In the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, there’s a picture that, last time I looked, was curtained off. A couple of Japanese girls came out from behind the curtain, stuffing their hands into their mouths to stop the giggles. I went in to see the cause of the girly mirth and there it was, Gustave Courbet’s ‘Origine du Monde’, a painting of a woman’s open legs, with dark pubic hair and a glimpse, but only a glimpse, of th e labia. It’s obviously provocative: you could say that Courbet has cut to the chase as far as male viewers are concerned. He’s got his Mount of Venus, lots of hair and a bit of bottom and, further up, there’s some uncovered breast.
In other words, everything about the woman that doesn’t relate to sex has simply been topped and tailed; there may or may not have been humour intended. But the thing about the picture is what you don’t see: it’s not explicit in an anatomical way presumably because, to make it so, the model would have had to put herself into a less relaxed and inviting posture. And that’s the obvious thing about women’s genitals: they’re not on show, not the way men’s bits are. Nature is, if you like, reticent about vaginas: unlike breasts, which are both useful and showy.
But that reticence is, and not for the first time, about to be broached, only in a more high-minded way than Courbet’s. Naomi Wolf, the attractive feminist and author of The Beauty Myth, has written a book, Vagina: a New Biography. A copy is on its way to me, but the embargo from the publishers Virago (owned by Little, Brown) is so prescriptive, I had better confine myself to the description of it in the public domain:
‘A medical crisis resulted in sending Naomi Wolf on an unexpected journey — to tease out the link between sexuality and creativity. She discovered, much to her own astonishment, an increasing body of scientific evidence that suggests that the vagina has a fundamental connection to female consciousness. Exhilarated and emboldened by these new discoveries, she considers what a sexual relationship… transformed by these insights could look like… Vagina: a New Biography combines rigorous science… with cultural history and deeply felt considerations of the role of female desire in female identity, creativity and confidence. Provocative and engaging, positive and inspiring, this book… goes to the very core of what it means to be a woman.’
I’ll be interested to see how female consciousness is more linked to the vagina than to any other part of a woman’s sexual makeup — the womb, say, or the clitoris — but if all the fuss is simply about suggesting that a woman’s sexual physicality is a critical part of her identity, well, so what. It seems to me that half the point of books of this kind is the opportunity to say the word ‘vagina’. Look, Janet, look! I’m saying it! It’s an impulse my five-year-old daughter shares without any pretence at being courageous rather than bad. Anyway, we can look forward to Miss Wolf’s participation in an interesting talk on the subject in London hosted by Intelligence Squared in the autumn, an opportunity for highbrow men to talk sex without being accused of being dirty-minded.
And there is, as it happens, a useful political peg to hang all this stuff from. During a recent debate on an anti-abortion bill in Michigan, one Democratic state representative, Lisa Brown, said she was flattered at the interest in ‘my vagina’ but ‘no means no’. She also went on to compare anti-abortion legislation to rape. She was duly removed from the state house and the debate. Feminists and Rep. Brown claimed that this was Republican censorship of the word ‘vagina’. Republicans said it was because of her provocative comparison of a law to protect foetuses with rape. Whatever. The V-word is now everywhere.
Rep. Brown duly staged a reading of The Vagina Monologues on the steps of the Michigan courthouse, with the women readers dressed in various shades of red. Some 2,500 people came to watch. An enormous swath of red cloth was draped in a V-shape on the steps. Eve Ensler, the author of the Monologues, declared, to applause: ‘The vaginas are out. We’re here to stay.’
This faintly alarming-sounding notion may not play quite as well over here, where abortion is rarely properly debated, but I expect we’re in for a bout of tiresome verbal and written self-exposure all the same on the back of Ms Wolf’s book. Certainly the trend is already evident: there’s a new range of products on sale in shops like Harvey Nichols called I Love My Muff, products for the sensitive genital area, which just goes to show that there’s no trend, however supposedly radical, without its commercial side.
Then there’s Pussy Riot, causing offence in Moscow but terrific excitement here with their anti-Putin protest stunt. And the go-ahead New Statesman now has a blog called the V-spot, jointly written by Rhiannon and Holly, co-founders of an online magazine called the Vagenda.
Publishers are on the case when it comes to books about our bits. There’s Read My Lips, a complete guide to the Vagina and Vulva, for instance. Or there’s Vagina, an Owner’s Manual, with a front-cover recommendation from Candace Bushnell, of Sex and the City: ‘This is a book every woman should own.’
Its co-author, Lisa Topp, enthused about a group of American schoolgirls who, feeling discouraged from talking about their genitals, asked for space in the school meeting agenda and stood before the school body and shouted ‘VAGINA! VAGINA! VAGINA!’ It would be beyond parody except, Naomi Wolf declared in the Guardian’s Comment is Free, that ‘they were, in their own way, saying no to the abuse and objectification of women, and taking back what was theirs’. Oh yes? A male contributor to the online discussion that followed observed: ‘When we did the exact same thing at my all-boys school we were all called immature and put in detention.’
The tiresome thing is, we’ve been here before. Simone de Beauvoir was clinically frank in her own discussion of the vagina. And in the 1970s, feminists were more hardcore about it. I’ve never actually seen the photograph of Germaine Greer with her ankles wrapped about her ears, but I gather it’s quite something. And it is in turn a dim echo of the Irish figure of the Sheila-na-Gig, those little stone images over the doors of respectable Catholic churches showing a female figure with her knees drawn up to show all she’s got.
We haven’t yet got to the point where Naomi et al will be following suit, though you can’t bet on it; but talking about vaginas incessantly will be tiresome and vulgar enough. Before it’s too late, can we draw the curtain in the manner of the Musée d’Orsay, return to reticence and, pace Eve Ensler, keep vaginas in, not out? The unsayable word, right now, isn’t vaginas, it’s modesty.