Justine Picardie (review date 21 September 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Picardie, Justine. “The Suffering Sex.” New Statesman & Society (21 September 1990): 39–40.

[In the following review of The Beauty Myth, Picardie commends Wolf's moving personal accounts and insight, but criticizes in her “muddled” argument and use of statistics.]

A great deal of attention has been paid to this book: the Sunday Times has paid a large sum of money to serialise it; the author, a young American woman called Naomi Wolf, recently appeared on both The Late Show and breakfast television. Magazine profiles have been written; glamorous pictures taken of the attractive Ms Wolf. For The Beauty Myth is, according to the publishers, “the direct descendant of The Second Sex and The Female Eunuch,” “a cultural hand grenade for the nineties,” “the book which no woman today can afford to ignore.”

The result of all this publicity is, perhaps, that The Beauty Myth will be viewed with a sharper eye than might otherwise have been the case. Naomi Wolf has, at 27 years old, a great deal to live up to. And the problem is that her central thesis, that unreal images of female beauty oppress women, is not as remarkable as the hype might have led us to believe.

Susie Orbach, among others, has already covered this ground in her eloquent book, Fat Is a Feminist Issue. Naomi Wolf's variation on a familiar theme is that, “we are in the midst of a violent backlash to feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women's advancement.” This is a perfectly valid argument, but, as the book progresses, it is often muddled.

We are told, for instance, that the beauty myth has its origins in the industrial revolution. Before then, there was a halcyon age when “the value of all women who were not aristocrats or prostitutes lay in their work skills, material shrewdness, strength and fertility.” A little later, Naomi Wolf informs us that, “until women's emancipation, professional beauties were anonymous, low in status, unrespectable.” But what of Nell Gwynn? Unrespectable, perhaps, but certainly not anonymous. Or Emma Hamilton, or even Helen of Troy?

Even more confusing are the arguments about beauty and pain. She asserts that, for biological reasons, “from the beginning of their history until just before the 1960s, women's gender caused them pain.” But once childbirth became less painful, and avoidable through contraception and abortion, “in the strange new absence of female pain the myth put beauty in its place … Women willingly took on this new version of pain exacted by beauty because freedom from sexual pain left a gap in female identity.” As a result, she continues, women starve themselves and submit to horrific plastic surgery.

Not only is this a somewhat patronising view of women (poor dears, we simply can't do without a regular dose of agony), the theory does not seem to encompass the pain endured by African women among others, who suffer cliterodectomy as well as unanaesthetised childbirth, and Chinese women, whose toes dropped off when their feet were bound in the interests of beauty long before the industrial revolution.

But most confusing of all is Naomi Wolf's use of statistics. We are told, for instance, without any source, that “cosmetic surgery doubled its rate every five years in the US, until it tripled in two years; it doubles every decade in Britain. A city of women greater than San Francisco has been cut open in the US; in Britain, a town of women the size of Whitby.” Elsewhere she states that “in England one wife in seven is raped by her...

(This entire section contains 951 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

husband … In Scotland, one woman in six is raped by her husband.”

I found myself, in the week that I read this book, looking furtively at the women I passed in the street. Were they secretly starving themselves, had they been raped, were they tortured by self-loathing, or by the scalpels of sadistic plastic surgeons?

No doubt many of them were suffering, but perhaps not always for the reasons elaborated by Naomi Wolf. Among her reams of statistics are those that point out that working women are exhausted; she believes that we are tired out by the battle to keep ourselves looking beautiful—a treadmill which presumably diverts our hamster-like brains from more worthwhile activities. Personally, I am feeling rather tired at the moment not because of any relentless pursuit of beauty, but because my baby rises at six every morning. (And I am sure that I am not alone in this particular inconvenience.)

Yet, for all this, there are reasons to admire The Beauty Myth. Naomi Wolf offers a sharp analysis of the absurd standards of female beauty imposed by male employers; and the account of her own teenage anorexia is moving, as is the short description of the wasting away of a college friend. (“A boy caught her before she fell, and offered her to me, wriggling like a troublesome baby … Her limbs were as light as hollow birch branches, the scrolls of their bark whole, but the marrow crumbled, the sap gone brittle. I folded her up easily, because there was nothing to her.”)

Perhaps because Naomi Wolf is young and beautiful herself, she felt the need to prove her work to be sober and serious and full of facts. But it is the brief snatches of emotive writing from her own experience that are far more convincing than the endless statistics, and more compelling than the lengthy admonishments “to put a non-competitive experience of beauty into play.” Even so, I would rather read Naomi Wolf's worthy prose on the front page of the Sunday Times Style section than yet another extract from yet another diet book, and for that I am most grateful to her.

Richard Davenport-Hines (review date 12–18 October 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Davenport-Hines, Richard. “Torments of the Flesh.” Times Literary Supplement (12–18 October 1990): 1097.

[In the following review of The Beauty Myth, Davenport-Hines praises the eloquence and force of Wolf's writing, though finds shortcomings in what he perceives as her unconvincing statistical evidence and her failure to account for the personal responsibility of women.]

Naomi Wolf grew up in California. Her mother Deborah kept a notepad in the kitchen where the rest of her family could surreptitiously peep at it. On the notepad Deborah recorded the agonies of her diet, and the guilt that engulfed her when she broke it with food binges. Deborah martyred herself at family meals, had tantrums of fury when she weighed herself, placarded the refrigerator with self-admonishing photographs of her shape. Judging from The Beauty Myth, her daughter was assaulted, even abused, with anxieties about food from her earliest years. By the age of thirteen Naomi was subsisting on the caloric equivalent of famine victims.

The dreams I could muster were none of the adolescent visions that boys have, or free and healthy girls: no fantasies of success or escape, rebellion or future success. All the space I had for dreaming was taken up by food.

Though Wolf writes with compelling power about her anorexic experience, she gives no details of her recovery from it. She tells us instead that adolescent self-starvation was for her “a prolonged reluctance to be born into woman if that meant assuming a station of beauty”; that it was her protest against the sexual objectification of women in America, her retreat from the sexual aggression of men, her way of succumbing to the cultural hegemony which subordinated and degraded women and drove them to despise themselves.

The author is hotly resentful. “I did my schoolwork diligently and kept quiet in the classroom. I was a windup obedience toy. Not a teacher or principal or guidance counsellor confronted me with an objection to my evident deportation in stages from the land of the living.” She resorts, revealingly, to the metaphors of litigation, believing like so many Americans that there ought to be a legal remedy for every physical or emotional accident that befalls a human being. Her book is like a deposition in a lawsuit seeking punitive damages. Someone must pay for what happened to her. “Who is obliged to make reparations to me” for the losses and suffering of anorexia, she demands? “Who owes me for the year-long occupation of a mind at the time of its most urgent growth?” She insists that a heavy “charge of guilt” should be made for the half-starvation of her thirteen-year-old self. The Beauty Myth is an effort to apportion that guilt, written in the certainty that “it doesn't belong to me. It belongs somewhere, and to something else.”

