Education, homosexuality, the media and pop culture

Readers write about academia and its disintegration, lesbians without personalities, Peter Pan syndrome among gay men and simpering nymphets of the Flockhart-Paltrow school.

By Camille Paglia

Published June 9, 2000 4:36PM (EDT)


As a gay male who would like to become a good thinker, I am despairing of finding a graduate program that isn't going to drag me through the nonsense you regularly deride in your column. I'm studying Roman Catholic theology -- a fine tradition that is currently falling on hard times after a brief revival -- but find most of the big theology schools aren't at all interested in tradition, only ideology.

I long for the education my older professors got (the old priests, that is) -- a good liberal arts seminary education, an incredibly broad graduate education in language, history, philosophy and theology. Unfortunately, I don't think it exists anymore -- creating an updated version would be a worthwhile challenge -- and I sure as hell don't want a doctorate in the "latest thing," which will surely be worthless in a year. One can only take so much play with language -- cleverness can really only go so far. Truly accurate analysis requires piles of knowledge, and most of what I've read is a lot of nothing.

I certainly have a lot to learn, but finding a place to learn it doesn't look promising. Catholic institutions are running scared because of the latest Vatican attempts at mind control, and most non-evangelical Protestant places are dissolving into a miasma of interreligious syncretism. That's not to say that authentic religious dialogue isn't a good thing, but I don't think any faith tradition, or any system of ideas, for that matter, is well-served by trying to combine it with others into a false unity. Most religions have points of contact with others, but in the end they are separate systems that can only be combined with a lot of inauthentic twisting.

--Bryan Cones

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I read what a reader of your column had to say about the surfeit and surplus of theory in American academia. While I find theory useful and exciting and have been particularly excited by the work of the Frankfurt school, I too, frankly, find the obsessive emphasis on theory in the olive groves of academe destructive to the study of literature.

I read recently that a university offers a course in "the epistemology of the anus" and I would like to know how such a course (which I am sure would be very cleverly done and interesting) could enlighten my reading of any text, save those which deal with the anus (I'm reasonably well read, and I haven't really come across details of the anus in any work I've read).

During a conversation with some theory-trippers a few years ago, I said that I still subscribed to the idea that literary criticism was an evaluative activity and that my favorite critics were George Steiner, Harold Bloom, Rene Wellek and Frank Kermode. I was made to feel that I was fascist, sexist, chauvinistic, homophobic, misogynist, misanthropic, a sort of "betrayer of the cause" being a post-colonial, postmodern, whatever-whatever individual.

When I pointed out that one reason I loved the work of these critics is that in their writing their passion for literature came across and that they themselves wrote in an elegant style (something none of the hyper-theoretical brigade quite achieve), I was told that these conditions of assessment were passi and that new radical grounds of assessment had to be used.

To what end? Liberating the world? Freeing the mind? Huh! I think theory of this overblown sort is a handy refuge for people who value their observations (and the importance of these observations) more than the texts themselves.

Hell, what can I know? I'm just a guy who likes Thomas Hardy, Neruda and Yevtushenko. But what use is that since I don't freak on the really important guys like Lacan, Lyotard and their offspring who flourish these days.

--Rohit Chopra

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I miss your reflections on academia. I am a young professor, and I already feel burnt out. I loved the idea of teaching bright young people and seeing their eyes and minds open through intellectual discourse. As a result of our misguided incorporation of critical thinking and self-esteem movements in education, I instead deal with smug young adults who seem to only know how to be critical without actually thinking and who need constant validation even when they are wrong. Is this why I got my Ph.D.?

I just ended my day by telling a student why a note from his mom does not constitute a valid excuse for missing an exam in my class. Unfortunately, like many other schools, my tenure decision primarily rests on student evaluations. It's a no-win situation, and I've decided to quit academia for a while. At least I'll get paid more for my grief in industry. I did not know that my job was to be a parent instead of an educator/scholar.

-- Name withheld by request

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I saw your [negative] reference to the Frankfurt School in your Western Civ piece the other day and figured this development must have come into vogue since I got out of grad school. So I cranked up my ferret and searched the Web for information about the Frankfurt School, hoping to get current.

