Saturday, November 11, 2006

Ellen Willis

I'm not sure if it was good or bad that Ellen Willis happened to die on the same day as Ed Bradley. Bradley was lauded for being the kind of journalist that didn't stand by idly, who jumped in to help because it was the right thing to do, who had stacks of Emmys and famous friends. He was a pioneer as the first black White House correspondent, and so on.

But next to his obit in the New York Times was that of Ellen Willis, who was also a pioneer, a feminist, author, cultural critic, revolutionary and academic. All those labels sound much scarier and radical than the stolid Mr. Bradley. But she directed the NYU department of cultural reporting, was married with kids, and on the archive interview with Terry Gross today, sounded more frank in her approach to topics like sex and porn, than lacivious. She famously wrote:

In practice, attempts to sort out good erotica from bad porn inevitably comes down to 'What turns me on is erotica; what turns you on is pornographic.'

She was best known for her cultural essays, like the one quoted in the Times on the Monica Lewinsky scandal:

Arguably, just as Victorian repression produced a thriving porn industry, the exclusion of sex from 'serious' news media produced tabloidism. As this taboo passes into history, there should be more room for public conversaion on sex that is neither coy nor prurient, but simply frank.

I'm trying to figure out if Willis would have approved of the discussion of Mark Foley or Haggard in the mainstreaum media. More than likely, she despised the hypocrisy of the repressive and moralizing attitudes of such people that created their own personal tabloidism. If anything, the Lewinsky scandal seemed to have opened the floodgates of sexual discussion in many ways. Let's hope that the program at NYU that is Willis' legacy carries on a better tradition.

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