Why Ellen Willis Is An Essential Icon

Her work as a writer, critic, activist, thinker, and radical feminist spans decades, and now her best pieces are available in one must-read collection.

There is a kind of woman writer who, with her long cigarettes and cars and sleek, untouchable prose, makes all the girls want to be her; and there is a kind of woman writer who, by letting herself be the screaming, crying fan as well as the cool-eyed critic, or the marching protestor as well as the reporter at the march, makes it so we can be her. Ellen Willis leads the latter camp. A critic, activist, thinker, and radical feminist whose work is newly collected in The Essential Ellen Willis (University of Minnesota Press), she is an icon to my demographic. Her gut-wrung genius for popular music (she was the New Yorker’s first-ever pop critic) presaged the widespread taking-seriously of Taylor Swift. Her reportings and/or polemics and/or personal essays, usually written for the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, or The Nation, are touchstones of the genres. A founder, with Shulamith Firestone, of the far-out feminist group Redstockings, she remains one of the top defenders of both abortion and pornography as inalienable — and entirely human — rights. Always challenging, but first self-challenging, Willis’ writings are never simultaneously difficult. Her thinking is all transparent — and prescient. In a 1996 essay on daytime talk shows and “trash television,” Willis writes that we need more noise, not less: “Our problem is not the excesses of talk shows but the brutality and emptiness of our political culture. Pop bashing is the humanism of fools: in the name of defending people’s dignity it attacks their pleasures and their meager store of power.” In other words, she is one of the first defenders of so-called “toxic Twitter.” A rare and truly anti-snobbish intellect, Ellen Willis is one of the great definers of our time; in 2006, she died.

Three years ago, Nona Willis Aronowitz, the only daughter of Willis and her husband, sociologist Stanley Aronowitz, put out a collection of her mother’s (mostly) rock ‘n’ roll criticism called Out of the Vinyl Deeps. Its success led to the republishing of two other collections, No More Nice Girls and Beginning to See the Light. These weren’t enough. Obsessives like me wanted more, while others, believing Willis had left pop criticism for mere academia, needed to see the evolution of her principled, pleasure-taking aims. To that end, The Essential Ellen Willis organizes Willis’ work by decade, from the ’60s through the ’00s, and features introductions to each decade by Willis-Aronowitz’s peers and friends, including Cord Jefferson and Sara Marcus. Here to talk about the project, its relevance, and growing up Willis is Nona, herself an accomplished journalist and feminist thinker.

A younger Nona Willis Aronowitz, with her mother, Ellen Willis. Nona Willis Aronowitz

Let’s start at the end of this new collection, with the beginnings of Willis’ book-in-progress on Freudian radicalism and the cultural unconscious. She was working on this book for almost a decade, right?

Nona Willis Aronowitz: Yes, she was working on it for around eight years, with large chunks of inactivity in between. I think it was partly that the ideas and topic were so trenchant, and also not immediate, but also that she felt nervous and spooked about writing an actual book, rather than a loosely connected group of essays. It was an arduous editing process. She shifted very quickly from extremely polished paragraphs to indecipherable notes. I agonized over it because I knew she wouldn’t have wanted unfinished thoughts to see the light of day. Eventually, I thought it was worth it to uncover ideas she’d been stewing over since the ’70s, even if they weren’t fashionable— like how she thought there was a psychoanalytic explanation, rather than just economic or social ones, for why conservatives had succeeded in reversing some of the ’60s countercultural gains. This argument blossoms into this whole theory about how hard it is for people, even leftist people, to truly accept freedom of expression.

To wit: “A political movement that aspires to have an impact on our deepening economic and cultural crises cannot succeed simply by appealing to moral principle or rational self-interest; it must speak to the cultural unconscious, address the hidden conflict. The story of contemporary American politics is that the right intuitively understands this, while the left, by and large, has no clue.”

Or: “Few people imagine it’s possible or desirable to restore the old order, yet even fewer raise the obvious question: if the family as we’ve known it isn’t working, don’t we need to invent forms of domestic life and child rearing more suited to a free, postpatriarchal society? No, it has long since been agreed that such talk is silly leftover hippiespeak. Instead we feel guilty, scapegoat single mothers on welfare, oppose no-fault divorce. Or else we declare that the crisis of the family is a myth — it’s just that there are different kinds of families. Aren’t gays clamoring to join the marriage club? My compliments to the Emperor’s tailor: we are all pro-family now.”

