Beginning To See
The music and cultural critic Ellen Willis’ essays were long arcs toward an answer she never reached.
Illustration by Bianca Stone.
I was living in Park Slope, nearly three years ago, when I was offered a full-time job with benefits writing film criticism in Los Angeles. I was 29, and this sort of job was the only thing I had even thought about wanting for years, so I jumped at it, without giving any real thought to the enormous ways in which the decision would change my life. For one thing, I had to move across the country within two weeks, and the easiest way to pull that off was to give away most of my stuff. I had a party at my apartment, and my friends (both real-life and Facebook) came over and pillaged my books, my DVDs, and my records. Some of that shit I had been holding on to for years. Some of it I had inherited from my mom and dad. Physical media is dead!, I declared, on Tumblr if not out loud.
What I didn't realize was that once I was installed in this new job in the town where I grew up but had never lived as an adult—when I was living in a Koreatown apartment with almost no furniture and nothing on the walls and no shelves full of books and no physical artifacts representing three decades lived consuming media—I would fall into something like an identity crisis. I had always defined myself by what music I listened to, which books I read, what I thought about movies, and the obsessive need to know everything I could know about the media I was taking in—which, of course, led to getting a job like this one in the first place. And so I came to realize that the stuff I had given away so capriciously wasn't just stuff.
The copy of A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and the first B-52s record (on vinyl), both of which I'd held on to through three previous cross-country moves; the DVD screeners that filmmakers had hand-delivered at festivals; the VHS music video compilations; the copies of defunct magazines like The Face and IFC Rant—this stuff represented a narrative, the story of how I had become the person I was. In 2010, without that stuff to remind me of that narrative, I kind of fell apart. What was I doing here, in this empty apartment, in this town I no longer knew anything about? Who was I to judge the value of movies when I couldn't even figure my own shit out? At work, I was terrified that I was doing it "wrong," that I would be outed as a charlatan, or fired for pissing off the wrong person—or, worse, in a media climate in which a writer's worth is measured in the noise they generate as calculated by comments and page views, piss off no one at all.
During this time, a friend and fellow film critic suggested I read Ellen Willis. He said it would be good for me, that she was an example of a woman who had been a writer in a relatively narrow field (the first pop music critic at The New Yorker, she wrote and edited at the Village Voice, an incarnation of which I currently work for) who had the courage to redefine herself, to change her mind, to refuse to allow herself to be limited by her own or anyone else's idea of who she was or what she was doing. I didn't take my friend's advice immediately, maybe because I am often allergic to doing what even well-meaning dude friends think is good for me—a very Willisian trait, I'd later learn.
And eventually things got better. I started spending less time on the Internet, and more time out in the world. I became increasingly oblivious to estimations of my worth proffered by strangers. I got new books and records, and moved in a smaller apartment with more windows and less empty wall space. I fell in love.
This summer, the University of Minnesota Press reissued two of Ellen Willis’ anthologies, Beginning To See the Light and No More Nice Girls, in elegant new paperback editions. Beginning To See the Light is subtitled “Sex, Hope, and Rock-and-Roll” and collects pieces Willis wrote between 1967 and 1980. The nominal topics of the individual essays run the gamut from Bob Dylan to Deep Throat, from the legacy of Herbert Marcuse to the rhetoric of the abortion debate; the tone and approach veers wildly, from more-or-less traditional concert review (“Elvis in Las Vegas”) to satiric service journalism (“Glossary for the Eighties”) to blisteringly honest advocacy journalism (“The Trial of Arline Hunt,” an after-the-fact procedural of a rape case). They're united by a kind of antebellum urgency. In the second of two introductions, Willis, writing with a decade of hindsight, notes that the pieces in the book “reflect the tension between my belief in the possibilities the sixties had opened up and my life in a society that was closing down.”
University of Minnesota Press.
No More Nice Girls, which takes its name from the radical abortion rights protest group Willis co-founded, collects Willis' writings of the ’80s and early ’90s. (She died in 2006.) The subject matter is more directly political; where Willis' passionate, radical feminism informed and infused her early cultural writing, by the 1980s her priorities had changed. The book begins with “Lust Horizons,” a 1981 essay credited with popularizing the notion of “pro-sex feminism,” and includes several essays in which Willis stakes a position against that of other self-proclaimed feminists. (One of them, “Looking for Mr. Good Dad,” consists of Willis' takedown of Juli Loesch, a “prolife feminist” who wrote Willis a letter “reporting” that legal abortion means an increase in men shirking paternity.) In one of the volume's few essays not generated by Willis' own activist pursuits, “Andy Warhol, ?-1987,” Willis uses the artist's death as an excuse to consider how the world, and her own worldview, had evolved since Warhol's shooting by Valerie Solanas impelled Willis to go to the hospital and “[hang] around waiting for news.” At the peak of his powers, Willis writes, “Warhol's vision—that of the wide-eyed child or anthropologist in an exotic land that just happened to be ours—helped to free me from rules about what to take seriously that I didn't even know I was obeying.” But at the time of his death, she admits, “It's been a long time since I thought much about Warhol. ... In a reactionary time mass culture is no longer a fount of subversive energy.”
To critique the culture industry and its products is to freeze the ephemeral in amber, and Willis’ dispatches came from a very particular moment. It was “a special time,” she writes, “a period that provided, for more of us than ever before, a certain freedom from the limits imposed by scarcity,” opening up a window during which American culture seemed ready for redefinition—until it didn't. I read both Beginning and Nice Girls at once, switching back and forth between the two, and I kept a running log of terms frequently used by Willis that no longer mean what she used them to mean, if they even still "mean" anything at all. “Rock-and-roll” is an obvious one; “bohemian” is another.
And then, most thornily, there's “counterculture.” No More Nice Girls' subtitle is “Countercultural Essays.” In the introduction, Willis herself says a “counter-American identity defines the sensibility of my book.” But in 2012 the very notion of countering culture has lost its political potency through omnipresence. Any form of desire imaginable, consumer or carnal or otherwise, has an affinity group online. The defining impulse of our time is contrarianism, and from politics to pop, the most mainstream mode of address is polemic. If you took out the countering, particularly on the Web, would we have any culture left?
The former film editor of the LA Weekly, Karina Longworth has contributed to the Guardian, NPR, Vulture, and other publications. Her book Al Pacino: Anatomy of an Actor will be released by in May by Cahiers du Cinema, for whom she is currently working on another book, about Meryl Streep.