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24 June 2023

Susan Sontag’s women problem

In the feminist thinker’s essays of the 1970s, members of her sex are portrayed as political pawns rather than human beings.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

“What sex is the ‘I’?” Susan Sontag asked herself in a diary entry written some time in 1965. “Does one have to believe that God is a Woman to say ‘I’ as a woman and be writing about the human condition.” Sontag’s ambivalence about how far she wanted to identify herself – on the page – as a woman, and her inconsistent feelings about a feminist movement that at times spoke in binary slogans, are evident not just in the questions she posed, but in the fact that she later returned to her diary and crossed them out.

This entry was written some time in the year after Sontag published her essay “Notes on Camp” and, in the words of the New York Times, “burst from nowhere” on to the literary scene “amid something like a ticker-tape parade”. When she died in 2004, the NYT obituary noted that “Unlike most serious intellectuals, Ms Sontag was also a celebrity, partly because of her telegenic appearance,” describing her as “the only writer of her generation to win major literary prizes… and to be photographed by Annie Leibovitz for an Absolut Vodka ad”. In “Notes on Camp”, she revealed herself to be fiercely, intimidatingly intelligent, unashamedly passionate about the art of analysis, and an essayist in the truest sense – ambivalent, expansive, enterprising.

[See also: Anatomy of a romantic hero]

A slim volume of Sontag’s essays and interviews from the early Seventies, loosely grouped under the theme of gender, has been published by Hamish Hamilton as On Women. The book jacket declares that her writing on this topic is “a crucial aspect of her work that has not until now received the attention it deserves”. In her introduction, the critic Merve Emre notes that in a 1972 journal entry, Sontag describes “women” (along with “China” and “freaks”) as one of “three themes I have been following all my life”. And yet, reading this collection, one is forced to conclude women weren’t really Sontag’s subject. Real women are strangely absent: there are few individuals discussed. Sontag is not interested in women as human beings, but as a political category – they are considered in abstract, theoretical terms.

Arranged chronologically, these essays from 1972 to 1975 reveal Sontag’s relationship to feminism as initially reluctant, subsequently militant, and ultimately frustrated. It was a movement that never quite seemed to her radical enough, intellectual enough, serious enough. In “The Third World of Women”, a response to a questionnaire sent by the short-lived leftist magazine Libre, Sontag sets out her views on the fight for women’s liberation. She writes that as a teenager “it never even occurred to me that I might be prevented from doing things in ‘the world’ because I was born female… I was curiously innocent of the very existence of a barrier.”

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As a divorced single mother in her twenties, she admits that when she was drawn into conversations about “the supposed difficulties of being both independent and a woman; I was always surprised – and sometimes annoyed, because, I thought, they were being obtuse. The problem didn’t exist for me – except in the envy and resentment I occasionally felt from other women, the educated, jobless, home-stranded wives of the men with whom I worked. I was conscious of being an exception, but it hadn’t ever seemed hard to be an exception… I know better now.”

Her essay’s conclusion, then – “Any already ‘liberated’ woman who complacently accepts her privileged situation participates in the oppression of other women” – is an admonishment to an earlier, more naive self.

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Sontag’s insistence on the need for a militant feminist politics produces her most imaginative and thrilling asides. She implores women to embrace, not fear, sexist caricatures of the ugly, hysterical, masculine feminist. “Women will be much more effective politically if they are rude, shrill – and by sexist standards – ‘unattractive’.” Women must “lobby, demonstrate, march… whistle at men in the streets, raid beauty parlours, picket toy manufacturers who produce sexist toys, convert in sizable numbers to militant lesbianism, operate their own free psychiatric and abortion clinics… deface billboard advertising that insults women, disrupt public events by singing in honour of the docile wives of male celebrities and politicians…”

They should “organise beauty contests for men”, “light men’s cigarettes for them, carry their suitcases, and fix their flat tires”. The aim of feminism should be to “undermine” the differences between men and women – an equal society, she concludes, “will necessarily be an androgynous society”. This is not the kind of androgyny “co-opted within capitalist forms of consumership as mere ‘style’ (the commerce of unisex boutiques)” – the very androgyny Sontag was praised for in both her glamorous personal style and her authoritative prose style – but something altogether more revolutionary.

