Lip service: why vagina is the perfect word

The word “vagina” is medical enough to sound grown up and blunt enough not be cutesy. It is still jarring in normal conversation but you can mention it on the Six O’Clock News. Which, when you think about it, is close to what feminism should be like.

The Vagina: a Literary and Cultural History
Emma Rees
Bloomsbury, 352pp, £19.99
 
There’s a painting in the Musée d’Orsay that stands out from the impressionist and realist masterpieces that surround it, even to the most ardent philistine. Called L’Origine du monde (“the origin of the world”), it was painted by Gustave Courbet in 1866 and it features a reclining female torso, legs open. John Updike described its subject as “a matted Rorschach blot – beneath blanched thighs/of a fat and bridal docility/a curved and rosy closure says, ‘Ici!’”.
 
I like the painting. There is something defiant, unapologetic and unpornographic about it; you get the feeling something is looking back at you, staring you down. (I was tempted to write, “The labia follow you round the room!” which is why I will never replace Craig Raine as this magazine’s premier artistic genital correspondent.)
 
Emma Rees’s The Vagina has now ruined L’Origine du monde for me by revealing that it was once owned by Jacques Lacan, the most impenetrable of the mid-century French analysts of language. A painting whose beauty derives from its straightforwardness should never have been in the possession of a man who wrote sentences such as: “The phallus, that is, the image of the penis, is negativity in its place in the specular image.”
 
But I digress. It is my contention that you will know quite instinctively if you are the target reader for a book describing itself as a literary and cultural history of vaginas. (Vaginae? Vaginodes?) How does this description of Judy Chicago’s art make you feel? “Each plate, a vulvar motif at its centre, represents a woman’s yearning for autonomy and recognition away from patriarchy’s eradications and constraints.”
 
If you found that intriguing, rather than snigger-worthy or arcanely academic, you will enjoy what’s on offer here. There is a learned digression on other words for vagina (“silk igloo”, “whisker biscuit” and “Melvin” were news to me) and a survey of depictions of female genitalia in folk tales, film, literature, art and television. The focus is inevitably western and anglophone, or it would have required far more than 350 pages, but the examples are well chosen and engaging.
 
Perhaps the best and most accessible part of the book is its early discussion of the language we use to talk about female genitalia. Rees seems pragmatic about the impossibility of reclaiming “cunt” from misogynists who regard it as the most offensive swear word possible (I should add that she doesn’t trouble the asterisk key).
 
She rightly condemns all the cutesy littlegirlisms beloved of advertisers – usually when they are trying to convince women that they smell, or sweat, or are otherwise disgusting, and need to buy something so that they will not be cast out from society as menstruating pariahs. “Expert care for down there,” trills the deodorising brand Femfresh. “Mini, twinkle, hoo haa, fancy, yoni, lady garden . . . va jay jay, kitty, nooni, la la, froo froo . . . Whatever you call it, love it!”
 
Rees’s earnestness is nowhere near as grating as this sort of infantilism. These are grown women who have smear tests and we expect them to simper, “Doctor, I’m worried about my . . . nooni. You know, my . . . fancy.” Give me strength. (My only consolation is that so many people took issue with the campaign at the time, leading to one advertising trade mag running the headline “Femfresh suffers social media vagina backlash”. They should probably put some cream on that.)
 
Anyway, “vagina” seems to me to be a good word for what we need. At this point, some pedant usually jumps up to say, “I think you’ll find the word you need is ‘vulva’.” To them, I say: let it go. Put it in the dusty file of relics, next to “decimate” and “begs the question”.
 
Yes, technically “vagina” refers to the birth canal only, not the whole kit and caboodle, but it’s a good, plain word and people understand it. There’s a reason why a certain strand of the modern feminist movement – Eve Ensler in The Vagina Monologues; Caitlin Moran asking, “Do you have a vagina? . . . Would you like to be in charge of it?” in How to Be a Woman; the Vagenda, the NS bloggers whose name comes from the idea of “a vagina with an agenda” – has embraced it.
 
