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Emma L. E. Rees

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Not Seeing the C-Word (Or Even the V-Word)

Posted: 09/18/2012 9:31 am

I can report that the sky has not fallen. The end of days has not come.

The Apple iTunes Bookstore continues to function as normal, despite an about-turn which means that a reader seeking Naomi Wolf's new book can now search for 'Vagina' and not, as was initially the case, be dazzled by a row of typographical stars from the 'V****a' firmament.

The odd flush of coyness which at first colored Apple's cheeks was easily overcome. The corporate behemoth quickly responded to its customers' demands and started treating them as adults. But we forget the retailer's preliminary recalcitrance about the word 'vagina' at our peril. Apple emphasized, in its silly censorship, the urgent need for a book such as the one Wolf has written.

Further, the recent spate of Wolf-baiting by reviewers of her book also serves to emphasize the publication's timeliness. Twitter, that cultural zeitgeist, is an especially fertile breeding-ground for virulent comments. Here, the uninformed and the unkind weigh in with their vitriol, turning not to the book itself, but to other reviews as the bearers of meaning.

The tone of these assessments of Vagina was set by the reviewer who openly tweeted: "I haven't read it yet," but who went ahead and wrote a review anyhow, headed: "We deserve better than this claptrap." Another tweeter delighted in the fact that a different reviewer "tore Naomi Wolf a new one." This language is shot through with poison and hatred -- and, in a powerful irony, is just what Wolf addresses in her book. Uncritical and malicious dismissals of Wolf's latest work simply confirm the validity of its arguments.

Those arguments highlight an uncomfortable truth for many of Wolf's detractors. For until we have a language and a platform for talking honestly about women's bodies and sexual drives, we're doomed into a cycle of objectification and silence. It's telling that so much of the criticism of Naomi Wolf has been ad hominem (or, more accurately, perhaps, ad feminam): attacking the author, and not the book.

Wolf's book is so important precisely because she has brought to light the power and -- dare I say, mystery -- of female sexuality. We inhabit a culture where women's genitals are routinely commodified, at best, and butchered at worst. Wolf has stuck her head above the parapet and has demanded a nuanced debate which has, alas, emerged in only a few quarters.

Even the most cursory glance at the etymologies behind the vocabulary used in talking about women's bodies suggests that much still needs to be done. What does it mean to live in a culture where the most awful epithet is the only accurate term for describing a woman's genitals? What does it mean to stop the c-word being the seen-word?

Some may argue that Wolf's title is a misnomer. But what alternatives did she have? Germaine Greer rightly rejected the word "vagina" some years ago because of its etymological associations with a "swordsheath"; and, despite the best efforts of the writer Inga Muscio, few publishers are going to contemplate calling a book C***. The woman, and far less, man, on the street, probably isn't sure what a "vulva" is; and if we turn to that odd word "pudenda," we quickly find its Latinate associations with "shame."

Feminists should celebrate a plurality of feminisms. We should welcome diverse voices to the debate. When those voices are "wrong," we should build counter-arguments and articulate and negotiate our differences. All new ideas, all paradigm shifts and tipping points, are signaled by a left-field agitation such as the one Vagina supplies. They are also usually greeted with a skepticism born of fear and fueled by hate.

The tweeters and reviewers who denigrate Wolf and her book shun intellectual difficulty, instead flimsily establishing easier and frequently ad hominem critiques. They want Wolf to have written a different book. Well, she didn't. And emptily decrying the one that she did write will not advance crucial debates about women's bodies one jot.

 

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