I was thinking about how her career in political writing fell after one golden age of leftist independent publishing, in the ’60s, and before another, which is happening now with The New Inquiry and n+1 and Jacobin and the revitalized Dissent (although she did serve on the editorial board of a previous, perhaps less vital Dissent).

NWA: Yes, totally. She didn’t want to compromise, ideas-wise or length-wise, so she wrote in smaller journals rather than cut thousands of words. And it’s funny, she also wrote in Slate and Salon pretty frequently, but none of those essays made the cut. They were just nowhere near as complicated or nuanced as her print pieces, probably by the editors’ design; they were topical, around 900 words each, and didn’t feel relevant, even though they were the most recent of her pieces.

How did you decide what was Essential? Did you ask friends of yours and/or hers for help?

NWA: I did write a mass email in the beginning of the process asking people for their suggestions, though I’d mostly thought of them. My main criteria was: Did this transcend its era? Even if it was about Clinton or Anita Hill or Tom Wolfe or whatever, were there useful, universal ideas? My original table of contents ended up being 50,000 words longer than the final version, so my editor made some brutal cuts. I mostly agree with them, actually. I also cut some essays that felt more academic or theoretical in favor of more intimate and/or unpublished pieces — just to give the reader a feel for who Ellen Willis was.

I can’t wait for the Inessential Ellen Willis!

NWA: Ha, there’s some great stuff in there. I’m already regretting a few cuts. This sounds terrible, but anything she’d written for a women’s magazine was automatically out of the final cut. You could just tell it’d be edited for “tone” and that made me feel uncomfy, and there was always a better version of the piece that’d been published elsewhere.

As someone who came up in women’s magazines, or fashion magazines — and I still write for them — I think it doesn’t sound terrible, just complicated.

NWA: I mean, one of the pieces I edited out was sort of a primer on the women’s movement for Mademoiselle, which was interesting as an artifact, but eventually I was like, “OK, this is basic.”

Which brings us to something I didn’t know until I read her “Three Elegies for Sontag” in this collection: She won the same Mademoiselle “guest editor” contest that Sylvia Plath had in 1953?

NWA: Oh, yes! There are some adorable pictures in that Mademoiselle issue. You know, [my mom and Sylvia Plath] were probably pretty similar when they were that age.

How so?

NWA: Repressed, depressed, confused, prim, introverted. Overachieving.

And angry.

NWA: Yep.

Nona Willis Aronowitz

Nona Willis Aronowitz

 

Mademoiselle, 1960

The clear, calcifying anger of the brilliant girl in a conservative time.

NWA: Exactly. Except my mother was lucky enough to be childless and in her twenties when feminism came around.

And Sylvia Plath was unlucky enough to be married to Ted Hughes. If your mom hadn’t gotten divorced, do you think she would still have become Ellen Willis?

NWA: Possibly. The radical feminist Alix Kates Shulman had two kids and a husband by 1968 and she was married for years. But I doubt [Ellen Willis] would have written about the counterculture in the way that she did, as a participant. Although who knows? Maybe she would have proposed an open marriage. One thing we cut was a piece on open marriage for the Los Angeles Times, in which she takes to task the notion that you can create a freer, more equal marriage in an unfree, male-dominated society, and suggests instead that we demand equal pay for women, better part-time work, and an end to the social quarantining of mothers and children.

It seems like Willis wanted the widest, not the “highest,” possible audience. Of Sontag’s participation in political discourse from a young age, she says, “I didn’t even know that was possible for me.” Having grown up in a very Christian, very conservative household, I feel the same way. In those elegies, you can see Willis weighing her intellectual frustration and almost-envy of Sontag against the generous and/or circumstantial populism that made Willis simplify her thought for the mainstream.

NWA: Yes. My mother was always very literary, studying 19th-century French novels and such, but eventually she wanted to communicate with the public. Ultimately, though, she prioritized integrity over everything, even over a wide audience. She stopped writing for the New York Times when they became work-for-hire. She stopped writing for the New Yorker when then-editor William Shawn told her that they would never have published “The Trial of Arline Hunt.” When it comes to Sontag, I don’t know if she was envious of where she wrote — Mom wrote for many of the “best” places too — but I do think she was a little bit in awe about Sontag’s effect on the culture, and how the larger culture absorbed her ideas.

But then she (correctly) pronounces late Sontag a curmudgeon, as most high thinkers become without regular trips to the outside world, and it’s an implicit if self-granted triumph for Willis. Did they know each other? Did they meet? History shrinks time, so I’m like, “Everyone in the ’60s knew each other!”

