American Culture

Feminism now: the trouble with vaginas

By Ann Ivins

Vaginas are big lately. From the dark and steamy netherworld of celebrity culture to the convoluted, overheated annals of politics; from the tongue-twisting exploration of an evolving sexual lexicon to the ever-widening penetration of porn-star aesthetics into the general population, vaginas loom larger than ever. At least they do in my mind. I’m a bit too old, as in decades, to dance on the razor’s edge of popular culture, but even in my limited view, vaginas have begun to dot the wider landscape, no longer content to merely wink at the cameras from open limousine doors. What’s a feminist to make of all this?

As a proud contributor to the intellectual beacon that is Scholars and Rogues, I decided to examine these phenomena in the light of postmodern feminist thought and the social constructs of gender, focusing on the positive and/or negative effects for women. Unfortunately, I realized immediately after typing “the trouble with vaginas” that:

a) the intellectual effort required to come up with a catchy title had depleted my limited post-Christmas reserves;

b) my scholarly qualifications in this area may be questionable, since I’m not sure which wave of feminism is at its peak or even what we’re calling ourselves these days; and

c) the Wikipedia article on “social constructs of gender” is much longer than I expected.

So much for thoughtful commentary. Let’s get to the pink bits… and my (and only my) judgments thereon.

The vagina in culture

OUT is definitely IN of late, at least among the ranks of young, feckless, drugged-out party girls. Are they passing around a virulent panty-specific strain of infectious premature dementia? Paris, Lindsay, Paris, Britney, Paris, Paris, Paris… okay, we’re all there. Cut to the voices inside my head.

Oh, Christ. Another one. Tasteless, clueless. Ick.
Wait a minute – tasteless according to whom? The puritanical social standards that make sex and everything related to it “dirty?”
No, tasteless according to taste. Sexual organs in a non-sexual context are just not exciting or attractive.
So natural human flesh is offensive to your sensibilities?
In certain situations, yes. And what’s that hanging down behind there?
Maybe these young women are simply comfortable with their bodies.
Maybe these young women are too numb from the neck down to feel the draft.
Maybe they own their sexuality in a way you can’t appreciate.
Maybe owning your sexuality would mean sharing the royalties?
Hey, no fair. That was last year.

In any case, whatever your ideological take, anyone old enough to remember the Great Theater Seat Poop Scare knows that every single surface accessible to humans is covered in bacteria, viruses and layer upon layer of fecal matter deposited by people who don’t wash their hands after leaving the restroom, yes you know who you are, yes you, and if you wouldn’t lick a rented limo’s seat, none of your other orifices should be caressing it either without at least a layer of fabric for protection. Unless it’s really, really fun.

Verdict: two ovaries down, primarily because the word “assflap” is now burned into my brain, thank you very much.

The vagina in language

“Va-jay-jay.” You heard me. “Va-jay-jay.”

Now this is just what was missing from the English lexicon: a sickeningly coy euphemism for those dirty, dirty female parts. Where the hell did this come from? Why am I hearing it everywhere? Most importantly – whom do I blame?

At first, naturally, I blamed Oprah: this time with some justification, having heard “va-jay-jay” first from the sacred lips of Herself (for the record, I will not answer any questions about my shameful afternoon channel-surfing practices). After the initial trauma passed, I tried to get on with my life. I truly did. I read some Susie Bright, leafed through my well-worn copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, and attempted to connect with my inner goddess, who called me a self-serving unbeliever and refused to help. Only one remedy remained. I had to face The Beast That is Va-Jay-Jay, hunt it to its source, rob it of its power over my mind and soul, no matter the personal cost.

So I Googled it.

Turns out the ubiquitous VJJ was a direct response from the writers of Grey’s Anatomy (another show I’m too unhip to watch) to a demand from Standards and Practices: stop using the word “vagina” so often. On a show ostensibly about doctors and medical practice. On a show which airs at night, after every impressionable tot who recently emerged from a vagina should be in bed. On a show primarily watched by people who have, guess what? Vaginas.

I am now certain that the behemoth known as Standards and Practices is, in reality, one small nervous man with perpetually clammy hands and the kind of psychiatric record which will almost inevitably be subpoenaed before he dies.

Verdict: two ovaries down to Standards and Practices. But I still blame Oprah.

The vagina in medicine

One word: labiaplasty.

Three quotes.

Dr. Michael Pasquale, Aloha Plastic Surgery: “Women are much more aware of their genitals and the aesthetics of their vagina. There is an obvious, direct connection between a woman’s comfort level with her genitals, and her sexual enjoyment.”