What I got was Error 404s on the first five sites I tried to visit. So there it is: I'm not interested in any philosophy that can't keep its Web sites up. Now there's a comment on what's really happening with Western Civilization.

--Jay Lewis

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I enjoy leafing through the Oxford Classical Dictionary now and then -- and probably will continue doing so. I have always felt suspicious about the entries dealing with gender and sexuality, however. After reading your [negative] comments about Foucault, I was reminded of the dictionary's stress on his work (as well as on that of Lacan and Derrida).

My educational background is in literature, and I have struggled to free myself from the mire of deconstructionism. Studying old cultures has helped refresh my imagination, and the Oxford Classical Dictionary has been a part of that study.

I am sad that a volume of basic reference should be so impregnated with ideology, so preachy as the Oxford Classical Dictionary has become.

-- Name withheld by request

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While engineering school saved me from a ton of p.c. bullshit, it left some holes in my education. Why do you think it is that engineers are generally more interested in liberal arts than liberal arts majors are interested in engineering and technology? It seems to me that whenever I have a tech discussion with someone with a liberal education they seem to think it is all magic.

I think part of this is the fault of the colleges. For example, in engineering school, I had to take three sophomore liberal arts courses. Liberal arts majors have to take freshman math and science that doesn't even count towards an engineering degree.

--Jim Breed
Kansas City, Mo.

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In accordance with your suggestion that women study history rather than women's studies, I recommend Gen. Patton's speech before the third army during World War II. It should be required reading for all college students studying history and leadership. It's titled "The Speech Somewhere in England, June 5th, 1944."

--Gregg Hanke

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As a junior wonkette and history buff, I feel the lesson that women should be more involved in historical and military studies is not presented to my female schoolmates, or any other girls my age. I would love to see an entire column devoted to the rampant gender disproportion of women in history and political science classes in high school and college, and what should be done to fix it.

In addition, I'd like to point out one possible bright spot, the Model United Nations. It allows high school and college students to attend conferences, argue the position of a country (oftentimes a radical or even, God forbid, non-capitalist one) and attempt to reach a consensus with others. It's a truly great program, which illustrates not only bureaucratic and political frustration, but the art of oratory and politics itself.

--Jane Miller

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How long must we wait for good arts education? I regret to say that I received my B.A. in photography and cinema from the Ohio State University. The only good that came from that incredible waste of time and money is that the degree got me into law school.

I was at Ohio State between 1978 and 1981. I wanted to learn filmmaking; too bad. The professors were more interested in discussing the revolutionary importance of protesting the Contras in Nicaragua than in teaching us poor, stupid, unwashed undergraduates the fine points of filmmaking. They never gave us any kind of appreciation for the art of filmmaking.

What I did not notice is that there was a war raging between the old-school professors who had been with the Department of Photography and Cinema back in the days when it was part of the College of Engineering and the "new blood" they imported from the West Coast, who were fascinated with all kinds of leftist theories. Some of these professors actively promoted communism -- which was not taken very well by one of the old school professors who had first hand experience with REAL communists (he escaped from Czechoslovakia after the Soviet crackdown on the Prague Spring in '68).

You will appreciate the end of the story. Sometime during the mid-'90s, the university had enough of all the pseudo-intellectual-revolutionary nonsense that was coming out of the department. With little fanfare, the department was dissolved. Last year, I came across one of my favorite lefty professors from the department; he was now working as a messenger for a law firm.

--Hugh Greentree

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Rants and questions from Hungary: The dumbing down and Balkanization of academia.

It may interest you to hear that any graduate program requiring a GRE history exam is in effect filtering its students for yet more simpering correctness. Any moron can get a perfect score on that test simply by looking for the stereotypically left-p.c. answer to the multiple-choice questions. I've done this for several years in a row, and friends of mine who never managed to make it through JuCo are amazed at how suddenly brilliant they've become when the test scores come back.

Regarding the Balkanization, I'm glad to hear that swords hold a soft place in your heart. They sure do in mine, because I am a scholar of sharp and pointy things, mostly swung with one hand. But the philistines who run academia have things so chopped up by area and period (how can someone consider himself or herself learned if they know one century in incredible detail, but can't even name a major literary, military, or artistic figure from the one after it?) that there is not one [italicize "not one"] university in America that can supervise a dissertation on 15th-century swordplay, even if I bring the manuscripts with me and translate the buggers into 20th-century English.

