Opinion
Reading Los Angeles: Join The Times' new book club
Opinion Opinion L.A.

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 Scott Walker repealed his state's equal pay law and Wisconsin state Sen.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
Related Content
  • Helen Gurley Brown, Cosmo and the limits of stiletto lib
    Helen Gurley Brown, Cosmo and the limits of stiletto lib

    By taking the concept of independence and reframing it as a lifestyle, Helen Gurley Brown's vision was less a revolution than a brilliant marketing scheme.

  • In hiking the minimum wage, don't leave tipped workers behind
    In hiking the minimum wage, don't leave tipped workers behind

    Who is responsible for paying a worker's wage? The business owner or the customer? That question is at the heart of a debate over whether business owners in California should be able to pay their tipped workers a lower minimum wage.

  • Two bills protecting patients in healthcare networks deserve passage
    Two bills protecting patients in healthcare networks deserve passage

    The heathcare reforms in the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act remain a work in progress, with some of the law's mandates causing new problems or exacerbating older flaws. One is inaccurate lists of the healthcare providers in insurers' networks; another is surprise bills by out-of-network...

  • Will L.A. County give its art the space it's due?
    Will L.A. County give its art the space it's due?

    In a prelude to its 50th anniversary celebration, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art released Swiss architect Peter Zumthor's most recent plan to expand the museum at the end of March. County money has been earmarked, and there's a sense that LACMA may finally deliver on its decades-old dream...

  • Hillary Clinton's conflict-of-interest problems
    Hillary Clinton's conflict-of-interest problems

    The harshest charges against Hillary Rodham Clinton — that she made decisions that favored donors to her family's charitable foundation when she was secretary of State — aren't sticking. Yes, the Obama administration approved a donor's sale of U.S. uranium mines to a Russian firm, but Clinton does...

  • Today, a softer response to police violence than in 1960s and '70s
    Today, a softer response to police violence than in 1960s and '70s

    For those of us who were around in the late 1960s and '70s, the headlines since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August have brought a dizzying sense of deja vu: The protests, the placards. The sobbing black families, the stone-faced white police chiefs. The endless debates in the...

Comments
Loading