Who wants to play Naomi Wolf conspiracy theories? I’ll start: the urgent, insightful activist of The Beauty Myth was a sleeper agent all along, programmed by hefty brainwashing to detonate two decades later in a shower of credibility-shattering paranoia, thereby securing permanent patriarchal hegemony. Or try this one: some time in the last five years, the real Wolf was discreetly “neutralised” and replaced with an actor, who has worked tirelessly since then to make left-wing politics in general and feminism in particular look like a shower of clown shoes who will believe pretty much anything as long as it starts from the premise “America is bad”.
Fine, you don’t find my theories convincing. Maybe you’ll like Wolf’s own ones better. In recent days, she’s propounded the following: that US forces’ involvement in combatting the Liberian ebola outbreak is just a convenient front for the militarisation of Africa; that the Scottish referendum was fixed; that hostages executed by Isis are neither hostages nor executed nor anything to do with Isis, but performers enacting a shoddy tableau for the purposes of terrifying an unquestioning Western populace into docility. For a lot of people, the contrast with her earlier work is shocking – the question “what happened to Naomi Wolf?” has been asked a lot. Whatever happened, however, happened several years ago.
My first intimation that things had gone wonky in Wolf-land came in 2010, in her response to the arrest of Julian Assange over accusations of rape. In a short post on the Huffington Post, posted on the comedy section – because what feminist doesn’t find allegation of sexual violence ragingly amusing? – Wolf sardonically declared that Assange had been “captured by the world’s dating police”. In a few hundred words, she rubbished the charges: there was no rape, she claimed, just bad boyfriend etiquette. “Of course, as a feminist, I am also pleased that the alleged victims are using feminist-inspired rhetoric and law to assuage what appears to be personal injured feelings,” she wrote. “That’s what our brave suffragette foremothers intended!” Wolf’s implication is clear, and she repeated it in several further pieces: the women are CIA patsies and Assange has been set up.
The allegations against Assange, of course, are serious and of incontrovertibly criminal character. One accusation is that he penetrated a woman as she slept, when she was clearly incapable of consent; an aggravating circumstance is that he allegedly did so without a condom, despite knowing that the woman expressly did not want to have unprotected sex. Years on from Assange’s original arrest, the grotesque “sex by surprise” narrative that his supporters initially put about has been largely replaced by a general understanding of the facts of the case. But it remains a gut-punch that one of the people most active in publicly trashing Assange’s alleged victims, deriding their claims and arguing against their anonymity was the author of The Beauty Myth.
It matters because The Beauty Myth matters. Poised on the cusp of feminism’s third wave, The Beauty Myth presents itself as the first of a new generation of feminist writing, but in its analysis it circles back to Betty Friedan’s writing in the 1960s. And, just as The Feminine Mystique gave women a name for something that they knew was wrong but had never been able to describe, so too did The Beauty Myth three decades later. Both books say to their readers: you are unhappy, and you are not mad, because something is wrong with the world that means virtually no woman could be happy in it. In the same way that the sentimental idealising of the housewife figure served to reverse the independence gained by women during World War Two, Wolf grasped that the Beauty Myth of the 1980s was an invidious backlash to the legal and economic gains of the Second Wave. However rocky parts of the analysis get, the solace for readers in encountering that recognition is undeniably powerful.
But it does get rocky, not least because Wolf never quite resolves the question of how much consciousness she attributes to the oppressor class. “This does not require a conspiracy, merely an atmosphere,” she writes; but then she also says that an analysis which blames “cultural conspiracies” against women are “uniquely plausible”. The sense that someone must be tugging the strings runs through the book. Perhaps it’s not that Wolf is a feminist who’s degenerated into conspiracism, but instead that she’s a conspiracy theorist who happened to fall into feminism first. The Beauty Myth is a conspiracy theory of a sort, and sometimes conspiracies are real: the self-replicating power structure of patriarchy is one of them. As Wolf spirals drastically away from the truth, we shouldn’t forget that once, powerfully, she got it right.