“Pour the wine girls, let’s talk about vaginas!” How Naomi Wolf let me down
Naomi Wolf was my first feminist hero(ine?) because of her astoundingly good book The Beauty Myth (1991), which asserts with utter brilliance that oppression of women has moved from the outside inside. Women can never look good enough and so they can never feel good enough to proceed as fully realised, confident persons.
That book was so powerful it made me furious for months, and to this day I am hyper-aware of the comments women make about their appearance and, in the same breath, their perceived degree of presentability to the world (“No way am I leaving the house; someone might see me. I look awful/forgot my concealer/feel fat”). I make those sorts of comments too. Frequently. I labour under the beauty myth too. (I know!)
But in recent times my hero(ine?) has seemed to go downhill. Her recent book Vagina: A New Biography has been utterly panned. Everyone has taken issue with her use of science – there is lots of “neuroscience now tells us” but such claims are not really presented with empirical rigour.
Many people have railed against Wolf’s insistence on the “brain-vagina” connection, saying that it is simply reducing women to their bodies/vaginas once again. Which, of course, could be seen as odd work for a feminist icon.
And still I withheld judgement because – batty as Wolf may now be – I am still in awe of her. And so with great excitement I went along to see her in all her vadazzling glory last week at a Trinity College Cambridge Literary Society event. (She herself charmingly noted the oddness of talking vaginas in an oak-panelled room lined with the portraits of dead white men.)
She was all tousled hair, high-belted hips, burning blue eyes. It was hard to know how to bring up the topic of the vagina biography tactfully. I mentioned that I’d written an early piece about it for the Sunday Times and an icy gleam appeared in her eyes. To counteract the assumption that I was an evil detractor, I gushed that I was in that very room – doing an MPhil in Gender Studies – because of The Beauty Myth. She grinned, her ego fluttering warmly, and said: “that never gets old”.
But she let me down. The Beauty Myth author was nowhere to be seen. While I have no problem with her central claim that “we have misunderstood the vagina by thinking of it as a sexual organ”, I had a problem with the flirtatious, girly creature I saw giving a talk, gigglingly talking about rat coquetry and dopamine, “the ultimate feminist neurotransmitter” (part of her “science now shows” bit). Wolf talked about the “incredible cocktail available to women” in the form of opulates, dopamine and the bonding hormone oxytocin, which I think most people learned about in high school biology or perhaps through that Jay-Z (or is it Kanye?) song about women and their post-sex bonding habits.
Wolf talked about male wiring and female wiring (essentialism much?), charmingly describing how the female neural-genital wiring system is a bit like Rio at Carnival, while the male network is Manhattan, all grid and up-and-down. “The thing is,” she murmured conspiratorially, “Every woman’s neural wiring is absolutely unique.”
It felt less like a feminist manifesto for the 21st century woman (and man) and more like a Women’s Institute cupcake party or sewing convention. “Grab a glass of Merlot ladies, let’s talk about the vagina!”
What with the climax-tastic Fifty Shades of Grey, the pressure to explore – then talk all about about – one’s orgasms seems to be mounting (as it were). Wolf – though she thinks she’s helping – would have done better to bring her considerable academic talent to bear on the history of fear and loathing in relation to female sexual pleasure than a pseudo-scientific, personalised look at “our” misunderstood vaginas. Make us strong and fulfilled, make us bright and engaged, help us choose and forge good relationships – surely these things, not the orgasm itself, is what makes women empowered, happy and creative.