I doubt the most brilliant novelist in the world could have created a more skewering satire of Naomi Wolf’s career than her latest book, Vagina: A Biography. One the most prominent feminists in the country writes about her failure to see Technicolor after having sex—“the colors were just colors—they did not pulsate after lovemaking anymore”? And her subsequent painful spinal operation that restored the “pulsating colors”? A book in which she calls the vagina “the goddess” and has the revelation that the vagina “is a gateway to, and medium of, female self-knowledge and consciousness themselves”? It would be hard to write a parody more effective, more sublime, than this.
But to back up: The very public story of how Naomi Wolf went from a bright, promising Rhodes Scholar to this inventive variety of navel-gazer tells us some uncomfortable things about the culture and more specifically, the media. There is a way in which bookers on television shows, consumers of magazines, publicists, television viewers, blockbuster book buyers, and Amazon reviewers are implicated in what Naomi Wolf has become.
Personally, I never felt The Beauty Myth said anything that wasn’t said more charismatically, and much earlier, in books such as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, but it was undeniably cherished by a generation of smart girls. I remember once hearing Wolf give a talk when I was a student at Princeton. She roused the crowd of undergraduates in evangelical tones. She proposed in the emotional denouement of her speech that Princeton should put up a banner outside the front gate of the campus declaring the campus an “Anorexia Free Zone.” I stood in the audience of ardent fans, thinking, “Really? Would that help?” but the applause was thunderous; the audience was officially awakened, though the banner was never actually put up. It was then I saw Naomi’s deftness and power, how she could infuse confused or anxious girls with political energy, which is not an inconsiderable gift.
For someone like her, I imagine that sort of attention or public love is seductive—the applause, the adoring letters, the invitations to green rooms. And so we can fast-forward to the days when she was no longer getting as much of that attention. Her 2001 book about motherhood, Misconceptions, in which she compared herself on the operating table getting a caesarian to Jesus on the crucifix, did not connect in the same way as her first book. In the new century, the mainstream culture had developed a taste for more sophisticated or nuanced kinds of feminism, for a sense of humor or irony or subtlety in politics that was not exactly Wolf’s forte. The hordes of impressionable young were losing interest, moving on.
A few years later, in 2004, Wolf came out with a breathlessly written report in New York Magazine that Harold Bloom put his hand on her knee once when she was in college. He had come over to dinner to talk about her poems and put his “heavy boneless hand” on her knee, after which “The whole thing had suddenly taken on the quality of a bad horror film.” This was, to be clear, a bad horror film in which the shambling villain left immediately after she showed no interest. Wolf had for years been elaborately alluding to this moment, all but naming him, drawing out the story and dwelling lovingly on details, hinting extravagantly, and then she decided to just go ahead and write the piece. This knee-touching incident had occurred in 1983, 21 years earlier. The story did not put her back in the feminist spotlight, with younger writers criticizing her, and others failing to clamor for Bloom’s removal from the university.
A year or so later, Naomi announced that she discovered Jesus on a book tour. She happened to choose as her confidante for this intimate revelation a journalist for a Glasgow, Scotland, newspaper who was interviewing her for the tour. She said she had a vision of Jesus. It’s typical of Wolf that she didn’t investigate Christianity, so much as experience a vision. The emotional has always taken precedence over the intellectual in Wolf’s way of being, the raw unloosing of an idea as opposed to the analytical fleshing out.
These moments could uncharitably be seen as grabs for attention by an exhibitionistic writer, or they could be seen as a symptom of a slightly dysfunctional news media, which is demanding personal revelation, memoirish moments of inspiration rather than a cool intellectual product. If we think of French feminists’ books, such as Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict, for instance, and their dry interpretations, their lack of interest in trafficking in personal revelation, we see a difference in the ways ideas work in our culture. We like our political points to have a character with a life story attached, and that hunger may be partially at fault in Wolf’s bizarre career trajectory. Wolf has always been a creature of public fantasy, a reflection of our desire for attractive victimhood, for outspoken reductionism, for easy answers with a “relatable” narrative.
In the latest book, she uses faux academic language, and science, and personal confession mingled with a new-age idiom, to essentially express the idea that sexual happiness is vitally connected to women’s sense of well-being (a conclusion we could perhaps have come to without fancy studies, and Technicolor orgasm stories, but who knows?).
There are some great comic moments along the way. One I like is when she describes interviewing men on how they feel about the vagina in general. “As I began to talk about what my subject was, scores of men of my acquaintance responded to my questions about their relationship to the vagina with hearteningly endearing answers. … To my surprise, many heterosexual men who were willing to talk to me about how they really felt expressed a kind of holistic (that is, not merely sexual) gratitude for the vagina.”
There is also the moment when the unusual aftereffect of her orgasms are restored to her: “Sexual recovery for me was like that transition in The Wizard of Oz in which Dorothy goes from black-and-white Kansas to colorful, magical Oz. Slowly after orgasm I once again saw light flowing into the world around me. … I looked out of the window at the trees tossing their new leaves and the wind lifting their branches in great waves, and it all looked like an intensely choreographed dance, in which all of nature was expressing something. The moving grasses, the sweeping tree branches, the birds calling from invisible locations in the dappled shadows seemed again all to be in communication with one another. I thought: it is back.”
An older writer once wrote to me that Naomi Wolf was a “yuppie barracuda with an execrable prose style,” and the words do float back to me as I read her new book. What’s perhaps most disturbing, though, are the ways in which she is our yuppie barracuda. We should be looking very closely at the shallow fantasies or cultural yearnings and subterranean pressures or forces that created this particular yuppie barracuda effervescence.