What's Up With Naomi Wolf's Vagina?

Relax, folks. I don’t have any firsthand experience with Naomi Wolf's Vagina, carnal or otherwise. Everything I know about it comes from what other people have told me. And let me tell you, am I ever grateful for those reviews, which tell me I never want to put my hands on it. In fact, as far as I can tell, the entire public purpose of Naomi Wolf, at this point in her brilliant career, is to be the target of other folks’ smart sentences.

Let’s start by assuming that you’ve already got the basic outline and flaws of the book from Jaclyn Friedman’s review here. Every review I’ve seen has essentially the same gripes with the book. And can we take for granted that Naomi Wolf’s “feminism,” while it once may have had some political content, has now morphed entirely into narcissism, in which she mistakes her own emotions for meaningful thought? The Beauty Myth, the book that’s the foundation of her outsize reputation, rehashed things that had been written and said before by second-wave feminists and many of us who went to various workshops and classes back in the day. Her contorted comments against Julian Assange’s accusers have put her in the same discreditable category as Whoopi Goldberg’s comment that Roman Polanski’s night of isolating, drugging, and penetrating a 13-year-old girl against her will wasn’t “rape rape.” And now she’s written a book that’s gotten her vagina its own Twitter account, which, sadly, seems to have stopped after only 12 tweets. (Let me point out that I've written about vaginas here before. Hey, I was a college student during the whacky 1970s, when we went to speculum workshops with little hand mirrors and—oh, never mind. I cringe to remember it myself.) 

I don’t know how nonthinkers become celebrity thinkers, but it happens. So, let's look at some feminist luminaries' bad jokes, great sentences, and useful insights, to which Naomi Wolf's Vagina has inadvertently given birth. For instance, Laurie Penny’s “The Problem With Naomi Wolf’s Vagina” in The New Statesmen begins with a stupidly enjoyable pile of bad puns:

I have spent a disturbing few days with my nose buried in Naomi Wolf's Vagina. Naomi Wolf's Vagina is warm and inviting, but seems to lack depth. Naomi Wolf's Vagina is over-exposed. Naomi Wolf's Vagina is crassly attention-seeking. Naomi Wolf's Vagina is available in all good bookshops. There is something fishy about ... no, actually, can I stop now? Are we done? Good.

But Penny quickly moves on to say, as do they all, that the book is actually very troubling:

…for anyone who—let’s be blunt—actually respects women, all women, as human beings for whom biology is not destiny, Vagina isn't funny at all. It's just upsetting. It's upsetting to see a prominent feminist having what can only be described as a dramatic public meltdown.

At The New York Review of Books, Zoe Heller destroys the book’s main points with verve:

Lady, love your cunt.

Forty-one years after Germaine Greer issued her infamous directive, the ladies seem to have complied. Greer lost her battle on the question of nomenclature—“cunt” has remained, despite her best efforts, the worst of bad words—but “vagina pride” is now part of the common culture. Television celebrities like Oprah Winfrey speak publicly and with cheerful affection of their “vajayjays.”... The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler’s theatrical celebration of the female sex organ, has become an international franchise, endorsed and performed by glossy Hollywood stars and even Michigan state representatives. More than one website now exists for the sole purpose of allowing women to share and compare pictures of their vulvas in “a supportive context.”

Heller dismantles some of Wolf's particulars, adding:

Wolf literally does not understand the meaning of “literally” and her grasp of the scientific research she has read is pretty shaky too. By repeatedly confusing correlates with causes, she grossly exaggerates what neuroscience can reliably tell us about the functions of individual brain chemicals.

My favorite of the various reviews is Ariel Levy’s in The New Yorker. She takes the opportunity to look back at the “sex wars” that tore apart feminism in the 1980s and tosses in an analysis of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise as precisely what Naomi Wolf seeks: a man worshipping the yoni. At the link you’ll find an abstract; below I’m quoting from the full print article, which is well worth the price of admission.

Throughout “Vagina: A New Biography” (Ecco), Wolf refers to a “profound brain-vagina connection” but sometimes suggests that the vagina is, or ought to be, the rightful site of mission control. Wolf explicitly tries to distance herself, in this book, from her feminist foremothers. She accuses them of denigrating the vagina as something “retro, housewifey and passé” in their attempts at “reglamorizing the clitoris.” Wolf adopts the pro-sex-feminist position that sex is the solution to every problem and the source of everything worth anything….

… Wolf forgets that vaginas—like their handmaidens, women—have distinct personalities and preferences. If my vagina heard a potential partner murmur, “Welcome Goddess,” she would turn to me and say, ‘Get us out of here now.”

… the “Fifty Shades” series is less about a man being in charge of a woman than it is about a man worshipping a woman. The trilogy’s hero, Christian Grey, is the full-blown Wolfian ideal—a born yoni-tapper who focuses his masterly Goddess Array on our passionate narrator, Anastasia Steele. He says her name “like it’s a litany or a prayer.” He likes to give her candlelit bubble baths. He talks and talks about his feelings and listens and listens to hers. Is it going too far to say that Wolf’s book, which clearly belongs to the same realm of the erotic imagination as the Grey trilogy, is itself a kind of pornography? Wolf conjures a fevered, enchanted world where female consciousness is situated not between the ears but between the legs, where investment bankers see the Divine inside the yoni like Jesus in a piece of toast… Wolf has found a mistress we must please, serve, and honor. There is a new dominatrix in town. And her name is Vagina.

Michelle Goldberg at The Daily Beast adds an insight that I saw nowhere else, concluding:

In the end, perhaps the most embarrassing thing about Vagina is its Orientalism. When Wolf lauds Tantra for its “answers to the question of how female sexuality was best understood,” it’s roughly akin to pronouncing on imperial Japanese culture after taking a karate intensive at the YMCA. In reality, while Indian Tantra involved ritual sex and goddess worship, it has almost no relation to the New Age feminist sex therapy Wolf describes….

Wolf, it seems, has written at length about a medieval Indian religious movement without bothering to read a single credible book on the subject.

Katha Pollitt's review summarizes Wolf’s career ruthlessly:

It’s hard to keep up with Naomi Wolf. She wants women to take their sexuality back from the patriarchy—but she’s written in praise of Muslim veiling and Orthodox Jewish headscarves. In a notorious New Republic piece, she argued that pregnant women are indeed fetal vessels and blamed abortion on drunken sluttery…. Even leaving aside the 2006 interview in which she described a vision of herself transformed into a teenage boy who saw Jesus, it’s been a long, strange twenty-one years since The Beauty Myth

The book gets loopier as it goes on. We learn that women think and feel through their vagina, which can “grieve” and feel insulted, for example, by slang terms (tell that to Pussy Riot). It is remarkable how Wolf’s feminism ends up in the same place as the old patriarchal idea that women are reducible to, and limited by, their reproductive systems….

In writing about Wolf's adventures with Mike Lousada, the former investment banker who becomes a hands-on sex therapist, Pollitt asks, “What separates him from a sex worker?” In the end, Pollitt may be the one who best sums the book up:

It’s lucky vaginas can’t read, or mine would be cringing in embarrassment that Vagina is what millions think of as feminism.

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