Naomi Wolf’s new book brought on a migraine, the doomed sort that comes free with déjà vu. The feeling was intensely familiar, but distant. How long ago was it? The moment returned with sickening clarity.
February 1998. A gelid grey afternoon in New York. I’m at the Barnes & Noble flagship store at Union Square to pick up a book I’ve ordered over the phone. I expect the next five minutes to be simple. I walk up to the counter and ask the girl for the book they’re holding for me. I tell her my name. She finds the slim paperback. It has a white slip secured at the spine by a red rubber band, with my name written in blue ballpoint. I can see it clearly from where I stand. She pulls out the book, glances at the cover, and freezes. She reads it once, twice, and then looks up at me with disgust writ large on her face. She glances around at the line of checkout terminals, and pointedly asks me to name the book I have ordered. She makes me say it thrice, each time pretending she cannot hear me, until everyone there has heard me say The Vagina Monologues, like some pervert in a play. Every eye there is on me as I make my purchase and leave the store. I want to fling the thing into the trash bin at the subway entrance to the N&R line. But I don’t. I have come in from Brooklyn specially to get this darned book.
I still have it somewhere, that red paperback Random House original, embossed with a conch, elegantly reticent and anonymous. The newer editions all have a muscular Eve Ensler on the cover. The change is symbolic of a larger, more public, metamorphosis.
Back in Bombay, Strand had no qualms about stocking the book, and I urged Dolly Thakore to read it. The play premiered here in 2002.
I’ve watched the play several times over the last decade. The first time, I watched the stage. Every time since, I’ve watched the audience. In 2002, the audience was largely female. The few men present were clearly there under duress. When the lights came on, the women seemed transfigured. Complete strangers exchanged smiles and chatter. A barbed silence isolated the men. The moment they turned to their partners, sisterhood snapped like a rubber band. Women who had come escorted made a speedy exit. The others mobbed the stage.
Two years later, perhaps because there were Hollywood celebrities onstage, there were plenty of men in the audience, all of them middle-aged. They looked not angry, but intent. The laughter was embarrassed, the applause earnest.
I watched the play again this year. It was a riot. The audience was young, with perfect gender equity. They were helpless with laughter through most of the show, at ease with the banter, and only mildly subdued by the darker passages. The actors too, played it for laughs—the Moaner monologue fair brought down the house.
From my vantage, the play boomeranged. It had started off as an obscenity and it ended as a joke. True, there was an interlude of acceptance, but it homed in on misogyny. It had returned the word to the street, where it is a familiar idiom. As I battled home through a traffic snarl, the thrust and parry of public discourse was totally vaginal. Bus drivers, truckers, bikers, policemen, they were all shouting vaginas at the top of their lungs. These were men, angry, raucous, bawdy, mirthful, sneering, joyfully putting the word through the gamut I had just heard portrayed by women who had finally won themselves the right to be at ease with their genitals. How did the audience read that equation?
I was reminded of the Egyptian writer Nawal El Sadawi’s comment on a protest by young women in Paris defending their right to wear the hijaab. Leaning forward, eyes brimming with tears, she demanded, “Is this the freedom I fought for?”
You may still argue that ‘Let’s talk vaginas’ is less misogynistic than ignoring them—unless you’ve read Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography. (Ah, if you haven’t, this will save you Rs 1,200).
The fallacy in projecting philosophy through a body part is that this tends to ignore anatomy. The Allegory of the Vagina is a difficult sell. The vagina cannot personify womanhood because its experience is necessarily limited to its function. Ensler’s play awards the vagina personhood and so shifts the dimension from allegory to fantasy.
Certainly, the vagina (more correctly, the vulva) is made up of sentient skin and mucosa. To the inspired cerebrant, its folds may even look like gyri and sulci, but there is simply no use pretending it is Einstein’s brain. It can’t make sense of the universe, nor can it ponder cosmic truths. The oracular vagina of feminism is just as misogynistic as the silenced vagina of patriarchy. Both reduce the woman to a purely genital identity.
That’s bad enough as metaphor. What if you had to read 355 pages of godawful prose which insisted it was fact?
I just did.
The first thing to smack you about Wolf’s Vagina is the writing, a hyperpniec rant that barely coheres:
‘I realized one day, as I gazed out on the rooftops outside the bedroom of our little cottage upstate, that the usual postcoital rush of a sense of vitality infusing the world, of delight with me and with all around me, and of creative energy rushing through everything alive, was no longer following the physical pleasure I had certainly experienced.’
After reading that sentence, it was difficult to contradict Wolf’s fear that she was losing her mind, but I persevered through her visit to the gynaecologist. Wolf, who seems to have missed out on school science, now makes the breathtaking discovery that genital sensation is perceived by tactile receptors, conveyed by nerves to the spinal cord, then processed and transmitted to the brain. And, as Sunday readers of lifestyle supplements will vouch, the brain parties on a neat cocktail of pleasure chemicals, so if you can’t have great sex, you can still knock yourself out on dopamine with a slab of dark chocolate and a pair of Jimmy Choos. But Wolf is above such simple pleasures. She opts instead for a muddled Anatomy 101. It leads, if not yet to orgasm, at least to epiphany:
‘The vulva, clitoris and vagina are actually best understood as the surface of an ocean that is shot through with vibrant networks of underwater lightning—intricate and fragile, individually varied neural pathways, it looks like a tangled skein of a hundred thousand golden threads that has been drawn upward.’
