What Susan Sontag Wanted for Women (2023)

A certain anxiety besieges the critic asked to introduce a volume of earlier writings on women, lest she find the ideas expressed in them relics of a distant, less enlightened past. But the essays and interviews in “On Women,” a new collection of Susan Sontag’s work, are incapable of aging badly. Though the pieces are around fifty years old, the effect of reading them today is to marvel at the untimeliness of their genius. They contain no ready-made ideas, no borrowed rhetoric—nothing that risks hardening into dogma or cant. They offer us only the spectacle of a ferocious intellect setting itself to the task at hand: to articulate the politics and aesthetics of being a woman in the United States, the Americas, and the world.

The singular glamour of Susan Sontag has done her some injustice, particularly where matters of sex and gender are concerned. Suspicious of her celebrity, and convinced that her success had rendered her immune to the plights of ordinary women, her critics have characterized her relationship to the second sex as inconstant at best and faithless at worst. Consider the poet Adrienne Rich’s letter to The New York Review of Books, objecting to Sontag’s 1975 essay on Leni Riefenstahl, “Fascinating Fascism.” Dismissing Sontag’s suggestion that feminists bore some responsibility for turning Riefenstahl’s films into cultural monuments, Rich noted the “running criticism by radical feminists of male-identified ‘successful’ women, whether they are artists, executives, psychiatrists, Marxists, politicians, or scholars.” It was no accident, Rich implied, that “male-identified” values were embodied not just by Riefenstahl but by Sontag. The phenomena that Sontag was drawn to in her writing—the metamorphosis of people into objects, the obliteration of personality by style, the pursuit of perfection through domination and submission—were painted with the same broad brush of patriarchy, indicting the critic attracted to them.

It’s true that Sontag didn’t quite ally herself with the radical-feminist movement. In her journal, she questioned its “inherited political rhetoric (that of gauchisme)” and its dismissal of the intellect as “bourgeois, phallo-centric, repressive.” “Like all capital moral truths, feminism is a bit simple-minded,” she wrote in her response to Rich. Yet, unless we consent to a moralizing litmus test of what it means to be a feminist, we should remain skeptical of the idea that, as Rich put it, Sontag’s writings on women were “an intellectual exercise” more than “the expression of a felt reality.” In a journal entry from 1972, Sontag noted that “women” was one of the three themes she had been studying all her life. (The other two were “China” and “freaks.”) And it was in the seventies that the subject moved to the heart of her writing.

The historical explanation is straightforward enough. The years from 1968 to 1973 were the most publicly visible stretch of the women’s movement in the United States, years that appear to us now in an energetic sequence of film dissolves: women burning bras; women marching in the streets and swaying at candlelight vigils; women distributing mimeographed sheets with topics for consciousness-raising, including equal pay, domestic violence, housework, child care, and the right to an abortion; women thumbing through copies of “The Second Sex,” “The Feminine Mystique,” and “Sexual Politics.” Nearly every notable woman essayist opined on the movement, often by assuming a tone of cool, disdainful skepticism toward its goals and principles. Today, one reads essays like Elizabeth Hardwick’s curiously scattered “Women Re Women” or Joan Didion’s startlingly shallow “The Women’s Movement” with a vague sense of unease—or, quite simply, bafflement at their authors’ lack of fellow-feeling, their lack of interest in the conditions that touched their lives as profoundly as the lives of the women whom they condescended to so freely.

