Naomi Wolf: The One Where I Wear A Tin Hat

I have already written about Naomi Wolf’s new book Vagina three times now; despite not actually having read the book. Well, technically, two blogs were about Vagina; the other was about Wolf’s utterly hypocritical and perplexing stance on Assange. But, that’s not quite the point. Normally, I’d be the first to yell “foul” at a critic who hasn’t actually read the book they are critiquing but there are always exceptions to the rules. And, Vagina is one of them. There have been some excellent analyses of the book published recently, notably by Ariel Levy in The New Yorker. Others have veered into unnecessary sexist discourse; there are enough problems with the book that need to be addressed, Wolf’s physical appearance isn’t one of them. 

Of course, Wolf isn’t exactly helping herself with her appearance on Mumsnet or with this article in the Guardian [deconstructed by Glosswatch here]. In general, I have serious problems with Wolf’s research and I think evolutionary psychology is just a bunch of teleological horseshit pretending to be academic. It’s not. It’s just bupkis. But, increasingly, I am beginning to feel that Naomi Wolf is the American academic version of Liz Jones: ostensibly the quintessential handmaiden. Like Jones, I think Wolf is being deliberately set up as an object of mockery. The attacks on Wolf as a person, rather than on the book itself, are simply further evidence of woman-blaming culture. Yes, the book itself deserves ridicule for trying to pass off a personal story as science but the fault for that doesn’t lie with Wolf alone, although her obvious inability to see outwith her own very narrow definition of truth is quite distressing.

If Vagina were an academic text, it would have been peer-reviewed. Any academic publisher with an ounce of sense would have sent proofs to academics involved in research in the field of neuroscience [and evolutionary psychology but I think they make it up as they go along so I wouldn’t have put too much credence into their stance]. The problem is that Vagina isn’t an academic text even though Wolf herself is an academic [yes, one without a PhD but that’s hardly shocking considering the misogyny which inhabits academia; technically, I could class myself as an academic despite not having a PhD so I’m hardly going to hold that against Wolf]. Vagina wasn’t properly peer-reviewed because for the publishers a text by Naomi Wolf isn’t valuable for its scholarship so much as for its eccentricity; she is marketable not as a serious female academic but rather as a somewhat out-there celebrity woman. In other words, they knew they would sell more copies of the book by setting her up for ridicule than they would by presenting it as an academic text on emerging research into neuroscience, sex, sexuality and gender. Wolf is known as a celebrity, not as an academic. Her reputation is that of someone eccentric; a little bit off of centre. She is the acceptable face of feminism in the Patriarchy: kooky and apologetic. But, she’s also a middle aged woman and middle aged women are supposed to be invisible and frigid simultaneously. We aren’t supposed to be talking about our vaginas. Wolf’s publishers went for pulp fiction under the disguise of academic research because they knew it would sell and not because they were interested in changing discourse around sexuality and feminism. They published it because it was a middle aged white woman talking about her vagina. Not just any white woman though. A celebrity. They published it because of Wolf’s celebrity but also to spite it.

And, this is the problem. Vagina is being given consideration as if it were an academic publication when, in reality, it is within the self-help genre of literature. Alright, I dislike the self-help genre but that’s a personal thing. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with self-help books unless they perpetuate victim-blaming myths and misogyny; like that ridiculous quote by Eleanor Roosevelt: “no one can make you feel inferiour without your consent”. Instead, Vagina is being advertised as blurring the boundaries between self-help and academic books. This isn’t to say that academic books are morally superiour. I’ve read some seriously awful misogynistic and racist shite published by academics. Academia doesn’t have the best reputation for supporting research about non-white, non-dead men written by non-white men. Really, in terms of hypocrisy, academic texts are frequently in a class all to themselves. The problem with the blurring in this case is that it has taken something subjective and insisted on objectivity. Most academics understand that objectivity isn’t exactly an achievable goal. So, why does Vagina claim it is?

Vagina is only a feminist text in the way that Caitlyn Moran’s How To Be A Woman is one. That is to say they were both advertised as feminist texts when they were really memoirs that also discuss feminism. They are books written by celebrities about being celebrities. They occupy that weird position between celebrity and news. But, they aren’t feminist texts and, therefore, aren’t really worthy of the scrutiny they have been given as feminist texts. It’s rather like taking the biography of Victoria Beckham as representative of the experience of all mothers in their 30s.* 

The real strength in Moran’s book is the discussions it spawned rather than its feminist analysis. Sometimes the conversations spawned are more important than the text which spawned them. I think Vagina is one of those texts because the discussions around women’s sexuality, reputation, race, neuroscience and feminist theory have already kicked off. It’s just incredibly sad that Naomi Wolf’s reputation is being ground into the dust. I think this is where we should have seen real feminist sister solidarity: most women would talk their friends out of publishing such a book without being more aware of the science behind it. A real sister would have counselled against taking a personal experience and universalising it as truth. A real sister would have asked questions about the cult of celebrity and ask why the Patriarchy would publish a book like this to such fanfare.

But, that’s the real answer. The Patriarchy wouldn’t want a serious book on neuroscience, sex, gender and sexuality published which questioned PIV, pornography and heterosexuality. Because, as white and heteronormative as Wolf is, she has challenged the pornography industry in a way that many other feminists haven’t just by dint of her celebrity status.** Whether or not, we manage to change the conversation away from Wolf’s yoni and into a more mainstream critique of porn remains to be seen. I may buy the book for that reason alone, although the evo psych/yoni crap will annoy me. There are important discussions to be had about this text, in spite of all its failings. But, we need to get out of the trap of insulting Wolf because of her actual vagina.

*I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Ms Beckham. I dislike the hysterical hatred which surrounds her. 

** For a better challenge to porn culture see: Gail Dines, Melinda Tankard-Reist, Robert Jensen, Rebecca Whisnant or here

2 thoughts on “Naomi Wolf: The One Where I Wear A Tin Hat”

  1. I agree there’s been some uncalled for criticism of Wolf personally, but the way you’re describing this suggests she had no agency in writing the book. The patriarchy might love the idea of a celebrity feminist writing about her vagina for sales, but did they tell her to write it in the style she did? Because Caitlin Moran shows that you can write a book that doesn’t cause the patriarchy to have a conniption fit while still keeping many feminists happy (and introducing the idea to many who didn’t previously identify). How come Wolf wrote one that didn’t really tick any boxes?

    I think Wolf knows how to play the game and I think that’s one of the reasons she elicts such extreme reactions. She’s the academic Samantha Brick and that pisses people off who do the real campaigning and writing and don’t get the publicity (see Jaclyn Friedman’s recent tweets.) We shouldn’t criticise her just because she’s a woman, but we shouldn’t not query her just because she’s a woman either. And some of what she’s saying is very dangerous.

  2. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t query Wolf. I do think a lot of what she writes is incredibly harmful. I also don’t think Caitlin Moran’s book was a particularly challenging book for the patriarchy. Moran’s book got published with such fanfare because it didn’t challenge the patriarchal status quo. It also wasn’t a book about feminism. It was a memoir which also discussed feminism but it isn’t a feminist text. Julia Long’s new book Anti-Porn: The Resurgence of Anti-Pornography Feminism is bloody brilliant but it won’t get anywhere near the publicity or sales that Wolf and Moran do because Long is questioning some pretty fundamental premises of the Patriarchy.

    This doesn’t remove agency from Wolf or Moran but they aren’t writing in a vacuum. Their books are getting publicity because they support the patriarchy rather than questioning it.

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