By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Like Mary McCarthy before them, Kael and Sontag presumed to an authority that was routinely thought of as a masculine prerogative. If they have been more praised and reviled than their male counterparts, this isn’t simply because their work was better at capturing the joys of Jean-Luc Godard or modern styles of eroticism; the fact of their being women induced a protracted frisson in an America that has always found it easy to find the bitch lurking in the goddess. Raised in an era of two-fisted male dominance, they became anomalously famous, not least because they spent decades struggling against conventional womanhood, both in their personal lives — Kael had a daughter by a gay man, while Sontag, after an early marriage, settled into lesbianism — and, more important, in their writing.
Although Kael once declared that she consciously wrote as a woman (down to the bitchiness, Seligman quotes her as saying), the woman in question would have to be someone like Ma Barker. Brash, intensely personal, and drawn to vulgarity and violence — she loved “the visceral poetry of pulp” — Kael may have viewed life through the prism of a woman’s experience, but she always made a point of having the biggest balls in the room. When she hit The New Yorker in the ’60s, she gave that genteel magazine a saving jolt of cockiness — Mailer couldn’t have offered more swagger — and her whole approach to movies smacked of the womanizer who genuinely loves women but none for very long. Taking pride in never seeing a film more than once, let alone revising her opinion of it, she treated moviegoing like a series of one-night stands (as David Thomson shrewdly notes in the current Atlantic Monthly). She was fond of cinematic bullyboys like John Huston and Sam Peckinpah because, in her way, she was one. She fostered a small army of male acolytes who became known not as “Kaelites” but were given the sexually insulting moniker “Paulettes” by her rivals.
If Kael was the wisecracking Howard Hawks heroine who wasn’t just one of the guys but their leader, Sontag has always come off as something of an intellectual Ice Queen, detached, impersonal, Olympian. In her younger years, she looked like a sexy European actress, perhaps the brunette sister of Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour. Has any critic ever been more photogenic? But while her remote glamour promised a hidden reservoir of sensuality (one read her essay on the pornographic imagination not a little pruriently), her work emphatically did not. It strove toward the impersonality famously championed by such modernists as Flaubert and Joyce. Sontag was a woman critic, sure, but one who took pains to make her criticism transcend gender. And I do mean pains. Whether boosting the ’60s avant-garde or celebrating the timeless values of great art, Sontag has always been as achingly self-serious as a Tarkovsky retrospective. If she ever caught herself laughing at a movie like Dumb and Dumber, one suspects she’d splinter like a block of dry ice smacked with a hammer.
Both were experienced enough to appreciate the women’s movement — Kael once compared a woman writing for Playboy to a Jew writing for a Nazi paper — yet they were also independent enough to find something insulting in the idea that they personally would need it. Indeed, Kael had the self-made woman’s irritation with those who complained of victimization. When the original Stepford Wives came out, she dubbed it “the first women’s lib gothic,” complaining that if modern women turn into robotized creatures who emulate commercials, they do it to themselves.
Maybe so, but I wonder how Sontag and Kael would be different if they’d come to intellectual prominence not in the 1960s, when the culture pulsed with a feeling of liberation, but in our anti-feminist backlash days, when 8-year-old girls are already obeying the status dictates of commercial fashion, 12-year-old girls “hook up” to fellate boys who offer nothing in return, and a show like Good Girls Don’t boasts a premiere titled “My Roommate Is a Big Fat Slut.” I suspect they’d never stop wanting to scream.
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