In the late 1980s, Spy magazine pioneered a dark, snarky take on political and celebrity reporting that in many ways paved the way—for better and worse—for that strain of disdainful irony that grew deep roots into American culture in the early to mid ‘90s. Rather than lionize tycoons, socialites and celebrities, Spy mercilessly and unrelentingly assailed them for their smugness, stupidity, and venality—their writers often played audacious pranks on political officeholders, Hollywood moguls and powerful people in media for the sole purpose of embarrassing such figures with their own greed and arrogance. They regularly ran the amazing cartoon work of Drew Friedman, and the concept behind their famed “Separated At Birth” feature still lives today online as TotallyLooksLike.
At its best, Spy was absolutely GLORIOUS.
In 1993, the magazine gave an advice-for-the-lovelorn column to Camille Paglia (born April 2, 1947, so happy birthday, ma’am), the controversial, oft-dissenting, sometimes narcissitic feminist academic author of Sexual Personae and Sex, Art, and American Culture. Paglia espouses an unabashed love of trash culture, and is the well known feminist most likely to be rebuked as not-even-a-feminist by other well known feminists (like every time she says something jaw-droppingly rapey). So giving a love and sex advice column to a contrarian bigmouth like her at the height of the P.C. era was, pardon the expression, kind of a huge balls move.
Dear Camille:I’ve been severely disappointed by my lady friends, who come across as intelligent women with common sense but end up making bad choices when it comes to men. Jolted Joe from Brooklyn
Dear Joe: You are puzzled by the irrational perversity of sexual attraction. Dionysus is a maelstrom. Love will never be tidy or safe. Jump in the boat and row for your life.
Dear Camille:I’ve been with a woman for ten years. Should I propose marriage? My concerns are (1) her loathsome, self-pitying complaints and (2) my suspicion that I could not remain faithful. Despondent in Oregon
Dear Despondent: The crystal ball shows a tacky picture of a nag and a philanderer hurling crockery around the kitchen. Misery has enough company already. In fact, they’re parking on my lawn.
Dear Camille: I’m a 60-year-old man who has been married five times. I’m currently courting a 53-year-old Catholic missionary nun. How do I ask her to give up her vows and marry me? Amorous in Sarasota
Dear Amorous: Hot dang! Violate them taboos, baby! You’re Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the toils of that old devil Church. You may need a can opener, but it’s worth a tumble.
Dear Camille: I know that consumerism is the modern pagan religion and that the media is the altar upon which we offer up flesh sacrifices. I do enjoy watching the succession of heroes and heroines devoured by television. But I have lingering feelings of guilt, as if I am worshipping Satan. Yes, sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night shouting “Consumerism is the Beast 666!” How can I loosen up, become more modern and enjoy life? Anguished in Oregon
Dear Anguished: I prescribe a daily dose of my favorite soap, The Young and the Restless. What metaphysical anxiety could survive the soothing presence of plucky Nikki, trampy Jill and teen queen Christine? Television is our Circe, and she’s a date rapist. Just lay back, relax, and spread your sense organs.
Dear Camille: I supplement my unemployment checks by selling phone-sex scripts. I’d rather sell short stories, but nobody’s buying. I seem to have a knack for cranking the stuff out. But I don’t know whether to think of myself as a cheap media whore or a valuable public servant. Nothing gobs up the creative flow more than the image of a fat, lonely, middle-aged insurance salesman lying on his bed and pulling on his weenie while he listens to my words coming over the line. He and millions of other schmucks may need the help of a prosthetic imagination. Perhaps I am helping to release potentially dangerous sexual energy in a quick, tidy gush at the end of the day. Pondering in Portland
Dear Pondering: Though it might seem like a drainage ditch, you too labor in the vineyards of art. Apollo and Aphrodite bless all makers of erotic images.
There’s a ton more like this. The column ran for much of 1993, and since ALL the issues of Spy are now archived on Google Books, you can peruse them at your leisure. Also, many of the letters and responses were published in Paglia’s book Vamps & Tramps. She also did an advice column in Salon for a short spell, but quickly transitioned to a standard essay/opinion format.
Here’s a great thing that’s nowhere near widely-enough known: in 1995, Paglia was the lone guest on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher for two consecutive episodes of rapid-fire repartee. It’s pretty amazing. There was, somewhat bafflingly, a VHS release of the episodes, but you can watch it right here.