Book Review: Vagina — A New Biography by Naomi Wolf.

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The title of Naomi Wolf’s latest, Vagina: A New Biography, promised great things, to my mind. I envisioned the book taking aim at the stigma, use and abuse of the female sex organ throughout history, both physically and ideologically, and why we still think of it as ugly, dirty, alien and taboo.

Vagina certainly analyses this for the bulk of the middle part of the book, talking about the actual chastity belt (p. 143) and the “similarly constructed device” called a “scold’s bridle”, “made of iron and leather, locked around a talkative or argumentative woman’s head” to “gag her mouth” (p. 144). Here, we see that the vagina has been a metaphor for the female voice, insinuating that headstrong and opinionated women are also “loose” women. Wolf goes on to mention William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and the heroine “Lavinia’s mouth and vagina are both assaulted in repeated acts of silencing and control” (p. 144). When it comes to sexual assault, it seems not much has changed, then.

Wolf also touches on hysteria, which literally derives its meaning from the Greek word for uterus, hystera, but for the most part, Vagina is an excruciatingly heternormative and cisgendered look at what it means to be a woman. Wolf may claim that erotic literature such as 50 Shades of Grey portrays women as having “no existence separate from her vagina” (p. 178), but Vagina essentially makes the same statement: if you’re not having vaginal orgasms (presumably via the penetrative properties of a real, live penis!) and your “Goddess Array” (the things a woman needs to experience her best lovemaking: foreplay, respect, help around the house, understanding. On a side note, the nod to the “Inner Goddess” really is just like 50 Shades!) stimulated, you’re just not a real woman.

For example,

“… [I]t comes as no surprise, then, to discover that many women find that vibrators alone or masturbation alone do not do exactly what lovemaking does for them emotionally” (p. 74)

and

 “This ideology [women don’t need men] does nothing to help women of any sexuality understand why, often, the vibrator and a pint of Häagen-Dazs are pleasurable but that other longings for connections can remain strong” (p. 75).

Ladies without access to a peen, you’re out of luck: vibrators, ice cream and a rom-com won’t cut it. ’Cause isn’t that what all miserable single women resort to in between boyfriends?

Going back to loud mouth=loose vagina, it would seem the reverse is also true, as an uptight vagina also begets an outspoken woman:

“Straight men would do well to ask themselves: ‘Do I want to be married to a Goddess—or a bitch?’ Unfortunately, there is not, physiologically, much middle ground available for women. Either they are extremely well treated sexually, or, if solo, treat themselves well sexually—or else they are at risk of becoming physically uncomfortable and emotionally irritable” (p. 301).

We just can’t win.

Wolf also talks about the sympathetic and automatic nervous system and how stress contributes to unsatisfactory sex lives:

“Marital counsellors tell women and men to talk through their problems; fertility doctors send men into rooms to masturbate and then they inject the semen themselves into the vaginas of women who are suffering from irregular periods or with low fertility levels. Again, if you understand the profound nature of the animality of women, you see that these practices are incomplete. Marital counsellors should start by telling men to hug women; to stroke if the women are open to that; to take women, if they are willing, ballroom dancing. Fertility specialists should make sure, before anything else, that women are getting well and regularly cuddled and brought to orgasm by their men” (p. 314).

Coming from someone who insinuated that the women who accused Julian Assange of rape were “honey trapping” him, this sounds awfully like a “legitimate rape” apology…

Because we’re such paranoid creatures obsessed with talking our feelings out, “[t]his, I believe, is why so many marital fights take place just when both members of the couple have entered the house after a day’s work—her brain is agitated and desperate to talk things through, which is how it calms down and feels better, while his is desperate to have some downtime doing nothing, or in front of the TV, which is how his brain calms down and feels better” (p. 319). I don’t know about the rest of you ladies, but my brain tends to work the opposite of how Wolf says it should: after a particularly mentally grueling day, I need to veg out in front of the TV and speak to no one. Kind of like Carrie feels when Aiden moves in with her in that episode of Sex & the City.

But maybe us modern, Western women are just living with too many distractions in our lives that prevent us from connecting with our partners, our “Goddess Arrays” and whatever else Wolf thinks we’re lacking. Maybe we’d be better off in the Third World?

