Drama Queens: Elizabeth Taylor, Camille Paglia, and the Purposes of Female Power

Julie Ponzi

March 1, 2011

The passing of Elizabeth Taylor last week was overshadowed by dramatic events and—unlike the passing of her friend, Michael Jackson—did not, itself, become a dramatic event. Tsunami-ravaged Japan, a new war in the Middle East, and a Congress on the verge of another government shut-down all conspired to eclipse the already waning public interest in the passing of an aged Hollywood icon. It was a sad, but also a fitting, kind of cosmic commentary on Taylor’s life—the dramatic events of which also tended to over-shadow her essence.

Cosmic or not, this message did not dissuade Camille Paglia from hitting the pages of Slate Magazine to offer Taylor up—an echo of an essay in her book Sex, Art and American Culture—as a female archetype superior to that now promoted by Hollywood as the epitome of female power. As far as that goes, Paglia is right. Today’s emaciated boy-woman, taking on similarly androgynous or metro-sexual men, does not inspire anything more enduring than occasional titillation. She is not erotic—not a thing to inspire lingering desire. There is something to Paglia’s suggestion that Taylor—and not just because of her curvy and more natural form—offered a more womanly and, even, “maternal” allure. To Paglia, Taylor’s self-conscious embrace of her femininity makes her more interesting than, say, a Gwyneth Paltrow, whom Paglia points out, would have been considered little more than an awkward and gangly wallflower in the 1930s.

Paglia’s insights into popular culture are fascinating in much the same way that Taylor once must have been. Her writing is more compelling than the milquetoast offerings of blasé sociologists recycling familiar tropes about the female place in the power structure and the constructs keeping her down; but Paglia—like Taylor—is always three steps shy of anything eternal or enduring. Paglia strives to distinguish her brand of self-consciously “feminine” feminism from today’s brand of clichéd anti-female feminists. Yet she betrays her own disdain for things feminine by refusing to embrace the natural ends or purposes of female power. For Paglia, as for all those who reject natural right and a teleology guided by it, power is an end in itself. It does not occur to Paglia to question the purposes of female power… which may be, I’d hasten to add, why when praising Taylor’s “maternal” instincts she is merely talking about Taylor’s “maternal” caring for Richard Burton! She does not bother to mention Taylor’s actual children.

Paglia describes Taylor as a “luscious, opulent, ripe fruit” and, when queried by Slate to suggest an illustration for her interview on Taylor, she knew exactly what she had in mind. Note her choice and the reason offered for it:

Slate: “You famously collected 599 photos of Elizabeth Taylor when you were a teenager. Which one should we use to illustrate this interview?”

Paglia: “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.” (Emphasis mine.)

It would have been more accurate to say that the picture heralded and promised the doom of the sexual revolution right from the start. “Luscious, opulent, and ripe” things are not only rare; they have a short shelf-life. Taylor set the standard for what the mid-twentieth century male desired and demanded; and it was wildly unrealistic. In so doing, Taylor made it impossible for this male to appreciate either a good woman or a woman styled along Taylor’s lines if he happened to get one. How many women could mimic the kind of thing Taylor portrayed and actually carry it off? Taylor, after all, though a fabulous (if sometimes underappreciated) actress, could not herself carry on the act. Much to Paglia’s consternation, and despite her protestations of the philistinism of today’s youth, Taylor did become little more than “Michael Jackson’s friend” and that “old lady in the wheelchair.”

Whatever Taylor once was, it is now completely lost on a new generation (one that, ironically, Taylor helped to create). Erotic things remain erotic only when they maintain an air of the private—the inside joke or the shared wink and nod. Elizabeth Taylor, in that sense, was the opposite of erotic. She was like an awkward little girl who flowers before her time. Given a powerful sexual scepter, she lacked any conception of how to wield it or what her power was meant to protect. And maybe that explains the attraction between Taylor and male homosexuals, who may be said to exhibit another form of squandered sexual potential. For Taylor, everything was all so over-the-top: the jewelry, the hair, the clothes, the marriages, the affairs, the divorces, the medical dramas. Taylor’s fire was not one that smoldered; it was more about burning hard and burning out.

