Whenever baizuo document their own phenomena in their inimitably artless and obvious fashion, their titles always portend pretense and idiocy alike:
It’s yet another pseudo-rebellious posture assumed by charmless, cretinous women desperate for attention to exploit nonexistent controversy, from the epicenter of Western Civilization’s ebb.
This weekend, a new museum opens in London dedicated to female genitalia – helping to lift a taboo that runs all the way back to the birth of Western art, writes Holly Williams.
If this museum’s subject is currently assigned such an infandous taboo, why was its opening met with such scant interest?
In 2017, Florence Schechter discovered that Iceland had a penis museum, but that nowhere in the world could its female equivalent be found. And so, the science communicator decided to do something about it. This month, in London, the Vagina Museum will be born.
Whatever a “science communicator” is, her activities clearly have no relation to sciences applied or theoretical.
In fact, it’s a pretty different proposition to the penis museum. “That’s kind of novelty, penises in jars,” Schechter explains. “We’re going to be much more thoughtful and actually explore the topic.”
For baizuo, exploration in all undertakings connotes ideological contextualization so that their audiences may know how to appropriately adjudge their presentations, lest any dissent occur.
First up, a note on the name. Schechter acknowledges the frustration at how the word “vagina” is often used when people are really talking about the external vulva (the labia, clitoris and vaginal opening) – but they needed a term people were already familiar with.
“A lot of people don’t know the word vulva, and people are not going to engage with something they don’t know,” she says. A Vagina Museum is, frankly, more eye-catching and conversation starting.
One hardly auspicates by acknowledging and catering to her prospective patrons’ inscience.
The museum will look at the entire gynaecological anatomy – the inside (uterus, cervix, ovaries) as well as the outside – and consider its representation in culture and history. But the fact a Vagina Museum needs a bit of a glossary in the first place is proof of its purpose.
Isn’t every instance of common ignorance imputable to the machinations of that dastardly patriarchy?
“The gynaecological anatomy is a very stigmatised part of the body,” points out Schechter. “A museum is a place where conversations can happen – the best way to fight taboo and stigma is with knowledge.”
I agree. Moreover, the best way to learn about anatomy — sexual, reproductive, and otherwise — is by reading illustrated anatomical literature. That alternative’s far less tacky or abashing than Schechter’s endeavor.
We are still crushingly bad at talking about all the bits between women’s legs – often ignorant or euphemistic, vague or embarrassed, even if we have a vagina ourselves.
Pray, who are “we?” Who, precisely, is so ignorant? Why is (often decorous) euphemism necessarily negative? When and why are the subjects broached in polite conversation? This statement was meant to postulate these notions and instruct its credulous readers on how they should feel, but it’s not terribly plausible.
And wider culture attitudes to them run the gamut of sniggering, censorious, disgusted, objectifying, or actively oppressive.
To which “wider cultures” is she referring? Earlier, she adverts to “Western art,” but nowhere in the west is the vagina subject to any particular oppression. If there’s sniggering, it’s from those who regard Schechter and her ilk mortifying for their superficiality, calculatedly low threshold for criticism and trite conception of recusancy. As for objectification of the vagina, the human species couldn’t be happily propagated without such a perspective!
A culture of fear
Feminists have projected their pathological trepidity regarding everything either to men or broader culture and society for decades. Never mind how often others have observed this compulsion; they won’t stop until the movement gracelessly collapses.
This inability to talk about female genitalia has certainly had its impact on Western art and culture.
Piffle. Those organs simply aren’t anywhere near so visually as functionally intriguing.
Taboos can make an image more powerful – but they can also lead to fearful depictions of the unknown
Hence the defamatory insistence that anyone west of Turkey concerned about unlimited, unsustainable, indiscriminate and destructive migration is a “white supremacist.”
or to the erasure of a huge part of lived female experience.
“Lived experience” must be the dumbest tautology of of the leftist parlance and this era.
