In Conversation with Susan Sontag: A Window to 1970s Gender Politics

A writer, novelist, filmmaker, and activist, Susan Sontag was an engaged intellectual for whom thinking was a form of feeling and feeling a form of thinking. One of the most influential critics of her generation, she was widely admired by many women and something of a contested figure within the LGBTQ communities, in addition to achieving international celebrity status. Unlike many writers, Sontag was not shy of interviews. She valued the opportunity for talk in any setting, as a way of collecting and focusing her thoughts. Her interview with Jonathan Cott for Rolling Stone, only one-third of which was published in 1979, showed Sontag’s intellectual clarity and conversational confidence at the height of her career. Their wide-ranging conversation covered sexuality, gender issues, illness, aging, and political theory, among other topics. Now, the full 12-hour interview is available to the public in Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview.

Some aspects of Cott and Sontag’s discussion of feminism may be familiar to a modern audience. Sontag acknowledges the continued importance of the feminist movement, but expresses frustration with the way that it segregated women and their artistic and intellectual work.

(Sontag on de-segregationist feminism, original recording)

In this interview, Sontag dwells on the double standard in societal expectations of male and female sexuality. For Sontag, sexual attraction was ideally bound up with an intellectual affinity with one’s beloved.

(Sontag on the double standards for sexuality, original recording)

Here, Cott and Sontag address gender differences as they talk about the writing of Jan Morris, one of the first and most prominent writers to undergo a sex change. Sontag reveals a remarkably open attitude towards gender construction, one that many readers will find exemplary.

(Sontag on gender construction, original recording)

Jonathan Cott is the author of numerous books, including most recently, Days That I’ll Remember: Spending Time with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. He lives in New York City. Susan Sontag (1933–2004) was the author of numerous works of nonfiction, including the groundbreaking collection of essays Against Interpretation, On Photography, and Illness as Metaphor, and of four novels, including In America, which won the National Book Award.

Further Reading:

Susan Sontag

Featured Image: Pastel portrait of Susan Sontag commissioned by the Gay & Lesbian Review for the 2009 May-June cover by Juan Fernando Bastos via Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published.