But at times, Sontag’s determined rejection of complacency leads her to unfeeling, unsisterly arguments. She is sharp on the prison of beauty standards and the capitalist patriarchal forces that police it, but she has limited sympathy for women who refuse to free themselves from this cage. “How easy it is to start off by defining women as caretakers of their surfaces, and then to disparage them (or find them adorable) for being ‘superficial’,” she admits. “It is a crude trap, and it has worked for too long. But to get out of the trap requires that women get some critical distance,” she writes, exasperated. She despairs that “a woman who spends literally most of her time caring for… her physical appearance is not regarded in this society as what she is: a kind of moral idiot.”

Of course, the real curse of beauty, in the Seventies as today, is not that some women remain unthinkingly in thrall to their appearances, while others with sufficient critical distance are able to disregard them – it’s that many of us do both.

Sontag sees the fight for abortion rights as suspiciously “reformist” – arguing that “gaining the right to have an abortion… will help conserve the present system of marriage” and “reinforce the power of men”. When she begrudgingly admits that abortion rights “nevertheless correspond to the… immediate needs of hundreds of millions of women”, she insists that, in itself, “the right to abortion has no serious political content at all”.

Where are the needs, the thoughts, the aspirations, the emotions of any of these hundreds of millions of women? They are not here. Only one woman’s work is discussed at length: Leni Riefenstahl, the actress, film-maker and Nazi sympathiser, who Sontag uses as a way into an exhilaratingly provocative series of reflections on femininity’s relationship to fascism. Sontag’s essay on Riefenstahl is followed by a letter contesting it by Adrienne Rich, Sontag’s response, and an interview in which all three are discussed at length. (The feminist infighting of the Seventies seems like a far more erudite version of a social media spat today; it’s both fascinating and mildly torturous.) Sontag responds to Rich’s rather patronising complaint that her essay lacks “a serious reflection of feminist values” by condemning Rich’s feminism – indeed “much of” feminism – as “infantile”, “simple-minded”, “shallow” and “self-righteous”.

She summarises: “I don’t like party lines. They make for intellectual monotony and bad prose.” If Rich is suspicious that Sontag’s interest in feminism is merely “an intellectual exercise”, Sontag, a passionate defender of intellectualism above all else, saw this as no bad thing.

[See also: Is a feminist marriage possible?]

I longed for a little more humanity in these pieces: for Sontag to “say ‘I’ as a woman and be writing about the human condition”. The women she brings in as embodiments of feminine ideals – Grace Kelly, Catherine Deneuve, Faye Dunaway – are images, not people: cold, smooth “plastic princesses”. In her essays on beauty and double standards, Sontag’s writing is often at its most vivid when discussing the attractiveness – or otherwise – of individual men. Summarising the long-held belief that beauty is a virtue, she writes “One of Socrates’s main pedagogical acts was to be ugly”. She mourns that “Society allows no place in our imagination for a beautiful old woman who does look like an old woman – a woman who might be like Picasso at the age of 90, being photographed outdoors on his estate in the south of France, wearing only shorts and sandals. No one imagines such a woman exists.”

Were Sontag – who died aged 71 – alive today, she would be 90 years old. It’s not hard to imagine her being photographed at her Manhattan apartment – a picture of cool androgyny, caustic scepticism and fiercely independent thought. Perhaps not in shorts and sandals, but grey-haired and chicly-dressed. Maybe she looks directly at the camera, as she so often did, holding our gaze. Or maybe her eyes rest on something out of frame, as in perhaps the most famous photo of Sontag, Peter Hujar’s black-and-white portrait of her taken in 1975. She on her back, arms behind her head, her eyes narrowed in thought – one of very few people who could look forbidding while lying down.

In this book’s final piece, Sontag is defiant in her desire for a world in which serious, liberated women are allowed to let “the feminist implications be residual or implicit in their work”. She became an icon of female intellectualism without committing herself to what she saw as feminism’s “unremitting rhetoric”. Attempting to make Sontag’s feminism more explicit, as this collection does, only makes it seem more tangled and complex. She looks to us. Then she looks away.

On Women
Susan Sontag
Hamish Hamilton, 208pp, £16.99

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[See also: The feminist case against progress]

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This article appears in the 28 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The war comes to Russia