Let’s start at the beginning: birth. Where are the paintings of birth in Western art? They don’t exist, prior to the 20th Century. This curious lack has been pointed out by the novelist and essayist Siri Hustvedt. “It is a stunning absence,” she says, adding that the suppression of gestation and birth has to be “related to the suppression of women and the fear of women.”
Childbirth has historically been a private affair in those societies and therefore not a painterly topic, partially in respect for the mother in accouchement. Hustvedt — a nearly unreadable, stereotypically Minnesotan third-wave hack who almost reflexively attributes to misogyny nigh every frailty and misdeed common to the human condition — unsurprisingly relates this to “the suppression of women.” Again, “the fear of women” is merely more shrewish projection, and even more incredible: before the advent of second-wave feminism, few among even the most timorous men were at all gynophobic.
It’s also surely to do with a religious tradition of painting where the female figure is a virgin: distaste for the visceral elements of reproduction have been coded into art right from the start… “It is an example of the vagina getting written out of a dominant cultural narrative,” agrees Emma EL Rees, Professor of English at the University of Chester.
Among the innumerable popular outlets of propaganda in the Anglosphere, few are so egregiously tendentious as the BBC. Guess what: neither is the penis too explicitly prominent in those “dominant cultural narratives.”
Of course, such absences in, say, Muslim art can’t be mentioned.
As the author of The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History, Rees literally wrote the book on the depiction of vaginas – and its chapter on birth shows that, even in modern times, public attitudes to seeing women’s private parts during childbirth are fraught.
No excerpt from the book is provided to instance how, but for the commonplace, contemporary feminist, insinuation suffices in lieu of substance. I honestly don’t know why parturition should be publicized, but neither why most people would care either way.
In 1997, UK artist Jonathan Waller’s life-size paintings of women were apparently considered so distressing by the gallery who represented him that they removed one of them from a show;
To epitomize: provocateur compensated for his shortfall of talent with garishly tasteless imagery, was satisfactorily “repressed” as expected, and consequently enjoyed remuneration for his little incident. Yawn.
later, the images prompted the Independent on Sunday to ask ‘Is birth the last taboo subject in art?’
The question should’ve been, “Why were such amateurish, sophomoric paintings exhibited in a gallery?”
Rees shares another, more recent example: at a 2009 exhibition of the Birth Rites Collection – work dedicated to the artistic depiction of birth, first displayed at Salford University before moving to various galleries and science centres across the UK – a photograph by Hermione Wiltshire of midwife Ina May Gaskin called Therese in Ecstatic Childbirth, which shows a mother’s joyful expression at the moment of crowning, was apparently repeatedly covered up by visitors.
When a crowning is photographed in a pornographic idiom specifically to incite outrage, that’s to be expected. Nowhere in this article is the gender of the offended mentioned.
“There is still a cultural paradox and hypocrisy around vaginas,” Rees tells me. “The same people who will criticise seeing a baby crowning potentially consume porn – [then they are] perfectly happy with vaginas, but when they start doing stuff like pushing another human being out of them, that’s somehow obscene.”
This is an unalloyed falsehood. Nearly no one — certainly not viewers of pornography — is concerned in the slightest about public depictions of delivery, or any implications of obscenity. She clumsily insinuates that “The same people” are men wholly familiar and therefore comfortable with the sight of a vagina, but knows full well that those solicitous scolds are much more likely to be women.
Rees was drawn to documenting cultural depictions of vaginas for the same reason Schechter wanted to make a Vagina Museum:
They were both desperate for their next thrilling, lucrative fix of delectable attention.
because there’s still so much silence and ignorance around them.
If so, that’s only for indifference.
One of the spurs was an encounter, outside a church in Kilpeck in Herefordshire, with a stone carving of a woman holding open her vulva – and the fact that a 19th-Century guide to the church claimed that it was a fool holding his chest open. “That’s not a fool, and that’s not a chest!” Rees recalls, laughing.
This reads like so much apocrypha that’s really happened. Surely.