Wolf excuses her parents from guilt too. She offers an idyll of an “Edenic, undivided, pleasure-seeking, satisfied child's body,” dedicates her book to her parents and directs her Bill of Claim elsewhere. Yet one cannot absolve parents from responsibility for what happens to their children, least of all in circumstances like those of this book. The eloquence with which Wolf indicts almost every figure of authority outside her family is perhaps proof of how painful it can be for a child to accept that its parent is at fault.

This then is an intensely personal work masquerading as a tract for the times. As such it is sometimes muddled or unconvincing; but it has many virtues and repays the closest reading. Though most of the book's ideas are familiar from other feminist writing, Wolf's prose has a lyricism and intensity which command attention. The Beauty Myth is unsettling, and much of its indictment is unanswerable. What is far less convincing is the author's attempt to absolve women, or the women of the Wolf family, from responsibility for their dieting obsessions. When she insists that “women must claim anorexia as political damage [done] to them by a social order which considers their destruction insignificant because of what they are,” she is undertaking a massive denial of personal responsibility.

Naomi Wolf's childhood was marred not only by her mother's destructive behaviour, but by the maladjusted Californian children with whom she went to school in the 1970s. There was a bony girl who threw acid into the face of a child of whose cute dimple she was jealous; another girl who hated her black hair attacked the blonde locks of a class-mate with shears. This girlhood violence, Wolf now believes, was the result of “the beauty myth” imposed by the forces of “politics, finance and sexual repression” which coerce women into seeking an unattainable perfection of impersonal, inhuman beauty. She notes that after women began breaching the American power structure in the 1960s, “eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest growing medical speciality.” The beautification of women replaced domesticity as the controlling mystique necessary for female subjugation.

Inside the majority of these controlled, attractive successful working women, there is a secret “underlife” poisoning their freedom; infused with notions of beauty, it is a dark vein of self-hatred, physical obsessions, terror of ageing, and dread of loss of control.

In support of her argument Wolf adduces many appalling examples of discrimination against women on grounds of their appearance. She gives a horrifying account of the miseries and mortifications which women of Western industrialized countries undergo in their efforts to diet, and urges women to take control of their own bodies and feel happy with their own appearance. She scrutinizes cosmetics advertising in women's journals, and shows how it produces the cumulative abnegation of its targets. Her account of cosmetic surgery—techniques such as stomach stapling, liposuction, rhinoplasty, silicone implants, intestinal bypass surgery—is a horrifying tale of women's mutilation and self-loathing and of male cupidity and violence. There is little new in her account of sexism in the 1990s, but it is a shameful story all the same.

Wolf's passages on sexuality and her perception that sadism against women is increasing are less satisfactory. Her disapproval of fantasies of submission is so intellectualized as to be unreal; the dismissive treatment of male fears too is counter-productive to the cause of trust and equity between the sexes which she espouses.

Another defect is that the text is peppered with statistics of uneven reliability or meaning. We are told, taking random examples, that one wife in seven has been raped by her husband in English marriages, that 58 per cent of US college men have said they would “force a woman into having sex,” that 25 per cent of Canadian women have their first sexual experience under force, that over 50 per cent of British women “suffered from disordered eating,” that 78 per cent of women are “dissatisfied” with their bodies. Some of these figures are drawn from surveys with proper sampling and weighting but others are taken from journalistic ephemera or the worst type of personal grievance-mongering. The overall effect is to taint Wolf's use of data, especially as her figures have an alarming way of escalating; a few pages after announcing that up to one-fifth “of US women students are locked into one-woman hunger camps” she offers a picture of “a co-ed half full of anorexic women.”

Wendy Wasserstein (review date 12 May 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Wasserstein, Wendy. “Through the Good-Looking Glass.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (12 May 1991): 4.

[In the following review of The Beauty Myth, Wasserstein concludes that Wolf offers interesting and unsettling generalizations, but that her book is “not earth-shaking.”]

I remember reading The Feminine Mystique my senior year on the steps of my dormitory at Mt. Holyoke College. I had a yellow highlighter pen and every other sentence I would madly underline because not only did Betty Friedan seem to have put her finger on a previously unnamed plight, but she was, by doing so, opening up doors and possibilities for me and my classmates. That was in 1970, the first year “Women's History” was taught at Mt. Holyoke, and my yellow highlighter remained hyperactive underscoring Germaine Greer, Kate Millet and the classic Simone De Beauvoir.

Now, 20 years later, generations of women whose lives changed forever from those readings can look back with hindsight. The gains were innumerable, but there remains an undertow, a nagging erosion to those hard-earned victories.

Certainly the battle for reproductive rights is one that is still raging, and consumer images such as “The Good Housekeeping New Traditionalist” campaign—complete with squeaky-clean shirtwaist-clad mother with squeaky-clean Lacoste-clad sons in a squeaky-clean suburban house—are throwbacks to not-so-gentler, not-so-kinder times. In other words, though there have been amazing clear-cut victories, the white flag of total sexist surrender has yet to unfurl.

There are varying explanations for the undertow, the easiest being almost Hegelian; i.e. things take time; for every thesis there's an antithesis before arriving at a new synthesis. Another would be that in order for the lives of women to change completely socially and politically, the life choices of men must politically and socially change. Now Naomi Wolf, in her book The Beauty Myth, offers a third explanation, the politicalization of beauty.

According to Wolf, “As soon as a woman's primary social value could no longer be defined as the attainment of virtuous domesticity, the beauty myth redefined it as the attachment of virtuous beauty.” In other words, what is holding us back are no longer barriers to work, sex or political freedoms but an internal sense of inadequacy based on physical desirability.

A woman can be an accomplished doctor, lawyer, Indian Chief, but if she has cellulite on her thighs she is trained by the male Establishment and media to revile herself. “The myth” in Wolf's mind, “is undermining—slowly, imperceptibly, without their being aware of the real forces of erosion—the ground women have gained through long hard struggle”

The Beauty Myth is a 1990s attempt at a sociological/feminist blockbuster and Wolf does a thorough job. She plows through work, culture, religion, sex, hunger, even violence to attain her goal. With extensive historical, social and literary data, we are swept through the worlds of dangerous cosmetic surgery, life-threatening eating disorders, and even the appalling concept that by the year 2029, virtually all women will hate their breasts.

