Camille Paglia is at it again! You have to appreciate the critic for still knowing how to cause a stir. That’s not easy to do these days.
Paglia has ignited the blogosphere with a profile on Lady Gaga claiming the starlet has “exhausted the sexual revolution,” among many other laments about the postmodern, or postpostmodern, star: her unorginality, her lack of soul, her relationship to technology, etc.
I won’t recap the article, which you can get in full and in excerpts all across Google. In general, I’ve found most criticisms of Lady Gaga, from MIA and Grace Jones to your random guy off the street, to be lacking. Either we don’t yet understand Gaga or can’t give her the benefit of the doubt. Either way, I’m not sure Paglia is contributing much to the discussion.
Yet Paglia has for awhile now, outside of Lady Gaga, lamented our changing sexual mores, comparing our current environment to Victorianism, a bourgeois acceptance of sexual propriety. She is on to something, though. But her tone is wrong. The Millennials have given up on the sexual revolution, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.
First of all, let’s be clear what I mean by Millennials. Most people accept the term as the generation who are now about 18-30, though it could extend in either direction, depending on the person. Like most generational definitions, though, it’s heavily based on class (and to a lesser extent race): like the Boomers and Gen Xers, we’re talking about the middle and upper middle class kids. (The Hippies of the 60/70s and the Punks/Losers of the early 90s were almost always middle class in their popular representations).
If we accept the term, and we don’t have to, but if we do, there’s anecdotal evidence of a kind of puritanism. Not a lot of evidence, mind you. But some. Millennials are, by and large, still faith-based, which leads to a perception that they have less sex. Abstinence clubs, spearheaded by parents, are supposedly common and — some think — mildly effective (I remain skeptical).
Among the gays, there’s the allure of marriage and increasing normalization — I hear it all the time among friends and on the web. The threat of HIV might be waning, but it’s enough of an issue to lead some to demand monogamy, even though plenty of gay relationships are open. The normalization of gay culture has been a years-long concern among the earlier generation of “radical queers,” who had lots of sex in the 1970s and but saw the tide change in the 1990s as gays went mainstream.
More importantly, Paglia is right that all these alleged trends are classed. Teen pregnancy is the United States is still the highest in the developed world. And HIV rates are starting to creep up again among gay youth, especially among young black men (and, no, it’s not the DL). Bareback sex, which some in the older generation still see as transgressive, is all over the amateur web sites and its stars. Who’s having sex and who’s not having sex?
Lady Gaga is the clearest example. Gaga’s videos show a noticeable disdain for sex, which she’s been quite open about in her interviews — tied loosely to her past bad relationships. In Bad Romance Gaga torches her would-be suitor and acts like a sex zombie for most of the video. Alejandro gives us an ice-cold Gaga in a sea of gay men as she is transformed from a cold widow to a religious martyr, sexless and soulless. Paparazzi transforms the star into a Metropolis like cyborg, rising from the ashes to kill her sexy lover.
Easy A, too, is a sexless film — literally. A commendable (and well-liked) follow-up to Mean Girls, Easy A is ultimately about how the act of having sex isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a big deal. Virginity is a virtue, saved because it can be; our heroine feels some pressure to have sex, but not much, and the entire school ends up hating the faux-skank. Emma Stone — who, God willing, will succeed where Lindsay Lohan failed — is sexy and racy as any young starlet, but ultimately just wants a man who’ll give her a hug. She is a modern day Christ, fake-sexing her way for our sins and desires, taking on the burden of social stigma so we can lie about how much sex we’re having. Because in the end we don’t want to have it.
Teen movies these days in general are safe compared to their eighties parents, or at least that’s the conventional wisdom. Fast Times feels transgressive compared to Juno. Fame (1980) is edgy fare compared to its sunny descendant, and films like Step Up are about as hardcore as an ABC Family sitcom.
I don’t buy the argument that the Millennials have less sex or care less about it. But I do think they think of sex differently.
The Boomers emerged from the Greatest Generation and the relative conservatism of the forties and fifties. Public and open displays of sex were considered transgressive, and they were necessary, given the social context.
But the revolution is long passed for the Millennials. Today there’s a lot more sex in movies and on television. Sex is easy to find online; we now even have very public displays of homemade sex on the web. Sexting is common among teens, for whatever reason.
Lady Gaga arrives at a time when refusing to be sexualized — setting herself up as the anti-Britney or Madonna — is transgressive. It isn’t “saying no” in a Victorian way, but opting for different forms of transgression, which is why Gaga encases herself in haute couture, mimics her on-air interviewers, wears meat dresses, and protests DADT dressed as a politician. She isn’t sexually available to men, either, despite wearing heels and bikinis (straight guys prefer Jessica Simpson-types). It’s a broader, more vague form of self-expression. Her statements are generally restricted to allowing herself to be “weird” and fight for your “rights,” emphasizing generational tropes about individuality and political activity: the irony of being both narcissistic and simultaneously joining en masse to work for Obama or fight anti-gay marriage laws (think of Facebook, you promote yourself but relentlessly engage with others).
Of course, there is something lost here. And no doubt some subsequent generation will bring back the Paglia-Warner days of sexual liberation. But in the current moment, Millennials don’t need a sexual revolution. They want something else: maybe a job, maybe fame, maybe validation or political progress. Whatever it is, I’m not sure it’s any less valid or important than a little hanky-panky.