Academic journal article Women & Music

Calling Ellen Willis: Quarreling with the "Radicals," Loving Consumer Culture, and Hearing Women's Voices

Academic journal article Women & Music

Calling Ellen Willis: Quarreling with the "Radicals," Loving Consumer Culture, and Hearing Women's Voices

Article excerpt

If white radicals are serious about revolution, they are going to have to discard a lot of bullshit ideology created by and for educated white middle-class males.

Ellen Willis, quoted in "Women and the Myth of Consumerism," Ramparts (1969)

I BEGIN WITH WILLIS'S BOLD ASSERTION, written in 1969, because I love its audacity. I love her audacity, her daring, her refusal--not, importantly, of those whose politics she opposed (too easy) but of those with whom she felt an ideological affinity. Willis's statement framed an essay in which she argued that consumption was not, de facto, a bad thing, contradicting those leftist thinkers who, in the late 1960s, embraced Herbert Marcuse's bleak (her word as well as mine) anticapitalist sentiments. These "radicals" linked consumerism with the brainwashed masses, women in particular (the biggest consumers), who were thought to be "manipulated by the mass media, who crave more and more consumer goods, and thus power an economy that depends on constantly expanding sales." While not dismissing all of this theory (again, too easy), Willis posed a serious challenge to it based on two ideas: that consumption for women is linked to work, not brainless manipulation (consuming for the home and family and upholding normative beauty ideals are labor-intensive), and that it can also be pleasurable: "Shopping and consuming are enjoyable human activities and the marketplace has been a center of social life for thousands of years." (1)

While Willis was aligned with leftist politics and certainly held radical views, she could not accept the simplistic analyses being put forth by those--largely male, largely white--who defined themselves as the "radicals." In her collection of essays, Beginning to See the Light, compiled in 1981, she reflects on how so many of her essays "quarrel" with the Left, in particular with respect to views on capitalism:

   The first half of this book is, among other
   things, an extended polemic against standard
   leftist notions about advanced capitalism--that
   the consumer economy makes us slaves to commodities,
   that the function of the mass media is
   to manipulate our fantasies so we will equate
   fulfillment with buying the system's products.
   These ideas are at most half true. (2)

Willis refers to leftist "radicals" who hold these ideas dear as ultimately conservative, beholden to a kind of nostalgia or sentimentality for tradition that Willis finds unpalatable. She turns, for one of her illustrations of this, to mass-produced art:

   Here too the left has tended to be obtuse, assuming
   that because mass art is a product of
   capitalism, it is by definition worthless--not
   real art at all, but merely a commodity intended
   to enrich its producers while indoctrinating and
   pacifying consumers. And again this assumption
   betrays a hidden conservatism. Why, after
   all, regard commercial art as intrinsically more
   compromised than art produced under the auspices
   of the medieval church, or aristocratic patrons?
   Art has always been in some sense propaganda
   for the ruling classes and at the same
   time a form of struggle against them. (3)

Willis's assessment reminds me of two important writings that (like Willis's) don't get cited all that often. The first is Angela McRobbie's critique of the subcultural theory that came out of Birmingham in the late 1970s; McRobbie found the celebration of (male) working-class rebellion in those theories to be overly romanticized and rooted in the authors' own unacknowledged 1960s countercultural leftist politics. (4) The second is Richard Dyer's essay on disco, in which, among other brilliant observations, he argues against those who disparage commercial music that commodities have not only an economic value but also a use value. The industry that produces these commodities has no control over them, nor can it predict how they will be used by those who consume them; people may attach all kinds of significant meanings to the products of the so-called culture industry. …

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