Although she was one of the first female film critics to gain national prominence in the U.S., Pauline Kael stopped short of calling herself as a feminist: As Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times, she was “a fierce skeptic of all dogmas.” But as Mary Pols pointed out in an admiring Time tribute, “Even though Kael never identified herself as a feminist, she was a powerful woman whose intelligence and wit swayed readers in an era when this was still unusual.”
A 1963 clip from Kael’s weekly broadcast on Berkeley’s radio station KPFA underlines just how unusual it was. It comes in response to a letter from a female listener who wrote, “Miss Kael, I assume you aren’t married. One loses that nasty, sharp bite in one’s voice when one learns to care about others.” (This was, incidentally, near the end of her eight-year run on the air, and may help explain why she quit.)
Kael devotes a good chunk of her hilariously scathing response to railing against the “Freudianized female,” rebutting the idea that female intellectuals are simply trying to grab hold of inherently male prerogatives — not a struggle that holds much relevance a half-century later, when Freud’s ideas have been thoroughly subjected to widespread critique. But though the open sneering at a woman’s unmarried status is largely a thing of the past, much of the coded language in the listener’s complaint remains startlingly — which is to say depressingly — current. (Although the woman Kael refers to as ‘Mrs. John Doe’ likely didn’t know it, Kael had already been married once, retaking her maiden name after her 1958 divorce; she would be married and divorced twice more before her death in 2001.) I’ve transcribed Kael’s response in full, partly as a service, but largely for the pleasure of savoring her words, which are as precise and deadly coming out of her mouth as they were on the New Yorker’s pages. (The complete broadcast script, including portions not available on the tape, is available here.)
“Isn’t it remarkable that women, who used to pride themselves on their chastity, are just as complacently proud of their married status? They’ve read Freud, and they’ve not only got the idea that being married is healthier and more mature, they’ve also got the illusion that it improves their character. This lady is so concerned that I won’t appreciate her full acceptance of femininity that she signs herself with her husband’s name, preceded by a ‘Mrs.’ Why, if this Mrs. John Doe just signed herself ‘Jane Doe,’ I might confuse her with one of those nasty virgins. I might not understand the warmth and depth of connubial experience out of which she writes. I wonder, Mrs. John Doe, in your reassuring, protective marital state, if you have considered that perhaps caring about others may bring a bite to the voice. And I wonder if you have considered how difficult it is for a woman in this Freudianized age, which turns out to be a new Victorian age in its attitude towards the feminine mind, to show any intelligence without being accused of unnatural aggressivity, hateful vindictiveness, or at least lesbianism. The latter accusation is generally made by men who have had a rough time in an argument. They like to console themselves with the notion that the woman is semi-masculine.
“The new Freudianism goes beyond Victorianism in its placid assumption that a woman who uses her mind is trying to compete with men. It was bad enough for women who had brains to be considered freaks, like talking dogs. Now, it’s leeringly assumed that they’re trying to grow a penis — which any man will tell you is an accomplishment that puts canine conversation in the shade. Mrs. John Doe and her sisters who write me seem to interpret Freud to mean that intelligence, like a penis, is a male attribute. The true woman is supposed to be sweet and passive. She shouldn’t argue or press an opinion, or get excited about a judgement. Sex, or at least regulated, marital sex, is supposed to act as a tranquilizer. In other words, the Freudianized female accepts that whole complex of passivity that the feminists battled against.
“Mrs. Doe, you know something? I don’t mind sounding sharp. And I’ll take my stand with those pre-Freudian feminists. And you know something else? I think you’re probably so worried about not competing with male egos and those brilliant masculine intellects that you probably bore men to death.
“This lady who attacks me for being nasty and sharp goes on to say, ‘I was extremely disappointed to hear your caustic speech on and about the radio station KPFA. It is unfortunate you were unable to get a liberal education, because that would have enabled you to know that a great many people have many fields of interest, and would’ve saved you from displaying your ignorance on the matter.’ She, incidentally, displays her liberal education by spelling ‘caustic’ c-o-s-t-i-c. And it is with some expense of spirit that I read this kind of communication. Should I try to counter my education, liberal and sexual, against hers? Should I explain that Pauline Kael is the name I was given at birth, and does not reflect my marital vicissitudes, which might over-complicate nomenclature? It is not really that I prefer to call myself ‘Miss’ that bothers her, or the other Mrs. Does. It is that I express ideas she doesn’t like. If I called myself by three names, like those lady poetesses in the Saturday Review of Literature, Mrs. Doe would still hate my guts. But significantly, she attacks me for being a Miss. Having become a Mrs., she has gained a moral superiority, for the modern woman losing her virginity is a victory comparable to a Victorian woman keeping hers. I’m happy for Mrs. Doe that she has a husband, but in her defense of KPFA, she writes like a virgin mind. And is that really something to be happy about?
“Mrs. Doe, the happy, emotionally secure, mature, liberally educated womanly woman, has her opposite number in the mail bag. Here is a letter from a manly man. I quote this letter in its entirety. ‘Dear Miss Kael: Since you know so much about the art of the film, why don’t you spend your time making it? But first you will need a pair of B-blank-blank-blank.’ Mr. Doe-Doe — I use the repetition in honor of your two attributes — movies are made, and criticism is written, by the use of intelligence, talent, taste, emotion, education, and discrimination. I suggest it is time you and your cohort stop thinking with your genital jewels. There is a standard answer to this old idiocy of ‘If you know so much about the art of the film, why don’t you make movies?’ You don’t have to lay an egg to know if it tastes good. And if it makes you feel better, I have worked making movies, and I wasn’t hampered by any biological deficiencies.”