NWA: Maybe, but they didn’t have a relationship, and Sontag was a little bit older and definitely in a different scene. My mother met all these literary people and so on, but she really didn’t have any interest in “the scene,” or what we would call “networking.” She didn’t care. Her best friends were all writers but not as well-known as she; they were mostly badass radical feminists.

Sontag was a snob. I love her to death; she’s a snob. Ellen Willis is about the least snobbish critic you can find.

NWA: In terms of pop culture, my mom thought everything was important. She didn’t panic when I started watching daytime talk shows and reality TV and buying Us Weekly. She wasn’t a snob about anything — except New York! New York was the center of the universe for her.

Notes on East Village. Nona Willis Aronowitz

Her essays for the Village Voice are often my favorites. She says wild things.

NWA: Mine too. They really “got” her and gave her space.

I mean: “The erotic revolution has to begin with children.” Imagine that as a tweet?

NWA: I really loved how she gave teenagers credit as erotic humans, which maybe is the reason why she didn’t freak out when she found out I was having sex.

And at the same time, when old men give teenage girls “credit” as erotic humans… Well, you know what to think, but you don’t know what to feel for the girls, so I loved when she said, “Can’t they be protected from both exploitation and inhibition?”

NWA: She wasn’t assuming that a teenage girl’s eroticism fit into her own, grown-up eroticism. That’s the difference. There is another essay in which she talks about adult-child sex, and how innocence is the seed of the adult’s attraction to the child in the first place, i.e., that the child is not a full participant in their own erotic experience. That’s really different from saying that some children do embrace their erotic impulses at very young ages, which very few Americans seemed to be able to accept. My mom will never forgive the ’50s for the havoc it wreaked. Even now, we’re arguing over whether to give our kids basic sex education.

What’s the most important lesson you learned from your mom?

NWA: To follow good editors wherever they go. She would point me to former students, smart editors working in really mainstream publications — for example, Kate Bolick at Domino. I’ve more than once taken a job with an editor I admire regardless of where they’re working.

Editors, not publications — yes. The big thing I’ve learned from Ellen Willis is that an interest in mass or pop culture and fringe politics can co-exist peacefully. Reading her helped me take my “superficial” writing more seriously and feel like I could transition into “serious” writing without rejecting my superficial interests.

NWA: Yes, and speaking of that transition from pop culture to feminism and politics, I’ve always been really confused why she didn’t write more about riot grrl, Courtney Love, and so on. I just saw the Kathleen Hanna doc, The Punk Singer, and read an amazing Courtney interview within a few days of each other, and I found myself really wishing she would have weighed in on what was going on there. I was kinda young and self-absorbed at the time, so maybe I just didn’t notice, but I don’t remember her ever saying anything about riot grrrl. I know she owned a Hole CD.

I wish she’d written about TLC, Destiny’s Child, and J.Lo, not riot grrrls. Those groups were so bossy and practical. Riot grrrls were all, “Fuck the man,” and R&B was like, “That man better fuck me right and then pay the bills.”

NWA: She wrote that Madonna was “the triumphant sequel to Janis’s cautionary tale.” She saw many of these female rock stars in a continuum — from Janis to Madonna to Courtney Love (Hole’s Live Through This was one of the only ’90s-era CDs she owned). A lot of what my mom wrote about Janis you could apply to Courtney, I think. Mom called Janis a “lusty hedonist and suffering victim,” and Courtney totally is that, too.

And when she’s like “men hurt her and then they dug her hurt.”

NWA: Yes, exactly — when Courtney sings, “Go on, take everything / I want you to,” she’s singing about a breakup, but she’s also daring her audience to exploit her and drain her and absorb her pain in the same way Mom thought Janis did. The stuff Mom wrote about Janis’ physical appearance, how she went from ugly duckling to the peacock of Haight-Ashbury by kind “inventing her own beauty out of sheer energy” — Courtney did that too, with smushing those tiaras, slips, messy hair, and leather jackets all together.

We never talked about it, but I think Mom liked Courtney because she was so contradictory — this hellstorm of femininity and disaster and maternal instinct and narcissism. This is why she related to Janis; as she once said, all of this conflict was “all there in her just like it was all there in us, as well.”

Courtney is such a site of feminist polarity. She just told Pitchfork: “All women are dichotomies, with a beautiful, sensual, passive side, and a monster, sexual, aggressive side.” She’s always lived that truism; she auditioned for the Mickey Mouse Club by reciting Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.”

