Making sense of a woman who was always two or three steps ahead of the Zeitgeist
When I was a queer teenager in suburban New Jersey in the early 1960s, I decided that I wanted to be Susan Sontag. She was smart, in the center of New York’s intellectual circles, and had fabulous hair that matched her feline persona. It was only when I turned 20, in 1969, and began reading Ellen Willis that I found myself wanting to aim higher. For my developing countercultural tastes, journalist, cultural critic, and activist Willis had it all over Sontag. She was not just smart, but totally cued into popular culture: she was Rolling Stone, not New York Review of Books. She was not only intellectual but political — on-the-streets political. And she had fabulous hair — not old school, post-beatnik, New York–intellectual hair, but Bob Dylan, frizzed out, all-over-the-place hair.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH F-U-N?: Ellen Willis was as unpredictable as she was utopian in her musings on feminism, music, pop culture, and the left.
I am not usually shocked by obituaries, but when I read in the November 10 New York Times that Willis, 64, had died the day before I was shaken. It wasn’t her age that startled me — I’ve lived through the AIDS epidemic since 1980, and have nurtured friends and acquaintances of all ages through death. It was the shock of realizing that there would be no new Ellen Willis articles to read.
Willis and I were not friends — we met twice at conferences and I interviewed her once for the Boston Phoenix in 1999 — but she has had a profound effect on my growth as a thinker and writer for nearly four decades. She emerged from the New York–feminist scene in the mid 1960s — as one of the original Redstockings, a radical women’s collective that produced some of the finest political think pieces of the time — and began writing on music for fledgling ’60s rock publications such as Cheetah and Rolling Stone. Soon after, she began writing for more upscale venues like The New Yorker, and then became a fixture at the Village Voice.
Throughout the 1970s, week after week, I would devour her Voice articles. She was not as glamorous as Sontag, as viscerally potent as Hunter Thompson, or as perversely provocative as Norman Mailer, but for many of us on the countercultural left — from the anti-war and black-power movements, to second-wave feminism and gay liberation, to just plain old sex, drugs, and rock and roll — Willis was far more important. From countless angles, she railed away at what seemed the most important cultural and political question of the day: what gives us pleasure, how do we create pleasure, why is pleasure important to humans, and how does one defend pleasure in a consumer culture that fetishizes desire? With clarity of voice and thinking, she brought together wildly divergent skeins of politics and braided them into something that could be imagined, in some far-distant future, as common sense.
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