "shared Mailer's contempt for women as intellectuals". "Where did you get that idea? At least half of the smart people I've met are women. I could not be more sympathetic to women's problems or more furious about their situation. But anger is so old that I do not feel it on a day-to-day basis. I have the impression that it is the oldest story in the world. "

As if to reinforce his opinion, Sontag published an article in a short time Partisan Review originally thought for the then incipient magazine Ms. But the publication of Gloria Steinem had decided that Sontag's text was too didactic, so it was given to the "boys". They titled it 'The Third World of Women' [el tercer mundo de las mujeres]. Among the recommendations the article made to women was openly rebelling against patriarchy. "They should whistle men down the street, assault hairdressers, set up pickets in factories that make sexist toys, enlist en masse in the ranks of lesbianism, provide feminist counseling in divorces, found rehabilitation centers for women who want to stop putting on makeup, adopt the surname of their mothers. " His indignation seemed to exhaust itself in that article, which would be Sontag's only direct call to feminism in his intellectual writings.

Michelle Dean is a critic and journalist. This extract is part of your book 'Sharp. Women who made the opinion an art', Published in Spanish by the Turner publishing house on March 6. Translation by Laura Vidal.

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