In fact, what she was looking at was a ‘sheela na gig’ – figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva
I like sheela na gigs — inter alia, because their existence belies nearly every assertion advanced in this article.
the word for which is familiar to PJ Harvey fans thanks to her song of the same name (“Look at these, my child-bearing hips/Look at these, my ruby red ruby lips”, she sings – not the first or by any means the last time a pop song has capitalised on the dual meaning of lips).
Indeed. It hasn’t really been an unspeakable subject for ages, has it?
The carvings are found in Norman churches all over Europe
So much for the falsity that vaginal depictions were absent in Western art.
and while their purpose isn’t entirely understood, it may be to do with promoting fertility, healthy births, or warding off evil.
How was their ecclesiastic construction possible in an allegedly misogynistic era? Well, never mind.
The autonomous vagina
Here’s your mom’s feminist insubordination, obstreperously embarrassing friends and family before the whole neighborhood.
Still, compared to male genitalia, depictions of the vulva are pretty rare until the 20th Century. Of course, female sexual organs are more hidden compared than their masculine counterparts – and this, combined with the lack of non-sexualised discussion of, and language for, the female genitals seems to have had a real impact on the depictions that do exist.
Only lonely, homely white women would regard perceived pretermission as such a grave affront.
I was struck, reading Rees’s fascinating book, how many examples present the vagina either as autonomous – rebellious, or oddly divorced from its owner – or as a terrifying, dangerous thing.
One mythic image goes way back: the vagina dentata – a vagina armed with teeth, that damages or castrates the male. It’s a myth that has a history and currency in cultures and civilisations that could not have communicated with each other: in the Indian subcontinent and in south America we get the same stories emerging, at a time when there wasn’t any transatlantic travel,” says Rees. She adds that in many of these myths “the fear of the unknown-ness of the vagina becomes a rationale for acts of extreme brutality – knocking the teeth out through rape or serious sexual assault.”
What Rees quite deliberately omits is that in most (and all European) of the folkloric cultures in which it was related, vagina dentata was concocted to deter rape and the dissemination of STDs. Further, these Hindu, Guiana, Maori, Ainu and other tales are somewhat similar, but hardly “the same.” Many of these stories are triumphalist, some blackly comedic, and still others are sheer horrors. As “someone who wrote the book” on vaginal depiction, Rees is demonstrably inept.
Rees also references several modern manifestations of this Freudian fear, not least US director Mitchell Lichtenstein’s film Teeth. In the 2007 horror, the young innocent Dawn’s crush Tobey tries to rape her, only for her vagina to chomp his penis off. Dawn goes on to learn how to use her vicious vagina to wreak revenge on sexually predatory men.
If your horror flick barely breaks even and is overshadowed by better contemporaneous features of the genre, don’t worry — that feminist context will ensure positive reviews and enduring mention in hackery of this rubric.
The myth of the vagina dentata played a part in performance artist Annie Sprinkles’s droll work, Public Cervix Announcement. Performing it live during the 1990s, she’d open her vulva with a speculum, and invite audience members to shine a torch inside her and speak into a mic about what they found. You can now experience the work on her website – where she comments “One reason why I show my cervix is to assure the misinformed, who seem to be primarily of the male population, that neither the vagina nor the cervix contains any teeth. Maybe you’ll calm down and get a grip.”
The only substantial reason why Ellen F. Steinberg so sillily stultified herself was to procure the attention of and insult those few men who noticed her trashy exhibition. Evidently, her previous careers as a peculiarly dumpy prostitute and pornstar weren’t terribly successful.
Sprinkle let others speak about – for? – her genitals, but there’s also a long history of the chatty vagina: an organ that speaks a truth its owner can’t, won’t, or doesn’t want heard.
“The idea of the autonomous vagina was one I began to see a lot of [in my research],” says Rees, who believes that our general inability to discuss vaginas has led to women often feeling separated from their own anatomy.
Though inadvertently, Rees is essentially an author of fiction.
But there’s also a tradition in art and literature of men controlling women by forcing their vaginas to mutter…
As always, feminist parapraxis tells all: they always want control, no matter how oppressive, irrational or plenary it may be.