This revived worship of pulchritude has been created, according to Wolf, by the male political Establishment to not only maintain control in a world in which women were becoming too threatening but also to undermine future feminist gains. Wolf believes that the myth, along with the PBQ (Professional Beauty Quotient), is destroying not only women's self-confidence but heterosexuality in general. In other words, a woman can't enjoy sex as an equal partner if she is spending the entire time anxious about her sagging breasts, or squishy stomach.

Wolf means well. She is attempting to salvage women's sense of self. Unfortunately, she points out, “The larger world never gives girls the message that their bodies are valuable simply because they are inside them,” and this undermining continues exponentially into middle age. The Beauty Myth has caused beautiful women to devalue their professional stature by attributing their success completely to their looks; conversely, so-called “ugly” women are unable to truly enjoy their accomplishments because they are obsessed with their beauty failures. Wolf's desire is to smash the male-controlled gods of pulchritude and release the millions of downtrodden female worshipers.

So what's wrong with giving a girl a lift? Nothing, except if the biggest issue for women today is dealing with a paralyzing beauty myth, then we have either come a great deal further than we thought or nowhere at all. Wolf advises: “We must now ask the questions about our place in our bodies that women asked a generation ago about their place in society.” If that's all we really have to do, then I suppose reproductive rights, discrimination, child care, health care have all been settled.

Personally, I doubt that all women will hate their breasts in 2029. There may be two in Alaska and one in Cincinnati who actually likes them. And I don't believe the diet program of 900 calories at major weight-loss centers can be compared to the regimen at Treblinka. These are sweeping generalizations used to bring a point home.

For some reason, it is always women who are the source from era to era of these generalizations. We're either all going back into our kitchen, having it all, or now being undermined by a beauty myth. Yes, there has been a politicalization of beauty, but I've frankly noticed a few men who worship and tremble at the god of youthful pulchritude as well.

To be truly liberated, to revive and refresh the second wave of feminism, Naomi Wolf advises that “We must see that it does not matter what women look like so long as they feel beautiful.” I'm reminded of an Oil of Olay commercial promising me I can be beautiful at any age at 2 o'clock in the morning. Generally, I think about it for two minutes, make a note to myself to be sure to feel beautiful, and pass out. It's an interesting point; it explains a few things, but it's not earth-shaking.

To ignite a renewed wave of feminism, to reach the unsuspecting senior on her dormitory step and get her highlighting again, there is much more important work to be done and books to be written.

Marilyn Yalom (review date 16 June 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Yalom, Marilyn. “Feminism's Latest Makeover.” Washington Post Book World (16 June 1991): 7.

[In the following excerpt, Yalom offers a positive assessment of The Beauty Myth.]

Periodically throughout our century the debate on women's position in society swells to daunting proportions. For the past two decades, it has pervaded the media in countless books, articles, films, plays and television shows, with no signs of abating. American women's gains in the workplace and homeplace are weighed against their losses. White middle-class women are contrasted to their working-class and minority counterparts. Feminist aspirations are evaluated in the context of antifeminist backlash and resurgent sexism. Economic, legal and psychological indices are cited to support visions of progress or despair. William Chafe, in his book The Paradox of Change, quotes the Dickensian “best of times, worst of times” phrase to capture this ambiguous assessment of American women's lives. …

In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf analyses one aspect of work and private life that is additionally onerous for women: the commandment to be beautiful. A feminist journalist and poet, Wolf has already achieved prominence with the British edition of this book, which attacks the age old mandate for women to remain young and beautiful, whatever the costs. And in Wolf's analysis, the costs are crushing.

At work, women are now expected to complement their skills with a “professional beauty qualification.” The “PBQ,” as Wolf dubs it, becomes a part of a woman's portfolio, not only in the front-line positions of television newscasters, where a double standard for females and males obviously exists, but also in the daily routine of corporate managers, real estate agents, journalists and many other occupations where women have acquired a still tenuous toe-hold.

Wolf documents the negative effect of numerous rulings that allow companies to demand the “PBQ” of their female employees. “Is it any surprise,” she asks, “that two decades into the legal evolution of the professional beauty qualification, working women are tense to the point of insanity about their appearance?” Hyperbole aside, a convincing case is made for the radical confusion experienced by women who must be “feminine” and “businesslike” at the same time.

What makes this book persuasive is not its already familiar subject, but its accumulated evidence that the beauty mandate has gotten worse. We already knew that beauty, with its emphasis on skin care and weight loss, is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Now we are told that it has become a “religion.” Despite the reader's initial incredulity, the analogy of the Rites of Beauty to religious rites is compelling. From the creation of women in the Old Testament with a sense that “their bodies are second-rate, an afterthought … wrong” to the guilt experienced for one's imperfect self-image and the need for a “cycle of purification,” Wolf documents a faith system in which thinness is next to godliness and radiance can be achieved only through “holy oils.” The analogy becomes especially powerful as applied to the weight-control cult, with its evangelical fervor and group rituals designed to save its initiates. Ultimately salvation is reserved for “the woman who dies thinnest, with the fewest wrinkles.”

Wolf calls to sister souls as if to co-prisoners planning a revolt. Her book derives from a feminist tradition that emphasizes gender difference and identifies attributes considered specific to women—honesty towards one's aging face and body for Wolf.

Clara Germani (essay date 18 June 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Germani, Clara. “The Truth about the Beauty Myth.” Christian Science Monitor (18 June 1991): 14.

[In the following essay, Germani discusses The Beauty Myth and reports Wolf's comments on her feminist views.]

When a radio talk-show host here felt it necessary to note that Naomi Wolf is a beautiful woman, the author of The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women turned the tables by describing him for the audience as tall, dark, and cute.

While the host's comment didn't immediately seem out of line, it did as soon as Ms. Wolf demonstrated the double standard implied by how out of place it seemed in that same context for a woman to comment on a man's looks.

It's the kind of hyper-awareness that her book and a conversation with Wolf can provoke.

Wolf contends that for all women's gains in workplace rights, equality under legislation, access to education and reproductive control, the ideal of physical perfection robs women of self-esteem and even endangers their lives—through hunger caused by eating disorders and the knife (of cosmetic surgery).

Whether you agree with every point of The Beauty Myth or not, Wolf's ideas make you suddenly see images of beauty like an undesirable goo coating almost every aspect of American life.

When a woman chooses salad over a sundae, is it really her preference or the ideal of a skin-and-bones fashion model cracking the whip? When she chooses the $40 skin “nourisher” over plain old lotion, what's her motive—the unnatural expectation that wrinkles will go away or just salving today's dry skin?

