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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Leader: Mourning in Manchester

Yet another attack shows we are going to have to get to used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state.

Children are murdered and maimed by a suicide bomber as they are leaving a pop concert in Manchester. As a consequence, the government raises the terror threat to “critical”, which implies that another attack is imminent, and the army is sent out on to the streets of our cities in an attempt to reassure and encourage all good citizens to carry on as normal. The general election campaign is suspended. Islamic State gleefully denounces the murdered and wounded as “crusaders” and “polytheists”.

Meanwhile, the usual questions are asked, as they are after each new Islamist terrorist atrocity. Why do they hate us so much? Have they no conscience or pity or sense of fellow feeling? We hear, too, the same platitudes: there is more that unites us than divides us, and so on. And so we wait for the next attack on innocent civilians, the next assault on the free and open society, the next demonstration that Islamism is the world’s most malignant and dangerous ideology.

The truth of the matter is that the Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was born and educated in Britain. He was 22 when he chose to end his own life. He had grown up among us: indeed, like the London bombers of 7 July 2005, you could call him, however reluctantly, one of us. The son of Libyan refugees, he supported Manchester United, studied business management at Salford University and worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. Yet he hated this country and its people so viscerally that he was prepared to blow himself up in an attempt to murder and wound as many of his fellow citizens as possible.

The Manchester massacre was an act of nihilism by a wicked man. It was also sadly inevitable. “The bomb was,” writes the Mancunian cultural commentator Stuart Maconie on page 26, “as far as we can guess, an attack on the fans of a young American woman and entertainer, on the frivolousness and foolishness and fun of young girlhood, on lipstick and dressing up and dancing, on ‘boyfs’ and ‘bezzies’ and all the other freedoms that so enrage the fanatics and contradict their idiot dogmas. Hatred of women is a smouldering core of their wider, deeper loathing for us. But to single out children feels like a new low of wickedness.”

We understand the geopolitical context for the atrocity. IS is under assault and in retreat in its former strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa. Instead of urging recruits to migrate to the “caliphate”, IS has been urging its sympathisers and operatives in Europe to carry out attacks in their countries of residence. As our contributing writer and terrorism expert, Shiraz Maher, explains on page 22, these attacks are considered to be acts of revenge by the foot soldiers and fellow-travellers of the caliphate. There have been Western interventions in Muslim lands and so, in their view, all civilians in Western countries are legitimate targets for retaliatory violence.

An ever-present threat of terrorism is the new reality of our lives in Europe. If these zealots can murder children at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, there is no action that they would not consider unconscionable. And in this country there are many thousands – perhaps even tens of thousands – who are in thrall to Islamist ideology. “Terror makes the new future possible,” the American Don DeLillo wrote in his novel Mao II, long before the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001. The main work of terrorists “involves mid-air explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.”

Immediately after the Paris attacks in November 2015, John Gray reminded us in these pages of how “peaceful coexistence is not the default condition of modern humankind”. We are going to have to get used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state. “The progressive narrative in which freedom is advancing throughout the world has left liberal societies unaware of their fragility,” John Gray wrote. Liberals may not like it, but a strong state is the precondition of any civilised social order. Certain cherished freedoms may have to be compromised. This is the new tragic narrative.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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