Rees’s examples go as far back as Medieval French poetry, and the story of Du Chevalier Qui fist les Cons Parler. After a magical power is bestowed on a knight by three witch-like women that allows him to address women’s private parts, he uses it to cause much mischief at a castle. The women have no control: whatever he asks, their vaginas will reply with the truth.
If they’re honest women, why is this so unfortunate?
Truth-telling vaginas also appear in the 18th-Century French writer Denis Diderot’s Les Bijoux Indiscrets, in which a genie provides a sultan with a magic ring that can command “the most honest part” of women to speak the truth. He mostly uses it to question women’s fidelity – a clear instance of how male anxiety about women not being truthful has long been bound up with anxieties about their sexual appetites.
If it’s “a clear instance” of anything, it’s the Gallic proclivity to infidelity and especially advoutry. Isn’t the truth just devastating to these misandrous mythomaniacs?
And, of course, another example of a man forcibly controlling a woman’s body.
Which is preferable: selectively communicative coercion, or infidelity…?
More recent examples of blabbing genitalia include the 1977 US film comedy Chatterbox, in which the heroine Penelope’s vagina – dubbed Virginia – starts to speak and even sing. Although Penelope worries her vagina is a “foul-mouthed little beast” who just wants to have sex all the time, Virginia soon becomes quite a star. Once again, there’s a disconnect between a woman and her vagina: the film riffs on the idea of it being more liberated and honest than its owner, while Penelope silently suffers shame.
This film is dreck, but also sporadically admirable for its candor.
And it’ll surely come as no surprise that South Park has animated various talking lady parts, usually in order to undermine women of power.
Nobody’s “undermining women of power” by satirizing odious public figures.
One episode saw Oprah Winfrey given an autonomous vagina that was dissatisfied and demanded more attention. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, had a vagina dentata which ate a man’s head. Then again, the South Park movie, made in 1999, did feature a more benevolent talking organ: the mystical, near-mythical clitoris.
Maybe Parker and Stone don’t hate women who aren’t reprehensible.
But vaginas can also speak for their owners, not against their wishes. Artist Carolee Schneemann’s infamous 1975 work Interior Scroll saw her undress, pull a scroll out of her vagina, and read it: the text recounted a discussion Schneemann had about her work with a patronising filmmaker who thought her work was too messy, too concerned with feelings.
Most of Fluxus’ output is pretentious drivel. From Eye Body through Flange 6rpm, Schneemann’s oeuvre is as consistently ugly and vapid as she, and characterized by a unifying theme: the quest for attention.
The pleasure principle
From the serious to the silly: Netflix’s Big Mouth is another cartoon about teenagers featuring plenty of chatty body parts. But in contrast to South Park, Nick Kroll’s comedy about middle schoolers going through puberty is good-hearted, level-headed, and actually full of sound advice. Pubic hairs, raging hormones, and vaginas all get personified. But it’s notable that the while female lead Jessi’s vagina is separate from her and very much its own character (as voiced by Kristen Wiig), when she talks to Jessi it’s to encourage her to discover how much fun they could have together. “It’s an honour to be a part of you,” she says, toasting Jessi after their first orgasm. This vagina is promoting unity through pleasure, not shame or separation.
Eventually, all wretched women find their way (back) to Netflix. What was all that about art?
Pleasure: a pretty important function for any owner of a vagina – and yet depressingly not that often the focus of art. With the vagina having been largely hidden, pornography aside, for centuries, just achieving visibility seems to have been a real challenge – and the most famous works have tended to attract virulent criticism from both men and women. Take two of the most famous examples: Judy Chicago’s 1979 installation The Dinner Party and Eve Ensler’s 1996 play The Vagina Monologues.
Yes, the latter’s remarkably obnoxious. Do any of these women meditate on why such exposure is a challenge? I’m fond of many paintings, photographs and sculptures in which penes and pudenda alike are visible, but tangential to these works’ aesthetic substance or thematic import. Why is visibility per se at all important? The answer is as sharp as simple: most of these ladies need attention, and lack the relationships, intellect or allure by which they’d otherwise secure it, and which others take for granted.