In an interview here, Wolf strenuously protests this kind of interpretation of her work as a way of piling more guilt and self-hatred on women. She frequently punctuates her conversation with an exasperated rake of her fingers through her hair.

“I think a lot of women I talk to are tormented by things like that when they don't have an understanding [of it],” Wolf says.

“My book really isn't about beauty and fashion and makeup. It's about choice, money, power, freedom. … Masks and disguises [such as fashion and makeup] are fun as long as you can take them off. It's delightful to play around with fashion and adornment if you have a choice, otherwise it's coercion.”

A case in point, she says, is the firing last month and subsequent reinstatement of a Continental Airlines ticket agent who refused to wear makeup. Wolf encourages women to develop alternative images of beauty: She says that over her work desk she keeps her own “little shrine of alternative images,” including photos of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, French writer Colette, and an elderly Ghanaian market woman.

But Wolf strenuously notes that her book does not suggest what beauty should or shouldn't be. Rather, she says, women should understand where images of beauty and female sexuality are coming from.

“Just understanding how these things work has made me feel much calmer and more relaxed,” explains Wolf.

“I'm still a woman in a woman's body in this culture that I wrote about. The same demons that haunt everyone else haunt me. The only difference is I have my own little gun of theory in which to blast them away,” she explains with self-effacing humor.

“They start to creep up and I say, ‘I recognize you, I know where you come from … You're not about anything that's really beautiful about being a woman. Pow! You come from Slimfast, I know you!’” she says blasting away the imaginary demons with a finger cocked like a gun.

But isn't this just a twist on the critique of beauty made by the second-wave feminists of the 1960s and '70s? Remember bra burning and hairy armpits?

The second wave criticized beauty images as a product of male sexual desire, she says, “and that was a dead end.” The “beauty myth” is a backlash against feminism by men reacting to women's new power and women feeling guilty over wielding new power.

Pointing to a new generation of women plagued by eating disorders and ignorant of recent feminist history, Wolf suggests that a “third wave of feminism is out there ready and waiting.”

Mary G. Gotschall (review date 8 July 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Gotschall, Mary G. “Poisoned Apple.” National Review (8 July 1991): 42–44.

[In the following review, Gotschall offers an unfavorable assessment of The Beauty Myth.]

In The Beauty Myth, a provocative new feminist tract which should take its place alongside such polemics as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, Naomi Wolf argues that American women are enslaved by the cultural edict to be beautiful. They are victims of an impossible standard. The pressure, according to Miss Wolf, has become relentless during the past decade, as women have begun competing head-on with men in the professional sphere.

For Naomi Wolf, the beauty business isn't just a ploy by Madison Avenue to make a buck. What truly powers the $33-billion-a-year diet industry, the $20-billion cosmetics industry, the $300-million cosmetic-surgery industry, and the $7-billion pornography industry, she argues, is a far more insidious and destructive agenda. It is a political tool to keep women down: “The beauty myth is not about women at all. It is about men's institutions and institutional power.”

According to Miss Wolf, the myth has a number of uses. It pits women against one another, thereby diluting their political influence; as she puts it, “What women look like is considered important because what we say is not.” It stokes the consumerist engine of our economy, where women shoppers play a pivotal role; and it enables employers to get away with paying women less than men. Indeed, Miss Wolf charges that the success of Western economies is linked to the chronic underpayment of women.

The author notes the historical roots of this problem. The modern beauty myth can be traced to the social upheaval following industrialization, around 1830, when a new class of literate, idle women was suddenly in a position to challenge male dominance. The upshot, she concludes, is that “Women are mere ‘beauties’ in men's culture so that culture can be kept male.”

The beauty myth—in Miss Wolf's view—transforms women into self-destructive, fearful, even paranoid creatures who have a love-hate addiction to food, a negative body image, poor self-esteem, and tenuous relationships with the men in their lives. They frequently become anorexic or undergo dangerous cosmetic surgery to achieve the perfect body. They pursue this fruitless quest with the zealotry of religious fanatics, and yet they are doomed to fail because they are pursuing a chimera.

The author cites a raft of data to prove her point. She notes that cosmetic surgery is the fastest-growing medical specialty in America, and she claims 10 per cent of women are afflicted by eating disorders—a marked rise during the last decade. And many of these women are among the best educated in American society. Miss Wolf rails against the frauds perpetrated by the cosmetics industry, and roundly criticizes women's magazines for their docile collusion in this fraud.

Ultimately, Miss Wolf ascribes all of modern women's social ills to the beauty myth, including the rise in rape, mental illness, and sexual abuse of children during the last decade. In so doing, she falls into the trap of over-simplification.

Women's stature in modern society is the product of a confluence of factors, and the “beauty myth” is merely one of them. One must also weigh such factors as the force of tradition, our evolution from a “hunter-gatherer” society, the legal and political system, institutional pressures, religion, portrayals of beautiful women in Western art, biological and physiological functions, and innate sex differences. The list goes on and on.

Beyond that, I would argue that much of what Miss Wolf criticizes in our culture springs from basic animal drives. Among many species, one sex uses decoration to entice the other to mate. Male birds, for example, sport colorful plumage to attract females. There is a competition to attract the strongest, most desirable mates with the best genes. Women's pursuit of beauty serves a similar reproductive agenda. On the most fundamental level, it is a behavior that has evolved as part of a competitive courtship ritual to attract a powerful male and mate with him. Until recent times, this mating ritual was all-important to women, who relied upon it for their economic survival as well as that of their children. Thus, women beautify themselves to ensnare men. The beauty industry has correspondingly sprung up as a response to the way women conduct their half of the mating dance.

There is also scientific evidence indicating that there are cognitive differences between men and women, which in turn manifest themselves in different styles of communication and behavior. Deborah Tannen chronicles some of these communication differences in her current book, You Just Don't Understand. From an early age, boys are object-oriented and girls are person-oriented; from these different orientations flow correspondingly different behavior. And ornamentation may be one such difference. Women take pleasure in adornment.

Women have free will, contrary to Miss Wolf's assertion, and they are not forced to buy beauty products. They choose to do so. If this were not so, fashion and the beauty industry would not thrive. The capitalist system is driven by the bottom line and not by politics. If women stopped buying beauty products and services, the industry would die, as other industries have died in the past.

The central flaw of The Beauty Myth is its extremism. It lacks moderation, balance, judiciousness. Miss Wolf goes overboard, hammering away at her central theme with the same fanaticism that she ascribes to women hooked on diet fads. The Beauty Myth shades into caricature—even paranoia—when she writes that, because of the pursuit of pulchritude, “life-fearing neuroses are everywhere.”

