World renowned feminist and human rights activist Naomi Wolf’s new tome has invited its fair share of ridicule in the past week. Perhaps it’s testament to the residual sexual hang-ups of western society that a lot of people struggle to say Vagina: A New Biography while maintaining a straight face. Perhaps it’s the book’s cover art, reminiscent of the silhouette which depending on the viewer either looks like a wine chalice or two people talking. (In this case, “is it a flower, or is it…?”)
The author has refused to be pigeonholed since penning the The Beauty Myth in 1990, experiencing a divine vision and subsequently converting to Christianity, declaring in 2007 that under the Bush Administration her home country had become a fascist state, getting arrested at Occupy Wall Street and engaging in a passionate defence of Julian Assange over the rape allegations directed against the Wikileaks founder in Sweden.
Framing the history of understanding about the female reproductive organs through Wolf’s interest in neuroscience, Vagina has been almost universally panned by critics. (“I read this book in utter bafflement,” from the Guardian’s Jenny Turner. “I almost feel sorry for Ms. Wolf because it’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” from Zoë Heller in the New York Review of Books.)
Katie Rolphe’s review on Slate (subtitled: “It’s as ludicrous as you think it is”) turned rather quickly into an indictment of Wolf’s entire career. Busting out her characteristic snark, the NYU professor highlighted the muted expectations Wolf’s most famous work created for the feminist cause: “Personally, I never felt The Beauty Myth said anything that wasn’t said more charismatically, and much earlier, in books such as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, but it was undeniably cherished by a generation of smart girls.”
To be sure, Wolf’s book has fewer invocations asking its readers to drink their own menstrual blood, but the comparison is appropriate. Greer’s work ends with a clarion call in the form of the rhetorical question asking its readers what action they will take to assert their self-worth: “what will you do?” Wolf, channelling Eunuch, asks the reader to find their self-worth by rejecting the idealised beauty presented by cosmetic companies and fashion magazines; when you look in the mirror, “what will you see?” Seems like kind of a step down.
The final word should go to @NaomiWolfVagina, a Twitter account which sprung up in the last week, most likely the work of either a really obtuse PR campaign or someone with way too much time on their hands. Most of it is crass to the point of being unpublishable, but one tweet effectively sums up the book’s synopsis as told through the words of its harshest critics: “The vagina bone is connected to the brain bone.”