To celebrate the new Girls Rule issue, Dazed is running a month-long online series of girl-centric interviews, thinkpieces and features. This week, we kick off the theme with exclusive head-to-head interviews with some of our favourite females – beginning with Girls creator Lena Dunham and YA author Judy Blume. Keep checking our Girls Rule page for more content all month.
Taken from the February issue of Dazed & Confused:
Naomi Wolf singlehandedly launched third-wave feminism with her bestselling book The Beauty Myth (1991), written at just 28. Now 51, the political activist and social critic is still stirring up controversy, most recently by exploring the connection between the vagina and the female brain in Vagina: A New Biography. Meanwhile, young British/Australian author Evie Wyld followed up her multi-award-winning debut novel, After The Fire, a Still Small Voice, with the haunting All the Birds, Singing last year. Featuring an isolated female protagonist attempting to escape her past on a windswept British isle, it landed her on Granta’s prestigious “Best of Young British Novelists”. The New York-based Wolf called Wyld in Peckham, where she works at the Review Bookshop, to discuss their favourite female icons and pornography in the post-digital age.
Evie Wyld: There’s incredible pressure on modern women to be ‘perfect’. Those are the same pressures that my mother’s generation had. But now there’s more of a space for us to talk about everyday sexism, which makes you feel supported and part of a community.
Naomi Wolf: I really agree. When I wrote my first book, there was a lot less space for women to be powerful, autonomous individuals. The media almost never runs an article or even a quote that acknowledges how effective feminism has been, let alone in a very short time. Still, the world I once dreamed of is so often present. For example, an editor sent me a very mainstream article from the Daily Mail in which a mom was bemoaning the influence of pornography on fashion. That was once a very marginal, hyperfeminist position, and now it’s transformed the discourse. It’s a huge step.
Evie Wyld: ‘Feminism’ is a misused word, and I like to feel like I’m a feminist. But there are days when I’m tired and shy and feel I don’t live up to that, and let myself be squeezed out of a sexist conversation. Part of the problem of being a feminist is that you feel you have to be actively doing things to relieve women’s plight. Actually, what feminism is is just thinking we should have the same rights as men.
“‘Feminism’ is a misused word, and I like to feel like I’m a feminist. But there are days when I’m tired and shy and feel I don’t live up to that, and let myself be squeezed out of a sexist conversation” – Evie Wyld
Naomi Wolf: I keep writing this essay that elucidates the same point. Feminism has been misdefined over the last few decades as an agenda. It’s not a set of beliefs or shoulds. Properly understood, feminism is the logical extension of democracy. Young women are still reluctant to use the f-word even though they really identify with all of the goals because there’s so much bad stereotyping. But it’s partly our own fault. Our ‘feminists’ often say things that are anti-male, making it a gender war when it shouldn’t be. So there’s some cleaning up that we need to do.
Evie Wyld: Absolutely. Do you think that feminist propaganda like SlutWalk actually reinforces the virgin/whore dialectic?
Naomi Wolf: No. I love SlutWalk. I also think it’s imaginative, which feminism needs. If you stand up and claim the word ‘slut’, are you reducing yourself to a slut? Where do we get this lack of imagination, so we can’t expand and critique definitions that reduce us? When the LGBT movement did something similar and grabbed the word ‘queer’ – which had been used against them – it was really self-empowering. SlutWalk is women saying, ‘We won’t be shamed and demeaned by our sexuality. We’re all sexual beings. Don’t rape us. Fuck you.’
Evie Wyld: It reminded me a bit of an article I saw recently about the Christmas party season. All these adverts saying, ‘Don’t get in the wrong taxi. Don’t get too drunk or you’ll get raped.’
Naomi Wolf: That’s terrible. Who’s paying for them, Evie? Are they government ads?
Evie Wyld: Yeah, I think they are.
Naomi Wolf: Well, someone should complain. Can I formally complain in this interview?
Evie Wyld: By all means.
Naomi Wolf: It’s a really sexist message. Why don’t they say, ‘Just don’t rape her,’ or, ‘Keep your penis in your pants unless she says yes’? Maybe it’s too unpleasant for men to be reminded that they should control themselves. Yet they say that to women all the time. That’s patriarchy.
Evie Wyld: In the UK we hear these brilliant soundbites from Hillary Clinton about abortion. I love that she doesn’t wear make-up and just does exactly what all the men do. There’s a weird hysteria as soon as you get a female in a power position. If they get angry, that’s taboo. You can have a man getting furious about stuff, but that’s passionate, serious and involved. If a woman does the same, she’s on her period or something.
Naomi Wolf: The British press is much more directly and weirdly mysogynist towards particular women than in most countries. There’s this constant drumbeat of how gross women in power are, how ugly they are, why they can’t find husbands, and are fat – it’s horrible. It’s to keep women out of leadership positions that that kind of language is used. Yet the fact that Hillary and Malala Yousafzai are mainstream feminist figures is a remarkable sign of how far we’ve come.
