The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History
US: Aug 2013
Excerpted from The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History by © Emma L. E. Rees (footnotes and images omitted) with permission from Bloomsbury Academic. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
Revealing the Vagina: Introduction
The Mother of Invention
Serendipity, not necessity, is the mother of invention. How else would a nice girl like me end up writing a book like this? In the summer of 1995, while driving through the borderlands of England and Wales in a Volvo so old that it imposed a leisurely pace on us, we saw an unremarkable sign pointing to ‘Kilpeck Church’. Turning off the road, we found an extraordinarily quirky Romanesque church in a fairly deserted spot. We parked, and wandered round on foot, our gaze drawn upwards to the ornate, Celtic-style stone carvings which dominated the grey façade. Dolphin-like swirls gave the weathered stone the appearance of effortless motion; a flow, as though waterborne. A line of gargoyles (which, I was later to learn, were actually ‘corbels’) was wrapped around the little church like a taut line of bizarre stone bunting.
Very few of the 70 or so corbels which have survived the assaults of the weather, the Reformation, and, anecdotally, at least, the parasols of censorious Victorian women, depict recognizably conventional religious images. There are two very equine-looking representations of the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), and human faces which, at a push, might be Adam and Eve, but most of what we saw that hot summer’s day in 1995 mystified us. Here, a weirdly cartoonish carved rabbit had, for over 800 years, been squashed next to a stone dog whose droopy ears projected an air of weary resignation; a bird-like monster was captured greedily eating a wide-eyed human being; and a knot of serpents bit down on their tails, their writhing at a standstill for the eternity the stonemason wanted them to represent. And then we saw her: a bald-headed, primitive figure crouched on the corbel table, her blank eyes somehow fixed on her observers, and her hands, inside her knees-akimbo, spreading her proportionately massive labia, exposing her vulva. What was she doing on this church? On any church? How could an image of such full-on femaleness possibly bear a sufficiently hallowed message? Did she justify her place on that sacred building through some sort of code which Hugh of Kilpeck’s stonemasons had understood in the twelfth century, but which was lost to us in the twentieth?
We went into the cool, dark church to buy a guidebook, dutifully dropping our coins into the wooden honesty box where they made a hollow clang, briefly hushing the birdsong. Along with the guidebook came a reprint of an extract from a nineteenth-century guide written by G. R. Lewis. Blinking into the sunlight we used Lewis’s meticulously illustrated guide to point out to one another the ‘meanings’ of the different corbels we could see. All was going well until we reached that perplexing female figure. Here, Lewis’s meticulousness roundly failed. His illustration of the corbel – number 26, as he called it – clearly showed the same bald-headed figure with the staring eyes. Lewis’s figure, though, had its hands pointing outwards, to the sides, at complete odds with what we could see. Arms, tailing off into those deceitful little stone hands, seemed somehow to have replaced legs. What were evidently, albeit astonishingly, labia, had been transformed into an unobtrusive, shield-shaped mark. This nineteenth-century antiquarian’s illustration might be flawed, we reasoned, but what of his written description? ‘26 represents a fool’, wrote Lewis, ‘the cut in his chest, the way to his heart, denotes it is always open and to all alike’. ‘That’s no chest!’ we said to one another, and ‘that’s no cut!’ The puzzlement and indignation stuck with me, and a few years later I wrote an essay on G. R. Lewis’s encounter with our stony puzzle, more properly called Sheela-na-GigShe was, I discovered, a didactic figure found on church façades throughout Europe, silently warning about the dangers of fornication for hundreds of years. What did it mean, I wondered then, and still wonder now, for the female genitalia to be so very visible, and yet to be so blatantly and unapologetically eradicated?
The psychologist Virginia Braun has written brilliantly on what it means to research the vagina (I mistyped ‘vagibna’ there – the demure spellchecker only offered me ‘vagabond’), not from a medical, but from a representational perspective, and what it means to bring ‘private issues into public discourse’. I understand precisely Braun’s point when she writes that, in discussing her research with new acquaintances, ‘I admit to making judgements about whether people can “handle” the information. Which leads to lies and omissions. By omissions I refer to my “parent-friendly” account of my research’. In more academic settings, Braun recounts how she would introduce her research in such a way as to invite laughter which, nonetheless, ‘reinforces [her…] observation that the vagina is a “troublesome” topic. It remains private in a way that makes its appearance as a topic of social science surprising and illegitimate, at least initially’. Braun’s thoughts on what it means – in academic and ‘civilian’ settings – to want to research and write about the cultural vagina vividly reflect my own experiences in writing this book. I know, for example, that at least one (male) colleague believes my research to be somewhat ridiculous and to fit absolutely with the stereotypical image he has of the ‘feminist academic’. Gladstone’s Library in North Wales, where I’ve spent many happy hours writing, has a largely ecclesiastical client-base: at communal meal-times, when asked what I was working on, coyness shamed me into saying something woolly along the lines of ‘representations of the female form in literature and art’, as though I were some bluestocking researching the ancient Greek sculptures of Praxiteles, rather than a writer concerned with the epistemology of Sarah Lucas’s ‘Chicken Knickers’. My own mother, always my biggest fan, has a collection of pieces I’ve written down the years, which she wheels out whenever an unsuspecting guest asks after me, and is perhaps just a little disappointed that I couldn’t have found a more ‘respectable’, or at least easily explicable, topic for this book.
