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 think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.