The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History, by Emma L. E. Rees
Shahidha Bari welcomes a thoughtful look at ordinary anatomy and extraordinary anxiety
Towards the end of The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History, a challenging new study by Emma Rees, the author confesses to having toyed with a number of alternative titles, among them Can’t, punningly risqué, and Vulvanomics, a wry twist on Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s 2005 blockbuster Freakonomics. Vulvanomics, one imagines, might have made for an appealing sales pitch to an opportunistic publisher, but it smacks, too, of a flippancy not in keeping with what is a polemical and deeply anxious book in many ways. Since so much of this book is concerned with how we speak of and about female sexual and reproductive organs, Rees is probably right and sensible in opting for the implacably straightforward The Vagina, and this direct mode of address and, often, redress is characteristic of its approach more broadly. If the book eschews mischievous puns and pudenda-related playfulness, it does so as a sober assertion of its academic intent.
This seriousness is important not least in so far as issues of misogyny, sexual inequality and reproductive rights continue to warrant urgent attention. But it is also important because Rees’ book follows in the wake of Naomi Wolf’s similarly titled, high-profile and roundly damned 2012 book for Virago, Vagina: A New Biography. Wolf volunteers her own judgement on the back cover of this new study, generously acknowledging Rees’ book as “richly researched”. It is, and it is a blessed relief that it is so, since the book presents a modest effort at repairing some of the damage done to the body of critical feminist writing by Wolf’s botched patchwork of cod neuroscience and wearyingly unselfconscious exaltations of privileged, liberal, narcissistic and normative heterosexual life.
Rees’ The Vagina is no memoir masquerading as cultural history; rather, it is a sensibly researched study that catalogues a range of artistic and literary representations of female genitalia, and demonstrates an understanding of the various aesthetic, intellectual and political discussions that frame them. It is a study that critically scrutinises our (in)abilities and (dis)inclinations to acknowledge the place of female sex, sexuality and sexual health in discourse. This is not to say it is a book that is revelatory in any profound way, but it is an informed, often interesting and decently historicising effort – and thus also the kind of work upon which we might call if we are minded to provide a scholarly context to some crucial contemporary debates. And indeed, we might and should. The abjection of female sexual organs, or what Rees calls their “dysphemistic” (the rendering offensive of something inoffensive) usage, has a long and fascinating history, and one that might inform our analysis of the recent spate of misogynistic online persecutions. We know to condemn the Twitter trolling suffered by campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, Labour MP Stella Creasy and academic Mary Beard, among others, but from Rees’ book, we know better the various ways in which female sexual organs and female sexuality have been the particular points of misogynistic attack for centuries, and the complicated ways in which our language continues to obscure, abhor and deny them.
The “indecent” nature of the word “cunt” was, Rees speculates, established in the 19th century, but its usage dates from about 1230. Arrestingly, it appears in medieval street names, now long lost – the various Gropecuntelanes of London, Oxford and Bristol, quietly retitled Grape, Magpie and Nelson Street respectively. Rees relishes in “Clawecunt”, “Clevecunt”, “Cruskunt” and “Blunthercuntesaker”, taking them as “evidence to support the idea that what might now be regarded as ‘obscene’ place names” were, in fact, relatively common. “Cunt”, she speculates, could have derived, variously, from Old Norse, Icelandic and Latin. Its Old English origin coincides with terms for hollow, gulley and cleft, where topography and anatomy are one – Rees’ point being that there is nothing inherently obscene, rather something insistently ordinary, about “cunt”. How, then, do those with a “cunt” come to be at odds with a society that regards it as an obscenity? And do we seek to reclaim and rehabilitate the word, or disavow it for its anatomical as well as its affective inaccuracy? Rees is sharp here in dissecting a fascinating debate, although she remains unable to offer a decided judgement.
Equally interesting is this book’s long excursion into the history of the vagina dentata, the mythical and monstrously “toothed” genitals represented in the 11th-century myth bowls of the Native American Mimbres people, repeated in Madhya Pradesh Indian folklore, and later revived by Freud. The horror of the vagina dentata, Rees argues, haunts and feeds castration fantasy, and thereby justifies the pre-emptive maiming of women’s bodies. This vaginal fantasy/fear extends, she suggests, into contemporary culture, invidious even where its manifestations might appear only crass, comic, vulgar or absurd. Sharon Stone’s infamously knickerless leg uncrossing in Paul Verhoeven’s 1992 film Basic Instinct, sexualised as it is, refigures those mythical teeth as metaphor; the vagina, still dark, dangerous and vicious. Those moments when Rees draws on cultural history to shed light upon the present can be persuasive, informative and interesting. Her history of sanitary products and the increasing euphemisation and sanitisation of menstruation is particularly illuminating, if brief.
The problem, though, is that there are, perhaps understandably, long gaps in the occasionally cursory history that Rees provides. Her scholarly background in early modern and Renaissance culture tells, supplying her with engaging and unusual material, but it is a long stretch from there to now, and so the study presents what is a sometimes sporadic history. The attention paid to obscure performance arts and avant-garde installations can be difficult to follow or care for, and there is a niggling question of judgement in the selection of some of the contemporary material. The analysis of the already dated Sex and the City franchise is distinctly unilluminating, and Rees might have braved sacrificing this “popular” touch for longer, subtler, more careful engagements with Gustave Courbet’s 1866 painting L’Origine du Monde, Frida Kahlo’s painting Flor de la Vida (1943) or Lars von Trier’s film Antichrist (2009), which she rightly flags as deserving of inspection.
Predictably, the usual critique of a predominantly Western feminism applies here, and one might overlook this shortcoming (it is genuinely difficult to cast a wider net), except that Rees is not as careful or considered in her discussion of female genital mutilation as she could be, and latching on to Ayaan Hirsi Ali as a feminist thinker capable of speaking for non-Western women is profoundly disappointing. But this is an ambitious study with the best of intentions, seeking to cover a large terrain. It is work that evidently has a significant archive of scholarly research behind it, and Rees might have tested her nerve and rewarded her readers by pushing for a more substantially academic and less generally commercial book.
The details of the early modern history she presents are curious, interesting and unusual, and too often, one suspects, shelved in favour of more generalised debate. The writing is occasionally declamatory, anecdotal and hectoring when it need not be, since the research here is itself inherently polemical, pertinent and educative. 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.
“I loved the book’s cover from the moment I saw it - my editor at Bloomsbury, Ally Jane Grossan, did a brilliant job of commissioning it,” says Emma Rees, senior lecturer in English at the University of Chester, of The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History. “It captures the book’s theme of ‘covert visibility’ perfectly - it’s an utterly ‘innocent’ image but is very suggestive at the same time.”
Rees was born in Birmingham. “I lived in a satellite town, Bromsgrove, for 18 years, before going to the University of East Anglia to do my first degree. Birmingham was a great place to grow up in the 1980s. The music scene was lively and my sixth form, in Edgbaston, was wonderful: we were encouraged to express ourselves as individuals and to work hard. This was the perfect combination for me: my pre-sixth-form school had been very rigid and restrictive and I ended up being expelled for running with the ‘wrong’ crowd (mainly bikers) in the town and for questioning that school’s ludicrous authoritarian ethos. Being expelled was great - I went on to do well academically despite doing all kinds of things that, thankfully, my own daughter never did in her teens!”
She now lives in Chester. “I’ve just moved house with Richard, my partner (now husband) of 25 years, and our 22-year-old daughter, Saf, who’s just completed her degree in sociology at Cardiff University. We’ve ended up living very close to the University of Chester, where we both work, which is good, because we can walk to work in minutes - we lived on the other side of Chester, by the river, for over a decade. The house feels full of animals - a golden retriever called Mitzvah and four cats (Shadow, Hecate, Lilith and Jezebel).