I always saw Taylor more as “over-ripe” than ripe. The exception to this rule is, of course, in National Velvet. Here, a naïve and youthful vigor bursts from her every pore. Her eyes flash with expectation and the promise of a female power she as yet neither suspects in herself nor understands. Because of her innocence, every instinct of the good man seeks to guide and protect her. (Mickey Rooney casts away red-faced glances in a manner I still find it impossible to attribute to good acting.) National Velvet shows us a longing in the young Taylor that would eventually consume her, and consume even the desire it evoked in others.

As time passed, nothing was kept in reserve. I am told that William F. Buckley said of Taylor that any relationship between her and self-control was “purely coincidental.” And that, if true, demonstrates again an interesting common thread in Paglia’s and the more banal kind of feminism she decries. For both camps, female power is only about exerting control over others. The end is no ideal of happiness or greater human fulfillment; it is simply the power to manipulate others according to one’s own whims.

One wonders then: was it ironic or was it fitting that Taylor, when playing the part of Cleopatra alongside of the man said to be the great love of her life, inspired near universal panning from the critics? The performance falls flat and—not unlike the actual story of Cleopatra—ends in bitter disappointment. Does it show Taylor’s inability to live up to a Shakespearean erotic ideal or does it, merely, demonstrate (in four painful hours) the impossibility of becoming one’s own goddess? A true goddess has no need for self-control, but a mere mortal playing goddess may find that high drama creeps in when she proves unable to control others or the events around her. Circumstances such as these consume a would-be seductress or goddess, and they expose her as little more than a run-of-the-mill drama queen.

Taylor’s dramatic turns were naked expositions. Yet she put more than her body up on the auction block: she marketed her soul. Everything about her was exposed in raw and naked form and offered for public consumption. As Paglia triumphantly notes, Taylor couldn’t even have a tracheotomy in way that most people would consider dignified and private! Paglia delights in the drama that abounded in Taylor’s life. But is that kind of drama really erotic?

Taylor never cultivated an air of mystery, at least not before she grew old and unattractive. Then, latching on to the faux “recluse” and man of mystery named Michael Jackson; she invited wild speculation and paparazzi-manufactured rumor about their friendship. So consuming was Taylor’s desire to be admired and petted that she allowed herself, in old age, to become a laughing stock through marriages that were obviously more to the convenience of the young men who were using her (and her fortune) than adoring her.

Paglia misses the central fact of Elizabeth Taylor’s existence: Taylor existed to be adored. She had more desire for this than she could ever inspire in others. This was the longing bursting from her pores in National Velvet. Yet by striving to control this adoration and refusing to understand its limits and purposes, she failed to acquire the real thing. Because she lacked the discipline to fully give herself to any one man, she could not become, in the fullest sense, a real woman. She had so many of the accoutrements of womanhood—but she remained a girl to the end.

Of course, it is possible that Taylor did have some sort of deep inner life that was not revealed to the public. Still, the archetype Paglia reveres left almost no one (save, maybe, Paglia) desperate to find out.

Unlike Paglia, I don’t think of Taylor’s life as interesting or erotic. I think of it as profoundly sad and embarrassing. When I think of Elizabeth Taylor, I think of saturation. Taylor, maybe more than anyone else, unwittingly shaped today’s archetype—the one which Paglia rightly deplores.

It is no wonder that the post-sexual rebellion world now bores Paglia. Absent the impossible and dramatic tension between convention and unlicensed nature, life becomes flat. The phony “Pilates-honed” tautness that Hollywood now manufactures alongside of pathetic personal dramas is offered in lieu of any real meaning or eroticism.

Julie Ponzi, a graduate of the Ashbrook Scholar Program, is a former professor of American Politics and, now, a stay-at-home mom. She is also a Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and a regular contributor to the Ashbrook Center’s blog, No Left Turns.