BOOK REVIEW / How to change the world and be sexy: Fire with fire - Naomi Wolf: Chatto & Windus, pounds 11.99

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The Independent Online
NAOMI WOLF's career as the feminist spokesperson of a new generation ignited in 1990 with the publication of The Beauty Myth. But that was all of three years ago. Then, she was a 28-year-old student who felt that a false ideal of beauty 'checkmates power at every level in women's lives'. Now, she's a media star who feels that 'enough middle-class women have enough clout' to change the world.

The Beauty Myth was a consciousness-raising book in the tradition of grand exaggeration, which compared the anorexia epidemic to the Holocaust. But now that Wolf has changed tack from feel-bad to feel-good feminism, such arguments have been jettisoned. We hear it's OK to 'like to look good'. We learn that Cindy Crawford and Geena Davis, the Princess of Wales and Ivana Trump all exemplify aspects of the new power feminism; previously, they would have epitomised the straitjacket of the beauty myth.

Fire with Fire has its faults, but compared with The Beauty Myth it has energy and spirit, and generosity too. Not only can models and princesses join in, so can men: Wolf is particularly generous to the opposite sex and to her own, straight, sexuality. 'I've seen men delirious with affection; I have seen the word 'love' trigger an erection.' Many feminists, including Germaine Greer, have rejoiced in the sheer fun of straight sex before. Still, in this dismal age, with its great grey tides of pornography and dirty realism, anyone who sticks up for the possibility of non-submissive but romantic sex deserves a hearing.

Unfortunately, despite this generosity and her often-stated desire for inclusiveness, Wolf's agenda - which bills itself, grandiosely, as 'the new female power and how it will change the 21st century' - is narrow. She tends to rest too much on her own experience, and that means that if her feminism no longer bears the mark of her own teenage anorexia, it bears the heavy imprint of her successful career as an American media star.

For instance, we learn that America is the 'epicentre' of a 'genderquake' - even though, as Wolf discovers, American students can hardly imagine the figure of a female head of state, even though the male-to- female earning ratios are more unequal there than here. The misguided British examples tacked on to various arguments only exacerbate the blinkers - we find Stella Rimington next to Madonna and Roseanne Arnold in a triumvirate of power feminists, and Opportunity 2000 quoted as the prime example of the British version of the genderquake.

And although you will read a lot in this book about how Naomi learnt to feel sexy about power and good about having a lot of money and OK about investing it, you will look in vain for much discussion of older women, of black women, of women with low incomes, of mothers. It would have been interesting to see how their experiences of gaining and using power compared with those of the rich, white, university-educated, childless professionals that Wolf is now targeting.

Still, especially in our quiet British scene where women are more likely to murmur, even to each other, than to shout, her voice comes over loud and strong and tuneful: 'Abandon the notion that the fight for equality has to be gloomy; take every opportunity to make it playful, witty, sexy and fun.' And her strengths, as well as her weaknesses, are clear. She is particularly good, naturally, on the role of women in the media. Here she draws strong conclusions about how the use of symbols stymies discussion of women's issues. So Madonna might take the place of discussion about female sexuality, or Hillary Clinton's horrible hairbands the place of discussing women's power in government.

Wolf's most pressing argument now is not with any male conspiracy, but with a female one, the 'victim feminists' whom she believes have jeopardised the course of feminism. Such women, Wolf argues, keep themselves in the margins even when the barriers are down. 'Victim feminism', if it exists, is probably a problem that affects the US more than it does Britain, where feminism has always been more about small grassroots changes than clubby theoretical discourses. And it has to be said that, if it does exist, one of its bibles must be The Beauty Myth.

This simple distinction between power- and victim-feminism may turn out to be a helpful new tag. It could jog us to remember what we might otherwise forget, that feminism should naturally identify with the overdog as well as the underdog; should be about Mary Robinson being one of the most popular heads of state in the democratic world; or about Carmen Callil's 'Liz Calder and I have 50 per cent of the Booker shortlist'; or Maggie O'Kane and Janine di Giovanni setting the agenda for war reporting in Bosnia. But, to be honest, have we ever doubted that?

We must also make sure that this distinction does not, as it occasionally does in Wolf's hands, become too self-congratulatory or too hard on women who can't measure up. Why is novelist Candia McWilliam classed as a 'victim' for saying that 'with the birth of each child you lose two novels'? After all, she fought back and made it on to the 1993 Best of Young British Novelists list.

And why do we find this on the list of examples of power feminism: 'Ms magazine ran the exclusive, first-person testimony of Bosnian rape survivors, and women's groups and feminist lawyers then compelled the UN . . . to bring the rapists to trial.' If anything can remind women of their impotence, it must be the fact that the rapists of Yugoslavia have not been brought to trial, and that systematic rape is not classified as a war crime.

Still, how much should we carp? Wolf could have extended the argument to cover a great deal more of female experience, and she could have gone deeper into interesting areas she just touches on, such as the power fantasies of young girls. She could have sharpened the book by lengthening the analysis and shortening the pep talks.

But if Wolf tends to contradict herself, to drift from the victim to the power-broker even in this book, let alone across her small oeuvre, we can sympathise with that. Women are both happy and angry, more than half of the electorate and politically marginalised, confident about their bodies and turning to cosmetic surgeons in droves, earning a lot more and not earning enough. We have focused on the negative side of those positions a great deal, and it could help now to bring out the positive, as Wolf would like to do. On her main point, after all, she is right: we don't have to ask for power any more, we can just take it.

Robert Winder is on holiday.