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The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History (2013)

by Emma L.E. Rees

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• David M Friedman, A Mind of its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis, Robert Hale 2009 [2002]
• Emma LE Rees, The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History, Bloomsbury 2015 [2013]

A brace of books about the sex organs and what they mean, books that benefit enormously from being read in tandem – even though doing so does serve to erode some of the claims to uniqueness made by each of them. Both, in their own way, try to examine how and why the cultural taboos about concealing the genitals have been variously enacted, reinforced and challenged over time, and to consider how such attitudes have made individual people feel about themselves, about their bodies, and about others.

In the western world at least, the taboos about penises and vaginas became mixed up early on with religious prohibitions. This is something Friedman examines through art history, noting the abandonment of Classical nakedness in favour of a rather body-phobic tradition of fig leaves and the like.

But – in a process that is central to both books – this censorship only makes their invisible presence more powerfully felt. Rees describes this concept as ‘covert visibility’. Consider, for instance, a painting like Maerten van Heemskerck's Man of Sorrows, where the one part that's covered up ends up, in consequence, demanding all your attention (not least because this work notoriously shows Jesus in a decidedly tumescent state):

http://www.wga.hu/art/h/heemsker/1/m_sorrow.jpg

One consequence of this is the confusion over motivations when artists or writers do try deliberately to focus on the genitals. Are such efforts laudatory attempts to undo the effects of centuries of oppressive censorship, revealing the unseen? Or are they somehow perpetuating the same old stereotypes, by allowing free rein to an audience's erotic fascination?

An important representative case study for Rees is Courbet's L'Origine du monde. The painting is unromantic, demystifying, somehow honest. It works contrary to the conservative traditions that have often made women's bodies an unknown quantity even to themselves. But at the same time, by cropping out the subject's head, arms and legs, it is also seriously reductive: woman as cunt.

http://www.musee-orsay.fr/typo3temp/zoom/tmp_29ca756c07ba6a19b7953dde2a72d5f9.gi...

Friedman's book throws up a fascinating parallel. In a very interesting discussion on the way the penis has often been central to ideas of colonialism and racism, he brings in the controversy over Robert Mapplethorpe's photography, especially his collection of black male nudes, Black Book (1986).

http://blog.sfmoma.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/polyestersuit1.jpg

Here again we have a subject whose head and other extremities have been removed from frame to focus attention on the genitals. Part of the shock value here, it's suggested, comes from the fact that it was still a novel concept to present naked black men as a fitting subject for artistic photography – Friedman notes for instance that not one of the portraits in Sullivan's canonical Nude: Photographs 1850-1980 is of a black man. But at the same time, Man in a Polyester Suit is inextricably tangled up with racist stereotypes of black man = big cock.

But again – why is this image so shocking (and it is shocking)? What is it about this one body part that is so objectifying, so shameful?

For Rees, this tight, dehumanising focus is part of a tradition for what, in the context of her book, she refers to as the ‘autonomised cunt’ – the genitals considered as somehow separate from one's identity. The same is true of the penis, of course, as the title of Friedman's book reminds us. For some reason, the sex organs are a part of the body that many people feel are not quite part of themseves – that leave people, in Rees's academic jargon, ‘radically disaggregated’. She traces an interesting genealogy of independent, talking vulvas – from the magic cunts of French fabliaux (later picked up in Diderot's Les Bijoux indiscrets) all the way through to the giant talking clitoris in South Park: The Movie.

This psychological ‘disaggregation’ of the genitals is linked to another equally strong tradition of their being severed – made literally independent. Rees discusses the violently severed vulva of Eurydice Kamvisseli's f/32, as well as Charlotte Gainsbourg's terrifying homemade clitorodectomy in Lars von Trier's Antichrist. This has obvious connections with ritualised practices like female genital mutilation, which Rees mentions briefly but emotionally in her conclusion; in Friedman's book, the subject is explored in a little more detail through the tradition of castrati (many of whom were ‘fully shaved’, as it was euphemistically called: testicles crushed between stones and then the penis sliced off) as well as a brief outline of how the United States bought into circumcision as part of the nineteenth-century anti-masturbation movement.

http://www.jacksonsart.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Jamie-McCartney.jpg

More parallels emerge in the modern ‘medicalisation’ of the genitals – for women, this concerns how they look, in the form of labiaplasties and so-called designer vaginas; for men, it's about new chemicals that can guarantee their performance and behaviour. I should point out that in making this comparison I am not trying to suggest equivalence – having an erection is genuinely necessary for lots of kinds of sex, whereas having some kind of Platonically ideal perfecto-cunt is not. Still, there are revealing similarities in the way that people's attitudes to their bodies have become co-opted by the medical industry. Friedman's explanation of how Viagra was developed is extraordinary. British physiologist Giles Brindley demonstrated his breakthrough in front of a packed convention in Las Vegas, with the kind of practical show-and-tell that you don't expect from a professional forum:

After calmly presenting his data from behind the podium, Brindley stepped in front of it and pulled down his pants. Moments earlier, you see, he had gone to the men's room and secretly injected himself [with papaverine]. And now, before a room full of strangers, there it was: the, uh, ‘evidence’.

