The multicultural joke goes like this: The Lone Ranger and Tonto find themselves in a tough spot, surrounded by hostile Native Americans. “We’d better get out of here,” the Lone Ranger says ominously. To which Tonto replies, “Who you calling ‘we,’ white man?”
I recall this punchline when I read some of the books by self-identified feminists about “women” today.
I promised myself that I’d never write a bad review of any book. A well-known writer once explained to me that he had the same policy, because it’s such a torment even to write a bad book.
So this isn’t a review of Naomi Wolf’s already abundantly criticized Vagina (a book that feels like maybe it was written in a “Fat Elvis” moment of a career—where are the editors???), so much as a meta-review of the reviews. Okay, that’s getting off on a technicality, but…
Why is Vagina so angering, and aggravating in a not-good way?
It’s narcissistic, for one thing. Or perhaps solipsistic: It struggles to distinguish the perspective of the self from the world.
I get the sense that reviewers are viscerally disturbed when writers presume things as universal that have germinated in the cocoon of their own privilege. Critics are also re-claiming their feminist tradition from the grips of self-absorbed eccentricity.
Writers are seduced these days by the idea that the more you “put yourself out there,” the better it is. On the one hand, the author sometimes needs to be present on the page, to develop affinity or insight.
On the other hand, if you’re an author, when you feel like “putting yourself out there,” consider “putting yourself back in there,” instead. Go do an interview. Listen to how people talk against the grain of your own perspective. Read an article.
Then again, maybe Wolf’s is just the sort of book that gets written when you let your vagina do the talking, and when you send a reproductive organ out to do a brain’s job.
You see, all parts of us women are connected. That’s one of Wolf’s insights—and a “biology as destiny” logic that is a second touchstone of the book’s criticism.
What makes women women is their vaginal sensibility. There is almost a Todd Akin-ish magical thinking about how the vagina “shuts down” and has a mind of its own. “The vagina’s connected to the… brain bone…” and so on.
Imagine instead that a man wrote a book, called DICK.
Dick would be about the author’s mystical sense of his own magnificent and wise member. Men, love your dick as a form of political empowerment, would be its message.
Dickwould talk about how the author’s brain is really in some ways inspired and governed by his penis (a bum rap that many a man tries to live down), and his vitality, special power, and unique identity comes from this wondrous organ.
In Dick,there would be much “spa talk,” pseudo-science, and Orientalism (per Michelle Goldberg’s interesting criticism of Vagina) about the penis’ wounds and recoveries and all these things that the dick “literally” does.
The author imbues his dick with great authority. Dickwill tell you about how some kinds of orgasms are better than others.
But, wait a minute—that story’s already been written, and told.
It’s the phallocentric, patriarchal, phallo-logical narrative of male power that’s defined centuries of Western civilization and the 20th century mind of psychoanalysis, and that feminists have spent hundreds of years to subvert. We don’t need a new twist on the theme.
Vagina could be chalked up as an odd book and left at that—except that I feel as if there’s a larger narcissistic mood of vagina-gazing and boob-fetishizing in this, the Year of Whacky, Freak-Out Thinking about reproduction and bodies.
A Time cover features a large child sucking his mom’s breast, and the competitive headline, “Are You MOM enough?” (wherein liberation devolves into a competition over who nurses their babies longer); and, recently, an American University professor so zealously convinced that she should be able to bring a sick child to class and breastfeed in front of her students that she posted publicly the names and addresses of the students who complained (wherein feminism devolves into My Baby, My Privileges, and My Life First).
Look, the world’s not all about your personal boobs, babies, or vaginas.
If Wolf’s narcissism is that of small things—gleaning the world from her vagina-brain—other books exhibit a narcissism of large things—gleaning the status of women from one affluent, well-educated, privileged slice of them.
I’ve not read Hannah Rosin’s The End of Men yet. Thankfully, her work ventures much farther in the world than the confines of her own vagina. I did read the Atlanticarticle that summarizes the book’s thesis, that women are the winners of the 21st century.
Some version of “the end of men” thesis is to the Atlantic what “10 Ways to Please Your Man” is to Cosmopolitan: every month, it seems, the Atlanticruns some variation on the theme, whether it be the case for staying single, the case of single parenthood, the case against marriage, or just the flat-out end of men.
It’s not that biological males—humans with an X and Y chromosome–will go extinct. Rosin means masculinity, and male supremacy. We could also think of that as the evolution rather than the demise of men.
But it’s interesting to hear an end of men thesis in the throes of a strong patriarchal revival in the U.S. and globally.
Drive west, farther than Manhattan or Columbia, Maryland. Keep driving, and you’ll see a neo-patriarchy that advocates 19th-century ideas about marriage, the roll-back of no fault divorce, abstinence, opposition to birth control and abortion, and a strong concept of female submission and gender complementarity (let the man be the man, and the woman be the woman) rather than co-equal liberation. This world’s books don’t talk about the End of Men but the Supremacy of Men.
This weekend I was in a supermarket in a red state and the book rack included Taming Your Tongue, on how wives and women should learn to shut up, and variations on “how to be a good Christian wife.” They’re shot through with prescriptions for the patriarchal ordering of society, marriage and sex.
I heard Rosin interviewed on a local NPR station, and she interpreted this opposition to birth control, for one example, as a “reaction” against the developments she describes.
That’s plausible, certainly. The patriarchal revival does seem fueled by reactive hostility to social movements that propelled women forward. Maybe it will prove historically ephemeral or inconsequential.
And there’s nothing wrong in my opinion with specifying that a book is about the experiences of one cohort. Likewise, if Wolf had opted to write a straight-up memoir on “Me and My Vagina,” maybe it would have been amusing, and unencumbered by disturbing, larger conceits about women.
It’s impossible to write about all cohorts of women. But neither can one engage in the subtle narcissism of presuming a global experience. Feminism needs to mean that all women matter. Sometimes an author gets trapped inside her own seductive headline, or title.
Power is complicated—in ways that I find intriguing—even for well-educated and privileged women who have presumably left men in the dust. For some of them, “feminism” means: bringing home the bacon in a high-paying professional job that might also support my husband (sometimes so that he can pursue his own non-remunerative interests), having children and being a “Sexy Mom” as well, who parents in conformity with the punishingly perfectionist, self-recriminating standards of the day (did you breastfeed enough? Are you home enough? Did you work all day and also make cupcakes from scratch??), and all the while giving hubby blow jobs like a porn “star.” That’s liberation?