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.
Willis was always five steps ahead of the oncoming Zeitgeist. Never afraid to take the counter, even contrary, position on politics and culture, Willis often — in retrospect — proved sibylline in her musings. In her 1973 essay “Hard to Swallow: Deep Throat,” she not only offered a feminist critique of the movie (she found it a “sexual depressant”), but called for a feminist pornography that would “go beyond gymnastics to explore the psychological and sexual nuances of sex.” It would be nine more years before the infamous Barnard Conference, which spawned the feminist sex wars between opponents of pornography and so-called pro-sex feminists, proclaimed the need for a public culture of women’s sex magazines and films. While some have admired Willis’s prescience here, no one has noted her suggestion that the model for this new feminist porn might be the newly emerging art form of gay-male porn such as Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour or Wakefield Poole’s Bijou. But, as usual, Willis couldn’t be easily pinned down. Sure, hardly any straight people were praising gay-male porn in the 1970s — and Willis had a great take on gay-male culture in general: she loved its unbridled embrace of popular culture — but she also complained that these examples of gay-male erotica were, well, “unbearably romantic.” Now that gay-male porn is as mass-produced, obsessed with screwing, and non-idiosyncratic as its heterosexual counterpart, Willis would probably shift her criticism.
Leafing through Willis’s books, I am reminded just how deftly she could dissect culture, how sharply satiric and just plain funny she could be. Her 1979 humor piece “Glossary for the Eighties” is a critique of “politically correctness” as a right-wing slur — before the term was actually invented. “SUPERSENSITIVE: in the habit of hearing insult and bigotry where none is intended; Jews are traditionally the worst offenders, being inclined to take constructive criticism like “Pale-faced Jew-boy, I wish you were dead” as evidence of anti-Semitism.” In “The Family: Love It or Leave It,” published the same year, she takes on the emergent religious right’s attack on non-traditional lifestyles. The essay is more pertinent now, during the fight for marriage equality, than it was 27 years ago. And her 1982 “Sisters Under the Skin” is a brilliant, sophisticated critique of both the white-feminist movement and its African-American critics, which points out, simply, that “insistence on the hierarchy of oppression never radicalizes people, because the impulse behind it is moralistic.” This captures yet another of Willis’s great strengths: saying clearly what others know but are afraid to say out loud.