The audience gasped. Brindley did not want the urologists to think he was fooling them with a silicone prosthesis, so he headed into the crowd, proof in hand, and asked them to inspect it. ‘I had been wondering why Brindley was wearing sweatpants,’ says Dr Arnold Melman…


http://www.bmj.com/content/bmj/319/7225/1596/F1.large.jpg

Despite the many points of connection, it must be said that Rees and Friedman have written very different books, which represent totally divergent choices in terms of scope and tone. Friedman works chronologically from the ancient world to the modern age, identifying various key transitional moments along the way – the Renaissance boom in anatomy, Freud, feminism, modern medicine etc. Rees's book is much shallower – it's really a study in avant-garde art and popular culture from the last sixty years, and everything before that is unfortunately corralled into an introductory chapter of ‘Antecedents’.

This is a great shame. When she suddenly dips back from Judy Chicago to consider the baroque painter Artemisia Genlieschi, you can feel the whole book acquire new depth and scope almost within the space of a couple of paragraphs. She has many interesting things to say here and her book needs much more of this stuff – I would much rather have jettisoned some of the discussion of Sex and the City in favour of more detailed examination of the so-called ‘antecedents’. And while Friedman examines Freudian theory from, as it were, the outside, Rees simply accepts the jargon of psychiatry and makes unquestioning asides about, for example, how Moby-Dick reflects castration anxiety. Her terminology is in general a bit too woolly for my liking – there is a lot of wordplay about how ‘the c-word’ is ‘the unseen-word’ or even ‘ob/seen’, all of which I found extremely tiresome. She also keeps her research restricted to the library, whereas Friedman talks to many of the people concerned, including a very sensitive and sympathetic interview with Andrea Dworkin.

I guess Friedman has a penis of his own, but it's kept very much zipped up – his narrative voice goes for a measured, detached neutrality. Rees, by contrast, regularly breaks out into first-person comments which leave some sections looking more like a political rant than a cultural history. In fact she expresses a hope that ‘political engagement’ will be one of the consequences of her book. Although I share much of her anger, I think this tone weakens, not strengthens, her argument: the fact that there is indeed much to get angry about only makes it more important (in my opinion, anyway) for the narrative voice to retain a certain objective distance. I suppose that's my journalistic background speaking.

(While I'm complaining. There is also the odd throwaway comment that rubbed me the wrong way in Rees, such as when she describes male sex toys as being ‘for people who don't get out much […] a house shared with your mother and your unfulfilled dreams for company’. No comment on the much larger, apparently sexually healthy market in dildos and vibrators.)

All the same, Rees's book grew on me a lot once I got used to it. It's misleadingly titled, but it does what it tries to do very well.

Anyway, I suspect that this tonal difference is a clue to the gendered nature of the debate. Men perhaps feel able to consider their cocks historically, objectively, whereas for many women vaginas are in important ways still a political issue. Whether this difference should be leveraged or ignored, I'm not sure. The language itself – as Rees constantly reminds us – does not help; she has to spend too much time in her introduction explaining that despite her title, she does in fact understand the difference between a vulva and a vagina in anatomical terms. Her word of choice in most of the text is cunt, which she hopes to restore to a purely denotative (she calls it ‘orthophemistic’) realm.

I feel differently; I think it's pretty cool having such a powerful word in your corner (pardon the image). I also can't help feeling that – though huge strides absolutely need to be taken, especially in certain parts of the world – still there are advantages to retaining a little taboo-ness when it comes to what's in your pants. It's possible to imagine being completely without issues or prejudices and seeing a vagina as neutrally as I see an elbow. But I'm pleased I don't. ( )
2 vote Widsith | Mar 24, 2015 |
For readers disappointed by Naomi Wolf’s treatise on a similar topic last year, this is the book you’ve been waiting for.
added by Widsith | editThe Independent, Kaite Welsh (Aug 24, 2013)
 
The writing is occasionally declamatory, anecdotal and hectoring when it need not be […but] Rees’ book is the kind of work we need more of if we are to challenge and reconfigure how we understand women and sexuality in contemporary discourse.
 
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From South Park to Kathy Acker, and from Lars Von Trier to Sex and the City, womens sexual organs are demonized. Rees traces the fascinating evolution of this demonization, considering how calling the c-word obscene both legitimates and perpetuates the fractured identities of women globally. Rees demonstrates how writers, artists, and filmmakers contend with the dilemma of the vaginas puzzlingly covert visibility. In our postmodern, porn-obsessed culture, vaginas appear to be everywhere, literally or symbolically but, crucially, they are as silenced as they are objectified. The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History examines the paradox of female genitalia through five fields of artistic expression: literature, film, TV, visual, and performance art. There is a peculiar paradox unlike any other regarding female genitalia. Rees focuses on this paradox of what is termed the covert visibility of the vagina and on its monstrous manifestations. That is, what happens when the female body refuses to be pathologized, eroticized, or rendered subordinate to the will or intention of another? Common, and often offensive, slang terms for the vagina can be seen as an attempt to divert attention away from the reality of womens lived sexual experiences such that we dont look at the vagina itself slang offers a convenient distraction to something so taboo.… (more)

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