Indeed, the book projects many of Miss Wolf's own psychological hang-ups onto all of womankind. In the section on eating disorders, for example, she admits that she was an anorexic when she was 13 years old, and one of her best friends died of anorexia. Presumably, her views on women's eating disorders have been shaped by these personal experiences.

Further, her solutions to the beauty myth seem less than compelling. They include making age discrimination, “beauty” harassment, and the double standard for appearance issues in labor negotiations; creating female rituals and rites of passages; encouraging all-female communal nakedness to overcome fears about body image; and encouraging inter-generational contact among women. Much of this already takes place in various settings without achieving the effect Miss Wolf desires.

Despite excellent writing and wonderful breadth of scholarship, The Beauty Myth suffers from a flawed central premise. It is suffused with pessimism and refuses to acknowledge the real gains that women have made professionally and politically in the last two decades—and no doubt will continue to make.

Maurice Cranston (review date August 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Cranston, Maurice. Review of The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf. American Spectator 24, no. 8 (August 1991): 36–37.

[In the following review, Cranston offers a negative assessment of The Beauty Myth.]

The Beauty Myth has already caused something of a stir in England and, being English, I think I can understand why. The argument is outrageous, and it is written in a wild and witty way by a glamorous American graduate student, aged 28, who is at Oxford on a “Rhodes scholarship”—that is, with a fellowship endowed by the racist imperialist Cecil Rhodes, although her own views are those of the most radical-feminist left. Like Cecil Rhodes, however, Miss Wolf is rather a bully, and the people she is out to bully are the millions of American women who try to make themselves look pretty. She wants them to stop it.

Miss Wolf's argument is that the male tyrants who rule America are conspiring to frustrate the liberation of women by imposing standards of beauty as conditions of equal acceptance in professional and social life. American women, she maintains, have absorbed and internalized these standards so completely that vast numbers of them have taken to starving themselves in order to be thin, submitting their breasts and hips to the knives of cosmetic surgeons, paying out fortunes for phony weight-loss formulae and sojourns at fat farms, and pumping iron daily, in obedience to such martinets as the exercise “guru” Jane Fonda, as Miss Wolf calls her—for even fellow female radicals get no mercy in these pages if they subscribe to the “beauty myth.”

Miss Wolf goes on to argue that, since their superhuman efforts to attain the standard of beauty imposed by the male conspirators are seldom successful, American women today are depressed and displeased with themselves, and so bend humbly to the “anti-feminist backlash of the 1990s.” The “beauty myth,” she suggests, is perpetuated by women's magazines, the cinema, television, and advertising to such effect that women not only want to look the way men think they ought to look, but start to hate themselves if they don't.

In a sense, Miss Wolf is entirely justified in saying that beauty is overrated. Montesquieu married a very plain wife and urged others to do the same on the grounds that a beautiful wife is more likely to be unfaithful and is almost certain to have been spoiled by a doting father. Looking at photographs of upper-class weddings down through the years, one notices that, however pretty the bridesmaids, the bride is seldom a beauty. And ugliness need not be a handicap even in the higher walks of life. The greatest achievers I can claim to have met among American women—Eleanor Roosevelt, Gertrude Stein, and Hannah Arendt—were all rather ugly, although, of course, extremely charming as well.

On the other hand, it is absolutely natural for a woman to want not to be ugly. Only a woman who is herself very pretty—as Miss Wolf, on the evidence of her publicity photographs, clearly is—could write a book like this one, expressing scorn for the efforts of plain women to improve their looks. Vanity is imposed not by the male conspirators who rule the world, but by nature itself. A woman looking into her mirror every day must see an image that pleases her before she can think of pleasing others. If she observes a nose like Jimmy Durante's, she is bound to wish it looked instead like that of Mme. de Pompadour, and if she hears of a cosmetic surgeon who could bring about that transformation for her, it is only natural that she should seek his services. She would make herself happier by doing so, and make herself a more attractive item in the furniture of the world.

One of the pleasures for the foreign visitor to the United States has long been the company of well-groomed, well-dressed, attractive women, many of them looking ten years younger than their age. Recently this pleasing scene has been marred by a sizable minority with weight problems—not Miss Wolf's anorexic and bulimic women, but fat ones. Female obesity is obviously a national problem, which European doctors ascribe to the stress and bad eating habits that have resulted from the decline of traditional family life in America. Miss Wolf will hear none of this. She quotes a 1985 survey in which 90 percent of American women said they thought they weighed too much, but says this is evidence they had been brainwashed—not that they actually did weigh too much.

What is wrong in America, Miss Wolf protests, is not that so many women are fat, but that so many are on diets—25 percent are on one and 50 percent are either finishing, breaking, or starting one. Female fat, she asserts categorically, is not unhealthy: “Where poor health is correlated to fatness in women, it is due to chronic dieting and the emotional stress of self-hatred.” The male tyranny wants to keep women hungry, since “hunger makes women feel poor and think poor,” and so remain docile. “A cultural fixation with female thinness is not an obsession with female beauty but an obsession with female obedience.”

One is not easily persuaded, however, that our Rhodes scholar is wholly reliable on scientific matters, and her statistics are sometimes bizarre. She would have us believe, for example, that up to 44 percent of women in San Francisco have “suffered rape or attempted rape,” that “date rape” is “more common than left-handedness, alcoholism and heart attacks,” and that “100 million young girls worldwide are being raped by adult men—usually their fathers—often day after day, week after week, year in, year out.” It is hard to imagine how such figures could have been gathered, especially as Miss Wolf tells us that “women who are raped by men they know don't even identify their experience as rape.”

No one can deny that American women today have a hard time of it, one way or another. Ironically, it is the radical feminists who express such solicitude for them who are responsible for much of the trouble. For example, Miss Wolf points out that women “work harder than men,” and for once gives sound statistical evidence to show that the working week of American women is twenty-one hours longer than that of men. Why is this so? Plainly because feminist propaganda has propelled women out of the home to add a man's working week to the inescapable duties of a wife and mother. The situation is especially bad in America, because American men do not take their jobs easily, as British and Australian men do—they work hard, and keeping up with them clearly takes a grim toll on the energies of American women.

And it is true that women are among the victims of the violence that is so lamentably rampant in modern civilization, but Miss Wolf simply adds to the climate of fear. She raises “rape-awareness” to such a fevered pitch that young female readers will close the book terrified of dating their classmates. Miss Wolf cites surveys of undergraduate males in which 61.7 percent say it would be exciting to use force to subdue a woman, 91.3 say they like to dominate a woman, and 30 percent say they would commit rape if they could get away with it. In other words, male undergraduates are dangerous animals. No wonder so many all-American boys nowadays prefer to go out with Chinese, Korean, Filipina, and other foreign girls, who are still sweet and serene and not tensed up with fear of “date rape” from reading books like this one.