“Chester is a beautiful city but it’s something of a cultural desert: there’s no theatre, no large live music venue, and no city-centre cinema. There are vibrant music and literature festivals each year but audiences can be frustratingly small - it’s a conservative city. Mold, a few miles away, has the wonderful Theatr Cymru, and Liverpool and Manchester are easy to reach, when we need a cultural fix. We also go to London and to Stratford for the theatre regularly.”
Rees confesses, “I love the sea (odd for a Brummie, I know), and although it’s only a shortish drive away from here to reach the seaside, my dream is to live somewhere where I can wake up in the morning to the sound of waves! I’d also like to live somewhere other than the UK for a while; to immerse myself in Parisian culture, say, or to work somewhere in Italy or Spain.”
She and her husband are, she says, “avid theatregoers, and love live music. We also still like rock festivals, but the older I get, the more genteel I become - I refuse to camp, so it’s a decent hotel within easy reach of the venue, or I won’t go. We still hang out with musicians from time-to-time - Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden came to UEA once to talk to my students there about William Blake (he flew his own plane to Norwich airport); we spent time with Metallica at Earl’s Court a few years ago; and we meet up with the members of Deep Purple after gigs. Richard and I are also avid consumers of box-sets: we’re nearing the end of the fourth season of Breaking Bad, and trying to spin it out so it’s not over too soon. One of the main reasons for our recent house move was to be able to get all of our books out of boxes and onto shelves - reading and book buying are our most our most serious vices these days.”
Both parents played an important role in fostering Rees’ interest in intellectual pursuits. “My mother (now retired) was an English teacher. As the only child of an only child, I turned to books for companionship, and my mother made sure that I always had plenty to read. She never ‘censored’ my reading or stunted my reading curiosity, for which I’m eternally grateful. My late father was a Bacon scholar and professor at Queen Mary’s. My Renaissance research, early on in my academic career, was a kind of plea to him to think I was doing well, but he was never forthcoming in his praise. However, I do remember him having incredible patience during my rebellious teenage years, when my mother was (understandably) at the end of her tether. He made me fall in love with John Donne’s poetry, for example, and took me to Rome for a summer while he worked at the university there.”
On the challenge of keeping up a strong impressive publication record while still devoting energies to teaching, Rees insists: “I love lecturing and I always try to do it well. The students at Chester are different to those I’ve taught elsewhere - they don’t have a sense of entitlement and are often first-generation university attendees. The light-bulb moments when they realise they can see their way through an intellectual problem make it all worthwhile.”
Asked to name her favourite and least favourite writing about the vagina in fiction, Rees responds, “I think my favourite is by Kathy Acker, and comes from The Burning Bombing of America. I love her eccentric, angry take on life. Like so many talented artists, she died far too young.” She adds: “The worst writing I found was probably in Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes. Baker thinks he can write about female sexuality but he simply can’t. He’s horrendously misogynist and the result is a series of bizarre and unintentionally hilarious neologisms (‘famished slutslots’, anyone?).”
“We do have a colossal problem with language,” Rees observes. “As I say in the book, if the only accurate term for describing a woman’s sexual organs in their entirety is also the single most taboo word in the English language, where does that leave women who want to talk about their sexuality? But the ‘problem’ with the vagina is also an issue of cultural relativism - as a cisgendered white European woman I deplore the cultural practice of female genital mutilation, but my own ‘culture’ increasingly accommodates cosmetic surgical labiaplasty procedures and non-reconstructive breast enhancements, for example.”
On the matter of the word “cunt”, she says, “I fear reclamation is a lost cause - but I suppose I do advocate it in the book (while at the same time acknowledging the near-impossibility of the task). I don’t think it’s a swearword or an affectionate term - for me, it’s a purely denotative word - albeit one with a gratifyingly incendiary cultural potency.”
The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History
By Emma L. E. Rees
Bloomsbury, 352pp, £19.99 and £14.99
ISBN 9781623568719 and 67897 (e‑book)
Published 29 August 2013
Review originally published as: Fear, folklore and female genitalia (15 August 2013)
Shahidha Bari is lecturer in Romanticism at Queen Mary, University of London and author of Keats and Philosophy (2011). She was an Arts and Humanities Research Council/BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker 2011.