In contrast, Sontag’s essays and interviews are forceful, sympathetic, exceedingly truthful, and capacious in their imagination of what a woman is or could be. In a different world, “On Women” would have been the collection that appeared between “Styles of Radical Will” (1969) and “Under the Sign of Saturn” (1980). The work gathered here represents an overlooked half decade of Sontag’s writing, much of it undertaken between her trip to Vietnam, in 1968, and her first cancer diagnosis, in 1975. Reading the book, one realizes that its pieces are bracketed by death—that Sontag’s entire notion of women was death-ridden, haunted by an awareness of mortality. “Thinking about my own death the other day, as I often do, I made a discovery,” she wrote in her journal, in 1974. “I realized that my way of thinking has up to now been both too abstract and too concrete. Too abstract: death. Too concrete: me. For there was a middle term, both abstract and concrete: women. I am a woman. And thereby, a whole new universe of death rose before my eyes.” The spectre of death spurred her to reconsider the relationship between the individual and the collective, between the lone woman and women as a historical category. And she did so in a style that was more restrained than the flamboyant, belligerent beauty of her earlier essays, as if to speak of women as a whole required her, in part, to efface her exceptional self.

In Sontag’s essays, death assumes strange guises. Only rarely does it appear in the gruesome forms of rape and murder and slavery, as she imagined in her journal. (A tantalizing entry contains notes for an essay, never written, that she wanted to call “On Women Dying” or “How Women Die.”) Sometimes, as in “The Third World of Women,” her extraordinary 1972 interview with the leftist quarterly Libre, death was the will to self-annihilation of the entire global order, whose ideology of unlimited growth went hand in hand with “ever-increasing levels of productivity and consumption; the unlimited cannibalization of the environment.” Women and men alike were ensnared by this desire to accumulate—but women were additionally oppressed by the institution of the nuclear family, “a prison of sexual repression, a playing field of inconsistent moral laxity, a museum of possessiveness, a guilt-producing factory, and a school of selfishness.” The fact that the family was also the source of apparently unalienated values (“warmth, trust, dialogue, uncompetitiveness, loyalty, spontaneity, sexual pleasure, fun”) only increased its power.

In articulating this double diagnosis, Sontag was careful to distance herself from the rhetoric of the socialist and Marxist feminists of the era; there is, throughout the interview, a noticeable allergy to political radicalism, and a deep conviction that work may be a source of pride, affirmation, and distinction. Yet she also understood, just as those feminists did, that the integrity of the family depended on the exploitation of women’s unwaged, domestic labor. “Women who have gained the freedom to go out into ‘the world’ but still have the responsibility for marketing, cooking, cleaning, and the children when they return from work have simply doubled their labor,” she insisted. Liberation from death into life required a revolution that would overthrow the authoritarian moral habits that kept the division of labor—men at work, women in the home—intact.

Most often, however, death appears in these essays as the slow erosion of one’s sense of self, the painful contraction of life’s possibilities. Sontag described it with terrible clarity in “The Double Standard of Aging”: “Growing older is mainly an ordeal of the imagination—a moral disease, a social pathology—intrinsic to which is the fact that it afflicts women much more than men.” Day by day, the horizon of one’s potential dimmed and receded. The body began to bear the signs of its diminishment, exposed as a traitor to the vision of the firm, unlined self that was forged in youth. Yet the vision was itself traitorous to women. “Beauty, women’s business in this society, is the theater of their enslavement,” Sontag wrote. “Only one standard of female beauty is sanctioned: the girl.” Women were not permitted to change, were not allowed to cast off their smooth innocence and docility in favor of wisdom, competence, strength, and ambition. The essays in “On Women” make clear that, for Sontag, the oppression of women presented an aesthetic and narrative problem as well as a political and economic one.

Does beauty pose a problem for feminism? Perhaps the better question is: Does beauty pose a problem for how women imagine their futures? What would it mean to be liberated from beauty’s conventional images, its stock stories? It is always a little embarrassing for a beautiful woman to write about physical beauty, for she must serve as both the subject and the object of her judgments. But it is just as embarrassing, if not more, for her to admit that her beauty has started to fade: for her beauty to define her now not by its startling presence but by its absence. Sontag was thirty-nine, on the cusp of forty, when she wrote “The Double Standard of Aging”—one of the only personal details she reveals throughout “On Women.” She was in her early forties when she wrote the two short essays on beauty, “A Woman’s Beauty: Put-Down or Power Source?” and “Beauty: How Will It Change Next?” “To be sure, beauty is a form of power. And deservedly so,” she wrote. Yet it was a power that had always been conceived in relation to men: “not the power to do but the power to attract.” In this sense, it was a power that negated itself. It could not be “chosen freely,” nor could it be “renounced without social censure.”

