The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History, by Emma L. E. Rees explores how female genitalia is represented in popular culture, both throughout history and in the present day. Exploring Literature, Visual Art, Film, Television, and Performance Art, Rees argues that cultural representation of female genitalia follow two tropes: covert visibility (simultaneously seen and unseen) and that of the autonomized cunt (the genitals as separate and often literally speaking for themselves, giving the female an inherently fractured sense of self).
Yes, you read that correctly: cunt. Despite (or even perhaps because of) the controversial and taboo status “the c-word” still retains, Rees cites it as the English word which best describes the female anatomy. For though “vagina” is much more popularly used, it only names a specific part of female genitalia, ignoring both vulva and clitoris. Importantly, Rees argues, “the c-word” is the only unnamable swear word left in our culture; even “the f-word” is now fairly common in its use.
Rees begins her argument about covert visibility with the cunt, citing several examples of word play and comedy where the speaker is cut off before “the c-word” can be spoken, leaving it to hang in the minds of the audience, unspoken but understood. Rees is aware her own book is called The Vagina, and she outlines the complex reasons behind that choice, including the fact that given Igna Muscio’s book, the more correct title would not have been unique. Also, since “vagina” is currently the word of choice for the female genitals, that in itself is worth exploring in such a book.
Rees explores examples from a wide variety of sources: French fabliaux, Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, South Park, Sex and the City, and of course, The Vagina Monologues. Though Rees’ writing style is sometimes dry, she provides a variety of compelling examples. I for one was not aware of the ancient history of the myth of the vagina dentata, or its simultaneous roots in a variety of different cultures. I was also previously unaware that so many films engage the tropes of the vagina dentata or the autonomized vagina.
As a Performance Studies scholar, I was disappointed that the chapter on performance art was the shortest in the book, covering the most obvious (to me) examples: Carolee Shneemann’s Interior Scroll as well as the works of Annie Sprinkle and Eve Ensler. I was glad, however, for Rees’ critique of Ensler’s work in particular, as I have also found The Vagina Monologues’ focus on women AS their vaginas problematic, despite the show’s still highly lauded status in colleges and universities across the United States.
Rees nods to transgender issues at the end of the book, especially noting that the genitals of trans men are perhaps even more problematic than those of cis-women. A British writer, Rees spoke briefly about the (Trans)Mangina Monologues: A Celebration of Trans Male Sexuality, performed in England in 2009 followed by the 2011 book There is No Word for It. For if the naming of female genitalia has a long and fraught history, the naming of the trans* body is even more so.
I appreciate that attempting to cover the entire history of popular representations of the female body means that some things will necessarily have to be glossed over for the sake of length, and that a more recent genre like performance art will get the short end of the stick in the process. But it would have perhaps been more interesting for Rees to give a nod to the precursors for both of these tropes and then explore more in-depth the works which are challenging the dominant narrative and representing women in a more unified light. Rees nods at these moments currently, but cannot do more in-depth analysis because she has chosen breadth instead. Rees’ goal is admirable, but might have been better-suited to a two volume exploration, though that in itself might not be possible given the current state of academia.
Overall, the book is an interesting read for anyone interested in representations of women, popular culture, feminism, art, or explorations of the sexual body. Rees’ study is a great foundation for these types of considerations, but I would love to see work which reaches deeper into the issues at hand (no pun intended). Rees spends so much time breaking down the seminal (which also means well-known) works in each genre, that I as a reader was left to ponder, “What is happening currently in the arts?” I hope to see other scholars and artist working to understand and ultimately change the way the vagina is represented in our culture, and that whether or not we finally really do reclaim cunt, we find a word which will allow women to finally have a unified and positive experience of our bodies.
This review was originally published by The Horn on 05/06/2014.