“In virtually every culture outside the West, many women spend some time, usually on a daily basis, only with other women (and children)… While women in these societies face immense hurdles and inequities, they often seem to be much less irritated with the men they live with than women tend to be in the West. (I am not addressing here physical abuse.) The burden is not on the husband to somehow, heroically, alone, fill that deep neural need for talk, which his brain chemistry makes difficult to impossible” (p. 320).

Speaking of the Third World, women often give birth at home there (through lack of access to medical practitioners, not necessarily by choice), and hardly anything goes wrong *cue sarcasm*!

“A low-stress environment of soft lighting, soothing music, caring attendants, and the loving presence of family, all actually helped the female body birth a baby, and then feed a newborn, successfully, in clinically measurable ways. Many studies also confirm that stressful hospital birthing environments, in which women in labour are hooked up to intravenous devices, or to fetal monitors that consistently shows false-positive ‘fetal distress’, causes so much ‘bad stress’ in the mother that the stress itself biologically—not just psychologically—arrests labour contractions and inhibits lactation” (p. 34).

Not all Wolf’s points are ignorant ones: she does talk about porn use and modern relationships, scientific studies about the Pill and how it affects the way women physically respond to their significant others and, as I said above, the parts where Wolf discusses the vagina throughout history are quite informative.

However, I kind of wish she had’ve continued the vagina’s “biography” throughout the rest of the book, instead of harping on about her own experience with her retarded pelvic nerve, the luxury operation she underwent to correct it, and that a vagina that’s getting a lot of penetrative action resulting in vaginal orgasms makes for a more creatively fulfilled owner.

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Related: 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James Review.

Image via The Age.

TV: The Carrie Diaries — Vagina Monologues.

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The Carrie Diaries, Fox8’s new series based on Candace Bushnell’s Sex & the City prequel publication of the same name, was not a show I had high hopes for. Maybe that’s why I like it so much!

It’s successfully carved out a niche for itself that’s very separate from the HBO series that made Carrie Bradshaw famous, and even though it’s set in the ’80s, it’s so relatable it could be unfolding in the present day. Unlike Rock of Ages, for example, which was so distracting in its bid to recreate the ’80s, The Carrie Diaries just gets the fashion, hair and music so right.

Not only that, but last night’s episode, “Read Before Use”, really tapped into the essence of Carrie and Sex.

Carrie and Mouse attend an art exhibition in the city with Larissa in which former porn star Monica Penny displays her vagina for a penny in what Larissa calls a reclamation of her power. When it’s Carrie’s turn to place a penny in the jar and view her vagina, Monica takes a liking to the young ingénue and tells her never to let a man make decisions for her and to own her power. This, of course, means Carrie should take to Monica’s throne and show her own vagina.

Being underage but still faking it masterfully, Carrie declines, which leads Larissa to tell her that she’s not the girl she thought she was. Larissa thought Carrie would one day be on a billboard or “on the side of a bus”, in a throwback (forward?) to SATC and Carrie’s column promo. Carrie, exhibiting shades of feminism, tells Larissa it’s her choice not to show her vagina, and asks if that isn’t a form of power, too?

For a show that’s aimed primarily at the high school set, you have to applaud it for using the word vagina more than many other cable television shows. In using “vagina” so unashamedly and weaving the politics of choice and power into the fabric of the episode so seamlessly, “Read Before Use” was like feminism in training for the show’s young viewers. Let’s hope they keep it up.

Image via YouTube.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

In the wake of her death, Tracie Egan Morrissey discusses Cosmopolitan founder Helen Gurley Brown’s feminism. [Jezebel]

Jodie Foster weighs in on the Kristen Stewart cheating scandal. [The Daily Beast]

Rachel Hills gets in touch with her vagina. [Daily Life]

When “Embarrassing Nightclub Photos” means “Embarrassing Slutty Nightclub Photos of Slutty Sluts”. [Jezebel]

In which a woman who was born from coercive sex and into the cycle of abuse and poverty contemplates being aborted objectively. Harrowing yet eye opening stuff. I wish we could all talk about abortion as openly as this. [MamaMia, via Role/Reboot]

Weird story of the week: the Vatican’s newspaper appeals to Mattel to sell the Bald Barbie in stores. You know the world is coming to an end when the Vatican is more progressive than Barbie! [The Guardian]

“The white male liberal gaze.” [Overland]

Yet another successful woman who conducts herself in a feminist manner we have to add to the list of successful women who don’t want to be thought of as conducting themselves in a feminist manner: Melissa Leo. [Jezebel]

