NS Profile: Naomi Wolf

A perfectly packaged would-be feminist, she can turn even the most highly political issue into her own, personal story.

Naomi Wolf. Photograph: Getty Images

What are the great issues facing feminism today? Equal pay? The gross sexualisation of popular culture? The paucity of childcare? No. To read the papers over the past fortnight, one would think that the big question for feminism is whether Harold Bloom put his hand on Naomi Wolf's thigh 20 years ago. For those who don't know, Harold Bloom is the charismatic and "Falstaffian" professor of literature at Yale and author of The Western Canon. Wolf is the telegenic author of The Beauty Myth. She was a student of Bloom's in the 1980s and invited him over to her house so that he could read some of her poetry. He had been on the sherry and made a clumsy pass.

I sympathise, but cannot say that I know exactly how she felt. When my personal tutor called me into his study to utter the memorable line, "I've got a wife, I've got a mistress, but what I'm really looking for, Suzanne, is a girlfriend" I simply made sure that everyone I ever met knew about this scumbag.

Wolf, however, had kept shtum about the incident. Until now. She has chosen to recount it all in an article in the New York Times magazine. Bloom, now in his seventies and in ill health, has remained silent, but the attack dogs of feminism have been let loose. Camille Paglia, Rottweiler-in-chief, has always hated Wolf ("little Miss Pravda"), chiefly on the grounds that she is pretty. What is more, Paglia idolises Bloom, who also taught her. She compares this charge of sexual harassment with the Salem witch-hunt and accuses Wolf of having spent her entire life "batting her eyes and bobbing her boobs in the face of men" and of making "a profession out of courting male attention by flirting and offering her sexual allure".

Now this may be all good, knockabout fun, but it has nothing to do with feminism whatsoever. The serious issues that Wolf's behaviour has raised are being ignored in favour of all-female mud-wrestling. Aren't they always? If we want a grown-up discussion about sexual harassment this is hardly the way to do it, and Wolf must have known it.

The hostility that Wolf arouses is always put down to her stunning looks - but I fail to understand this. Lots of feminists have been great-looking women: look at Gloria Steinem. Surely we have got to the point where feminist beliefs and attractiveness are no longer considered mutually exclusive.

The question should be not whether individual feminists are too sexy for their books, but about what kind of feminism is being proffered for the 21st century. This is where Wolf falls down. I hate to spoil the fun, but the problem with Wolf has nothing to do with the way she looks and everything to do with the way she thinks. The daughter of liberal academics, she was born and raised in San Francisco, studied at Yale and went on to Oxford. Wolf, it appears, has never had to struggle for anything in her 41 years. Yet to read her work is to encounter the story of a heroic struggle to speak out honestly about the experiences of women, from anorexia to casual sex and childbirth.

The Beauty Myth, the book that brought her to prominence in 1992, was "an attack on unrealistic, impossible standards of female beauty as destructive social control". In it, she documented the rise of eating disorders and the myths propagated by the diet and cosmetic industries. There was not an original thought in it, but that did not matter. It was important that a young woman was retelling these truths to a new generation. Whatever you think of The Beauty Myth, it remains the only feminist text that many young women have read.

The book itself has dated rather badly and, as Ros Coward pointed out, "recycles the old feminist analysis that women are dupes of men's needs". Yet Wolf was never going to take on the more complex question of female culpability. Instead, she played to her great strengths: her accessibility and her ability to popularise old arguments. She did so by repackaging them - and what a great package she was. Proclaiming herself at the forefront of "third-wave feminism" - a phrase with as little meaning as the Third Way itself - she talked optimistically of "the gender quake" that would change life as we knew it.

As ever, Wolf's vision was superimposed on to Britain as though there were no differences between British and American culture. A whole glut of American feminists had their books reprinted in the UK in the 1990s, but even the best of them, such as Susan Faludi's Backlash, made little sense to a British audience, as we had no Moral Majority or religious right propelling such a backlash. None the less, any young female author was promoted as the next big thing. Wolf benefited from this, becoming rich and famous.

