Week Woman

A Pox on the Patriarchy

There’s Something Fishy in the State of Wolf Criticism

This has now been republished in the Huffington Post; please do comment there!

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Caroline Criado-Perez

There’s been something a little unseemly going on in the past week, and it concerns Naomi Wolf’s Vagina

Sorry.

But all the best articles seem to start with a punning crack [god I’m really sorry, I can’t seem to help myself] about Wolf’s subject. And I can’t help wondering if this isn’t just a little bit problematic, and if it doesn’t, just a little bit, make Wolf’s point for her?

One of Wolf’s central contentions is that the vagina has, for too long, been a source of shame for women and that, as a result, it has not been explored properly. This is a simple ‘scientific’ fact – it wasn’t until the 1990s, that we began to research the internal clitoris using MRI – by which time the internal workings of the penis had been known for twenty years. There is still clearly a lot that we do not know about female sexual dysfunction, and judging by the derisive tone of much of the commentary on Wolf’s new book, this starts to look a little less surprising, since, well, it just doesn’t seem like we take the vagina very seriously.

And beyond the obligatory ‘haha it’s a fanny’ jokes, there seems to be something quite disturbing going on – something that hints at the level to which patriarchal thinking is internalised, to the extent that it is propagated by some of our most respected, and supposedly ‘feminist’, writers.

The overwhelming tone of the reviews has been one of mockery. And perhaps with good reason – there do appear to be major issues with Wolf’s grasp of the science behind her claims. Nevertheless, this does not account for a lot of the dismissive and snide critiques of the topic itself, of the woman who is writing it, and what seems to have offended people most, the way she has written it.

Rosi Braidotti once wrote of the ‘dutiful daughter syndrome’; by this she means that women too often feel the need to emulate a certain philosophically accepted discourse, in order to have their ideas taken seriously. She argues that not only is this unnecessary, it is also counterproductive, since it merely perpetuates a discourse created by and for the patriarchy – in other words, it is all but impossible to write about feminism using patriarchal terms. Seems fair enough really – almost painfully obvious in fact.

And yet here I am, almost losing count of the number of times Wolf has been derided for her ‘breathless’ style; if it’s not dry, academic, ‘serious’, it’s just not cricket. Here I am finding critiques, not of her science, but of her daring to refer to ‘the emotional’, to her own experience – because, of course, ‘feelings’ are nothing but a woolly, feminine sphere that have no place in the serious and manly art of science. We even have two critics who mock Wolf’s ‘victimhood’ – one, for her daring not to speak up about an unpleasant sexual encounter within some sort of ‘appropriate’ time limit, and one because Wolf’s ‘show-off’ behaviour means that she’s forfeited her right to be upset about the now infamous salmon. Whether or not you like Wolf, or approve of her reactions, this sounds disturbingly close to the type of thinking that enables victim-blaming.  And it’s pretty ugly to see it coming out of the mouths of feminists.

Just as ugly, if not more so, is the derision, the undermining, the outright dismissal of Wolf’s chosen topic. In her New Statesman piece, Laurie Penny makes some very sound criticisms of Wolf’s work; her comment that the apotheosis of women is a mere coin-toss away from their demonization is important, recalling Mary Wollstonecraft’s passionate cry, ‘Why are girls to be told that they resemble angels; but to sink them below women?’

Nevertheless, Penny engages in a ranking of ‘things we consider to be important’ that seems counterintuitive to the feminist movement. She talks of ‘mere lifestyle issues’, without seeming to question the premise from which ‘lifestyle’ is considered so relatively unimportant – but isn’t the way we live our lives what we fight with the current government for every day? She juxtaposes public cuts with vagina cuts, as if we can only consider one thing at a time – but isn’t that the type of rhetoric that repeatedly sees women’s rights cast to the bottom of the UN’s priority list? Penny rightly demands, that ‘We must not allow our agenda to become castrated, sliced back, tidied away into permissible areas of discussion’ – but it feels like, with this piece, that is exactly what she is doing.

And she is not alone.

Jenny Turner in The Guardian likewise presents us with a choice. In her understanding, Wolf is to be ridiculed (‘Wolf may be appalled that many women seem resigned to sexual self-bludgeoning in exchange for the basic ability to keep going’) for highlighting the rather poor option currently faced by women of ‘keeping going’ or having a happy sex life. The implicit value judgement denoted by this snide tone is that sex-life is not as important as other parts of life. But why not? It’s something that is (mainly) free, that has the power to bring a lot of people a lot of pleasure. In a time of economic hardship, why is it so bad to try to help people achieve that? And why do so many think that it has to be an ‘either, or’ scenario? Why must our lives be compartmentalised in this limiting way?

I often get asked why I feel so strongly about women’s representation in the media – after all, people tell me, there are women living in poverty, there are women being raped, there are women being emotionally abused. And my answer is always that, yes there are, but this is not a separate issue. It’s all part of the same, damaging culture. The media representation of women, and women’s lives exist in a reciprocal relationship.

Similarly, I would ask Penny whether she doesn’t consider that the fact that public cuts disproportionately affect women has something to do with the value judgment we place upon women and ‘women’s issues’. I would ask Turner why she thinks that it is acceptable that women just have to live with a low sex-drive in order to ‘keep going’, when men have Viagra coming out of their ears.

And I would ask us all why we are still so uncomfortable with anything that doesn’t fit neatly into our received ideas about what constitutes serious discourse. We still have a lot to learn about our minds and our bodies – maybe we shouldn’t be so dogmatic about how we express our thinking?

