The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History

We at York Vision were intrigued to receive a copy of Emma L. E. Rees’s recent work, The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History, from Bloomsbury. At a university where Drama Soc’s production of the infamous Vagina Monologues garnered plenty of attention on campus last year, perhaps the study has something valuable to offer to York students.

Recently, The Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman published an article entitled “Sex Doesn’t Sell: The Decline of British Porn”, in which she documented the implosion of the X-rated industry and attended the seemingly dated, depressing, and seedy Xbiz industry conference. Whilst the decline in profits is largely due to the proliferation of free pornsites such as Redtube, it is clear that our obsession with commercialised, exploitative sex has long reached its zenith, and, hopefully, might be approaching its long overdue nadir.

Tune in to BBC Three and you will find Jamila Jamil exploring just how much porn is exposed to children in Porn: What’s The Harm?  Unsurprisingly, she finds that children as young as 8 have been exposed to hardcore porn, and that the internet is utterly saturated with images and footage – in many cases unbeknown to the women and children they depict. The recent cases of leaked celebrity images such as those of Jennifer Lawrence are a case in point.

It is with the aid of the vital cultural and literary research provided by writers such as Rees that the new feminists are able to reclaim the female body and re-examine its depiction, whether that be in Chaucer or in a horror movie . The book is less academia than it is a compelling ride through both highbrow and lowbrow, and draws attention to taboos which have long been “swept under the carpet.”

From the book, a new cultural symbol  is able to emerge after years of patriarchal and economic suppression in popular culture and the media. Gone are the days of the successes of online businesses owned by self-styled ‘barons’ like Paul Raymond, and the phenomenal turnover enjoyed by teletext porn channels – available alongside the family subscription to Sky.

Instead, Bloomsbury has published a respectable work in which the demonization of women’s sexual organs in popular culture is brutally examined and the c-word is invoked with assurance. Why is the c-word considered to be obscene? Why is our most powerful swear word synonymous with the female body?

As well as asking these probing questions, Rees offers potent examples from literature but also film, TV, visual art, and performance art – from South Park to Kathy Acker, and from Lars Van Trier to Sex and the City. A must read for anyone with a passing interest in gender politics and representation, or in how the body is represented (or mis-represented) in mass media and popular culture.