--Russell Mitchell
MA program assistant, medieval studies
Central European University Budapest, Hungary

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I want to tell you about a professor I had at Queens College (City University of New York) who deftly taught Shakespeare and kept us informed about her radical feminism and other intellectual affiliations.

Barbara Bowen taught an evening "Shakespeare" class I took while I was employed as a truck driver during the day, and it was a fantastic life experience in the balancing of opposites, as was her class. Somehow she conveyed the greatness of his work while interweaving the latter-day considerations you and all your anti-p.c. fans all decry, when they are shoveled in the extreme. The result was that I came away from the experience with a balanced, mature appreciation of both the literature and its implications.

Bowen never let her politics overwhelm the course or the Master, and so I never resented her, indeed it made me check out some essays about radical feminism and make my own decisions -- based on my own thought process, not one of indoctrination and classroom terrorism. She is a paragon of the right way to do things.

--Frank John Giovinazzi

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I'm a Portuguese teacher currently working in Germany. I came to deeply respect the work of your Yale mentor, Harold Bloom, and you were the cause. I am always moved by both your and Bloom's passionate defense of imagination, art, beauty and deep spirituality -- words and experiences easily ridiculed in today's hip posture of cynicism towards anything that evokes enthusiasm.

--Artur Jorge Pires da Silva

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I attended two lectures at UC-Berkeley (in the same day, no less!) where the "teleological conception of history" was rejected, of course, without explanation.

I can see how a scholar of African politics, when confronted with the barbarism of European colonizers, could question the idea that Europeans are more advanced. To this I would respond that the veneer of civilization is thin, and that despite societal progress, human nature is constant. Europeans made many cultural improvements (what a claim!) that other civilizations did not (heresy!) and yet underneath it all, they were/are still humans. Yet, to honestly believe that there is no real progress -- "everything is relative," my favorite self-contradicting statement -- seems incredibly naive and nihilistic.

Proving that real progress does exist seems to me an incredibly easy task. I believe that progress can be demonstrated just as Darwin demonstrated evolution, yet I am constantly perplexed that my instructors never deal with this. Darwin based his theory on an equally simple observation; that observed speciation among finches means that life could have changed as such all the way up and down the biological chain, across time. The single link, just the beaks of finches, created a theory that toppled everything.

Unfortunately, I am beginning to see that many of my teachers' teachings can be explained not through their ideas but rather from a simple maxim from professor A. James Gregor that "the spokespeople [academia, highbrows/intelligentsia] of an advanced industrial society typically reject the society." The post-industrial paradox: rejecting a society while living off its benefits. As another of your readers questioned of his feminist friends, which other society would you prefer to live in?

--Greg Ludvik

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I have only really been involved in a "lesbian relationship" for a little over a year now and found that the subculture is barren and lacking in sparkle. OK, so maybe it's because I am used to guys, or perhaps it's that I am simply used to gay guys, but these women that you frequently meet in bars/clubs, or those lousy soccer games (please don't get me started!) do not have any personalities!

I mean I really enjoy my women friends, and I definitely find a lot of women attractive, but these are typically straight gals. And they are all tough bitches. So what I'm asking in this round Sally Struthers and back way is : "If for some unfortunate reason my girlfriend and I break up am I going to have to go back to the men's department, or am I stuck with picking through these "womyn" who country line dance to Sarah McLaughlin?"

I joke. I realize that not all gay women are Peppermint Patty! But being somewhat young I guess I find it disconcerting when I don't even relate to the masses that are in my age group. Perhaps you can give me suggestions on how to initiate conversations with these women, since my zippy Versace references are greeted with confusion or annoyance. Anyway, thank goodness I'm not in the position to engage in any more than conversation with these gals!

--Still wearing my brassiere, Selena Schreyer

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As a young gay man living in L.A. and working in entertainment, I certainly have box seats to the political-correctness game, which seems to take the place of independent thought in all of my circles (This view is surprisingly better than the one I had in the early '90s at Northwestern, and I thought that was bad).