9 comments on “There’s Something Fishy in the State of Wolf Criticism

  1. Rebecca R-C
    September 11, 2012

    I really enjoyed this piece. It’s given me lots to think about.

    I haven’t read Wolf’s book, and in all likelihood, on the basis of the reviews it has had, and the couple of long extracts I’ve read, I’m not going to – there’s too much genuinely good stuff that I want to read to waste time reading something substandard.

    I was am annoyed and frustrated with Wolf for writing what sounds like a really terrible book. The thing I find most hard to forgive is the shoddy science. But equally, I think there is some merit in the claim that the book sounds self-indulgent. I don’t think that any book that talks about women’s sexuality, or our complicated histories and relationships with our own bodies, is by definition self-indulgent. I agree with you that these are multiple important feminist issues, and it’s just fallacious to suggest that until female poverty or domestic violence have been eradicated, we can’t talk about these things. So I really wanted to like this book. I am in the market for a genuinely good, insightful book about the vagina!

    But this one does sound self-indulgent in the worst possible sense – obsessing about her own orgasms, too much hippy dippy, touchy feely hand wavey bullshit for me to like it. And so my first response was to chortle along with all these reviews that criticise her for precisely that.

    But now you’ve got me worried – perhaps there is something sexist about these kinds of criticisms. Many of the reviews, as you so rightly point out, link their criticisms of her pseudoscience and bourgeois hippy stuff with snide comments about her breathy, overemotional style. Without having read the book, it’s hard to know whether these criticisms are fair. Here are the questions that I’m wondering about:

    1. Is the writing overly emotional, breathless, not dry, academic or serious?
    2. If it is, is that a bad thing, or is that fine within the context of this book?
    3. If it isn’t written like that, are people’s suggestions that it is based on sexist assumptions about women’s writing and intellectual capacities?
    4. Or, if it is written like that, are the critics being sexist to dismiss writing in that style, because this is her writing in a woman’s voice, and so they are simply refusing to take a woman’s voice seriously?

    These seem important questions, if I am to assess whether the reviews of her work are subtly misogynist, as you suggest. And I don’t know the answer to any of them!

    • Week Woman
      September 11, 2012

      Thanks for such a thoughtful response! I do agree that the book in itself is not the great Vagina book I was hoping for – there are a few that do sound more hopeful that I plan on buying once the pile on my bedside table is less insanely large! I do feel however, that the tone of the criticism was problematic irrespective of whether or not her book was the great vagina tome we wanted…the criticisms were less of her findings, and more of her subject and her tone, which I felt were based in a sexist understanding of what writing should be about.

  2. Bryony Bates
    September 11, 2012

    You’ve hit on something I’m finding very frustrating about all this Naomi Wolf stuff. Yes, there do seem to be serious issues with her writing, and I don’t particularly want to read the book, but valid criticisms are getting mixed up with sexist bullshit.

    Laurie Penny’s article doesn’t surprise me at all. I really want to like her, but she always starts off saying things I kind of agree with and then spoils it.

    I have a certain amount of sympathy for the ‘there are more important things’ argument though. It’s not that I think we shouldn’t talk about women’s representation in the media, it’s just that sometimes that seems to completely dominate Western feminist discourse because it’s what’s most likely to affect middle-class Anglo-American white women, who, quite frankly, still dominate the feminist movement as a whole. But then it’s not about excluding these issues from the debate – it’s about paying attention to other things as well. Feminism is large, it contains multitudes.

    • Week Woman
      September 11, 2012

      Thanks for your interesting comment; I agree that some issues deserve more airtime, but as you say, this should not be achieved by undermining women with sexist discourse.

    • Week Woman
      September 11, 2012

      Also totally agree re penny – I also want to like her but she ruins it!

  3. Mary Tracy (@MaryTracy)
    September 10, 2012

    Also, this: ” in other words, it is all but impossible to write about feminism using patriarchal terms”. This times a thousand!

    Science is a tool of patriarchy. It stands to reason we cannot use science to question patriarchy. And indeed, we know almost nothing about our how our bodies affect our minds and vice versa. Especially when it comes to creativity.

    I do feel Wolf is on very interesting territory, but in my opinion, she chose the wrong approach to it. She’s trying to force science to conform to her theory, and it doesn’t work.

    I would have gone for a “spiritual” explanation of the phenomena. Risky, of course, but at least it would have made her arguments far more difficult to dismiss.

    • Week Woman
      September 10, 2012

      Interesting idea! I don’t know though – I would really like to see science turned to good use on the vagina, like I feel Cordelia Fine did. I think it’s the preconceptions of scientists rather than science per se that is the problem here…

  4. Mary Tracy (@MaryTracy)
    September 10, 2012

    Awesome, awesome post!

    I wouldn’t take Penny very seriously. Today, she decries Wolf for focusing on “lifestyle” issues, and not serious important ones… And she argues that feminists do this today because that’s where the money is. And it’s true. But Penny falls on the same trap. Her previous piece for the New Statesman is titled “in defense of 50 shades”. What’s that if not “lifestyle”? And I get it: Penny needs to eat and pay rent, like everyone else, and surprisingly, talking about the wage gap does not feed many writers.

    • Week Woman
      September 10, 2012

      Agreed – a shame – if not outright hypocritical – that she wants to bring other women down for doing the same.

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This entry was posted on September 10, 2012 by in Features, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .
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