Naomi Wolf Critical Essays

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 While Wolf has received criticism for her use of questionable statistics and broad historical references in support of her arguments, her works consistently raise compelling questions about the role of feminism in the lives of women and society as a whole.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 that younger women draw upon the work of second-wave feminists to form an intergenerational alliance to advocate for alternative notions of beauty that are more faithful to the needs of feminine desires and the female body. Wolf continued to develop her notion of a new kind of feminism in her second book, Fire with Fire, in which she promotes what she terms “power feminism.” Wolf urges women to move away from the type of feminism that views women primarily as victims of male dominance, and to embrace instead a movement that encourages women to take control of their lives and their futures. To create this new movement, Wolf argues that feminism must welcome all women, not just those who adhere to a specific ideology. For this new feminism to be successful, Wolf asserts, women must learn how to acquire economic and political power within the mainstream and to effectively use this power to advocate for women's issues. Rather than cling to a wishful vision of a fundamentally different political arena, Wolf insists that such a movement must be pragmatic and adjust to the realities of politics as it is currently practiced. Only through a focused pursuit of economic and political power, Wolf declares, can feminism achieve its emancipatory goals and renew itself as a vibrant and meaningful social movement. Wolf's work became increasingly personal with the publication of her third book, Promiscuities, in which she offers a revealing account of her own coming of age within the context of sexual liberation. Supplementing her own stories and those of her girlhood friends with historical and anthropological analysis, Wolf argues that the sexual revolution offered little in the way of genuine freedom for women. Although social changes encouraged young women to consider themselves as sexually free as young men, women were given scant guidance on how to responsibly explore and foster their sexuality. Through her own personal experiences, Wolf reveals how girls typically become aware of the often confusing nexus of power and vulnerability that characterizes feminine sexuality. Rather than being able to forge distinctively female modes of sexual desire, Wolf asserts that the sexual revolution continued to leave women in the position of seeking to satisfy male desires before identifying their own. To rectify this, Wolf argues for a new sexual morality that would encourage women to control their sexuality and to find genuine ways of expressing their sexual desires. Wolf insists that girls not only need more information about their bodies and sexuality, but also require a values-based approach to sex education that would offer a more thoughtful structure for the decisions girls make about sex. In her next work, Misconceptions, Wolf examines the mythologies and expectations that structure the understandings of pregnancy and motherhood in America. As in her previous books, Wolf again relies on her own personal experience to develop her feminist critique, focusing on the ways in which she feels society fails to adequately support pregnant women and new parents. Despite feminist advocacy for greater control over the birthing process, Wolf argues that American women continue to be offered condescending advice and misleading information about the often conflicted nature of pregnancy, labor, and new motherhood. Although many women expecting a child may feel inadequate, vulnerable, and even angry, Wolf asserts that many leave these genuine fears and anxieties unspoken for fear of being labeled a bad mother. Along with criticizing the medical establishment for its failure to provide women with a safe and emotionally supportive setting for their pregnancies and labor, Wolf also insists that business and society place great pressure on new parents and do little to address their economic and psychological needs. Wolf argues for a renewed examination of how best to support pregnant women and new parents in more effective and helpful ways.

Critical Reception

All of Wolf's books have received considerable critical attention. Though many reviewers have praised the honesty and passion of Wolf's work and her skill in raising compelling questions regarding the status of women, many critics have been sharply critical of Wolf's use of social statistics, her polemical rhetoric, and the limitations of her sweeping political generalizations. The Beauty Myth has received an extraordinary amount of critical attention in the United States and Britain, with many lauding Wolf's desire to bring the attention of a new generation of women to the old problem of culturally inscribed standards of feminine beauty. However, many commentators have noted that her argument is undermined by her failure to cite sources for her claims about the rates of cosmetic surgery and rape. Other reviewers have criticized Wolf's lack of reflection on her own privileged status—including the ironic fact of her own telegenic physical appearance. Such detractors have also bemoaned her failure to adequately consider how the complexities of race, class, and sexuality may play into the workings of the beauty myth. Critics of The Beauty Myth have frequently charged it with being overly pessimistic or too simplistic by ascribing many of the problems women face to the singular factor of beauty. Fire with Fire has faced similar criticism, though many commentators have welcomed Wolf's call for a renewed feminism that recognizes the importance of economic power and that is open to women of all political stances. Others, however, have dismissed her position as elitist and naïve, arguing that simply encouraging women to acquire more political power will not alone address the structural inequalities of education and wealth that disadvantage large numbers of women. For these critics, the promise of Wolf's “power feminism” has remained inaccessible to the many women who have relatively few economic resources and who have little, if any, power of their own to deploy for political causes. Promiscuities has been perhaps the most harshly reviewed of Wolf's books. While some have lauded Wolf's recommendations for a new approach to sex education and praised her frankness in assessing the failures of the sexual revolution, especially for women, most critics have regarded Wolf's mixture of personal revelation with historical and anthropological material as a less than convincing approach to the complex subject of female sexuality. Other critics have decried the lack of diversity in Wolf's discussion of sexuality, noting the conspicuous absence of lesbian and male voices. Though reviewers have welcomed Wolf's willingness to raise provocative questions about the relationship between feminism and female sexuality, many have regarded her solutions as problematic. Like her previous books, Misconceptions has received criticism for being too personally revealing and seemingly self-indulgent. Some critics have viewed Wolf's personal revelations as offering little insight for women who may be in significantly different or more disadvantaged social, economic, or emotional circumstances than Wolf herself. Despite these concerns, commentators have praised Wolf's honesty and acknowledged that her frank, often frightening look at the experience of pregnancy and motherhood presents a useful counter to the many sanguine advice books currently available for expectant mothers.