Witness the Dr. Laura fiasco. I personally think she is in need of a good lay, but she is entitled to her views, and if she can get someone to listen, syndicate, advertise and promote that view, well more power to her. And gay men and women everywhere have the right to protest that view, as we have. But let's not get hysterical!

You can't imagine the silence that ensues after I make this point at mostly gay dinner parties. My favorite question to them, "Have you ever listened to her?" No, of course not. I am then accused of being self-loathing. Please. I agree her views can be construed as dangerous, but many ideas and notions are dangerous, this is not a reason to stifle them. Protest all you want, better yet, get your own radio show, but let's hear what the wench has to say!

--Casey Bloys

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While watching the C-Span coverage of the March on Washington, it seemed to me that the gay rights movement has been overwhelmed by wealthy privileged white women. I begin to suspect this when I first noticed that the Human Rights Campaign Web site slogan "Working for Lesbian and Gay Equal Rights" puts lesbians first. I figured this was a subtle message that lesbians run the show and the march on Washington proved it.

I watched an almost endless parade of white celebrity women interspersed with a few tokens. Everyone bitched and moaned and the whole scene was incredibly dull. Where are the strong male leaders of the movement? I did not see any. I am sure there are gay "alpha males", but they do not seem to be interested in leading the gay rights movement.

I suspect the answer lies in your theory of gay male cruising and the pursuit of the rush of sexual energy which is the real allure of male homosexuality and is the main agenda for most gay men. It transcends political and social agendas and is so wrapped up in the unique nature of male sexuality that it is beyond the understanding of Elizabeth Birch and her celebrity girl friends. It will always keep the real men at odds with or at least bored by the safety-crossing-guard mentality of the current gay rights movement.

I found it interesting that Anne Heche told the Washington gathering that she had been straight for 27 years and then turned gay when she met Ellen. The HRC claims that all gays are born that way, that it is impossible to switch your sexuality, and that conversion therapy is cruel and damaging. Did Anne, in failing to study her HRC talking points, speak a blasphemous truth?

--Mark Haley

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The observation about gay men as "Peter Pans" is certainly accurate judged from my own experience. When I came out last October, I was immediately stunned by the number of gay men whose maturity level seemed to have been arrested at 16 or 17. And that crowd of hard-core left-wing gay men who delight in being called fag (as long as you're "in the right crowd") is still embarrassing.

--Dan Auiler
(Author of "Hitchcock's Notebooks")

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I've often seen your explanation of male homosexuality -- which I disagree with, but that's another e-mail -- but I have yet to hear your explanation of lesbianism. Can you explain why you're a lesbian? If "Adult men who avoid women as sexual partners have a subliminal fear of entrapment, physical and psychological (Ask Camille, Salon, 04/15/97)," do lesbians suffer from the same fears as gay men, or do they have a different set of phobias?


[See the section on homosexuality, pp. 67-92, in "No Law in the Arena", the central essay of my 1994 book "Vamps & Tramps" -- CP]

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I am writing to you about liberal hypocrisy in the media (an oxymoron if there ever was one). I was watching an episode of the "Golden Girls" tonight on Lifetime, which I do sometimes, as well as "Designing Women". Why is beyond me. I am a gay male -- maybe it is the camp aspect of the shows or the kitsch, who can tell?

Anyway, they have these "every woman counts" Public Service Announcements, where they whine and complain about the lack of women in the Congress and Senate. What they mean, I think, is the lack of liberal left-wing women in the Senate and Congress. I think this because every time a woman runs for office as a Republican, NOW and their fellow travelers always supports the Democrat, even if the Democrat is a man!

So-called women's groups like NOW, and TV networks like Lifetime that claim to support women, never give voice to, support or honor conservative women -- only to leftists like Patricia Ireland or Bella Abzug.

What is it with this robotic group-think and group-identity b.s.? It annoys the hell out of me.

--Edward Mank
Oakland, Calif.

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As an Englishman last year resident in Canada, I was exposed to predominantly American television, and read the odd American paper. This was a rocky year for the American presidency, but never once did I see the president expose himself to any real hostile cross-questioning. Similarly, the attitude of all the television reporters towards almost every politician who deigned to appear was uniformly respectful and unchallenging, and even deferential.

