In her new book, Vagina: A Biography, Naomi Wolf, author of the much-lauded, The Beauty Myth, espouses the concept of an intrinsic “brain-vagina connection.” She spends hundreds of pages trying to back her theory up and urges women to follow her into liberation via vaginal appreciation. But don’t be fooled: Naomi Wolf’s Vagina (the book) is, in fact, about Naomi Wolf’s vagina, and not about anyone else’s.
Okay, so I am probably the 1,000th feminist reviewer to make this joke. Forgive me; I’ll add a new one to the mix. I’ve been reading the tome on my Nook, an act that gives the moniker of that e-reading device a whole new connotation.
I should add that I’m probably also among dozens of feminist reviewers who have begun their own pieces on the book by appreciatively rounding up others’ words (Sisterhood is powerful!) Below I choose a few of my favorite highfalutin’ vagina zingers leveled at Wolf this month. If you read them in order, you’ll get a sense of both Wolf’s main thesis and the general thrust—no pun intended—of the critique of said thesis.
Jaclyn Friedman takes on Wolf’s regressive insistence that biology is destiny: “She claims to want to undo the ways in which women are reduced to their genitals, but spends most of her project telling us that, as goes the vagina, so goes the woman.” Katha Pollitt pounces on the same fundamental problem of logic, and lambastes the self-centered way that Wolf insists on said destiny: “Unfortunately, having ‘discovered’ that every woman is sexually unique, she proceeds to write 300 more pages arguing that they are all the same, i.e., just like Naomi Wolf.”
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In the pages of the New York Review of Books, Zoe Heller notes that this narcissistic approach to actual science and politics has a dangerous edge:
There is a strange hubris in Wolf’s claim to understand how all rape affects all women. It is the same hubris that compels her to instruct us on how all women need to be wooed, and how all women feel when they come … but prescriptiveness, alas, is her compulsion.
Meanwhile, Ariel Levy, expert on “raunch culture,” muses in The New Yorker about how Wolf’s vagina-centric theories result in a new sort of objectification of sex that bears an essential resemblance to other forms of objectification:
Is it going too far to say that Wolf’s book, which clearly belongs to the same realm of the erotic imagination as the [Fifty Shades of] Grey trilogy, is itself a kind of pornography?…There is a new dominatrix in town. And her name is Vagina.
This is only a small sampling of the highbrow pile-on. Every smart woman with a brain and a pen, it seems, has been using both those sharp instruments to poke holes in Wolf’s premise about the “vagina-brain connection.” It’s not that her theory is hokum, they write, but rather it’s conventional wisdom that female sexual satisfaction is a healthy thing, spun out into a breathless explanation of Everything You Ever Need to Know About (straight) women.
The reasons Wolf came in for such a vigorous thrashing are twofold. The first and major point is, it’s frustrating for feminists to see someone who used to be one of us wrap herself in the F-word banner and use it to pedal soft-science claptrap that frequently runs counter to the goals of the movement, as Amanda Marcotte writes in the comments of Sady Doyle’s piece: “Excluding her from feminism isn’t about her, but about getting the media to understand what feminism is.”
The second reason, as many have noted, is that this book comes after a recent history of Wolf’s public misrepresentation of the Julian Assange rape allegations in a really detrimental, directly anti-feminist way. With this move on her part, a reservoir of bad will was established.
In some ways, the argument over Wolf’s book becomes another iteration of the question: Who gets to call him- or herself a feminist? Wolf isn’t exactly a member of “feminists for life,” taking ownership of the word while vigorously pushing women away from reproductive choice. But she does use her previously-established feminist cred to push some very retrograde thinking.
All this is logical so far. But another aspect of the pile-on is that Wolf uses a lot of intensely personal stories and flowery language to take her ersatz feminism into mushy self-actualization territory (by, for example, referring continuously to a state of female bliss called “The Goddess”). She writes in a heartfelt, intense manner about her own spiritual-emotional-sexual awakening. Heck, she even foregrounds the book with a quote from Kate Chopin’s “seminal” novel The Awakening.
Laurie Penny weighs in on how this primal goddess-talk has gone over with critics: “It has given public intellectuals a legitimate reason to have a good old laugh at female genitalia for the first time in years, somewhere in between Wolf’s description of dopamine as a ‘feminist’ neurotransmitter and her retreat to a Greek island to feel the divine energy of the she-goats butting in the fields and undulating bloody hills.”
But this is a style that appeals broadly to a mass-culture audience that hungers for sentimental, melodramatic visions of womanhood and realized romantic love: We’re talking Oprah, Nicholas Sparks, and Twilight.
Feminism with a capital F has a fraught relationship with those emotional and spiritual realms through which Wolf roams freely, realms with bright colors and indeed, undulating grass.
Why? Because like most progressive brands of analysis, feminist analysis relies largely on rational, fact-driven arguments. Yes, feminists believe the timeless mantra that the personal is political, but these days, given necessary debates about privilege and structural discrimination, we are loath to universalize personal experiences. And because flowery ideas associated with the essential feminine are taken less seriously by a patriarchal culture, we try to distance ourselves from anything perceived as silly.
Still, we shouldn’t leave those realms to authors like Wolf. We don’t have to look far for alternatives to Wolf’s book that have those same appealing personal and spiritual qualities but without Wolf’s complete lack of fact and reason.
Take the totally obvious example: Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. It’s so popular that it’s become a cliche’. And here’s a reason that college kids who didn’t show up at pro-choice rallies went to performances of The Vagina Monologues. It’s occasionally florid and sentimental, yes—but it’s also been a complete cultural game-changer. Ensler’s vision is imperfect, but it’s presented as art, not pseudo-science like what Wolf peddles. And Ensler’s is an expanding body of work that acknowledges, by its very format, complexities and differing experiences.
This year, I have also been evangelizing for two memoirs that are both personal and emotional but written by proud feminists: Caitlin Moran’s wildly funny and raucous How to Be a Woman, and Cheryl Strayed’s body of work. The latter includes her memoir Wild and her Dear Sugar columns at the The Rumpus, which are infused with a rich personal and spiritual thread—as well as a strong dose of feminist righteousness.
So, rather than just kicking Naomi Wolf out, we feminists, I hope, will work extra hard at pulling other voices in: the art, music, fiction, and literature that speaks to us the same meaningful way that Naomi Wolf’s pelvic nerve speaks so deeply to her.