UPDATE: For more on Wolf’s Vagina, see this essay by Suzanne Moore in a Guardian post from earlier this month. Thanks to David Ian Rabey for the link.
Surprisingly, the New York Times today offers a few readable articles, this time about feminism (or, perhaps more accurately, “feminisms”), conveniently published at the same time as Alison Croggon’s review of a new production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls in Melbourne.
Feminism is only a side issue in one of these articles, the Times magazine’s report on the effort to oust University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan. But the book review features articles on two new books on gender, sexuality, and the world: The End of Men by Hanna Rosin, reviewed by Jennifer Homans, which with clearer eyes than Rosin raises some of the same issues as Churchill’s play from a perspective of 30 years on, and Naomi Wolf‘s Vagina: A Biography, reviewed by Toni Bentley. It’s this second review that is perhaps the most entertaining: over 2,700 words of an evaluation which is something of a contemporary classic of Menckenian destructive criticism (“It remains unclear if this biography was authorized,” Bentley wryly notes). Bentley slowly and most enjoyably drips acid over Wolf’s pages in a devastating critique of the book and its ideas. I doubt that anyone will be inviting Toni Bentley and Naomi Wolf to the same cocktail party anytime soon, but if I’m invited too, I think I’ll be on Bentley’s side of the room — she at least knows how to have a good time.
For those of you staring at the cinderblocks of the Times paywall, here are a few choice morsels:
Sit back and relax, will you? Naomi Wolf has got her orgasm back. Yep. I know you were worried. We were all worried. I mean, to lose one’s orgasm at a time like this, what with Syria undergoing mass civilian murder and Romney closing in on Obama, it is really enough to put a liberated gal’s thong in a knot.
But Wolf didn’t just get back one of those little clitoral thingamajigs that Masters and Johnson so laboriously put back on the map after Freud had brushed them aside. Or rather inside, where he felt they belonged. She has reclaimed the Great Big Cosmic I-Am-a-Gorgeous-Goddess (Feminist-Goddess, that is) kind. Phew!
Vagina: A New Biography should have been an important book. A very important book. The 5,000-year-old continuing epidemic of unhappy, disrespected female sexuality, as Wolf rightly maintains, not only influences our world, our wars, our cultures, our economies and even our love affairs, but also produces, literally, the lifeblood of humankind: talk about biting the vulva that births you.
We’re mad as hell, but we’re going to take it some more. Our rage, and Wolf’s, is beyond justified: it is imperative. And it’s not going away anytime soon. In fact, it will never, ever go away, so deeply does it cut, so great the wound, and we will just keep on chipping away at multiple injustices in our little female ways, punctuated by the occasional big scream.
Wolf’s scattered new tome wants to be that scream, but instead it provides a blueprint, a valuable negative example, for the important book that will be written one day. But that treatise, unlike Wolf’s, will finally stop spanking men and telling them to be nice to us. …
Wolf’s book … is undermined by the fact that she has rendered herself less than unreliable over the past couple of decades, with one rant more hysterical than another — Fascist America!, great sex behind the burqa!, the “Stalinist” plot against Occupy Wall Street!, and a particularly loathsome, self-victimizing and vindictive piece about the Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom.
The large bully pulpit Wolf garnered after her impressive 1991 debut with The Beauty Myth has shrunk with each new outburst. Here, in her eighth book, she presents a “vagina” inevitably, sadly defanged from its real raging, sweet power. And with her graceless writing, Wolf opens herself to ridicule on virtually every page: “an overtakenness with disinhibition.” Huh? …
The female counterpart to your penis is not (spoiler alert) our vagina, and calling a book about the female sex “Vagina” is like calling a book about the male sex “Scrotum.” Talk about a near miss. The clitoris is the diva at our party, and she sports the most sensitive millimeters of flesh — male or female — in human existence. Her 8,000 nerve endings — let me repeat that: 8,000 — outnumber those on your circumcised penis by a mere 100 percent. No wonder the clitoris keeps getting lost, depending on the century, the religion and the man, though mine — and I am willing to go on the record about this — has always been in the same place.
This leads to the inevitable question: Is the ubiquitous use of the word “vagina” by women yet another insidious male plot unconsciously abetted by masochistic women in their own subjugation? Hey, this is a job for Naomi Wolf, fearless feminist whistle-blower! Yet here she is not only absent from her own cause, but simply climbs up on the old Eve Ensler vagina bandwagon. She knows she is wrong but goes right ahead anyway.
“When I use the term ‘vagina’ in this book,” she explains, “I am using it somewhat differently from its technical definition. … I am using it . … for the entire female sex organ, from labia to clitoris to introitus to mouth of cervix.” Now pseudoscience is just fine with me, but Wolf’s inconsistencies — she then cites many studies by actual scientists — muddy the vaginal waters, and we can’t tell if this is a serious book or a girly-girl, vajayjay book. …
Alas, Wolf has neither the soul of a sexual Simone Weil nor a serious researcher’s discipline, referring frequently to some obscure catchall called “the new science.” She is a dilettante assuming a mantle of authority, and time and again she presents her notion du jour and then reports the information that agrees with her, shoehorning her evidence to fit her “vagina.”…
You guys know the drill, you simply must try, yet again, and try harder this time — more slowly — to worship at the “Goddess-shaped” “hole,” so that your woman will have a “showers of stars” orgasm. Are any of you men still reading this, or are you already surfing the Web for some good, speedy, get-to-it, disgusting hot porn? Some nasty girl-girl might be soothing right now. Hold on.
Wolf gives you a choice: do you “want to be married to a Goddess — or a bitch?” O.K., don’t answer that. In truth, you have no say, since all the problems of the world are pretty much your fault and, God knows, your equipment is very mismatched to ours: your five minutes to takeoff does not suit our 20-minute minimum. Reading Wolf’s book can really make a woman foot-stomping mad about all those lovers who want to have sex the way men like to have sex. Who do you think you are: men? …
I think, ultimately, this is what Wolf is looking for, what all us gals are looking for: the explosion that signals the birth of a woman’s deepest, truest self. But it’s no easy game to play, wading through those 5,000 years of our sisters’ suppression, that great abyss of loss, every time. So you guys, fix that roof, do the dishes, buy her roses, take her dancing and hold her really tight. And don’t forget that date at the dump. Whatever it takes. What price the world?