Most readers agree Pauline Kael wasn't a homophobe -- but dissenters are heard from. Plus: Kansans and moderate Democrats respond to our interview with Thomas Frank.

Published July 1, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

[Read our excerpt from Craig Seligman's book "Sontag & Kael," "The Gay Attacks on Pauline Kael."]

I second everything Seligman wrote in his article. Kael's reviews meant a lot to me when I was growing up gay in the country in Arkansas; anyone who accuses her of homophobia just isn't a good reader.

This was the woman who, in 1961, ridiculed Time magazine's vitriolic reaction to "The Victim" by saying "it's as if they were afraid heterosexuality couldn't hold its own in an open market." I can't help but think that Vito Russo and other critics were show-tune queens who got pissed off because Pauline ripped the godawful "West Side Story" a new one.

-- Mike Russell

This is really a crackerjack argument, the Salon excerpt from your book, that is (which I feel I must now promptly buy). I'm 20 years old, also gay (also from Louisiana, actually, I live in New Orleans), and have been reading Kael since I was 18. You touched on something I found profound and otherwise uncommented upon.

In college I took a queer film class where we watched "Chasing Amy." In hindsight, the inclusion of this movie made our professor pretty radical. Perhaps you can imagine the reaction of an adamant group of queer girls in the class -- they were wholeheartedly furious that a gay professor would teach a gay class to gay and non-gay students and address a film that wasn't like all the others, especially one from a heterosexual (white!) director using heterosexual actors. Most (but not all) refused to even consider that including a Kevin Smith film among a dozen others at least gave an interesting point of view that could enrich discussion.

The same lesbians who were ready to burn copies of "Chasing Amy" went gaga over "The Incredibly True Story of Two Girls in Love." When this happened, it made me wonder what Pauline Kael would have to say about each film. (I only began reading what she wrote after she had died, and cannot tell you how much I wish I could read reviews of movies that have come out since.) I feel almost certain that Kael would have belittled "Chasing Amy" for its idiocy, though complimented its strongheadedness, not caring for it as a whole. And I feel even more certain that, had she even bothered, she would have ripped "Two Girls in Love" to shreds. The most ridiculous turn of events was that the passionate queer girls in my film class rendered themselves incapable of viewing dyke movies critically, a point of view that the truly radical Kael never would have stood for. Was the movie kiss kiss, bang bang? seems to be her first question with every single review. Did it give me what I go to the movies for? Thus activism, or politics or ideology, compared to her more basic and noble standard of criticism, seem wholly superfluous criteria upon which to base one's reaction.

I, too, never have found Kael to be homophobic, though she often leaves me irate and feeling tricked. (I used to be nuts over "West Side Story," but after reading her review of it, I cannot watch it without rolling my eyes, which still makes me feel like I've had something stolen from me.) Neither was I aware that other gay people found her offensive. How can queer scholars blackball a critic who acknowledged her autobiographical prejudices so openly, and explored her own reactions so profoundly?

-- Casey Creel

Craig Seligman should leave Pauline Kael's words to speak for themselves. Denigrating and attacking her critics -- in a sense, attempting to invalidate their own possibly well-thought-out views -- serves no one. Kael's work is available to be read in its entirety; readers should be left to draw their own conclusions. Seligman sounds like an apologist and simultaneously tries to assure us there never was any wrongdoing. You can't revise Kael's intentions and dismiss the context. She is a product of her time, with all the good and bad connotations that it brings.

As a gay man, I've always felt Vito Russo's "The Celluloid Closet" did far more harm than good. To this day, the notion of "whitewashing" still exists as a critical criteria in the minds of some gay men, triggering a rejection of anything that makes them less than heroic, even at the expense of their own humanity and history. But Russo's work -- however much a product of hysteria at the time -- served its purpose, raising awareness of derogatory stereotypical representations of gay men and women. However, the gay community -- as an audience -- has yet to appreciate the freedoms that Russo's labor brought and still clings to its own self-consciousness as an artifact.

-- Sean O'Neil

This passage is completely unconvincing, and I can't imagine your motive in printing it. The author's apologies for Kael's sneering attitude toward at least some homosexual directors, actors and characters do nothing to offset the evidence he re-presents. Kael was one of those who resented the presence of a significant number of gay men -- I don't recall her being so cruel about lesbians -- in the film business, and, who knows, perhaps in all the arts. Her words scream that resentment again and again. All the author has done is to remind us of this unsavory aspect of Kael's character.

-- William Lingle

In reading Seligman's defense of Kael's cultural insights, I couldn't help thinking that -- despite the perhaps overwrought reactions to her comments on homosexuality -- the context within which she was able to make such comments complicate the meanings and motivations that we can attribute to them. That she wasn't against female promiscuity does not diminish the implications of pairing a critique of promiscuity with (male) homosexuality. And that she was aware of the rising "seriousness" of gay and lesbian presence in the U.S. doesn't diminish the undertones of condescension in her words. (We all know that many abolitionists were nonetheless racist.)

What I found most important about Seligman's response, however, was the final few paragraphs of his article wherein he wonders at the left's bizarre tendency to destroy its own and to function according to a set of ideologies that function as orthodoxies (not dissimilar from the right's modus operandi, the difference being that the right tend to goose step behind leaders, whereas the left tends to debate and argue endlessly with its leaders).

