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Daum: Naomi Wolf's vaginal sideshow

It's a strange time to be a woman. I say this not because state legislatures enacted no less than 95 restrictions on reproductive rights this year. I say it not because at the same time, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker repealed his state's equal pay law and Wisconsin state Sen. Glenn Grothman conjectured that "money is more important for men." Or because, just last month, an alarming number of male legislators demonstrated serious confusion about the birds and the bees.

I'm saying it because Naomi Wolf has written a book about her vagina. It's called "Vagina: A New Biography." And it's kind of bad news for everybody who has one.

Wolf is often described as "one of America's foremost feminist thinkers," an assertion that has been something of an article of faith since the early 1990s. That's when she became famous for "The Beauty Myth," which argued that culturally sanctioned

notions of beauty are entirely the product of societal norms, which are in turn defined by the patriarchy. Since then, her work has generally fallen into two categories: counterintuitive provocations (wearing a chador is freeing!) and obvious statements dressed up as revelatory insights (women feel pressure to look hot; this is socially constructed). Wolf is also known for advising Al Gore during the 2000 presidential campaign to wear earth tones.

And now, "Vagina." The book, Wolf explains, came out of a sudden diminishment in the quality of her sexual climaxes, a crisis she compares to a "horror movie." When her doctor links the problem to a compressed pelvic nerve and explains that there are neural pathways between the brain and the genitals, Wolf is so thunderstruck that she sets out to write a cultural history of the vagina — though not before attending a dinner party celebrating her book deal where a male chef prepares "vagina-shaped pasta" but gives it such a crude nickname that she suffers six months of writer's block.

The book (which, Wolf notes, turned out not to be a cultural history but a sort of manifesto about the vagina's place as "the center of the universe") isn't just generating unfavorable reviews; it's inspiring a flurry of baffled, whimsical, sometimes brilliant critiques that almost make you wonder if the whole thing was designed as a writing prompt. "Feet, too, join up with the [central nervous system] — thus reflexologists, and why bunions are so painful," wrote Jenny Turner in the Guardian.

Wolf's book is painful too. For starters, there's the spectacle of the pillorying she's enduring. She's rallying the feminist troops, sure, but they're mostly getting together to snicker and write clever blog posts.

Ultimately, however, the book's cringe factor has less to do with its overbearing, oversharing subject matter or its in-your-face title than with the ways in which, despite cloaking itself in the sex-positive spirit of third-wave feminism, it plays into hoary ideas about how women think.

By asserting that what's between a woman's ears is directly informed by what's between her legs — "the vagina mediates female confidence, creativity and sense of transcendence," Wolf writes — it acts as a perverse echo of Republican efforts to limit reproductive rights. It suggests that women are neither whole nor even the sum of our parts but, in fact, just one part.

Wolf would, of course, be outraged to read this. By elevating the vagina, she'd say, she is broadening the scope of female sexuality, not using it as grounds for policing women's bodies.

Fine, fine. But whatever her intention and to whatever degree the discomfiting aspects of the book stem from its still ridiculously taboo subject (and disturbing pasta recipes), the fact remains that there's something odd and exasperating about the timing of the whole thing. In a political season shot through with questions about what constitutes rape and when life begins and whether the "war on women" is phony or real, we could all benefit from some smart, substantive thinking from one of America's foremost feminist thinkers. If Naomi Wolf ever really qualified — and that is debatable — she appears to have excused herself from the table.

And that's too bad. There's a lot going on that she's missing. But such are the hazards of gazing down rather than looking around.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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