Although Miss Wolf's attack is on “the male gender” in general, she singles out cosmetic surgeons as being particularly sadistic and rapacious. She fails, however, to acknowledge that it is feminist reforms that have provided the opportunity and the market for plastic surgeons. For it was feminists, as Miss Wolf notes with satisfaction, who liberated the bodies of American women by persuading them to stop wearing girdles. Yet it was the wearing of just such corsetry which for generations had enabled a woman to mold her silhouette to the shape she chose, to present herself to the world in whatever slender or curvaceous form her fancy took. But, once compelled by her liberators to put on unisex underwear, bike shorts, and other unflattering garments, a woman could only achieve the shape she wanted by getting a cosmetic surgeon to work on the body itself.

Miss Wolf looks forward to what she calls a “pro-woman redefinition of beauty,” but she does not tell us what that might be. She simply instructs her female readers to let themselves go, to be “greedy,” to “eat, to be sexual, to age,” to allow their bodies to “wax and wane,” to “cover up or go practically naked, to do whatever we choose in following—or ignoring—our own aesthetic.” All very well for the svelte and sensuous Miss Wolfs of the world, most women will reply. They are already following their own aesthetic, which is precisely that of the “beauty myth” Miss Wolf derides. Her alternative proposal will seem to them as alien as that of the late-nineteenth-century Naturphilosophen, who unlaced their flabby torsos to cavort on the shores of the Baltic, secure in the syllogism that, since they were part of nature and all nature was beautiful, they too must be beautiful—despite the evidence of the photographs. Unfortunately for Miss Wolf, the modern American woman does not have that old-fashioned German aptitude for metaphysics.

Elayne Rapping (review date October 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Rapping, Elayne. “Bad News, Good News.” Women's Review of Books 9, no. 1 (October 1991): 1, 3–4.

[In the following excerpt, Rapping offers an unfavorable assessment of The Beauty Myth.]

Is it the best of times or the worst of times? Have we come a long way, baby, or are we systematically being beaten back to ground zero by the right-wing goon squads? On any given day, depending on the headlines or my phone messages, I'm likely to believe either one. The times are certainly a-changing, but who's on first? The horrors of the Reagan-Bush era—increased feminization of poverty, terrifying threats to reproductive rights, reported increases in sexual violence—certainly chill the blood. And yet, there's no denying the amazing gains made by women, particularly white middle-class women, for which second wave feminists can take much credit. Many young women can, and do, expect to live lives of far greater independence, choice and realizable ambition than did my generation.

The authors [Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf] of these two angry, militant books [Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women and The Beauty Myth, respectively]—both in their twenties—certainly don't suffer from my sense of middle-aged muddle about things. They are absolutely certain that things couldn't be worse for women, that all we have struggled for is in danger of going down the drain as we speak, that there is a monster loose upon the land which looks, acts and talks very much like a full-blown conspiracy of powerful woman-haters whose boots are already in our faces.

It would be easy, and gratifying, to give both these books glowing reviews. It's encouraging and exciting to find such signs of renewed passion and urgency on the part of the twenty-somethings in these days of waning feminist activism, of so many young women who have reaped the bounties of the second wave retreating nervously from the very term “feminist.” And it's hard to disagree with their main thrusts. Who hasn't felt a sense of panic at the threats against our fragile gains, of rage at the cruelty of the ascendant right-wing misogynists, of sorrow at the suffering that so many of us still endure daily? And yet, while my first response to both books was exhilaration, as I read on, in both cases, I became gradually more irritated and even bored. …

The Beauty Myth is […] interesting and useful. Rather than taking on the entire universe of discourse, Wolf sticks to a narrower focus and a more manageable thesis. She argues, convincingly, that in the wake of women's gains in the public sphere, the male power structure has upped the ante on the one area in which feminists have had least success: the struggle against socially enforced standards of physical appearance. Women—or at least white middle-class women—have indeed entered the worlds of business, power and thought in unprecedented numbers, but we suffer enormously, both psychologically and socially, for our failures to be ever more thin, youthful and commercially “beautiful.”

Wolf calls the new discriminatory criteria the Professional Beauty Qualification (PBQ), and she needed only to begin listing its manifestations to arouse a shock of recognition in me. There is no question that women today are expected, by the media, by employers and by themselves to achieve levels of physical “perfection” unheard-of before. Wolf is good with statistics, and when she tells us that models used to be eight percent thinner than the average woman but today are a substantial 23 percent thinner, she is simply naming a trend that, once pointed out, seems obvious. The same is true of her statistics on eating disorders, cosmetic surgery, and money and hours spent on diet products and programs and exercise equipment and activity.

This is one of those books that, at least in its early sections, changed my perception of myself and the world, if only temporarily. Suddenly every magazine, every friend, every shopping trip looked a bit different, a bit ominous even. Wolf is both more perceptive and more clever than Faludi. She points up, nicely, that articles in women's magazines today (contrary to Faludi's wholesale dismissal) are in fact filled with feminist assumptions and perspectives, but that for that very reason they are forced to balance their feminist messages with advertising and beauty articles that instill more and more anxiety about appearance, in order to sell the products of the advertisers on whom magazines depend.

So far, this makes a lot of sense. Wolf's account of the beauty industries themselves works on a very obvious level of economic analysis. After all, we're dealing with big business, both selling commodities and keeping women out of top positions. Unfortunately, Wolf doesn't leave well enough alone. In the last two-thirds of the book she goes so far afield theoretically and rhetorically that her book begins to sound like a jeremiad about the end of the world. Like Faludi, she omits all opposing analyses and statistics in her map of an unbearably oppressive social and psychological environment.

The worst section is the one on pornography. Oh, how I wish she'd let that one go. She ignores the voluminous amount of important theoretical debate around this issue and takes an uncritical, unexamined Andrea Dworkin/Women Against Pornography line. Assumptions about causal relationships between sexual imagery and violence are presented as gospel; and issues of female sexual freedom and repression, as well as the complexities of, and disagreements about, media reception and use—both so thoroughly a part of any informed feminist discussion of this matter by now—are simply ignored. Nowhere in the book does she seem aware of the complexities of class, race and sexual preference that have so preoccupied feminists in recent years—although attention to these would significantly undermine her homogenizing account. It is as though feminist debate had stopped in 1975.