I have recently completed a three-year research project on the development of the gay male community in San Francisco of the 1960s and early 1970s. The gay libbers, surely, had a powerful impact on the consciousness of gay men and women in the Bay Area; indeed, my own political identity as a gay man has been highly influenced by my historical memory of what the gay lib movement was all about.

Unfortunately, it was deeply disappointing to me as I delved through archives and interviewed survivors of the period, that the gay libbers of the Bay Area did little to engage the homophobic culture or the institutions that oppressed their queer brothers and sisters. Instead, they spent their time protesting drag shows, screaming at lesbians who enacted a butch/femme aesthetic, or bitching about how those who weren't "turned on" were "self-hating." To be fair, they were a diverse bunch and did much good. But how much more good could they have done had they had less of an ax to grind with other queers, and more of energy to spend fighting the oppressors?

-- J. Todd Ormsbee

Thanks, Craig Seligman, for defending Pauline Kael. As a lesbian, I have always admired her for her brilliant writing. Perhaps gays who labeled her a homophobe were just jealous because she was a better writer than them.

-- Ruth Rouff

Craig Seligman is more correct about Pauline Kael than he suspects. He misinterprets this passage:

"Audiences longing for a hero to lavish their sympathies on have a new unfortunate they can clasp to their social-worker hearts: the ideal 'little man,' the homemaker, the pure-in-heart, childlike, nonthreatening male, the man a girl can feel safe with -- and who could be more 'deprived'? They can feel tender and tolerant, and they can feel contemptuous, and in-the-know at the same time: the man a girl can feel safe with is a joke, he's not a man at all."

Kael's contempt here is for the "audience" with "social-worker hearts" who "can feel contemptuous" -- not the girl and not the man.

Seligman may have been distracted by the last sentence, but by taking the words personally he's misidentified the voice of the insult. The keys are the antecedent of the word "they," and the colon after the word "time."

The "joke" of the man who is "not a man at all" is in the mind of the audience. After the colon Kael is finishing their thought. That's why they're both "contemptuous" and "in-the-know."

It's the "audience" who doesn't believe such a man is real. Not Kael.

-- Michael Barry

What is up with this continual worship of Kael? I've written it before and I'll write it again: Anyone who could not recognize the authentic genius of Stanley Kubrick -- the Mozart, the Caravaggio of film -- had their too head far up their ass to be taken seriously as a critic.

-- Rob Anderson

[Read "How the Democrats Lost the Heartland," Andrew O'Hehir's interview with Thomas Frank.]

Thomas Frank seems generally tuned into Kansas, but my state's Republican stranglehold is not always what it seems. Neither O'Hehir nor Frank pointed out that Kansas has a Democratic governor, Kathleen Sebelius. While the so-called "Sebelius effect" may have more to do with rifts in the Republican Party than a groundswell of Democratic ideals, Kansas moderates elected her. The last thing we need is another round of overblown stereotypes casting Kansas as some kind of Republican Oz; when education and health are at issue, Kansans aren't as conservative as the GOP would like them to be.

-- Kim Corum

I am always a bit baffled by complaints that the Democratic Party does not stand up for working people and thus leaves the field open for Republicans. What puzzles me is that the policy prescriptions this always seems to lead to include protectionism, regulation and generally making life poorer for virtually everyone and holding back the tides of the market.

As King Canute recognized, the tide cannot be stopped. What Democrats need to do is argue that they are for making people's day-to-day lives better and that Republicans are conning people into voting against their own best interests.

-- Daniel A. Greenbaum

For all of Baffler editor Thomas Frank's well-meaning sincerity, his politics -- and his swipes at Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party -- make me want to tear at my hair and moan. Frank seems to believe that back in the '70s there was a Democratic Party conspiracy to shut out the working class. I can assure you, no such conspiracy ever existed.

Campus leftists talked about the workers till they were red in the face. The workers couldn't stand them. They had no stomach for communism then or now.

Ronald Reagan hijacked "the workers" with his tales of "welfare queens" and the notion that high taxes went to subsidize their fictitiously lavish lifestyles. Bill Clinton started to bring them back -- not just because of legislation to "end welfare as we know it" but because his programs were pragmatic and effective. I've talked to union members about this. They believed in Bill Clinton because he talked sense. Working people in this country know that in the long run innovation and change create jobs. No job can be preserved forever under glass.

The Republicans haven't won the heartland because of their take on social issues, they've won it by projecting a down-home, "I'm just an average American" style that has good people believing that the estate tax was killing the family farm and various other lies too numerous to mention. And of course it helps that they've carefully tended and catered to their vocal Christian minority.

The Republicans have done an excellent job of coalition building, the very process that Frank decries. Frank and his cohorts would lead us down the very same road we were on in the '70s, the road of preaching communism to "workers" who are much more interested in prosperity.

-- RT Both

Perhaps Kansas would be in a better position if a great thinker like native Thomas Frank had stayed and engaged himself in local politics and real social change rather than moving to a more enlightened part of the country and limiting himself to criticism from afar. There are movements for positive social change happening in the heartland, but criticism alone does not help our cause. We need numbers. If he does care about those that he so passionately condemns, why not write a recruitment piece for bringing politically active intellectuals to Kansas next time?

-- Leah Humphrey

By Salon Staff

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