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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How to end the Gulf stand off? The West should tell Qatar to reform its foreign policy

Former defence secretary Geoff Hoon on the unfolding crisis in the Gulf. 

Only one group stands to benefit from a continuation of the crisis in Gulf: The Quartet, as they are now being called. Last week, The United Arab Emirates foreign minister tweeted that Qatar and its Gulf Cooperation Council neighbours are heading for a "long estrangement". We should take him at his word.

The European political establishment has been quick to dismiss the boycott by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt as naïve, and a strategic mistake. The received wisdom now is that they have acted impulsively, and that any payoff will be inescapably pyrrhic. I’m not so sure.

Another view: Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France's foreign minister, was in the region over the weekend to see if he could relay some of his boss’s diplomatic momentum. He has offered to help mediate with Kuwait, clearly in the belief that this is the perfect opportunity to elevate France back to the top table. But if President Emmanuel Macron thinks this one will be as straightforward as a Donald Trump handshake, he should know that European charm doesn’t function as well in the 45 degree desert heat (even if some people call him the Sun King).

Western mediation has so far proceeded on the assumption that both sides privately know they will suffer if this conflict drags on. The US secretary of state Rex Tillerson judged that a Qatari commitment to further counter-terrorism measures might provide sufficient justification for a noble reversal. But he perhaps underestimates the seriousness of the challenge being made to Qatar. This is not some poorly-judged attempt to steal a quick diplomatic win over an inferior neighbour.

Qatar’s foreign policy is of direct and existential concern to the other governments in the Gulf. They will not let Qatar off the hook. And even more than that, why should they? Qatar has enormous diplomatic and commercial clout for its size, but that would evaporate in an instant if companies and governments were forced to choose between Doha and the Quartet, whose combined GDP is almost ten times that of their former ally. Iran, Turkey and Russia might stay on side. But Qatar would lose the US and Europe, where most of its soft power has been developed. Qatar’s success has been dependent on its ability to play both sides. If it loses that privilege, as it would in the event of an interminable cold war in the Gulf, then the curtains could come down.

Which is why, if they wanted to badly enough, Le Drian and Tillerson could end this conflict tomorrow. Qatar’s foreign policy has been concerning for the past decade. It has backed virtually every losing side in the Arab world, and caused a significant amount of destruction in the process. In Syria, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, Qatar has turned a blind eye to the funding of Islamic revolutionaries with the financial muscle to topple incumbent regimes. Its motives are clear; influence over the emergent republics, as it had in Egypt for a year under Mohamed Morsi. But as we review the success of this policy from the perspective of 2017, it seems clear that all that has been achieved is a combination of civil unrest and civil war. The experiment has failed.

Moreover, the Coalition is not going to lift sanctions until Doha suspends its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. When Western leaders survey the Gulf and consider who they should support, they observe two things: firstly, that the foreign policy of the Quartet is much more aligned with their own (it doesn’t seem likely to me that any European or American company would prefer to see a revolution in Dubai instead of a continuation of the present arrangement), and secondly, that Qatar would fold immediately if they applied any significant pressure. The Al Thani ruling family has bet its fortune and power on trans-Atlantic support; it is simply not credible that they would turn to the West’s enemies in the event that an ultimatum was issued. Doha might even welcome an excuse to pause its costly and ineffective programmes. Even if that involves some short term embarrassment. It is hardly going to lose support at home, with the highest GDP per capita in the world.

It would be necessary to make sure that the Coalition understands that it will have to pay a price for decisive Western intervention. The world will be a more dangerous place if our allies get the impression they can freely bully any smaller rival, knowing that the West will always come down on their side. That is however no great hurdle to action; it might even be a positive thing if we can at the same time negotiate greater contributions to counter-terrorism or refugee funding.

Unfortunately the reason why none of this is likely to happen is partly that the West has lost a lot of confidence in its ability to resolve issues in the Middle East since 2003, and partly because it fears for its interests in Doha and the handsome Qatari contributions in Western capitals. This cautious assessment is wrong and will be more harmful to Qatar and the aforementioned interests. The Quartet has no incentive to relent, it can’t afford to and will profit from commercial uncertainty in Doha the longer this drags on. If the West really wants this to end now, it must tell Qatar to reform its foreign policy or face sanctions from a more threatening ally.

Geoffrey Hoon was the UK defence secretary from 1999 to 2005.  

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