The porn chapter is followed by others as rhetorically hyperbolic and theoretically simplistic. Wolf's analysis of what she sees as women's religious relationship to the worship of physical perfection is clever but ultimately unconvincing. She finds any number of parallels in ritual and attitudes between beauty regimens and Christian religious practices: women feel the same guilt about eating as they used to feel about sex; they “confess” to their diet group as they once confessed to priests; and so on. But Wolf so exaggerates the extent and significance of this kind of thing that her melodramatic descriptions begin to resemble The Story of O. It is as though women were sealed up in some claustrophobic counter-universe where the concern with beauty was the only operating variable.

This tendency to overstate horrors continues in the chapter on cosmetic surgery. The descriptions are predictably nauseating and distressing, but ultimately become a bit absurd, as the gothic prose raises the stakes ever higher. It is indeed appalling that “at least 67 women are dead so far” as a result of elective cosmetic surgery. But Wolf makes it sound as if all women have already entered the world of The Handmaid's Tale. Surely we are oppressed by beauty standards, but walking down the street in a dress and heels is not akin to traversing hot coals barefoot. And yet Wolf makes it sound like it is. “Enough pain makes people numb,” she writes, in a lengthy passage of which these are only brief excerpts:

Look at a done-up woman walking down a street … wearing a costume, part flamenco dancer, part Carmen … She painted her face for an hour … Her legs in black silk are numb from the windchill. The deep parting of her dress is open to a blast of wind. Her achilles tendons … are throbbing. …

(p. 249)

As I read page upon page of such purple prose I began to feel I was in a time warp. It was as though the year was 1957 and The Feminine Mystique needed to be written because we were all chained to the kitchen, gasping for breath in our Merry Widows. The impulse to sound the call to the crusades is admirable. The backlash, to be sure, is real and frightening. But the fact is, these are far more confusing and contradictory times than Faludi and Wolf seem to admit. Some of us like to wear sexy pumps and dresses on occasion. Others of us wear only pants, jackets and flat shoes and do fine. This really isn't the fifties, and all is really not lost.

In fact, what most troubled me in these books was that they seemed so out of touch with the mass of women—especially young women—in their dogmatic puritanism, as to turn off readers to what's really valuable in them. There are reasons, both theoretical and pragmatic, for feminists to back off a bit from this kind of ultra-correct rigidity. Because these are hard times, economically, politically and emotionally, and the feminist revolution dreamed of in the sixties is still not on the horizon, women have good reasons for making certain kinds of compromises in their personal and professional lives. The media are not entirely wrong about some of the “trends” they report, and to say they always are, as Faludi does, is to risk credibility and possibly scare a new generation of women who are hurting and confused away from feminism.

The same is true of our relation to fashion, cosmetics and even pornography. Most women get pleasure from adorning themselves. They do not, in fact, feel pain or numbness when dressed fashionably. They feel a whole lot of different things, I suspect, which they are not willing to give up for an abstract revolution. Many use pornography in ways they feel fine about and which, in any event, many feminist theorists interpret very differently from Wolf and Faludi.

More and more such “yes, but's” jumped into my head as I read these books. In a truly weird and surprising way, by the time I finished reading, I felt better about women's situation than I had in a long time. True, I thought mostly about more privileged women, like my own daughter, who is of Wolf and Faludi's generation and whose professional and personal life—not to mention her mental health—are so far superior to mine at her age that she could be a walking ad for the results of the second wave. If we are so much more aware and so much more outraged over what's left to be done, it's at least partly because our expectations have risen almost from zero to infinity.

How was it possible for these two women to write books so oblivious to the ferment in feminist theory, so locked into an ideologically dated world? At least one possible reason strikes me as particularly relevant to academic feminists. In the years since the second wave began, a troubling gap has developed between academic and public discourse. So much of the important work on sexuality, fashion and popular culture, for example, which should have informed and enriched the analyses of these two young writers, appears in esoteric academic journals and in language accessible only to initiates of theory-talk. Among the many contradictions of the current age, one of the most depressing perhaps is that women have gained power within the academy even as our involvement in the larger public battle diminishes.

Backlash will probably be widely read and discussed. The Beauty Myth has already made an explosion in the media; Naomi Wolf has been on more than a handful of talk shows that I've seen and her book has had plenty of publicity. She is perceived as speaking for feminism and, in the vacuum left by the rest of us, she has a right to that title. I think we need to think about that some. Second-wave feminism began in the sixties with a public agenda and a political project—to transform the world. That project is still our primary responsibility—or should be. Faludi and Wolf, to their credit, have taken on that challenge, at a time when few of us seem to be thinking in those terms. But they are going to need a lot of help in order to get it right.

Diane Johnson (review date 16 January 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Johnson, Diane. “Something for the Boys.” New York Review of Books (16 January 1992): 13–17.

[In the following excerpt, Johnson discusses the significance of The Beauty Myth and renewed interest in feminism, gender roles, and masculinity, as reflected by a number of new books published in the early 1990s.]


Dorothy Parker is said to have remarked to the authors of Modern Woman, the Lost Sex, “I bet you say that to all the sexes.” Reading these books together is like being locked in the coat closet at a cocktail party to overhear a muffled cacophony of half-truths, partial insights, and entrenched wrongheadedness, from which emerges the general impression of a society foundering in reproachful cries of loster-than-thou from all the sexes (cries which the events surrounding the Clarence Thomas hearings and the William Kennedy Smith trial have intensified). The male writers, as usual, tend to find women essentially peripheral to their lives, and seem more interested (or more free of practical cares) to address existential questions of individual moral and emotional progress, while for most of the women writers, men are still the problem. Underlying the discussion are the abiding central questions of definition: What ought “real” men to be like? What are women really like? What is “masculinity”? Does a real man “feel”? Are “caring” and “nurturing” the essence of femininity?

While in all of these many books about men and women the reader may object to an absence of historical perspective and an abundance of arguable assertions, oversimplifications, esoteric private vocabularies, global abstractions, and naive prescriptiveness—Sam Keen's Fire in the Belly has lists and quizzes—it should be said at the outset that something emerges from this profusion of viewpoints that, though not necessarily scientific or even sound, adequately describes what many people feel subjectively to be the state of things about men, or women, or themselves.

One has only to look at magazine photographs of anorexic fashion models wearing chains and decorative bruises to agree that Naomi Wolf is probably right (in The Beauty Myth) to see in the discomforts of fashion some sadistic backlash against women. (This is in fact something people have always said about fashion, designers who “hate” women and so on—but recent fashions for dog collars and penciled-on wounds and other references to torture and masochism make the perception somewhat more explicit.) Most people would instinctively feel that Suzanne Gordon is right to regret (in Prisoners of Men's Dreams) that people consider nurses lower than doctors, or that an uneducated male janitor is paid more than a woman teacher. The deluge of books, especially on the “men's movement,” also reminds that according to some unexpressed principle, by the time books about certain social problems come to be published they are already slightly out of date; that is, while Wolf sees an epidemic of victim-anorexics, the federal guidelines on ideal weight have actually been recently increased, and there's a new fat Barbie doll called “Happy to be me.” And while men proclaim their wish to get back to masculinity, it is probably the emotional values acquired since the Sixties, of cultivating the “feminine side,” that make them aware of the need to do it.