In her quest to place women in a fresher and more empowered relation to beauty, Sontag was aided by her long-standing suspicion of beauty writ large, as a judgment of people, art, and experience. It was a suspicion she first aired formally in “Notes on ‘Camp,’ ” in which she implied that the alliance brokered between beauty and mass civilization had authorized a certain predictability of taste. In “On Women,” that alliance secured the oppression of women by holding them to standards of self-presentation that are at once too flexible, too quick to essentialize the whims of the market and its aesthetic values, and too rigid, incapable of bestowing recognition upon those who were old, loud, ugly, unfeminine, disabled. If, as Sontag argued, beauty had been “abridged in order to prop up the mythology of the ‘feminine,’ ” then a more shocking and forgiving definition of beauty required unsexing it, violently. Beauty would no longer be subject to the approval of men; it would appropriate the masculine to do women’s bidding for them.

Camp is the hidden nerve running through the essays in “On Women.” Initially conceived of by Sontag as apolitical, it emerges here as the privileged sensibility of a politics of feminist liberation. If camp meant going against the grain of one’s sex by engaging in a “robust, shrill, vulgar parody” of gender, as she described it in her interview with Salmagundi, then there is something fantastically campy in her imagination of the politics of consciousness-raising. She encouraged women to think of themselves as actors in a “guerrilla theater,” in which they would perform the following acts in the most exaggerated and contemptuous manner possible:

They should whistle at men in the streets, raid beauty parlors, pickettoy manufacturers who produce sexist toys, convert in sizeable numbersto militant lesbianism, operate their own free psychiatric andabortion clinics, provide feminist divorce counseling, establishmakeup withdrawal centers, adopt their mothers’ family names as theirlast names, deface billboard advertising that insults women, disruptpublic events by singing in honor of the docile wives of malecelebrities and politicians, collect pledges to renounce alimony andgiggling, bring lawsuits for defamation against the mass-circulation“women’s magazines,” conduct telephone harassment campaigns againstmale psychiatrists who have sexual relations with their womenpatients, organize beauty contests for men, put up feminist candidatesfor all public offices.

“Women will be much more effective politically if they are rude, shrill, and—by sexist standards—‘unattractive,’ ” Sontag proposed. “They will be met with ridicule, which they should do more than bear stoically. They should, indeed, welcome it.” Welcoming it helped neutralize the sexist condemnation of men. But it was also the first step toward eradicating the ideological division of men and women along lines of sex—for Sontag, the ultimate end of feminist revolution. “A society in which women are subjectively and objectively the genuine equals of men . . . will necessarily be an androgynous society,” she wrote. She did not value separatism, the aggressive policing of the boundaries of who was or was not a woman. She valued the right to plural forms of being, the right to her many fractured selves. She envisioned an aesthetic and political integration that would, in the final analysis, result in the obliteration of “men” and “women” as categories of identity. Then there would be no need for women to establish a private culture, no need for them to seek rooms of their own. “It’s just that they should be seeking to abolish,” she concluded.

It is the interviews that stand out as the secret treasures of “On Women,” for it is the interviews that make the most space for a plurality of style and thought that mirrored Sontag’s belief in the plurality of the self. “To be an intellectual is to be attached to the inherent value of plurality, and to the right of critical space (space for critical opposition within society),” she wrote in her journal. In the interviews, one finds a voice that is rigorous still, but bolder and freer and more gladiatorial in its pronouncements. We hear, once more, the eager combativeness of her earlier essays. We hear, too, her willingness to respond, challenge, qualify, speculate; her refusal of easy answers or offended pieties. We feel the hunger that drove her to keep thinking. And we feel, across the great and growing distance of time, the force of her demand that we never stop thinking alongside her.♦

This is drawn from “On Women.”

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