Now in its third pressing (in 1981, 1992, and 2012), Ellen Willis’ essay collection Beginning to See the Light remains both relevant and insightful. The late Willis, a prominent cultural critic, journalist, and feminist activist, offers a wide variety of pieces on topics ranging from Janis Joplin, Woodstock, and the Sex Pistols to Easy Rider (1969), Alice’s Restaurant (1967), and Deep Throat (1972), to the nuances of anti-semitism, American white supremacy, and US foreign policy.
One of Willis’ clear talents is an ability to articulate complex concepts with a precision that makes them seem simple, if not obvious. For example, in her essay on the Velvet Underground, Willis describes the emergence of punk rock as a decade long struggle by rock and roll “to reclaim its identity as a music of cultural opposition, not only distinct from but antagonistic to its own cultural conglomerate” (115). In her critical review of Deep Throat, Willis complicates popular understandings of free love, reminding the reader, “The revolt against Victorian morality has always had its left and right wings” (68). Willis returns to this concept in an essay on her reluctance to join a feminist crusade against pornography, and today’s reader will see [End Page 206] in the debate hints of the imminent rise of the American right. Applying her analytical lens to yet another topic close to her heart, Willis presents the position of Israelis as a “classic Jewish bind,” in which they represent white oppressors to Palestinians but merely Jews to the West (244).
Willis’ writing is not only sharp but also incredibly personal. Discussing her brief romance with a married man, Willis relates a conflict between her belief in free love and the feeling that she was betraying solidarity with another woman, who was also engaged in the struggle against patriarchy. Though firmly entrenched in the counterculture and the women’s movement, Willis does not hesitate to direct her critiques toward rock and roll, the movement, or herself. Rather than perpetuate hippie myths about Woodstock, for example, Willis instead underscores the incompetence of the promoters, who secured only 800 latrines for the more than 200,000 expected attendees. She also questions movement rhetoric about “the people,” given popular support for police repression during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and she ultimately concedes that despite her hopes, the cultural left of the 1960s was effectively apolitical.
Now four decades old, much of the collection serves a primarily historical role. To that end, Willis’ prescient essays on feminist backlash are especially fascinating. On the whole, however, this work provides a sterling example of honest, critical scholarship that seeks to expose the limitations of American rebel culture but refuses to dismiss its potential to contribute to social change. Willis’ writing is witty and thought-provoking, and many of her articles would serve as useful readings in courses on American politics, popular culture, or feminism in the 1960s and 1970s.