The word “vagina” is medical enough to sound grown up and blunt enough not be cutesy. It is still jarring in normal conversation but you can mention it on the Six O’Clock News. Which, when you think about it, is close to what feminism should be like.
The Tongariro Alpine crossing in New Zealand. Photo: elisfanclub/flickr, used under Creative Commons

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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The beggar used to be friendly – now he was ranting at everyone

What was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The first beggar was walking but still wretched. Probably in his early twenties, clearly ravaged by more than just alcohol, he made a beeline for me, as if he had an appointment. He was not to know that I was in a mood from hell, though the look on my face would have told him, if he’d been in any kind of state to register it.

“Excuse me, have you got 10p for…”

“No.” And I walked on.

Why? I am almost invariably a soft touch for this kind of thing. But as I said, I was in the foulest of tempers.

Also, this was East Finchley. For those who do not know London, East Finchley is a northern suburb, which at one end hosts the wealthiest street in the country – the Bishops Avenue, where multimillionaires tear down houses and erect new ones even uglier than those they have replaced – and at the other end a typically seedy, dull collection of terraced houses.

The main supermarket is Budgens, a name so ungainly that it could only have belonged to a real person, either too proud or unimaginative to think of something else.

But what, I asked myself, was someone this wretched doing in East Finchley? And what was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The second beggar, further up the street, I met the next day: much older and clearly mad, rather than chemically poisoned. He asked how I was doing.

“Not so well, as it happens,” I replied.

“Would you like me to say a prayer for you?”

“Why not?” I said, and he placed a clenched fist to my forehead and made a brief incantation, something like an exorcism, and then kissed the large white plastic crucifix hanging from his neck.

I half-expected to feel a jolt of faith, some kind of divine restructuring. This time I gave him money: a pound coin and a 50p coin. But then later I thought: why didn’t I give him more? I’d been doing some tidying earlier and had retrieved a heavy pocketful of change; I could have given him a generous handful.

The third beggar was in Shepherd’s Bush. I knew him from the days when I lived there: a skinny, middle-aged guy who would occasionally stop and rant in a friendly way at me, just sane enough not to ignore. That was ten years ago. Now he was raging at everyone, accusing the teenagers queueing in the kebab shop of being batty boys and saying “bloodclaat” a lot. (Batty boy: homosexual. Bloodclaat: tampon.)

The people he was addressing knew perfectly well what he was saying. They shrugged it off. I got on the bus; so did he, and the whole bus knew about it. There was nothing friendly in him now, and I wondered through which hole in the increasingly threadbare welfare safety net he had been allowed to slip.

That’s it, I thought. I’m getting out of London, its pampered core oblivious to the surrounding anguish. The world in a nutshell. Luckily, my great friend S— had asked if I could cat-sit for her in Brighton. I know her cat, and I know Brighton. Also, I know about a dozen people there who I keep meaning to see, so why not? London was making me ill, and possibly a bad person. So S— invited me down a couple of days before she was due to go on her holidays, and I took the first train I could.

And now I find myself sitting on a sunlounger in a tiny backyard, in a charming house just abutting the North Laine, and the mood is palpably different to the capital’s. It is like a city ought to be: compact, diverse and funky. There is no reek of High Capitalism. It is healthily decadent. It would appear to be full of people who have rejected the idea of London. It still has an enormous number of beggars, but more people were dropping money for them than I ever saw do so in W1, W12 or N2.

So this is what it’s like to fall out of love with the city of one’s birth. What most surprised me was the speed and force with which it happened. I’d made my mind up over a nice lunch that my friend N— was buying me, to cheer me up.

“Don’t you have to stay in London? You know, for book launches and things like that?”

“I don’t go to fucking book launches any more,” I said. I was taken aback by the vigour of my reply. I’m only here for ten days but I have plenty of people to see and dozens of memories, all good, to bump into. I’m already feeling better. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem