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

Getty
Show Hide image

To heal Britain’s cracks, it’s time for us northern graduates in London to return home

Isn’t it time for people like me, who’ve had privileges and experiences not open to everyone, to start heading back to our local communities, rather than reinforcing London’s suffocating dominance?

I’m from Warrington. The least cultured town in the UK. My town.

I moved to London almost exactly five years ago. Not because I particularly wanted to. Not because I wanted to depart the raucous northern town that I still call home. Because it was my only choice, really. I’d done my stint in the call centres and had some fun. But that couldn’t, surely, be my lot?

After university, I’d already started feeling a little weird and out of place back in Wazza. There were fewer and fewer people who didn’t look at me like I’d just fallen off a futuristic space flight that’d given me a different accent and lofty ideals.

Of course, that’s because most people like me had already skipped town without looking back and were all in the capital trying to strike beyond the ordinary.

The young, the cities, the metropolitan elite are still reeling after last week’s vote and wondering how people, half of our people, have got it so horribly wrong. We’re different, divided, done for.  

One thing I’ve clung onto while I’ve been in London is the fact that I’m from Warrington and proud. It might not be a cultured town, but it’s my town.

But I wasn’t proud of the outcome of the EU referendum that saw my town vote 54.3 per cent to 45.7 per cent to leave.

To be fair, even in my new “home” borough of Hackney, east London, the place with the third-largest Remain vote, one in five people voted for Brexit.

Yes, in one of London’s hottest and most international neighbourhoods, there are quite a lot of people who don’t feel like they’re being taken along to the discotheque.

Perversely, it was the poorest places in the UK that voted in largest numbers to leave the EU – that’s the same EU that provides big chunks of funding to try to save those local economies from ruin.

In many ways, of course, I understand the feelings of those people back in the place I still sometimes think of as home.

Compared to many suffering places in the UK, Warrington is a “boom town” and was one of the only places that grew during the last recession.

It’s a hub for telecoms and logistics companies, because, ironically, its good transport links make it an easy place to leave.

But there are many people who aren’t “living the dream” and, like anywhere else, they aren’t immune from the newspaper headlines that penetrate our brains with stories of strivers and scroungers.

Warrington is one of the whitest places in the UK, and I’m sure, to many locals, that means those immigrants are only a few towns away. There’s already a Polski sklep or two. And a few foreign taxi drivers. Those enterprising bastards.

We have never seriously addressed the economic imbalance in our economy. The gaping north-south divide. The post-industrial problem that politicians in Westminster have handily ignored, allowing the gap to be filled by those who find it quick and easy to blame immigrants.

When schemes like HS2, which is plotted to smash right through the place I grew up, are pushed against all of the evidence, instead of a much-needed, intercity Leeds to Liverpool investment to replace the two-carriage hourly service, it’s like positively sticking two fingers up to the north.

But I am also a big problem. People like me, who get educated and quickly head off to London when things aren’t going our way. We invested in ourselves, sometimes at state expense, and never really thought about putting that back into the places where we grew up.

There weren’t the right opportunities back home and that still stands. But, rather than doing something about that, people like me lazily joined the gravy train for London and now we’re surprised we feel more kinship with a 20-something from Norway than we do with someone who we used to knock on for when we should have been at school.

That’s not to suggest that our experiences in the capital – or mine at least – haven’t made us a thousand, million times better. 

I’ve met people who’ve lived lives I would never have known and I’m a profoundly better person for having the chance to meet people who aren’t just like me. But to take that view back home is increasingly like translating a message to someone from an entirely different world.

“You know, it’s only because you live in a country like this that a woman like you is allowed to even say things like that,” assured one of my dad’s friends down at the British Legion after we’d had a beer, and an argument or two.

Too right, pal. We live in what we all like to think is an open and tolerant and progressive society. And you’re now saying I shouldn’t use that right to call you out for your ignorance?

We’re both Warringtonians, English, British and European but I can increasingly find more agreement with a woman from Senegal who’s working in tech than I can with you.

It’s absolutely no secret that London has drained brains from the rest of the country, and even the rest of the world, to power its knowledge economy.

It’s a special place, but we have to see that there are many people clamouring for jobs they are far too qualified for, with no hope of saving for a home of their own, at the expense of the places they call home.

It’s been suggested in the past that London becomes its own city-state, now Londoners are petitioning to leave the UK.

But isn’t it time for people like me, who’ve had privileges and experiences not open to everyone, to start heading back to our local communities, rather than reinforcing London’s suffocating dominance?

We can expect local governments to do more with less, but when will we accept we need people power back in places like Warrington if we want to change the story to one of hope?

If this sounds like a patronising plan to parachute the north London intelligentsia into northern communities to ensure they don’t make the same mistake twice... Get fucked, as they say in Warrington.

It was Warrington that raised me. It’s time I gave something back.

Kirsty Styles is editor of the New Statesman's B2B tech site, NS Tech.