Chicago laid three tables for an imagined party of 39 women, among them goddesses, queens and 20th-Century icons including Virginia Woolf and Georgia O’Keeffe (whose own flower paintings have often been interpreted as evoking vulvae, although she denied that was her intention). Alongside gold chalices, embroidered napkins and runners, it features plates shaped as individual, abstracted, butterfly-like vulva.
It’s a monumental work, but attracted scorn from male art critics when it opened and for years after (the Los Angeles Times art critic called it “a lumbering mishmash of sleaze and cheese”; the New York Times later deemed it crass, vulgar, and didactic). The work also attracted the ire of some feminists who claimed it reduced women and their achievements by focusing on their genitals. Museums cancelled showings of it, Chicago struggled to find a home for the work (happily at the Brooklyn Museum since 2007), and its notoriety overwhelmed her career.
It’s not remotely “monumental,” but I’ll readily concede that The Dinner Party is quite cleverly contrived for its triangular accessibility and an artful appeal of which most feminist installations are destitute. Never a great work of fine art, it nathless deserves its success, and initial reprehension of the installation was largely undue.
And yet the work has always been wildly popular with the gallery-visiting public, and especially women. Chicago was surely feeding a hunger, a need, with The Dinner Party. And you could argue the same for Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, a work drawn from interviews Ensler conducted with women ranging from a six-year-old to a septuagenarian, from Bosnian war survivors to a sex worker for women, that touches on sex, periods, body image, rape and female genital mutilation (FGM).
Monologues is truly extraordinary for treating of such a topical sweep in a manner as facile as grating in such address.
It’s not all bleak: the monologues also feature joyful sex and multiple orgasms. Ensler’s show has become an international phenomenon, performed all over the world on 14 February each year, also known as V Day, an initiative started by Ensler raising money to end violence against women. It’s a feminist text that’s proved palatable to celebrities too: everyone from Alanis Morrissette to Glenn Close to Oprah Winfrey has had a go at appearing in it.
Constructed camaraderie will never be as satisfying as family.
Still, the hyper-visibility of Ensler’s show has also drawn seemingly endless criticisms: it’s been deemed too smug, narrow in focus, insufficiently radical, essentialist, colonial, or maybe even simply – whisper it? – too successful. But whatever swipes people take at Ensler, the play genuinely did help bring conversations about vaginas into the mainstream.
Alas, all of those conversations are peeving and shallow.
And it does feel like we might be moving into an era where we’re seeing more depictions, not just of female sexual organs, but also female sexual pleasure. Artists in the 21st Century seem to be able to depict vaginas without it necessarily having to be traumatic or taboo-busting.
Many of these paragraphs read as though they were written for publication in 2019, circa 1962. In every established medium, female sexual pleasure has been on open display for a half-century!
Take UK writer and actor Bella Heesom,
Please! Ha, ha!
who the Guardian suggests “might be considered Ensler’s millennial heir” thanks to her show Rejoicing at Her Wondrous Vulva the Young Woman Applauded Herself, which encourages women to love themselves too. Staged in London earlier this year, the show includes a light-up clitoris headdress, and puts the joy of masturbation and orgasms onstage.
This is what a feckless narcissist might do after her cinematic career quietly fizzled.
In visual art, New York-based Ghada Amer uses embroidery in her colourful, outlined images of women masturbating; she hopes the needle-and-thread can bring a tenderness to such images that “simple objectification ignores”. Tschabalala Self’s bold, colourful work also blends collage and sewing, presenting powerful, confident black women, often opening exaggeratedly wide thighs or curvaceous buttocks to reveal their genitals – a colourful heart, perhaps, or a burst of rainbow.
This wouldn’t be of any interest if it weren’t so hideous:
Pop music has done its bit too: music videos have always been sexually suggestive, but more recently female artists have been playing with knowing visual innuendo to make it clear they’re singing about their own pleasure. Take Ariana Grande’s video for 2018 single God is a Woman, for instance, where she writhes around in various suggestive pools, flames, and (lady) caves – and is at one point backed by a choir of actual screaming beavers. No wonder the video is one of Schechter’s favourite pop-culture depictions: “it’s obvious enough for everyone to be like: that’s an ode to the vulva,” she says.