The Naming of Parts
My earliest encounter with the word that dare not speak its name was when I was very young, at that age when summers seem perpetual and one inhabits one’s body with an easy, sensual grace. In my green and white striped dress I must have looked the epitome of a British schoolgirl. The school itself was mainly housed in a large redbrick Victorian house in the suburban English Midlands. Around the house were extensive grounds (which seemed huge, to a seven-year old) made up of some wooded areas, some grassy and the slumped mound of a long-disused air-raid shelter. It was one of those prickly and oppressive summer afternoons when the playful yells of schoolchildren scatter the air, together with the far-off whirring of lawnmowers, the hollow ‘bokk’ of tennis balls and the overhead hum of distant aeroplanes. Hunkering down in the long, brittle grasses, Peggy Lucas and I animatedly exchanged words. It was one word in particular that we shared that day. But it was in some way more than a word, too: it was a jewel, a token of infinite worth, a treasure to be shared and considered and repeatedly turned over in our minds and on our tongues. The word was ‘cunt’. An odd little word – harsh-sounding and somehow replete. Consonantal and spat out. We had no idea, Peggy and I, as to what the thing might be to which ‘cunt’ referred, but we knew that the word itself had a magic, and a deliciously taboo aura. It wasn’t to be said in front of adults, and friends would have to beg to be allowed into our exclusive semiotic clique. We owned that word; it was a code word or cipher. At lunch and in assembly we knew that we knew. In Maths lessons and in English classes we knew that we knew. Changing for PE, and washing brushes in a jam jar in Art, we knew that we knew. We were initiates into a hushed world of words from which adults must be protected, and into which we, in turn, would invite only the most popular girls, those who had, perhaps, another word to trade with us. But no other word could quite reach the potency of ‘cunt’. It was a word with the enchanted power of a smooth pebble pressed into the palm of a trader and clasped tight, protectively; a linguistic charm, more powerful even than the Beagle’s Captain Robert FitzRoy’s buttons, traded for Patagonian children in the late 1820s. And so I learned early on about the currency of language; of its almost talismanic power both in use and in exchange.
For Peggy Lucas and I, then, in the long, dry grass in the heatwave of 1976, ‘cunt’ was our currency. It was a word whose shared taboo bonded our friendship. The odd part is that, after so many years, I forget who had ‘brought’ the word to school that day. What I do recall vividly is how it would have felt like betrayal for one or other of us independently to trade our currency with anyone else (in that innocent world of clandestine linguistic commodity exchange I would have been delighted – although somewhat bemused, of course – to have read the OED’s description of the ‘restricted currency’ of ‘cunt’). This necessity for a restriction, or control, of usage is certainly something grasped by almost any English-speaking person. That the OED lists as its first definition of ‘cunt’: ‘the female external genital organs’ is problematic for those of us who know that the female genitals are made up of numerous components, both internal and external. The alternative word, ‘vagina’, is clinical-sounding – and actually very anatomically specific, referring as it does to the birth canal. Virginia Braun and her colleague Sue Wilkinson have explored the differences between academic and lay interpretations of the word: ‘the referent of the term “vagina” does not necessarily mirror its anatomical referent. Vagina is frequently used as a shorthand term to encompass women’s genitals as a whole, or the more visible vulva’. So – do we need to develop a new language for women’s bodies? Or somehow rehabilitate the old one? ‘Cunt’ is, the OED aside, the most inclusive term, referring to the vulva, labia, vagina and clitoris. As Germaine Greer somewhat whimsically puts it, should we talk about ‘the whole box and dice’; or, as Gloria Steinem writes, about the ‘power bundle’; or, for Eve Ensler, ‘the package [...] the entire deal’? If we don’t say ‘cunt’, then we aren’t speaking the truth. In the same TV programme where Greer conjures up that gaming image (one which, somewhat uneasily, reminds me of playing Yahtzee with my grandmother many years ago), the irony is that she doesn’t actually say ‘cunt’ very often. When she does, as in reading out lurid verses by the seventeenth-century libertine the Earl of Rochester, she forcefully emphasizes the word’s guttural ruggedness. Greer’s documentary, broadcast in 2006, was a segment of the popular etymological BBC programme, Balderdash and Piffle. Despite the programme showing footage of Greer painting a huge orange-red word ‘cunt’ onto a whitewashed wall, it’s not until more than two minutes in that the word is actually said at all – and that’s by a man in a vox pop survey. Greer describes how in the 1970s she set about rehabilitating the word, because the word ‘vagina’, in its omission of ‘all the bits that make it fun’, felt offensive, not least in its violent sexist etymological roots associating it with a ‘sword sheath’. She also suggests that there’s something inherent in the sound of the word ‘cunt’ that conveys most forcibly the power of women’s genitals in a way that ‘vagina’ simply cannot. ‘Cunt’, Greer argues, ‘demands to be taken seriously’.
