Why Ellen Willis Is An Essential Icon
There is a kind of woman writer who, with her long cigarettes and cars and sleek, untouchable prose, makes all the girls want to be her; and there is a kind of woman writer who, by letting herself be the screaming, crying fan as well as the cool-eyed critic, or the marching protestor as well as the reporter at the march, makes it so we can be her. Ellen Willis leads the latter camp. A critic, activist, thinker, and radical feminist whose work is newly collected in The Essential Ellen Willis (University of Minnesota Press), she is an icon to my demographic. Her gut-wrung genius for popular music (she was the New Yorker’s first-ever pop critic) presaged the widespread taking-seriously of Taylor Swift. Her reportings and/or polemics and/or personal essays, usually written for the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, or The Nation, are touchstones of the genres. A founder, with Shulamith Firestone, of the far-out feminist group Redstockings, she remains one of the top defenders of both abortion and pornography as inalienable — and entirely human — rights. Always challenging, but first self-challenging, Willis’ writings are never simultaneously difficult. Her thinking is all transparent — and prescient. In a 1996 essay on daytime talk shows and “trash television,” Willis writes that we need more noise, not less: “Our problem is not the excesses of talk shows but the brutality and emptiness of our political culture. Pop bashing is the humanism of fools: in the name of defending people’s dignity it attacks their pleasures and their meager store of power.” In other words, she is one of the first defenders of so-called “toxic Twitter.” A rare and truly anti-snobbish intellect, Ellen Willis is one of the great definers of our time; in 2006, she died.
Three years ago, Nona Willis Aronowitz, the only daughter of Willis and her husband, sociologist Stanley Aronowitz, put out a collection of her mother’s (mostly) rock ‘n’ roll criticism called Out of the Vinyl Deeps. Its success led to the republishing of two other collections, No More Nice Girls and Beginning to See the Light. These weren’t enough. Obsessives like me wanted more, while others, believing Willis had left pop criticism for mere academia, needed to see the evolution of her principled, pleasure-taking aims. To that end, The Essential Ellen Willis organizes Willis’ work by decade, from the ’60s through the ’00s, and features introductions to each decade by Willis-Aronowitz’s peers and friends, including Cord Jefferson and Sara Marcus. Here to talk about the project, its relevance, and growing up Willis is Nona, herself an accomplished journalist and feminist thinker.