And lest you think you’re sitting down on a mass produced motherboard, here’s how customised your tangled skein really is:
‘Among the many incredible things about your incredible pelvic nerve and its lovely multiple branches is that, as we saw it, it is completely unique for every individual woman on earth—no two women are alike.’
Even Cosmo For Tweenies would be a tad less wide-eyed.
Next, Wolf discovers the mysteries of the Autonomic Nervous System—described by Galen in 1 AD and public knowledge since 1885.
After some bright natter about the pituitary and hypothalamus, she announces:
‘So it’s right to say that the vagina is sending signals to the brain during lovemaking that mediate consciousness… If femininity resided anywhere, I would say it resides there in that electric inward network extending from pelvis to brain.’
Writing twee about feminine mystique is one thing, but to pass off blather like this as science is atrocity. When popular science writing is taught in universities, when the vagina already has more lives than a cat, why then publish this book?
Inspired by her vaginal vision, Wolf interviews other creative people about their vaginal contributions. One actor tells her she had an orgasm onstage.
‘I clutched my wineglass,’ Wolf writes. ‘So it was not just that orgasm might heighten creativity in women; maybe creativity also heightens orgasm.’
Wolf puts the thought to vote with her Facebook community (16,800 and counting). Many wine-glass clutching moments later, Wolf concludes:
‘What had happened to us was that dopamine—among other substances, including oxytocin and opioids—had hit our systems, before, during and after love-making. Dopamine is the ultimate feminist chemical in the female brain.’ Sez you.
Broken hearts should be up next. What do you do when the phone doesn’t ring? Cadbury’s Milk Tray, pizza and Colin Firth as Mr Darcy?
Oh no, that’s quite another league.
After 150 pages of our Naomi, Bridget Jones reads like Finnegan’s Wake in Greek. According to Wolf, there’s nothing quite like brain chemistry to liven up a pajama party:
‘If he or she is the one who turns the ANS up on high alert, who delivers the dopamine high from anticipation, who leaves you with the world aglow from opioid release—that is the same man or woman who makes you ache with anxiety for the follow-up call. If this is the person with the right touch to activate your unique neural network, you will go into withdrawal if he or she is not around to do this again, and fairly soon. Actual painful withdrawal.’
I worry because Wolf’s earlier, saner, The Beauty Myth has made her a sage of sorts, and women, very young women, will take this tosh seriously, and convince themselves their wounds might be fatal. Baffled by their savoir faire, we often underestimate how credulous and vulnerable the young actually are.
Wolf serves up a rehash of the vagina in Western culture, ancient and contemporary, with no new insight. Equally trite is her overview of vaginal vocabulary, slang and literary. The chapter on pornography has important ideas to project, but despite more muddled neuroscience, fails to come up with anything more modern than a ‘if you do that it will fall off’ caution. All this can only lead to the expected denouement. Enter the Love Guru.
There are several, actually. Whatever their credentials, Wolf has put them in her book because of her Second Wave of Enlightenment. Her dopamine-soaked brain turns east, and torn between Tao and Tantra, she chooses the second. Looking for a ‘Tantric trove of wisdom’ lands her in a yoni workshop for ‘sacred spot massage’. The atmosphere among the women is like ‘an all ages sleepover’. Amrita comes to them through heavenly realms, they’re told, and are advised to let go—but only if they have towels. Notes are exchanged. Meanwhile, the guys are being tutored. The girls can then check out a partner and whiz him up to a hotel room to get a sacred spot massage. I read to the end of the chapter just to learn if Wolf would.
After a couple of centuries of really turgid Orientalism, the book trade came up for air, but this ‘new biography’ tells me it has dived right back into the cesspool.
If Wolf was ignorant of basic anatomy in the first part of the book, she’s naïve to the point of imbecility when it comes to cultures not her own.
When Mike Lousada, guru for all things yoni, greets her with ‘Welcome, Goddess’, Wolf takes it seriously: page 288, I won’t quote, it’s pathetic.
The rest of the book is about Wolf’s Goddess Array, entirely batty, and also the very pits of misogyny. She’s in no doubt that all women fantasise about rape—why else should EL James be a sell-out?—and writes: ‘One must confront the fact that there must be something magnetic about, not force in men, but about a kind of capacity for mastery.’
Why am I not surprised? This is just the trashy old M&B bodice-ripper exhumed. I won’t be surprised too if this finds a niche as a third-wave feminist text. It is the exact kind of mindless bleat which begets a herd following.
For me, as for the rest of the billion in this country, feminism begins with the right of a woman to be born and her right not to be killed. It is as simple and existentialist as that. The sad truth is though men may have invented the rules of patriarchy, it is women who sustain the system. Four-fifths of Indian women will never read Naomi Wolf. The one-fifth who might, will learn it doesn’t really hit the spot, sacred or profane.
Nonetheless, if it leaves you too with a migraine, I suggest the hair of the dog that bit you. No, not The Beauty Myth—but Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman. It is everything Wolf’s book is not: intelligent, witty, joyous and large-hearted. It will make you want to be a woman if you aren’t one.
Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan write together under the pen name Kalpish Ratna. Their new book Once Upon A Hill (HarperCollins) was published in July