Your Use of the Word Vagina Is Shocking No One

A column about life, culture, and politics.
Aug. 9 2012 4:00 AM

Enough With Vagina

It’s no longer shocking to casually drop that word, so let’s stop.

Protest at the Michigan State Capitol Building where legislators, activists and actresses performed The Vagina Monologues on the Capitol steps.
Are we over vagina protests yet?

ACLU of Michigan Facebook page.

If I could expurgate a single trendy cliché from common usage it would be the tired, liberal trope of throwing around the word vagina. You know what I mean. The self-consciously outrageous, sleekly ironic dropping of the clinical term? As in, from Jezebel: “Pat your vagina on the back, ladies” and “What does the Supreme Court Ruling on Obamacare Mean for Your Vagina?” and “Joseph Gordon-Levitt says Most Pretty Girls Aren’t Funny; Our Vaginas Sigh with Disappointment.” And from Slate’s own Double X: “The punchiest, most quick witted sitcom on television is the brainchild of a bonafide Vagina-American, Tina Fey,” or “the right wing of their party campaigns on fear of the Vagina.”

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The main problem with the in-your-face vagina talk is the showy, childish hint of self-congratulation at one’s own utter lack of puritanism. The phrase revels in its plain-talking refusal of conservative delicacy, but it revels so much and so flamboyantly in that refusal that it becomes part of the same puritanical obsession. Which is to say the feminists who are so childishly flouting conservative squeamishness are buying into the same set of values or dancing around the same maypole as the squeamish right wing.

Why not rise above the silliness? Why play into the puritanical obsession? Those shouting the word from the roof tops in that particular, self-conscious way—not to mention cartoonishly anthropomorphizing a body part—are proving themselves equally transfixed by what should be a banal biological descriptor.

The word has become such a cliché that any element of surprise (and therefore political efficacy) it might have had years ago, say in the era of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, is gone. Remember the endless pictures of women with cardboard signs on Facebook: “If I Wanted the Government in My Vagina, I’d Fuck a Senator,” and variations on that theme? Well, these slogans may have once had a certain shock value, a momentary focusing of the mind on the more important political issues at hand, which are, of course, not about vaginas, but about civil liberties. (“Conservative lawmakers have been feverishly at work enacting laws designed to shove the whole government into your vagina.”) But as the trope has entered into that phase of its life cycle that is shopworn cliché, it is no longer fresh or startling. It’s simply irritating, predictable, boring. And it is detracting attention from the real issue which is not “your vagina” but larger things like health care and Roe v. Wade.

Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf.

Ecco, September 2012.

Some will argue that by using the word so casually and constantly, they are reclaiming it, and therefore affirming their power over their own bodies. But one of the reasons not to succumb to the temptation of that argument is that the word-drop confirms a certain perception about narcissistic, navel gazing urban, liberal elites. To try so hard to be shocking, or to be ironically referencing the fact that you are not being shocking, is in fact, in any kind of political discourse, to reduce the level of the conversation to you; to draw attention to yourself—“Hey look at me! Aren’t I cool for using this word and irritating and shocking some theoretical Southern senator?”—rather than, for instance, seeing or taking in the nuances of the political landscape and discussing them.

And if you were tempted to think, in the quiet of midsummer, that those cool and daring girls who talk loudly about their vaginas might be vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard and losing interest in talking about their vaginas, or your vagina, or someone else’s vagina, you will be disheartened to see that in a few short weeks, in September, Naomi Wolf’s new book, Vagina: A New Biography, will hit the weary shelves of Barnes and Noble. And if you thought that book might not include the simple, mindless chanting of the word I have been currently lamenting, you would be sadly mistaken. In the conclusion Wolf quotes with great approval some girls who stand up in their high school assembly and shout: “Vagina! Vagina! Vagina!” Will we ever leave that halcyon high-school moment behind? 

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

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