However seriously we take a word, however, there are some words which are so potent and yet so frangible that they need to be handled reverentially. They are philological nitroglycerine. In this sense, ‘cunt’ is the older linguistic sibling of the equally hazardous ‘nigger’; both words possess the power to shock, and both polarize their advocates and detractors. ‘Cunt’ is the ‘nigger’ of the gender wars. It ‘has never been innocent’, argued the late linguist Ruth Wajnryb, ‘at least not for a good number of centuries’. Even Mellors’s attempts in Lady Chatterley’s Lover to normalize the word are, according to Wajnryb, doomed, because ‘taboo words [...] are overly invested in connotative or emotional associations rather than descriptive or dictionary meanings’. Is the battle for reclamation already lost, then? Has the connotative freight of social disgust become simply too great for the little word to bear?
Greer argues that in the twentieth century ‘cunt’ ‘became the most offensive insult one man could throw at another’. But Wajnryb also pointed out that ‘the more people hear a word, the weaker its taboo, and, therefore, its shock value becomes’. She suggested that cunt is still a relatively fixed word – its noun usage is far more widespread than its adjectival usage, for instance (unlike the wonderful versatility of the word ‘fuck’) – and this both reflects and maintains its taboo status. Reclamation is a way to ‘subvert the male-endowed perniciousness of the word’. In this book, I’m not so much holding out hope for a restored denotative (i.e. straightforwardly indicative) role for the word that might neutralize its connotative (implied) associations, as Greer sought in the 1970s, as exploring how and why it became pejorative (derogatory) in the first place. Is ‘cunt’ a word that can be moved from the dysphemistic (the polar opposite to ‘euphemistic’) to the purely orthophemistic (plain-spoken) realm of language? Or is this, as linguists Keith Allan and Kate Burridge somewhat dismissively call it, ‘a wish that is impossible to grant’? In the same documentary, Greer visited Bart’s Sexual Health Centre in London to ask about the psychological impact having ‘no acceptable word’ for women’s sexual organs has on women: the route to the appropriate denotative term is compromised by the social potency of the word itself. In a clinical setting, responses to the socially acceptable, yet anatomically erroneous, ‘vagina’ are bound to be far more positive than to the problematic ‘cunt’, yet both denote the same thing (one more accurately than the other, in fact). The ‘obscenity lies in the actual words themselves – what they connote – and not in what they denote’, write Allan and Burridge: taboo words can trigger a physical response in us. Greer claims to be pleased that her efforts at reclamation in the 1960s didn’t work, because it allowed the word ‘cunt’ to maintain its clout, becoming ‘sacred’, a ‘torpedo’ and ‘a word of immense power – to be used sparingly’.
Even when the word itself isn’t used, the ‘torpedo’ effect can still be manifest. In 2004, the British Library commissioned 52 artists and writers to pair up so that each pairing would illustrate one letter of the alphabet for an exhibition. Of the 26 letters, only one – and yes, it is the predictable one – seemed to spark media coverage. Morag Myerscough and Charlotte Rawlins, responsible for illustrating the letter ‘C’, produced a pink neon sign immortalizing the question (best spoken out loud): ‘Has anyone seen Mike Hunt?’ The reactions of the press are as interesting as the exhibit itself. Writing in the fairly right-of-centre Evening Standard, a London-based daily newspaper, Luke Leitch’s piece had the headline ‘Workers “C” red over word-play at library’. Leitch began with a short list of the Library’s ‘treasures’, straightaway mentioning the 8,000 schoolchildren – that’s 8,000 corruptible minds – who visit each year. Next, Leitch implicitly criticizes the cost of the exhibition (£5,000) before mentioning this ‘art’ exhibition at the ‘£511 million library’. Unnamed BL staff, reports Leitch, who were already ‘up in arms’ because of proposed redundancies, were ‘outraged’ by the ‘adolescent [...] ridiculous and offensive’ artwork. The BL, according to Leitch, clarified that ‘school parties will be kept away from this particular learning experience’. Rawlins herself explained that ‘C, after all, is almost unique in having its own word. The C word. The hardest word of them all. In fact, there’s only one other letter that has its own word and that’s F… but no one is that scared of using the F-word these days [...] Our aim isn’t to shock, it’s just to have a bit of fun with our letter and say that we don’t think the C-word is such a bad word after all’. By contrast, the left-of-centre national daily newspaper The Guardian, rejoiced in precisely the ‘adolescent’ humour Leitch renounces. ‘Library show for word rhyming with hunt’, is the headline for Maev Kennedy’s piece, which expresses none of Leitch’s outrage (the exhibition’s extravagant waste of money, and its near-paedophilic threat to the nation’s youth). Instead, Kennedy softly mocks the possible responses of the exhibition’s visitors: ‘If you must laugh, please do it quietly. Should you feel a snort of outrage coming on, please bury it in a handkerchief [...] And if Mike Hunt is out there, or anyone who admits to knowing him, he might just like to drop in the British Library, where he may be surprised to find his name up in lights.’ Kennedy describes Rawlins as ‘unrepentant’ – even in this largely positive piece, the idea of penance for dabbling with the ‘C-word’ is conjured up, albeit playfully.