There's been something a little unseemly going on in the past week, and it concerns Naomi Wolf's Vagina.
But all the best articles seem to start with a punning crack [god I'm really sorry, I can't seem to help myself] about Wolf's subject. And I can't help wondering if this isn't just a little bit problematic, and if it doesn't, just a little bit, make Wolf's point for her?
One of Wolf's central contentions is that the vagina has, for too long, been a source of shame for women and that, as a result, it has not been explored properly. This is a simple "scientific" fact -- it wasn't until the 1990s, that we began to research the internal clitoris using MRI -- by which time the internal workings of the penis had been known for twenty years. There is still clearly a lot that we do not know about female sexual dysfunction, and judging by the derisive tone of much of the commentary on Wolf's new book, this starts to look a little less surprising, since, well, it just doesn't seem like we take the vagina very seriously.
And beyond the obligatory "haha it's a fanny" jokes, there seems to be something quite disturbing going on -- something that hints at the level to which patriarchal thinking is internalized, to the extent that it is propagated by some of our most respected, and supposedly "feminist," writers.
The overwhelming tone of the reviews has been one of mockery. And perhaps with good reason -- there do appear to be major issues with Wolf's grasp of the science behind her claims. Nevertheless, this does not account for a lot of the dismissive and snide critiques of the topic itself, of the woman who is writing it, and what seems to have offended people most, the way she has written it.
Rosi Braidotti once wrote of the "dutiful daughter syndrome"; by this she means that women too often feel the need to emulate a certain philosophically accepted discourse, in order to have their ideas taken seriously. She argues that not only is this unnecessary, it is also counterproductive, since it merely perpetuates a discourse created by and for the patriarchy -- in other words, it is all but impossible to write about feminism using patriarchal terms. Seems fair enough really -- almost painfully obvious in fact.
And yet here I am, almost losing count of the number of times Wolf has been derided for her "breathless" style; if it's not dry, academic, "serious," it's just not cricket. Here I am finding critiques, not of her science, but of her daring to refer to "the emotional," to her own experience -- because, of course, "feelings" are nothing but a woolly, feminine sphere that have no place in the serious and manly art of science. We even have two critics who mock Wolf's "victimhood" -- one, for her daring not to speak up about an unpleasant sexual encounter within some sort of "appropriate" time limit, and one because Wolf's "show-off" behavior means that she's forfeited her right to be upset about the now infamous salmon. Whether or not you like Wolf, or approve of her reactions, this sounds disturbingly close to the type of thinking that enables victim-blaming. And it's pretty ugly to see it coming out of the mouths of feminists.
Just as ugly, if not more so, is the derision, the undermining, the outright dismissal of Wolf's chosen topic. In her New Statesman piece, Laurie Penny makes some very sound criticisms of Wolf's work; her comment that the apotheosis of women is a mere coin-toss away from their demonization is important, recalling Mary Wollstonecraft's passionate cry, "Why are girls to be told that they resemble angels; but to sink them below women?"
Nevertheless, Penny engages in a ranking of "things we consider to be important" that seems counterintuitive to the feminist movement. She talks of "mere lifestyle issues," without seeming the question to premise from which "lifestyle" is considered so relatively unimportant -- but isn't the way we live our lives what we fight with the current government for every day? She juxtaposes public cuts with vagina cuts, as if we can only consider one thing at a time -- but isn't that the type of rhetoric that repeatedly sees women's rights cast to the bottom of the UN's priority list? Penny rightly demands that "We must not allow our agenda to become castrated, sliced back, tidied away into permissible areas of discussion," but it feels like, with this piece, that is exactly what she is doing.
And she is not alone.
Jenny Turner in The Guardian likewise presents us with a choice. In her understanding, Wolf is to be ridiculed ("Wolf may be appalled that many women seem resigned to sexual self-bludgeoning in exchange for the basic ability to keep going") for highlighting the rather poor option currently faced by women of "keeping going" or having a happy sex life. The implicit value judgement denoted by this snide tone is that sex-life is not as important as other parts of life. But why not? It's something that is (mainly) free, that has the power to bring a lot of people a lot of pleasure. In a time of economic hardship, why is it so bad to try to help people achieve that? And why do so many think that it has to be an "either, or" scenario? Why must our lives be compartmentalized in this limiting way?
I often get asked why I feel so strongly about women's representation in the media -- after all, people tell me, there are women living in poverty, there are women being raped, there are women being emotionally abused. And my answer is always that, yes there are, but this is not a separate issue. It's all part of the same, damaging culture. The media representation of women, and women's lives exist in a reciprocal relationship.
Similarly, I would ask Penny whether she doesn't consider that the fact that public cuts disproportionately affect women has something to do with the value judgment we place upon women and "women's issues"? I would ask Turner why she thinks that it is acceptable that women just have to live with a low sex-drive in order to "keep going," when men have Viagra coming out of their ears.
And I would ask us all why we are still so uncomfortable with anything that doesn't fit neatly into our received ideas about what constitutes serious discourse. We still have a lot to learn about our minds and our bodies -- maybe we shouldn't be so dogmatic about how we express our thinking?