This contrasts markedly with the less respectful attitude of the print and online media, and with many televised discussions - in which various pundits mauled each other on behalf of their political masters, and nobody who had an image to protect appeared.

The situation in England, Canada and Australia is much more direct, in which journalists have far greater access to their representatives, and seem to be more challenging when they are questioning politicians directly. These three countries all have a small number of media outlets through which political debate is communicated to the electorate, and those seeking office are therefore compelled to accept the somewhat rough treatment they receive in return for their exposure.

Do American politicians, with access to an unsurpassed range of media, find no need to accept any but those offering the best presentation, with the least opportunity for independent journalism?

I contend that when the political classes are able to shop around between competing media, the better deal they get can be inimical to the interest of the public.

--Dr. Nicholas Stevens
Department of Chemistry, Monash University
Melbourne, Australia

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I am a 58-year-old woman with many years left to go, and I hope that the colleges will begin to turn out thoughtful, questioning graduates, rather than the sycophants who now fill the pages of our newspapers and magazines. Thank God for the Internet because, without it, I would be condemned to the frustration of "suffering fools" masquerading as journalists, writers and commentators.

--Judy Wolfersberger

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I was beginning to think I was the only one who thought "The Sopranos" was a piece of stereotypical, racist garbage. Why has this trash captured public and critical fancy so? When will we Italian-Americans be portrayed as something other than caricatures with insulting accents? Can you imagine what would happen if a show similarly depicted African-Americans?

--Brent Murray

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Why is Tina Turner still the sexiest thing going? Having watched her on the Super Bowl, "Oprah" and the "Tonight Show," I was stunned to find her as sexy and sensuous as ever -- at 60! I have never been a huge fan of Ms. Turner, but I could not help but fall in love with the woman after these shows.

As far as I can tell you have never written much (other than a brief mention in "Sexual Personae") about the "Queen of Rock and Roll," and I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on what my girlfriend calls "the Eighth Wonder of the World.

--R.J. Sandy

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I know of your admiration for Sandra Bernhard. Recently, I had the pleasure of seeing her show, "I'm Still Here Damn It!," live. What a force! As I sat there I realized I was in front of a true artist and a hard-working one to boot.

The manner in which she offers to the audience kitsch material and then cracks it open revealing a core of emotion is genius. Back and forth she zips, hard then soft, bitter then tender. She eased in and out of material all the while interacting with the audience, who often were the target of her razor-sharp wit. It was exhilarating!

After the show I hung around to see if I could get her autograph. What a delight when her assistant brought me backstage. (It must have been the flowers I brought for her!) Sandra had no airs. She was earthy and quite friendly as she urged me to calm down. She signed my book, and her assistant took a photograph of us for me.

As I walked out I was both happy and sad. Happy for seeing Sandra and sad that Hollywood offers her nothing. What is it with Hollywood? Repeatedly they ignore true sizzling artist for the banal dim wits.

Frankly, I'm over it. And Madonna? Choosing that rat-nosed-hanger-on Ingrid and hanging out with "Gwenie" Paltrow over Sandra Bernhard exposes a shallowness in Madonna that is embarrassing.

--James Gammage

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I noticed that you mentioned that Rod Serling has been more important to you than any "serious" writer since World War II. I submit that Robert A. Heinlein is the most influential writer since (and even slightly before) that world-changing conflict.

While most know of "Stranger in a Strange Land," or "Starship Troopers," Heinlein wrote copiously of society ("Friday"), individuality ("The Moon is a Harsh Mistress"), spirituality ("Job: A Comedy of Justice"), and the balance between them all. His stories have always been uplifting, reflective and intelligent, and have influenced writers of all genres, scientists, astronauts and individuals across the social spectrum. I heartily recommend his work to anyone interested in intelligent, readable fiction.

--Kurt Schneider

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Subject: the devil in ms. shriver

re maria ("The Hair") shriver, her follicles are just the tip of the skeletal, frosty iceberg. she looks like nosferatu donning a That Girl wig. each time i watch that train-wreck-of-a-show-dateline, i can't not gaze at her in awe. oh, those jowls! oh, the courtney cox parallel lankiness! also, how amusing that maria, a kennedy, almost got into a bitch-fight w/quasi-republican mccain and wife.

what you think of jennifer love-hewitt portraying audrey hepburn in the up and coming abc docudrama of her life? not may people can pull off audrey or givenchy, and I'm afraid that love-hewitt isn't one of them.

re: gay press, i understand and agree with your victimization view of it,

but what can be done about it? it dug itself into utter cultural irrelevance. i'm beginning to think it should become obsolete, as it has in my mind and in my magazine rack.

