I was circling LAX last week, waiting for a friend to deplane from New York, when a call from an NYC area code lit up my cell. “Hey!” I shouted in the phone’s direction, balancing it on my knees to avoid police detection. “Um, hi,” a gentle voice on the other end replied. “This is Naomi Wolf?”
Hearing Wolf’s voice on the other end of the line (she was calling to arrange details for our interview the next day) felt strangely familiar, probably because I have been listening to Wolf speak for my entire adult life. I was 6 years old when 1991’s The Beauty Myth vaulted her to feminist icon status. By the time I had gained some semblance of my own feminist consciousness, the book’s argument—that impossible physical demands on female bodies force women to work a “third shift” in service of the beauty industry—had become so culturally pervasive, it felt more like conventional wisdom than star-making insight. Driving away from the airport with my friend in tow, we talked about how, as twentysomething feminists, we felt both closely aligned and oddly removed from Wolf’s work. “By the time I heard about the book, I feel like I’d already learned all of that stuff from the Internet,” my friend told me. “It was like, ‘No duh!’ ”
Wolf’s new book—Vagina: A Biography—is unlikely to inspire a similar cultural revolution. The wide-ranging vaginal probe jumps off from Wolf’s own medical journey to reclaim her transcendent “Technicolor orgasms,” surveys the scientific literature on female sexuality, then draws the conclusion that a previously undiscovered “vagina-mind connection” (no duh) stretches beyond neuroscience to make up a “part of the female soul” (just … no). “I think it’s really interesting to note that it’s gotten some of the best reviews of my career, and of course the most hostile,” Wolf tells me when we meet for coffee the next day.
Mostly, though, they’ve been hostile: The effort has been dismissed as silly, self-parodying, childish, and scientifically inaccurate. Its argument is essentialist (“having discovered that every woman is sexually unique, she proceeds to write 300 more pages arguing that they are all the same,” Katha Pollitt wrote in The Nation), its aesthetics dippy (“it’s lucky vaginas can’t read,” Pollitt added). And those weaknesses compound upon one another. Wolf defines a woman’s suite of sexual needs as “The Goddess Array,” describes the vagina as a “Goddess-shaped” hole, and says that her study sheds light on the experience of “the Universal or Divine Feminine.”
But Vagina’s contents are not universal—in the book’s introduction, Wolf notes that she’s focusing primarily on the “exploration of heterosexual women’s physical and emotional interactions with men,” and suggests that “the physiology of lesbian and bisexual eros” and the “lesbian and bisexual mind-body connection” deserve “books of their own.” Vagina is, like much mainstream feminist literature (and this article, too), written from the perspective of a white, straight woman.
When I bring this up, Wolf takes issue with the characterization of herself as “straight”—she says she doesn’t “believe in those categories,” though she employs them throughout the book—and says that Vagina’s nonexistent exploration of lesbian, bisexual, and trans sexuality is the result of larger structural inequalities, not her specific feminine perspective. “There’s nobody proposing, ‘let’s study lesbian sexuality, bisexuality, transgender issues, let’s study intersex.’ You can’t fund it in America,” she says. “I was trying to be honest about the nature of some of the data I was looking at. … I didn’t want to tokenize. Female sexuality is so complex that there should be books and books and books about all aspects of it.”