Image via The Guardian.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

Disney’s least to most feminist princesses. [Nerve]

A hilarious guide to how to take the best bikini body photos. [Jezebel]

Is the reason not many women hunt because their menstruation stench wards off wild animals? [Scientific American]

A deluge of complaints have come in about Carefree’s latest panty liner ad, saying that the use of the words “discharge” and “vagina” are offensive. When I first watched the ad, brought to my attention from a friend via Facebook, I was shocked: you just don’t hear the word “vagina” in advertisements. But good on you, Carefree, for finally bringing to the mainstream’s attention that most women have vaginas, menstruate and experience discharge. [Jezebel]

On the other hand, do we really need a product to mop up discharge if it’s “normal”? Is this just another misogynistic feminine hygiene product we’re being sold to make our vaginas less “dirty”? [TheVine]

When it comes to the Mooncup, preparation is key. [Feminaust]

O.M.G. Who knew all the boundaries and defences we put up when we’re “… Walking While Female” aren’t enough when you’re ambushed from behind by a guy on a bike. Scary stuff. [Collective Action for Safe Spaces]

The psychology of the compliment.

Interestingly, I had to unpack the psychology—and misogyny—of a compliment paid to me last week.

A male co-worker whom I hadn’t seen in a while complimented me on my hair. I said thanks, but I was thinking of changing it (appointment booked for next week!). He said I should keep it how it is because a lot of men would like it that way. I, tongue-in-cheek, said I definitely wouldn’t change it then because my mission in life is to wear my hair how men like it. He exclaimed that he can never give me a compliment without me taking it the wrong way. I said I take compliments fine, just not from him because there’s always a backstory laced with misogyny.

Earlier that day he’d also been talking about which celebrities he finds hot, and that he used to think Katy Perry was the bomb til Russell Brand posted that unflattering, make-up free shot of her on Twitter. After this, it was the final straw. I asked him to please stop talking about the way people look as if it’s the only worth they have. He said I was overreacting (ahh, the catchcry of gaslighters everywhere), and at that point I started to raise my voice. Two of my supervisors came into the office to ask if everything was okay, and I told them that my colleague was being misogynistic, offensive and inappropriate. He claimed I was the one being inappropriate, and my supervisor told him that if I’ve said something offends me and asked for it to be stopped, he has to stop. “No means no,” effectively. He started to sulk and said he would just stop speaking to me altogether (this would not be the first time he’s ostracised himself from fellow co-workers), and my boss said that wouldn’t be necessary; that he could just speak to me about other things.

This kind of behaviour has been going on with this guy since I met him three years ago; colleagues who’ve been there longer than that claim it’s been since day one. He says inappropriate things about peoples’ appearance, whether it be related to their sexuality or perceived sexiness, their race, etc. He has also been known to touch women’s hair and he comments on how I apparently look like Anne Hathaway, Natalie Wood and/or Kat Dennings and how hot he finds them in comparison. I’ve also called him out on defending rapists and saying that lesbians are gross. Obviously, he’s an abhorrent human being, one that until last week I avoided telling that his attitude is disgusting and would he please stop it.

My supervisor later told me that he would respect me more for calling him out; I’m sad to say that his misogyny is too deeply ingrained for what I said to make a difference. No doubt he’ll tell our co-workers that I’m “hysterical”, “overreacting” and “can’t take a compliment”. [Jezebel]

How to tell a rape joke. Daniel Tosh: take note. [Jezebel, Cookies for Breakfast]

Bettina Arndt’s at it again, this time telling women not to overreact to workplace sexual harassment, which is essentially just flirting. [MamaMia]

*Eye roll* Yet another successful, trailblazing female who “isn’t a feminist”: new Yahoo! CEO, Marissa Mayer.[Jezebel]

Image source unknown.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

In praise of nights in. [Girl Lost in the City]

25 kick-ass feminists you need to know about now if you don’t already. [Jezebel]

Reality TV producers do their audience no favours in faking already hyperreal situations. [Jezebel]

Mia Freedman was so unimpressed with Lady Gaga’s Sydney concert, she walked out of it! That doesn’t bode well for me; I’m going on Sunday night! [MamaMia]

If not supporting Gina Rinehart just because she’s a woman doing something in a male dominated industry makes me a bad feminist, then that’s what I am. [MamaMia]

In defence of using the word “vagina” when what we really mean is “vulva”. [Jezebel]