Beginning To See

The music and cultural critic Ellen Willis’ essays were long arcs toward an answer she never reached.

Ellen Willis.

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 very mainstreaming of the counter impulse makes Willis’ approach to argument itself more valuable and vital than ever. I love the way Willis practices storytelling as criticism, and vice versa. A great example is Beginning To See the Light’s title track, a rambling 1977 reflection on her “capitulation to the Sex Pistols.” In the first paragraph, Willis is “skeptical about punk,” jaded about “the revolt against musical and social pretension” and “put off by the heavy overlay of misogyny in the punk stance.” On the next page she bitches about Jimmy Carter and Mario Cuomo before embarking on a hiking trip; on the page after that, she admits she “was beginning to emerge from a confusing and depressing period” and was starting to wonder if “rock-and-roll [was] no longer going to be important in my life.” The very next sentence: “Then I gave up trying to censor my thoughts.” So she breezes through “thoughts” on Bessie Smith, the Ramones, the ongoing struggle to assimilate the developments of the ’60s, disco, and “womens-culture music” before concluding that “music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated … challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman … the form encouraged my struggle for liberation.” Consciousness is a process, and so is criticism; the act of beginning to see is as important as the light.

Ellen Willis.

Ellen Willis.

Nona Willis Aronowitz.

This is made most literal in the book’s closing essay, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” a piece Willis wrote for Rolling Stone chronicling her 1976 trip to Israel to try to understand why her brother had suddenly reinvented himself as an Orthodox Jew. That Willis returned to New York without having seen—or, at least, allowed herself to fully buy into—“the light” of a serious commitment to Judaism is something she admits in the book’s acknowledgements when she thanks Jann Wenner for giving her “20,000 words’ worth of space to describe a failed conversion experience.” The piece is not so much about a trip to Israel or even the ideological conflicts between feminism and Judaism as it is about the writer’s struggle as an adult woman to determine what kind of person she’s going to be. Willis’ most compelling works are first-person, open-ended narratives about what it feels like to live in the world and absorb culture and try to process it through some kind of internal belief system while constantly reorienting one’s thinking. “Even my work—my excuse for so much of what I did or didn’t do—sometimes struck me as ridiculous. What was the point of sitting home scratching symbols on paper, adding my babblings to a world already overloaded with information?” It’s a thought I have some version of every day.

Willis’ exhaustion with her own work sparked No More Nice Girls’ centerpiece, “Escape From New York” (1981), a chronicle of a solo road trip Willis took across the country and back on Greyhound buses. “Lately I’ve been feeling isolated, spending too much time hiding out in my apartment, wrestling with abstract ideas. What better remedy than to take a bus trip, join the transportation-of-last-resort community, come back and write about what I’ve learned?”

The result is a sprawlingly cinematic state-of-the-union—and a testament to American film as the last bastion of a default patriarchal point of view, in that you’d have to think pretty far outside of the commercial industry to imagine a movie about a woman traveling across the country and back on a Greyhound bus, alone, essentially just for the hell of it, in which the only real threat she experiences comes from challenges to her political and aesthetic points of view.

I love “Jerusalem” and “Escape” and other essays in which Willis places political debates in the context of daily life. I’m less high on Willis’ feminist/political polemics, although I think she’d say that’s more my problem than hers. These essays are passionately argued and by all appearances academically on-point. But more often than not, they make my eyes glaze over. Maybe it’s because in our own current moment, between Paul Ryan’s would-be abortion policies and Aaron Sorkin’s romanticizing of female incompetence, we seem to be rearguing the most elementary issues. But also, the manifestos seem superfluous compared to more creative works of persuasion. It’s not as though she ever leaves what she believes behind, whether she’s writing an objective report on a rape case or satirizing “President Ray Gun” or considering the legacy of Picasso. Nothing she can say in objection of Andrea Dworkin says as much about the struggle of liberation in the real world as her observation, in “Escape from New York,” that a friend and fellow activist “hasn’t been able to get [her husband] to share the housework.”

I know that in this preference for Willis’ elegantly crafted, personal pieces I’m essentially embodying the very attitude that No More Nice Girls, as a motto, seeks to combat. To Willis, I might as well be telling her friend to shut up and do the housework herself, because the whole radical argument is that a woman’s life is her own to live, her body and mind are her own to police, and she’ll be the one to decide what she believes and how she’ll express it. Fair enough—even if Willis herself, paradoxically, can’t extend that same freedom of identity to Juli Loesch, or other feminists who pose a threat to Willis’ own preferred version of female liberation.

Of course, that Willis never gave a shit about consistency was part of her magic. She so often left her full train of thought exposed like a nerve—leaving in first-blush impressions, even when they were prejudicial or patently ridiculous, at times allowing herself to come off as unfashionable, unkind, even prudish. Her essays are long arcs toward an answer—an answer that sometimes eludes her. As the political and social battles she fought have either faded away or changed shape, her humility remains startling. In our world of binary polemics and Like-button activism, to suggest that thought is a process and ideas the result of a narrative is startling, energizing—countercultural, even.

Beginning To See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock-and-Roll by Ellen Willis. University of Minnesota Press.

No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays by Ellen Willis. University of Minnesota Press.

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