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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Naomi Wolf 1962-

American nonfiction writer and journalist.

The following entry presents an overview of Wolf's career through 2001.

A provocative author and commentator on the subject of women's issues, Wolf emerged as one of the most powerful new voices of American feminism during the early 1990s. Though often at odds with the beliefs and issues that structured the nascent feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Wolf has developed pointed criticisms regarding the culturally dominant notions of beauty, power, sexuality, and motherhood, which she feels continue to prevent women from gaining full equality with men at all levels of society. Wolf offers extended considerations of each of these themes in several best-selling books, including The Beauty Myth (1990), Fire with Fire (1993), Promiscuities (1997), and Misconceptions (2001). While Wolf has received criticism for her use of questionable statistics and broad historical references in support of her arguments, her works consistently raise compelling questions about the role of feminism in the lives of women and society as a whole.

Biographical Information

Born in San Francisco, California, Wolf was raised by educated, liberal Jewish parents. Her father was a professor, her mother an anthropologist, and Wolf grew up in the city's Haight-Ashbury district, the center of the social and sexual revolutions of the 1960s and early 1970s. Her childhood and adolescent experiences within this turbulent milieu informed many of Wolf's perspectives on the shortcomings of second-wave feminism. Wolf attended Yale University and graduated in 1984 with a bachelor's degree in English literature. The recipient of a Rhodes scholarship, Wolf pursued graduate work at New College at Oxford University. Her first book, The Beauty Myth, is based on research she initially conducted for her dissertation at Oxford. Following the popular success of this work, Wolf left Oxford and returned to the United States, continuing to research and write about feminist issues. Since the publication of The Beauty Myth, Wolf has received considerable attention from the mainstream media in the United States and Britain, appearing as a frequent guest on the news and talk show circuit and becoming one of the most visible women in the contemporary feminist movement. In 1993 Wolf married David Shipley, a journalist and speechwriter for former U.S. President Bill Clinton, with whom she has a daughter. During the 2000 presidential election, Wolf served as a campaign advisor to Democratic candidate Al Gore. In addition to her published books, she has also contributed to various periodicals, including the New Republic and the New York Times.

Major Works

Each of Wolf's books explores the limitations and possibilities of modern feminism through a broad focus on different facets of women's experience. The Beauty Myth examines the backlash against the feminist movement and the way in which traditional ideas about beauty are used as a political weapon against women's claims for equality. Tracing ideas of feminine beauty throughout the centuries, Wolf argues that obsessive and unrealistic expectations of beauty serve as a last resort for men to defend themselves against women's demands for greater social and political power. For Wolf, the tremendous influence of the beauty myth in contemporary Western societies can be found in the amount of money women spend for cosmetics and dietary aids, in the hope of attaining the ideal physical appearance that these industries promote. Wolf insists that the cultural force of the beauty myth encourages women to destroy themselves physically—for example, through excessive dieting and plastic surgery—and drains their psychological and emotional energy, thereby slowly eroding the initial gains of feminism. Wolf contends that this obsession with beauty is unhealthy for both men and women, and she encourages women to seek other images of female beauty in places such as women's films, novels, and art. Wolf also suggests...

(The entire section is 1,760 words.)