Indeed, her next book was in part an attempt to deal with her own success. She proposed that we move away from "victim feminism" and embrace "power feminism" - a sort of "down with rape crisis centres, up with corporate raiders" manifesto. This meant embracing capitalism, denying any actual class differences between women and not really alluding to those political tenets that made "ordinary women" feel uncomfortable. Instead of emphasising nasty things such as abortion, rape or gay rights, Wolf would rather we embrace "a theory of self-worth that applies to every woman's life".

This is the secret of Wolf's success: feminism as self-help, as a politics that boils down to little more than the pursuit of success. For her, feminism now becomes such a big tent that any woman who has experienced any kind of horror in her life can enter it without, it seems, having to change anything - except, perhaps, go to a performance of The Vagina Monologues.

 

The next repackaging job that Wolf took on was essentially a reworking of Carol Gilligan's brilliant work on female adolescent sexuality. The result was Promiscuities, an account of growing up in the 1970s in the Bay Area. Wolf wants to free women of the shame, secrecy and silence that accompany their sexual pasts. It was in Promiscuities that she first recounted, in her usual quivering manner, the alleged incident with Bloom, though then without naming him.

Although the old lech had made passes at other classmates, Wolf was so shocked that she vomited. The act of harassment had "devastated my sense of being valuable to Yale as a student rather than as a pawn of powerful men". The conflation of the act of a drunk old groper with the ethos of a whole institution and her place within it is typical of Wolf. Yale had somehow failed her.

Indeed, her books become progressively narcissistic and overblown. In Misconceptions, she gets married and has children and shockingly, horrifically finds out that childbirth in America is heavily medicalised, and that when babies enter an adult relationship, gender roles often revert to the traditional ones. Anyone who had read Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Birth or even simply talked to the average woman would have known this. However, for Wolf's "oeuvre", which is now basically memoir, to work, she needs to dramatise each and every one of her experiences and then talk as though that experience applies to every woman. She cleverly suggests that by speaking out, she is being incredibly brave. Sometimes she is. It takes a certain toughness to talk about teenagers' sexuality, and specifically the importance of female pleasure, to Middle America. If anyone can do it, it is the crowd-pleasing Naomi: she is able to reach the parts that the likes of Andrea Dworkin will never get near.

Wolf continues, however, to come in for criticism. "She had wanted a revolution; what she got was a Venezuelan," wrote one wit, referring to her childcare arrangements. The wonderful columnist Maureen Dowd dismissed her brand of politics as "bimbo feminism". When Wolf got a job as image consultant to the disastrously wooden Al Gore, telling the then vice-president to present himself as an alpha male, she was roundly mocked. After all, this was the woman who had encouraged us in Promiscuities to get in touch with our "inner slut". When Ali G got her to rap "Yo, yo, don't be sexist/I'll let you ride in my Lexus" for his TV show she threatened to call in the lawyers.

Sometimes, in her effort to be on the side of all women all the time, she is quite mad. Seeing the entire anti- consumerist movement as essentially misogynist, she writes: "To hate shopping and all of its representations is to hate women." "No!" you want to scream. "I hate shopping and I am a bloody woman."

Wolf's confessional, Californian, babbling style is a highly marketable form of feminism. As it centres on retellings of individual experience, it would not work at all if she were to say that she'd had a nice life and an easy ride. In universalising her "struggles" she gets quite overwrought. The politics she espouses often gets lost beneath the details of her own tortuous journey to enlightenment. Her self-indulgence as a writer obscures her message. That this has happened once again is no surprise. We could be talking about the ubiquity of sexual harassment in educational institutions or the ethics of accusing someone of something they did 20 years ago. Instead, we are talking about Naomi and her hurt feelings. She understands, if anyone does, the power of the victim. That's why when we should be getting all political, it's all got so personal.