IN HER SOMETIMES HILARIOUS rant against all the obstacles still holding women back in the world (you know, Brazilian waxes, Kim Kardashian, and five inch heels), Caitlin Moran in How To Be A Woman asks her readers: “Do you have a vagina? Do you want to be in charge of it?” If you answer in the affirmative then, “Congratulations! You’re a feminist.” While I say bravo to Moran’s attempt to challenge the widespread disavowal of all things feminist, especially among those folks (young people of any gender) who badly need a complex and politically labile language for gender and sexuality, I am confused and dismayed that said feminism should issue from, of all places, the vagina. What does feminism actually look like right now as we hover between economic meltdown and slow recovery, environmental collapse and new green technology, pink power, gay marriage, and the so-called “end of men”?
At the vagina end of things, feminism makes an appearance as a new graphic (too graphic?) and public discussion of female genitalia. Some of these discussions locate the vagina as a source of a new pink power but others convey the anxiety of beauty norms and the pressure to look good — and so Moran, for example, has a long treatise on the waxing of the vagina and the new labor of grooming it! Naomi Wolf joined the conversation recently and provided us with a “biography” of the vagina. At the same time, other mini wildfires around the use of the word appeared everywhere — one in the Michigan state house of representatives where a state representative (Lisa Brown) made reference to her “vagina” while opposing anti-choice legislation. When she was censored publically, Even Ensler rode into town with her Vagina Monologues to provide backup! And another vagina war sprang up in the wake of an embarrassing and offensive description that senator Todd Akin gave of “legitimate” versus “illegitimate” rape. Akins infamously claimed that the vagina has a mysterious ability to repel the sperm from a “real” rape.
How to make sense of all these vaginas, some of them with brains (Wolf), some of them with primal prophylactic powers (Akin), some of them with so much to say (Ensler). Does the new casualness in the use of this word and the debates that have ensued about who owns it, what it does and does not do, indicate that feminism has done its work and has now been absorbed into mainstream politics? Read on. It is much more likely that the reduction of the category “woman” to the term “vagina” has actually narrowed the scope of topics that might have previously gathered under the heading of feminism and then simplified the long and complicated history of multiple feminisms into genitalia.
In my new book, Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal, I do not use the word vagina at all. Truth be told, gender and gender politics nowadays have little to do with simple genitality and are much more connected to new social arrangements, diverse households, and innovative classifications of identity, community, and desire. In Gaga Feminism, instead of pitting bodies with vaginas against bodies with penises, I argue that we are living in a new world where the categories of male and female are rapidly being updated all around us. In a world of sperm banks, in vitro fertilization, queer families, butch daddies, transgender men and women, and heteroflexible women, preten...read more