That which must not be named

Literary Review, October 2103

The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History

Emma L E Rees

It is more than four decades since the feminist self-help book Our Bodies Ourselves offered women detailed instructions on how to look at their vaginas. My yellowing copy describes how women learned to feel their bodies were not their own, arguing that this ‘hands-off’ message had even more force when applied to the vagina. Over two pages, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective gave matter-of-fact instructions on self-examination, advising women to prepare by collecting a strong torch, a plastic speculum, a mirror and a tube of KY jelly. Once everything was in place, the ‘pink area, which looks much like the walls of your throat, is your vagina.’

Was that it? Could this pink tube really have inspired such desire, fear and loathing over the centuries? It was a liberating exercise, especially for those of us who had heard all that nonsense about the vagina dentata in myth and literature. It’s amazing, in retrospect, that fearful and suspicious attitudes to the female genitalia have survived feminism’s deliberate demystification. Sadly, some people are still trying to control access to the vagina by persuading girls to feel shame about their genitals or actually sewing them up.

Female genital mutilation emerged in Africa, where it has a long history, but vagina-phobia is a widespread phenomenon. It surfaced dramatically in the US last year when a Democrat, Lisa Brown, was banned from the Michigan House of Representatives for using the word ‘vagina’ in a debate on abortion. Her Republican opponent, Mike Callton, found the noun ‘so offensive I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company’. However distasteful he finds vaginas, it seems quite likely that Mr Callton emerged from one, but I’m happy to report that the taboo on mentioning women’s genitals is nothing like as intact in the UK. I began reading The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History on a long train journey and no one in my carriage batted an eyelid. Perhaps they were familiar with a similarly-titled book from that show-pony of American feminism, Naomi Wolf, who has been writing a vastly over-extended form of memoir for years.

It was inevitable that Wolf would get round to her sexual parts at some point and the title of her most recent volume – Vagina: a New Biography – is telling. Wolf writes about the subject in a queasy combination of confessional anecdote and psycho-babble, which isn’t an accusation I’d level at Emma L E Rees. She is an academic, senior lecturer in English at the University of Chester, and her book arrives with reams of footnotes and a bibliography stretching to 18 pages. She clearly wants us to know that she has read dozens of books, journals and newspaper articles, visited websites, corresponded with others authors, watched episodes of South Park and listened to Metallica and Lady Gaga. It is an almost compulsive demonstration of scholarship, as though Rees is trying to establish her credentials as a serious writer while using the word ‘cunt’ a great deal.

Feminists have been trying to reclaim ‘cunt’ for a long time; the Pop artist Caroline Coon produced a painting entitled ‘My Beautiful Cunt’ as long ago as 1966. The discussion has been going on ever since, with contributions from Germaine Greer and Caitlin Moran among others, and Rees makes a bold claim when she says her approach is different. In her introduction, she argues that her book has two key tenets, which she identifies as the notions of ‘covert visibility’ and the ‘autonomized cunt’. What on earth is she talking about? She answers with a question of her own: ‘What happens to women when their psychical and physiological identities come apart and the hitherto unspeakable and unseen cunt both speaks and is seen?’

Oh, right. To be honest, I didn’t think anyone wrote like this any longer. Sometimes Rees sounds as though she’s parodying po-faced academic writing: ‘A Theological Position was the American writer Robert Coover’s fourth publication, his first successful foray into drama after two novels….and a collection of short stories, Pricksongs and Descants (1969)’. But her book is solemn and humourless. It is also a tad ungenerous towards successful artists such as Lady Gaga – ‘everything about her is cynically contrived to garner attention and, consequently, dollars’ – and Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues. Rees thinks it should have been called The Cunt Monologues but admits it wouldn’t have been so successful with that title. ‘I’m not suggesting pure self-interest here,’ she says prissily, acknowledging that Ensler’s success has enabled her to raise lots of money for victims of FGM.

Rees’s survey of the way vaginas are represented in art and literature ranges from the French philosopher Diderot to Sex and the City; forays into popular culture are de rigeur in a book like this one, but she expects an improbable degree of coherence from a TV series. She’s sniffy about Carrie’s passion for shoes but writes approvingly about an episode of SATC in which Charlotte, who works in an art gallery, poses for an artist who paints vaginas. But Rees ticks off a later episode on the grounds that it ‘threatens to fragment precisely that bodily integrity which was consummated in Charlotte’s encounter with Neville Morgan’s cunt canvases’. After wading through more than 300 pages of this stuff, I might have to slip out and buy a new pair of killer heels.

Bloomsbury £19.99, ebook £19.99

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