Mom liked her stars raw and outrageous, not polished and regimented. I have a feeling that she would have brushed off Beyoncé and J.Lo as “conventional,” which was her worst insult. I mean, “Put a Ring on It?” No. Even Bey’s last album, with the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie clip, would have probably only been seen as lip service to revolutionary ideas. Although, I realize this may be because Mom didn’t have the greatest race analysis when it came to female pop stars. There are all kinds of reasons why black and Latina singers don’t feel they can be as envelope-pushing or outrageous as their white counterparts. And in some ways, when it comes to the modern black family, Bey is breaking with convention. Still, I think Mom’s allegiance was to tough bitches: She was much more into female rappers, like Lil’ Kim or Lauryn Hill.

Ellen Willis’ books. Nona Willis Aronowitz

Most of the essays in this book felt chosen for their transcendence, but also for their prescience — or rather, their continued relevance, given that things change not nearly as quickly as we think they do. I think it’s funny when feminists (including me) say, “I can’t believe we’re still fighting these battles” or when non-feminists say, “I can’t believe you still think we need feminism,” because really, the history of feminism is so short.

NWA: It’s the same issues over and over, but I’m hoping her work pushes the conversation forward at least a little. One of her central projects was to make sure feminist history didn’t get erased and got the proper credit for all it’d accomplished psychically, if not tangibly. There was so much change in such a small amount of time; we’re still experiencing the aftershocks. I think that’s why her feminist work has a more universal, transhistorical tone — not only because we’re fighting the same battles, but because she was conscious about her legacy.

I love the essay that mentions you at the end — when you’re a baby and she won’t give you candy (sorry if this is traumatic for you).

NWA: Ha, I do remember being the only kid that wasn’t allowed to have Fruit Roll-Ups in my lunch. I had those fruit leathers instead.

Same. That piece is short but telling of the way Willis was so, so moral about pleasure. Her aim was to reach joy or jouissance, never excess. Delineating pleasure vis-à-vis excess is difficult — especially in the age of austerity, which she also talked about. Can you think of a writer now who talks about joy, pleasure, in a serious way? I’m thinking of one Zadie Smith essay, but that’s it.

NWA: I can completely see that confusion of pleasure and excess, and no, I can’t think of another writer who takes on pleasure as a persistent, central theme, no — especially not an American one. It’s funny how my mom took our Americanness seriously, even taking “the pursuit of happiness” to task. She was actually super-patriotic in her own way.

That “insane/American optimism” is the most unfashionable thing about her — well, that and the Freudian stuff.

NWA: Her optimism? Yeah. One of my favorite quotes of hers is when she calls optimism “as spiritually necessary and proper as it is intellectually suspect.” It’s like the tension between being hopeful and being realistic.

“Realistic” is such a silly word. It should mean “committed” or “in earnest” or something like that. “Be realistic.” Mean it. Instead, when you say “be realistic” to someone you’re saying, “Whatever you think you want, try wanting less.”

NWA: It’s infuriating. But at the same time, if you’re too optimistic, you’re not engaging in the world you live in, and I think that’s what she means by “intellectually suspect.” Like, know your enemy and analyze it to death, without blinders. Her enemy was any authoritarian impulse, anything having to do with conventional morality. She was a real libertarian in a cultural/social sense, rather than in the sense where you have blind faith in capitalism (which isn’t actually “libertarian” at all). In fact, blind faith is an enemy of hers too.

Religion comes up frequently — sometimes as an obstacle or something to wrestle with, and sometimes as an annoyance. In “Next Year in Jerusalem,” it seems almost beautiful or erotic.

NWA: She was incredibly ambivalent about religion her entire life. At face value she’d seem like a textbook atheist, and she definitely found the idea of giving your free will over to a larger moral power repugnant, but she knows the power it wields over people, and that made it interesting to her. It all hinged on whether she thought it was authentic or not. I don’t know if she’d go so far to call religion “beautiful,” though, except maybe the acid-trip version she describes in “Next Year in Jerusalem” — like, finally figuring out nature.

It gets a little Lars Von Trier in there.

NWA: Totally. Also, I’m dying to know who the fuck those other people were with her in the late 60s! WHO TOOK ACID WITH MY MOM?!

We have to find out. I was going to ask, you know, who would the next Ellen Willis be, but we still have the original Ellen Willis.

NWA: Awww, that’s such an optimistic thing to say! She’s rubbing off on you.

***

Sarah Nicole Prickett is a writer in New York, a contributing editor at The New Inquiry, and the founding editor of ADULT.

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