Opinion
Join The Times' book club. This month's selection: "Cadillac Desert"
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 Scott Walker repealed his state's equal pay law and Wisconsin state Sen.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.

  • Bernie Sanders: Why the guy who won't win matters

    Bernie Sanders: Why the guy who won't win matters

    Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-described socialist who kicked off his presidential campaign on Tuesday with a characteristically fiery speech, isn't going to win the 2016 Democratic nomination unless lightning strikes. To be really effective, in any case, the lightning would have to strike Hillary...

  • Charter-Time Warner Cable deal: We'll get the Dodgers, but what else?

    Charter-Time Warner Cable deal: We'll get the Dodgers, but what else?

    The real winner of the failed Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal became abundantly clear Tuesday: It was Time Warner Cable. Federal regulators opposed Comcast's $45-billion acquisition on the grounds that combining the first- and second-largest cable TV operators would threaten competition in the emerging...

  • Iran's trial of Washington Post writer: Secrecy, not justice

    Iran's trial of Washington Post writer: Secrecy, not justice

    A Revolutionary Court judge in Tehran held a two-hour hearing Tuesday in the espionage trial of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, who was born and raised in the Bay Area and holds dual U.S. and Iranian citizenship. Because the court proceedings are secret and the indictment remains under...

  • Trading grass for cash: MWD has a winner on its hands

    Trading grass for cash: MWD has a winner on its hands

    The drought warnings have sunk in. So many Southern Californians want to rip out their water-hogging lawns that the Metropolitan Water District nearly ran out of money for turf removal rebates. In the last year, residents, businesses and public agencies filed more than 45,000 applications seeking...

  • Vietnam through the eyes of Latino soldiers

    Vietnam through the eyes of Latino soldiers

    The monument to all Mexican American veterans in Boyle Heights was dedicated in 1947 — the same year that a new generation of Latino soldiers, the Vietnam generation, was being born. The war in Southeast Asia ended 40 years ago; it would be another five years before the U.S. began counting Latinos...

Comments
Loading