I do agree that for this audience, it needs to be obvious. If pre-packaged to placate them, nothing’s too tawdry, egotistic or corporate for contemporary feminists.
Why can’t vaginas be funny?
Or take Janelle Monae’s fantastic video for last year’s Pynk, her hymn to “self-love, sexuality and pussy power”. Monae and her female dancers perform in vulva-like trousers, and the video is loaded with pink visual stand-ins for vaginas: milkshakes, ice cream sundaes, oysters, and grapefruits.
This substantiates my point.
She’s not the only one getting fruity: LA-based artist Nevine Mahmoud makes gorgeous sculptures out of marble and alabaster that somehow look warm and sensual: peaches split to reveal a peek of stone, softly folding lilies (which Mahmoud deems “the most erotic flower”), and a cleft shape called Fig/Vagina.
These and most of Mahmoud’s other works are well worth seeing, as in my post on Superaggregation.
The erotic potential of fruit is also brilliantly exploited in the videos of American multimedia artist Stephanie Sarley: she gently rubs halved pieces of fruit in a circular motion – then inserts her fingers till they squirt. They’re glorious and ridiculous, and yet reveal that, even now, the mere suggestion of female ejaculation can be controversial. In one month in 2016, Instagram suspended and restored Sarley’s account three times – a blood orange in particular attracted vitriol – although Sarley’s stated aim is to promote greater acceptance of female sexuality via humour.
It’s a modestly amusing idea, not executed very well.
But artists at least trying to say that women’s sexual bits can be funny – in the same way that penises certainly often are – is surely a cheering development. British performance artist Lucy McCormick has also garnered a reputation for eye-poppingly explicit, eye-wateringly funny shows, that send up the ridiculous expectations of performative female sexuality.
“Women’s bodies are so often offered as purely sexual, it can be a liberation to celebrate the grotesque, the weird and often hilarious functionality of the body,” she has said. Her current show Post-Popular, for example, sees her taking the idea of searching for a hero inside yourself very literally: she pulls a Cadbury’s Miniature Hero out of her vagina, and eats it.
This is what that fumid, single aunt might do to slake her thirst for attention at a holiday’s dinner that didn’t end well. It was shocking and amusing the first time.
Another visual artist who’s been explicit about using humour is Megumi Igarashi, best known as the maker of the “pussy boat”: a canoe modelled on a 3D scan of her vulva. But in 2014, when trying to raise funds to make it, she got in hot water: Igarashi was arrested in her native Japan after selling data enabling people to make 3D prints of her vagina. She was fined 400,000 yen – then about £2,575 – for distributing obscene images, despite insisting she was innocent. Her defence was spot on: she refused to accept that “artworks shaped like female genitals are obscene.”
She also refused to accept that she hasn’t any talent whatsoever, which has been patent to witnesses of her antics among both Japanese and gaijin since they first rolled their eyes after glancing at Decoman.
Such censorship proves we’re still far from being as comfortable with vaginas as we should be,
Once more, who are “we?” Britons aren’t Japanese or American or Canadian; therefore, such a statement concerning censorship doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.
even if creative depictions of vaginas and vulvas in all their varied glory – messy, silly, funny, sexy, beautiful, and empowered –
Nothing is more important to a third-wave feminist than empowerment, even though they seldom attain it. What most of them resolutely refuse to realize is that liberation is neither a concomitant nor a guarantee of empowerment. More often than not, empowerment necessitates labor and aptitude.
do seem to increasingly be able to take a place at the table. Not to mention, at last, being given a museum all of their own.
At long last, wymyn have something that almost nobody (including them) ever considered, much less wanted! As for taking a place at the table, that of the aforementioned Dinner Party is forty years old…nearly a decade younger than the cessation of a condition Williams pretends persists.