--Brock Keeling

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You dismiss modern actresses as "simpering nymphets of the Meg Ryan/Calista Flockhart/Gwyneth Paltrow school."

Well, as a cybercolumnist, did it occur to you that Calista Flockhart may be a computer-generated creation? I think so.

Calista Flockhart is an idoru

The Japanese adore pop culture so much they are willing to build it out of thin air. As popularized in William Gibson's idoru, Japan has devised the entirely virtual pop singer, one without corporeal reality. In olden days, a pop singer was a person with a physical body and a voice. Then, with lip-synching (Cf. Milli Vanilli), we graduated to singers with physical bodies but modified or augmented or replaced voices. The Japanese, not content to leave well enough alone, cut out the physical part altogether. The idoru, or idol, was born -- of electrons, not atoms.

Life imitates art. The Japanese imitate us, usually getting the details wrong. (I own a Japanese sweatshirt earnestly emblazoned "Wildlife Port en Ouest de Moose.") And we unwittingly imitate the Japanese. How?

Through Calista Flockhart. She is the Western world's first idoru.

1. Identified with her white-hot chick-flick TV series, "Ally McBeal," the way Deborah Harry was identified with Blondie, Calista doesn't play a role. She is the role. Unlike corporeal actors -- Vincent D'Onofrio; Philip Seymour Hoffman - who disappear into their characters, Ally and Calista occupy the same space at the same time. But that space exists on television screens. Contrary to the tradition of soap operas, where one would tune in of an afternoon and be told by an unseen voice that "the part of Trucker Smithmuir is now being played by Reynaldo FitzRoy," contrary even to the tradition of cinema, where James Bond or even Clarice Starling can morph from one actor to another over the generations, Ally is unimaginable without Calista, and vice-versa.

2. Whether it's her real name or not, "Calista Flockhart" smacks of a kind of naming software. As the robot Winona Ryder was dismissed by the alien hybrid Sigourney Weaver ("No human could be that humane"), so too do I dismiss "Calista Flockhart": No human could have that name.

3. Calista is a waif. Infamously so. I specifically remember the earwig on an early issue of the National Socialist: A photo of Calista, leaning into the wind (or at least the whirring fan), hands framing her flowing goldilocks, stick-thin arms supporting the hands, schoolgirl's dress hugging the straight-as-the-Alberta-plains planes of her body. (Her "body.") The subtitle alongside the photo claimed that Calista Flockhart denies being anorexic. So they're reporting a response. These days, with zeroes overflowing in our calendars, we swim through a sea of floated ideas. Someone, or an entire press corps, may float the idea that Calista Flockhart, having dropped 20 pounds, is anorexic. Calista is then forced to respond.

1. Accusing Calista of anorexia is accusing her of knowingly wasting away, of reducing herself. Anorexia is a disease of the body image. An image is noncorporeal, unreal. Anorexics need to reduce their bodies to match their self-image. They're never thin enough; it's a vicious cycle. An idoru can balloon or shrink as needed, like climbing the beanstalk on H.R. Pufnstuf.

2. Expecting us to care whether or not a creature improbably named Calista Flockhart is or is not anorexic heaps media exposure upon media exposure. We're n steps removed from reality.

3. On Ally McBeal, we see a half-arsed attempt to incorporate fantasy sequences into the narrative. (The fantasy segments of "thirtysomething," singular in the history of American television, are unthreatened by McBeal's tawdry arriviste scrabblings.) Ally takes arrows in the heart, turns bright orange -- she does things, in other words, that only a noncorporeal being could do. And when she instantaneously reverts to normal, that too is something only an idoru could manage.

The evidence is clear. The conclusion is inescapable. Calista Flockhart does not exist. She's an artificial creation. Calista Flockhart is an idoru.

--Joe Clark

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

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