Book review: The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History, By Emma Rees
Sort of an encyclopedia genitalia
Saturday 24 August 2013
For readers disappointed by Naomi Wolf’s treatise on a similar topic last year, this is the book you’ve been waiting for.
If Wolf’s book was billed as Vagina: A New Biography, this could be subtitled A New Bibliography. An enjoyable romp through depictions of female genitalia from oral history to adverts, Rees examines the changing role of the cultural vagina.
There’s no pussy-footing around, either – Rees drops the C-word in the first chapter and doesn’t stop, fascinated by the taboos and attitudes we’ve built up around it. Although Rees is an academic by trade, the book gleefully mixes highbrow and lowbrow, from Chaucer to 21st-century horror. She doesn’t, as Wolf did, focus all of women’s self worth there, but it is an engaging discussion about how the controversy of the words we use to describe it mask a deep-rooted fear of vaginas and their owners.
If the book has a flaw, it is that it’s mis-titled in the same way that Eve Ensler’s Monologues were. This is a book more about the vulva itself than simply the vagina – labia and clitoris get their fair share of attention – but Rees acknowledges the sensationalist desire to talk simply about the part that gets penetrated and the way this obscures women’s sexual desire. Would The Vulva Monologues have garnered quite that much attention?
Although second-wave feminism and the work it did in rehabilitating the vagina is given its due, Rees doesn’t fall into their trap of confusing biology with gender. The relationship between transgendered bodies and vaginas has scope for far more than four pages Rees allots, but its inclusion, and that of the word “cis” used to denote non-trans women, is an important step towards including trans experiences in discussions about the “female” body.
Rees lacks Wolf’s sometimes po-faced anger, instead mixing her feminist outrage with a healthy dose of humour. Ever the cunning linguist, she leaves no pun unmade, but doesn’t skimp on the theory either, the perfect antidote for those feminists who find too much of the terminology dry and academic. This may not be the definitive text on the vagina – Rees is clear that she can’t overturn centuries of embarrassment and taboo in a single book – but it’s an excellent place to start.
tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods
tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas
comedy Erm...he seems to be back
tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa
tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The Boy in the Dress, TV review: David Walliams' Boxing Day treat is a celebration of being different
- 2 Exclusive: Abusers using spyware apps to monitor partners reaches 'epidemic proportions'
- 3 Andy Murray takes to Twitter to show off his Christmas jumper
- 4 Margaret Thatcher 'expressed fears of Asian rising' at Anglo-Irish summit in 1984
- 5 Katie Hopkins speaks out on childhood obesity: 'Parents of fat children should be prosecuted for child cruelty'
Downton Abbey Christmas special 2014, review: Love is everywhere, actually
The Boy in the Dress, TV review: David Walliams' Boxing Day treat is a celebration of being different
Madonna Rebel Heart: Pharrell Williams collaboration and 13 more songs leaked
Vagina canoe artist defends herself over ‘obscenity’ charges
Doctor Who Christmas special, review: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Rozanne Duncan: Ukip expels councillor for 'jaw-dropping' comments made in BBC TV interview
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
BBC director Danny Cohen: Rising UK antisemitism makes me feel more uncomfortable than ever
Katie Hopkins speaks out on childhood obesity: 'Parents of fat children should be prosecuted for child cruelty'