“As a feminist you feel you have to be actively doing things to relieve women’s plight. Actually, feminism is just thinking we should have the same rights as men” – Evie Wyld
Evie Wyld: I’ve always also loved Patti Smith, because she feels like a solid person. It’s more than androgyny. She’s just so unapologetic and comfortable.
Naomi Wolf: There are some really courageous women in this world, like Malalai Joya. She’s an Afghani who advocates women’s rights, but has to sleep in a different place every night because her colleagues in parliament threatened to rape her. And she keeps going, speaking out. So she’s my current role model. Some people are just fully realised and have this incredible charisma which is not oppressive – Nelson Mandela was probably like that. There’s just this charm and lightness and being around them is inspiring.
Evie Wyld: How do you think the post-digital age has changed things for women? How do you feel about Cameron trying to ban internet porn?
Naomi Wolf: I’m categorically against porn, given the health issues. It’s not only addictive but causes erectile dysfunction in young healthy males, who become desensitised due to increasing porn stimulation. It also dials down their attraction to their real partners. A recent UK study showed that British couples are having 1.2 fewer sexual experiences a month, which is like, 20 per cent less. It’s affecting women too, but the science isn’t in yet on that. There should be health warnings like with second-hand smoke from cigarettes, so it doesn’t affect people in public who don’t want to be affected by it.
Evie Wyld: Yeah, and I’m sure you’re aware of the Page 3 campaign over here. If it wasn’t for the internet, that would’ve never come about. It’s an institution over here. You’ve got boobs right next to the news on the bottom shelf, and it’s just there for anyone to see. That’s what the women are for in the newspaper, and the men write the words.
Naomi Wolf: It’s more about territoriality than sex, really. It’s a way of saying to every young woman who walks down the street: ‘This is a male space, you’re not going to be comfortable, we can reduce you to this anytime we want.’ If we lived in a world where there were these huge perfect penises on the covers of every newsstand and no naked women, and there were women reading them on the plane, men would feel very disempowered.
Evie Wyld: You know what the perfect boobs look like, but what the hell does a perfect penis look like?
Naomi Wolf: When I was at Oxford in the 80s, there were all these Page 3 girls pasted all over our common room, and it was really aggressive. This was when there weren’t many women at Oxford, and it was definitely a way for men to stake out their superiority. I remember saying, ‘Well, okay. I’ll just post some gay male porn.’ And people got so upset! There’s a section in Vagina that explains why there are always so many ‘pussy’ images present when there’s a male-dominated workspace that doesn’t want women around. It makes them feel threatened physically. My view is that’s why you get these hostile, sexually threatening images when male miners don’t want female miners or male firemen don’t want to work with female firemen.
Evie Wyld: That’s true.
“Feminism has been misdefined over the last few decades as an agenda. It’s not a set of beliefs or shoulds. Properly understood, feminism is the logical extension of democracy” - Naomi Wolf
Naomi Wolf: In Vagina, I looked at the neuroscience of female desire. It turns out that sexual desire makes women more powerful, which boosts dopamine, because it makes women assertive and self-confident. It also boosts opio-oxytocin, which makes them more socially perceptive, and opiates, which can be linked to creativity. Women are potentially multi-orgasmic. So that was a real ‘a-ha’ moment, because it explains clitorectomy and 5,000 years of mocking and degrading the vagina, of inhibiting women’s sexual pleasure – because it does make women powerful. So there is this consistent censorship of images of women actually having desire rather than being objectified. My book’s title was censored by iTunes for dealing with it, swear to God.
Evie Wyld: Crazy.
Naomi Wolf: Yes, and many artists have told me about movie scenes of women orgasming that are cut. Whereas even in PG-rated teenage-friendly films you’ll often see a guy getting a blowjob or the suggestion of one. The new anatomy of female arousal and desire showing how extensive the clitoral structure is isn’t even on Wikipedia. I think it makes men anxious, though it should educate them. It’s about power. When someone’s on their hands and knees giving a blowjob, that’s very flattering and not at all challenging to the male ego.
Evie Wyld: In terms of the next generation of feminists, who are the ones to watch? Over here, Caitlin Moran has given women a huge space to talk about feminism. I feel like women in England take their cue from her. The reason she wrote How to Be a Woman was because she was going into high schools and asking the female students if they were feminists, and they said no. It’s kind of a dirty word.
Naomi Wolf: I can’t think of one specific woman to watch. If you look at women’s history for the past century, every generation picks like, two figures, which is very reductive. Whoever asked one man to speak for all men? I would like to break open that idea and name 20, if I knew who they were. If the media gave more than the routine 15 per cent to women’s issues, I would know who these young women are.
Follow Christine Jun on Twitter here @ChristineCocoJ