Third wave, or sex-positive feminism, has two dads and one stepmom. The stepmom is Camille Paglia, the writer who redefined feminism for the 1990’s. Not ivory tower feminism, of course, and academics-establishment types will never give her the full credit. Second wave feminism, as RS McCaine argued, albeit I can’t find the exact quote, was a reaction against the sexual revolution and the liberal men. It made personal political and deemed all sex a rape. What was new about the third wave? The idea that women derive power from sex and the aestheticism. Those ideas are Paglia’s. It was Paglia who spoke to the masses, it was Paglia who made most sense.
Paglia was hugely influenced by David Bowie, something she talked about at length after his passing:
Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period in the early 1970s had a staggering influence on me. I had been writing about androgyny in literature and art in my term papers in college and grad school, so Bowie’s daring experiments seemed like the living embodiment of everything I had been thinking about. It’s hard to believe now, but when I submitted the prospectus for Sexual Personae in 1971, it was the only dissertation about sex in the entire Yale Graduate School. I completed it in 1974, while I was teaching at my first job at Bennington College in Vermont. One of the supreme moments of my life as a student of culture occurred in October 1973, as I was watching NBC’s “Midnight Special” in my apartment in Bennington. It was a taping from London of “The 1980 Floor Show,” Bowie’s last appearance as Ziggy Stardust—a program oddly never broadcast in the U.K. Bowie looked absolutely ravishing! A bold, knowing, charismatic creature neither male nor female wearing a bewitching costume straight out of the Surrealist art shows of the Parisian 1930s: a seductive black fish-net body suit with attached glittery plaster mannequin’s hands (with black nail polish) lewdly functioning as a brassiere. I instantly realized that Bowie had absorbed the gender games of Andy Warhol’s early short films, above all “Harlot,” with its glamorous, sultry drag queen (Mario Montez). Hence I viewed Bowie, who became one of the foundational creators of performance art, as having taken the next major step past Warhol in art history. I never dreamed that someday I would see that brilliant fish-net costume inches away in a display case at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, where I was lucky enough to catch the V&A’s Bowie costume show two years ago. It was a sacred epiphany, like seeing a splinter from the True Cross.
The two Bowie albums that had the biggest impact on me were Aladdin Sane (1973) and Young Americans (1975). Bowie’s haunting, hypnotic “Lady Grinning Soul,” with its rippling, rhapsodic piano work by Mike Garson, is a masterpiece of art-rock. My own highly controversial view of women in the expanded version of Sexual Personae(published by Yale Press in 1990) can really be seen as an epic extrapolation of “Lady Grinning Soul.” That song reaffirmed everything I had intuited about mythological woman from all kinds of sources—from classic Hollywood movies to the masterpieces of the Louvre! Then there’s “Fascination” (on Young Americans), which Bowie co-wrote with Luther Vandross and recorded in Philadelphia. As I wrote in my essay for the V&A, this gospel/funk anthem is Bowie’s artistic manifesto, the closest we may ever come to a glimpse of his creative process, both passionate and agonized. Yes, passion—emotion! Because that is what separates the great Bowie from all those sterile postmodernist appropriators, with their tittering irony. Bowie drew titanic power from his deep wells of emotion. Plus as a mime artist, he was a dancer, grounded in the body. He never stupidly based gender in language alone—like all those nerdy post-structuralist nudniks who infest academe. Who the hell needed Foucault for gender studies when we already had a genius like Bowie?
Bowie loved Paglia back, naming Sexual Personae one of his favorite books of all time.
Bowie’s aesthetic sensibility resonated throughout feminist circles. He is probably the single greatest influence on post-Punk in all of its forms, including feminist riot grrrls. Riot grrrl bands came in full force in the early 90’s; they married the standard-issue feminist message to a space oddity of female sexuality. In their genre, the stage show is the most important part of musicianship, and their personaes have to be reaffirmed in every performance, Bowie-style, with a collage of glitter, striptease, lesbianism and profanity of the most hard core punk variety. Their shtick is that on one hand they are reclaiming girliness, on the other — they are tough, so tough. Ironically their oh-so-empowering storm of the male-dominated music industry took place post-AIDS when the rock-n-roll scene was sufficiently tamed by the disease.
Beyond riot grrrls, when young women urge each other to grow arm pit hair and dust it with glitter, they are trying to think like Bowie. When they parade down the streets of our cities in nothing but bras and panties, allegedly protesting unwanted attention, they are channeling Bowie in a fishnet bodysuit. If by no means conventionally good-looking Bowie fashioned himself into a sex symbol through sheer will, then they too are beautiful. You might think SlutWalks are a dorkfest, but the gals think they are in an 80’s music video.
In literature (well, autobiography) and cinema there are the likes of Elizabeth Wutzel and Lena Dunham who are also working within this particular tradition that Bowie sired. They are the foul-mouthed glitter girls ready to spread their legs for anyone sufficiently well-versed in inner workings of their subculture: Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am! And I bet they have this and a few other Bowie songs committed to heart.
It should be noted that grrrls’ own invention was to throw the images of strong and healthy pre-pubescent girls into the sexualized Bowiesque mix. If Lena Dunham didn’t found it very easy to tell us how she molested her younger sister, it’s probably because she saw images of innocence juxtaposed against sexual deviancy all her life. Not saying that grrrls approved of Dunham’s behavior.
This is all terribly ironic considering the circumstances of Bowie’s death, as noted by Brendan O’Neill:
[…]I want to pay tribute to another of Bowie’s feats, which strikes me as quite extraordinary: the fact that he kept his cancer private, or ‘secret’, as the press insists, for 18 months. This, more than anything, has blown me away today. In this era of too much information, when over-sharing is virtually mandatory, Bowie’s decision to suffer away from the limelight, among those closest to him, appears almost as a Herculean achievement.
As if beneath all his masks and extravagances the real David Bowie was a private person. To Bowie personal wasn’t political. He lived his life as if it was a piece of art and kept away from politics. As a person he remained an enigma.
The second father of third wave feminism was Bill Clinton whose affairs forced the most doctrinaire of feminists to concede that men and women have sexual appetites. Otherwise mattress girls would have been running around college campuses twenty years ago.
So there it is: a dissident feminist, a closet heterosexual (as Bowie once referred to himself) and the most powerful man on Earth gave us the current reincarnation of women’s movement. I leave you, my friends, with Suffragette City. I have no idea what the song means, not sure Bowie himself knew, but it’s one of his best and it seems fitting for the occasion: