Ricky Martin -- superstud or closet case?

The Rock Hudson PR Peter Meter is going off over the singing Latin heartthrob.

By Camille Paglia

Published May 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Dear Camille,

Surely one of the most exhilarating moments on television in recent history was Ricky Martin's live performance of "The Cup of Life" at the Grammy Awards in February, which seems to have left everyone who saw it shocked, turned on and wanting more. I think it will go down in history as the moment a star was born.

The Los Angeles Times says that "Even Madonna, known for generally being ahead of most pop culture curves, seemed caught off guard by Martin's explosive energy at his Grammy performance." Like the modern Cleopatra she is, she promptly sought an alliance with Martin, most likely the next major pop figure in the world. (His English-language CD was released Tuesday.)

There are very few important male pop stars, so Martin fills a very large void. George Michael may have been one of the last to make it to the heights of pop, and his rise occurred quite some time ago. Speaking of George Michael, have you noted the similarities between him and Martin -- most notably in their soft facial features and sensual body language? George Michael, as we now know, likes the company of men, but there has been no official word on Martin. What does your sexual intuition tell you? And if Martin were gay, and if it were to be publicly known, do you think it would have a negative effect on his career?

E. Simms

Dear E. Simms,

Partial credit for Ricky Martin's spectacular performance at the Grammys must go to the stage directors, who brilliantly used space and lighting to create a minimalist pyramidal design. This was television at its finest, with superb camera placement and shot selection in the production booth. Martin looked as if he were channeling thunderbolts from the top step of a murky, rain-lashed Mayan temple.

My first doubts about Martin began almost immediately when Grammy host Rosie O'Donnell -- that viper masquerading as a sunny populist -- made an affected demonstration about him before the echoes of his music had faded. O'Donnell's ostentatious enthusiasms are usually the kiss of death, just as her PC animosities (like her screechy rudeness on her talk show last week to guest Tom Selleck about his National Rifle Association ad) automatically create sympathy for her victims.

Martin's Grammy tour de force gave me momentary hope that current Latin music might produce another Desi Arnaz -- a sensual golden fox whom his children's home movies show was even more ebulliently attractive off-screen. But my partner, Alison, sounded an early warning about Martin as we watched him on a subsequent "Saturday Night Live," where he seemed stiff, nervous and off-kilter. "Something's not right," she said ominously. "No real men will ever respect a guy who moves his hips like that."

Since we are both longtime idolators of the hip-swiveling John Travolta of "Saturday Night Fever," "Grease" and "Urban Cowboy," I've been steadily pondering the Martin paradox. There's something uncontrolled and vaguely queeny about Martin's pelvic gyrations that wasn't part of the Dionysian tribal humping of the early, ecstatic Elvis Presley or the lascivious Tom Jones. There's also an unsettling disconnect between Martin's Latin body language and his WASPish, sanitized teeny-bopper persona, which would fit right in on "The Donna Reed Show."

Martin lacks the louche, brooding, seductive, heavy-lidded magnetism of men of the world from Cesar Romero and Ricardo Montalban to Julio Iglesias and Antonio Banderas, with their languid bedroom eyes. Alison says, "The great Latin lovers had something to offer women. Martin's stuck on himself. He just wants to dance alone." Martin's cutesy, plastered-on, Ken doll smile -- he seems to have only one facial expression -- gets boring very quickly.

Your evocation of the soulful George Michael (born Georgious Panayiotou) is compelling -- but to Martin's detriment. Michael's simmering inner conflicts and ethnic complexity showed through, while Martin seems to be wearing a brittle mask.

Whether or not Martin is gay or bisexual didn't concern me until I saw entertainment news footage of him posed on a couch and awkwardly embracing a delirious girl fan (winner of a meet-the-star contest). "What a lunk!" I said to myself. "This guy's in over his head." Hence I noted with interest the May 21 report by the New York Post's Page Six about an unnamed magazine's ferocious "internal debate" over whether its recent cover story should reveal the sexual orientation of a "closeted hunky pop star" who "regularly makes the rounds with boyfriends in South Beach." Martin was at that moment plastered on the cover of the May 24 Time, so it was hard to avoid thinking about him.

Would an admission of gayness hurt a young male singer's career? Of course it would: This junior Adonis type requires the electric charge produced by the mass projection of adolescent girls in erotic hysteria. Elton John, after his sham marriage, could afford to be openly gay because he caricatured himself as a sad-sack clown, crying through his sequins. Pretty boys, with their androgynous glow, have a more direct and dangerous sensual appeal. If Ricky Martin turned out to be just another buff gay clone, he'd cut himself off at the knees as an international artist. Current gay male culture is too shallow to provide the kind of psychological development that a performer needs.

The Rock Hudson PR Peter Meter suggests that panicky record-company execs are even now beating the bushes for a Martin gal pal to stop the rumor hemorrhage. What malleable princess will get the tiara? Stay tuned!

Dear Camille,

Everyone tells me that academe is a white old-boy network and that women and minorities are the victims of rampant discrimination. As a graduate student in the humanities at an Ivy League college, I find the opposite to be true. It seems like the so-called white men of my generation are fleeing the groves in droves -- or never majoring in the humanities at all. The only white "men" who remain are wimpy and effete, and spend all of their time apologizing in simpering, meek, little voices. The only real men -- that is, those with some backbone -- are African-American and Latino, who feel empowered by their history of victimhood and are encouraged to assert themselves. They have become courtiers in a culture dominated by upper-middle-class white women who are unwilling to tolerate assertive men, especially working-class men, who are not propped up by female patronage.

My question: How do we bring manliness -- particularly working-class machismo -- back to an academic culture dominated by upper-middle-class women without basing our self-assertion on victimhood and calls for class-based affirmative action? That is, begging for their patronage?

With great respect for your work and status as a cultural icon,

An old Philadelphia boy from Holmesburg now at Harvard University

Dear Philadelphia Boy,

Your cri de coeur comes to Salon from the damp dungeon of the academic establishment, where the air is as noxious and the creative options as limited as in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado." Sexual politics at your particular institution fell victim more than 15 years ago to the affirmative action juggernaut, which helped besmirch feminism with hurry-up hires and overgenerous promotion-by-gonad.

Heaven help the poor white boy who dreamed of a career in literary studies during the PC decades! The slow sinking in prestige of the humanities is a direct result of the shameless politicization of the academic recruitment process, which is driven by hidden quotas and fagged-out leftist-liberal ideology. At this point, it's fairly obvious to most outside observers that the leading campus feminists are overpaid, jabbering mynah birds grooming each other's feathers and frantically hopping from perch to perch looking for new subjects to poop on.

The anti-male trend you lament began in state universities in the 1970s with the first appearance of autocratic women's studies programs and spread to campuses nationwide in the 1980s. In the 1990s, as you vividly describe, the situation is disastrous. Any young white man who would challenge the prevailing orthodoxies either avoids the humanities altogether or wisely keeps his mouth shut if he hopes to survive professionally in a time of diminishing job opportunities. Graduate students are forced to play a sycophantic, careerist game that has perpetuated the tyranny of the tenured.

The pivotal point in institutionalizing feminist negativity toward men was probably Kate Millett's "Sexual Politics" (1970), a Columbia University dissertation that used a Stalinist prosecutorial style to trash major male writers and convict them of sexist sins against humanity. Millett revived the Puritan or fundamentalist genre of criticism-as-moral-rant: She is the sullen Muse of all those lemming reductionists who treat the artwork as a dead wall to deface with their griping graffiti of "racist," "sexist," "homophobic" and so on.

As a grad student then systematically searching the university libraries for changing definitions of male and female in world history, I found Millett's book stilted, tendentious and inept. When its preposterous claims were brought to wide attention in a splashy Time cover story, the book disgraced the nascent women's movement in the eyes of older, reputable scholars. And it instantly drove away from feminism every intelligent, ambitious young woman I knew. One of the struggles of my career has been to cut the Millett millstone from feminism's neck -- to restore respect for men and respect for art to feminist thinking.

One reason I was so quickly and permanently ostracized by feminist insiders was that the gender book I loudly exalted over Millett's was anthropologist Lionel Tiger's "Men in Groups" (1969), whose provocative thesis about the social centrality of "male bonding" was confirmed by everything I was unearthing in the historical record. The vicious feminist attack on Tiger for that fine book should be fully investigated and documented someday to show just how crazily askew second-wave feminism veered, with its hostility to biological science and objective fact. Tiger has returned in force with a new book, "The Decline of Males," whose sharp insights can now be appreciated without interference from those fading satraps of the Feminist Empire like Gloria Steinem.

You ask how "manliness" and "working-class machismo" can be restored to academe. Alas, the humanities departments have become feminine ghettos where balls must be checked at the door. First of all, if gay male academics would just junk their pitiful credulity about phony-baloney Michel Foucault and get back to examining their own fractured psyches, the return of maleness might stand a chance.

Second, the masculine will not be redeemed until lit profs wake up from their hoodwinking by radically social-constructionist gender theorists like Eve Kosofksy Sedgwick and Judith Butler -- ill-informed, soggy sentimentalists who are constantly credited for "original" ideas that didn't begin with them. Gender as performance, for example, wasn't first proposed by Butler: It was lavishly argued in book after book from the early 1960s on by a major figure she carefully ignores, the pioneering sexologist Dr. John Money. Of course, Foucault himself freely cribbed from sociologist Erving Goffman, whose 1959 classic, "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life," was a big influence during my college years.

Third, we must blast open university campuses with more visits from men of affairs -- soldiers, engineers, agricultural economists, shipping tycoons and so on -- those who deal with the brute physicalities of the material world. There's far too much theorizing about gender on campus by cloistered middle-class academics infatuated with labyrinthine language but reluctant to confront confident, achieving men who don't conform to their condescending stereotype of the victimized proletariat.

The bunk quotient in academic writing has certainly skyrocketed over the past 20 years. My idea of scholarship was formed by superb books like L. Don Leet and Sheldon Judson's "Physical Geology" (originally published in 1954), whose beautifully produced third edition was the text of my introductory geology course in college. When Judson (a retired Princeton professor) recently died at 80, his May 21 obituary in the New York Times headlined his commitment to "geo-archeology" -- an exciting fusion of two of my favorite disciplines, geology and archeology.

"Physical Geology," which I still treasure, is a marvel of organization, condensation and illustration. Books like that made me want to be a scholar, to master the art of explaining difficult or esoteric subjects to a wide audience. Such books also gave me my disdain for the dishonest, fudged mush of poststructuralism, New Historicism and neo-Marxist cultural studies. The rigorous scholarly standards of Sheldon Judson and his distinguished generation of honorable, self-sacrificing male professors urgently need to be restored.

The elite humanities departments, which have trivialized art and rejected science, are in the doldrums. Their faculties have produced fewer and fewer books of major significance or impact. My world as a teacher is so different. Accepting his honorary degree last week at our commencement ceremony at the University of the Arts, Arthur Mitchell, the famous principal dancer of the New York City Ballet and founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, declared, "The arts ignite the mind!" His motto, he said, has always been, "Passion, power and perfection." That one fiery phrase melts all of Foucault to a dirty puddle.

Postscript: Ask Camille is going on summer hiatus (while I focus on book projects) and will return in September. However, I will be filing a "U.K. Diary" after the "Camille Does the Movies" festival at the National Film Theatre, which runs in London from June 2 to June 17. I will be introducing a number of the 13 films onstage and will also be accompanying a print of Ingmar Bergman's "Persona" to two regional cinemas, where I will lecture.

Forthcoming articles include my conversation with Ingrid Sischy about "apocalyptic" school violence in the July issue of Interview; my assessment of current feminism in the summer issue of Women: A Cultural Review; and my "Letter from Philadelphia" in a June issue of the Times Literary Supplement.

Finally, just as Cato the Elder ended every speech in the Roman Senate with "Carthago delenda est" ("Carthage must be destroyed"), so let me close this savage spring with the refrain "Stop the bombing in Yugoslavia!" Terror and destruction by air are no remedy for a massive failure in NATO diplomacy, and they grossly betray the highest values of the democratic West.

Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  Her most recent book is "Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars." You can email her at askcamille@salon.com.

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