Dr. David Matlock, The Laser Vaginal Rejuvenation Institute of Los Angeles: “Many women bring us Playboy and say that they want to look like this.”

“Crystal,” 20-year-old labiaplasty patient: “Ever since I had the surgery, I feel young and free and prettier for my boyfriend. Even if it’s something nobody else can see, I feel better. It’s not on my mind all the time anymore.”

Excuse me. Feeling a little dizzy.

Okay, I’m back. Still dizzy, though – and I have no idea how to even begin to examine this issue. Do I start with Crystal’s internalization of unrealistic, male-generated standards of appearance? How about her right to alter her body in any way she chooses, regardless of motivation? What of the doctors who reinforce a woman’s self-loathing for a hefty profit? On the other hand, should these surgeons assume a paternalistic decision-making role for adult and (legally) sane women? Do I dare approach the perennial ball-gagged elephant in the feminist room: pornography?

No. No, I don’t. But to all the potential Crystals out there, let me just say this.

I have not performed an extensive aesthetic evaluation of my genitals lately; the process would require a lighted magnifying mirror, my glasses, and a yoga position I haven’t yet mastered. However, in the course of a checkered and thoroughly enjoyable sexual career, never once did I encounter a partner who, when introduced to what I modestly call the Palace of Joy, stopped the proceedings to evaluate the Palace’s decor. At this point in the event, Crystal, any man (or woman) worth your time should be so crazed with lust, expectation and gratitude that nothing else matters. If your vagina is a dead ringer for George Burns without his glasses, your partner’s reaction should be,”Helloooo, it’s Gracie!”

If this is not the case, Crystal, move on. Let the genital critic wank to porn until he grows up. Get some therapy. Superglue your thighs together until the urge to mutilate yourself passes. And trust me – with a good vibrator and an electric blanket, being single is not bad at all.

Verdict: two ovaries waaaaayyyyy down, and we didn’t even discuss vaginal rejuvenation or mons reduction.

And then there was Judith Lieber’s “Golden Vagina,” and Mary Cheney’s woman-loving baby-producing vagina, and… I could go on, but fortunately for all of us my capacity for overthinking is temporarily exhausted. This rapidly aging feminist needs a drink, preferably one with no gender issues attached.

No Slippery Nipples today.

21 replies »

  1. Well. Sweet Mother of Jesus. All I can say about this is congratulations on saying something to potentially piss off every strain of feminism I’m personally familiar with.

    By the way, you REALLY need to go see JUNO.

  2. Damn. I’m just glad that my slightly uncomfortable, choked uproarious laughter didn’t attract enough attention from my fellow cube farm dwellers that they came by and asked why I was fighting hard not to choke or spew Mountain Dew all over my monitor. Pointing them to an article about vaginas (excuse me – VJJs) that I was reading from work would have been… awkward.

  3. And to think I took “Feminist Research Methods” in my doc program expecting to meet babes …

    So what is the precise aesthetic standard for a VJJ?

    A wonderful read. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  4. Brilliant. Simply brilliant. I’m in awe.

    I will cancel my tickets to “The Vagina Monologues” tonight, though I must admit that I’ve been wondering how a vagina articulates without it’s own tongue.

  5. I’d give you two thumbs up if i wasn’t using one of my hands to smother my laughter. Awesome job 😉

  6. Absolutely one of the most brilliant posts I’ve ever read at S&R. I thoroughly enjoyed it, while I was laughing my ass off.


  7. I think anything that gets people to believe that pussies aren’t dirty per se is great; I’m always particularly saddened when it’s the owner who thinks so.

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  9. Hehehehehe . . . ball-gagged elephant in the room . . . hehehehe . . . had to read this out loud to the Sweetie . . . Palace of Joy had us both rolling . . . and wanting to know where we can get tickets!

  10. Re labioplasty: Women mostly tailor their appearance for other women. I’m surprised that they’d undergo this surgery since, unlike breast enhancement which is visible through clothes, it’s not likely to be seen by other women.

    Also, most women don’t like a man examining their genitals for too long because his interest starts to seem clinical and creepy after a while.

    Still, it remains an object of endless fascination for many men. (Who me?)

  11. Russ, that’s internalization at work… also, the ready and private availability of porn online gives women a vastly larger basis for comparison. They may not be talking vulva smack in the womens’ locker room, but there’s certainly a competitive element, even if it’s in their own heads.

  12. Issues of feminism have always interested me. Normally I feel women I know get hyped up about the wrong things. “you opening a door for me asshole!) Forgive me for that cliche. I just feel that if women could explain their views how you explained yours than people who already understand would get to read a wonderfully articulate and clever post, and ignorant would wake the hell up, get the big picture, and be cracking up for a week straight!