Several new and best-selling books describe the process by which sensitive modern men, having agreed since the Sixties that the effect of what has come to be called “patriarchy” (war, rape, domestic violence, and environmental destruction) is unacceptable, nonetheless rather miss it, and are nostalgically seeking to reconstruct masculinity as a positive quality along traditional lines. The leading figure of this new men's movement, Robert Bly, contrasts men today with an archetypal “1950s Man,” a boyish and optimistic, responsible, hard-working but domineering male who appreciated women's bodies but had little sense of women as individuals, and “unless he has an enemy, he isn't sure that he is alive.” Some of these men may have been or be good guys, but collectively they embody the repugnant “patriarchy” recently caricatured by, US senators in the Thomas hearings.

In the Sixties, responding to the Vietnam War as well as to the claims of feminism, younger men became what Bly has called “soft,” by which he means that they rejected many of the values of aggression and dominance so important to their fathers, in favor of lives of richer emotional sensitivity—their so-called “feminine” sides. Today, feeling that they have gone far enough in that direction and, perhaps, in helping with the dishes, men are seeking to recapture “masculinity” without reviving a discredited patriarchy. A “real” man, in this new (or old) view, is not an inarticulate, testosterone-engorged bully, not someone who as Bly says is “a cold-hearted survivalist, living in the Idaho of the mind with his dogs and an AK-47,” but a person who incorporates with the modern ability to “feel” and “care” some of the values we remember many men to have had even before the Sixties, of responsibility, protection of the weak, leadership, confidence, and virtue, rather as described in the Boy Scout Handbook or in accounts of ancient Athens. Added is a newfound fashion for crying, as Russell Baker noted recently (“All right, men, we now know you can cry, so could we just turn the manly tear ducts down to a trickle, fellows?”).

To judge from the popularity of these books, men must feel they have lost their way, and they use certain grim statistics to confirm it—that men (however willingly) are nearly 100 percent of the soldiers killed in war and most of the victims of murder, are two thirds of the nation's alcoholics, 90 percent of the homeless, 90 percent of those arrested, four times as many suicides, overwhelmingly a majority among criminals and the imprisoned. Of course it has always been men who have filled the armies and the prisons, but only now have men come to see themselves as particularly victimized. And rates of all their afflictions are increasing.1

Commentators variously blame the economy, the imperfect social vision of our leaders, and, frequently, feminism for having unmanned the male, though Margaret Mead has observed that “the central problem of every society is to define appropriate roles for the men.” In Robert Bly's view, manhood is to be recaptured by getting in touch with the “grief” arising from the shame past male behavior has brought upon men, because “so many roles that men have depended on for hundreds of years have dissolved or vanished,” and from men's loss of connection to their fathers. Part of their reconstruction is to come when the severed ties are knitted up between young men and the elders of their tribes, just as in Africa, so that male lore and values, male cooperation and friendship, can in our society as in others welcome and nurture the young man, and also fit him for happiness and the society of women. In Bly's view, this may entail rituals as simple as parades (for instance to welcome returning soldiers, helping to ease them back into nonwarrior status), or as amorphous as gaining what used to be called “the tragic sense of life,” perhaps, like the bookish Bly, from reading the great poets of Western culture, from Homer to Rilke. …

Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth) in this connection argues that the patriarchy, and its agents the film makers and magazine editors of both sexes, and the marketplace generally, imposes unattainable images of beauty as a way of keeping women in their places, and that women, lacking other forms of power, accede to this form of subjection. Wolf details a dismal catalog of anorexia, bulimia, and job discrimination against the plain or fat. She is witty on the “holy” oils sold them in ads, in which “unseen dangers assault an unprotected female victim” (she quotes a long passage of excerpts from Elizabeth Arden, Estée Lauder, and a dozen more, identifying the language of “defense” against “attack,” “danger” to the skin “assaulted by age and ultraviolet exposure,” and “external aggressions,” language she suggests is used subliminally to frighten and control).

No doubt women are insecure about their bodies, too much preoccupied with appearance and easily alarmed by such rhetoric. Social change is slow, cyclical, and must be both outward and inward, both “equal opportunity” and “transformative.” Beauty is a useful commodity, and one of the most powerful assets some women have had with which to secure material privileges and “success”; and it takes time to unlearn old ways or be willing to squander proven assets. At present one sees women trying, as a last gasp before taking the real plunge into the man's world, to compete in the old female way because for many it is easier to be pretty than to go to law school.

Whether the desire for beauty is innate,2 as Plato would have said, or a male plot is less knowable. If it is a plot, there is at least some evidence that it is not succeeding. In a few cases anyway, women are challenging legal issues relating to their appearance and are winning. like the Delta employee who won the right not to wear makeup. In any case, one could also say it is the profit motive, not men, who are at fault. “Going on appearances” is a way we all make judgments, and to take appearance into account is not necessarily evidence of deep social pathology.

Might it not be that women, pressed to give up some of the perquisites of the narcissistic, passive female role in their move toward “selfless agency,” cling to fashion and “beauty” as evidence of a femininity they wish to conserve as anxiously as men wish to conserve masculinity? The resonant little phrase of Gilmore's to the effect that manhood is marked by a transition from the self-directed mood of childhood to selfless action in the world seems meaningful here, for it could be argued that not only the beauty victims but also the “caregivers” are, like patriarchs, arrested in a state of passive narcissism—in the case of caregivers, the narcissism of powerless moral superiority. It has been noted that today's anorexic is yesterday's religious mystic. There have never been many avenues of adventure or opportunities for mastery for girls, and anorexia, like piety, may be at least a form of agency.

Wolf does not appear to have much sympathy for the project of self-perfection in any form; nor does she apparently think much of the pleasures of pursuing beauty—the fun of spas, back rubs, and facials—seeing only sadistic surgeons, bruises, scars, and pain. In fact, she ultimately attributes all social evils, including child abuse and the increase in violence against women, to the frenzied thrashings of threatened manhood, and here it is possible that she has not cast her net wide enough, ascribing to the beauty myth what Susan Faludi in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women finds in many more places besides, and documents with an impressive array of examples taken from popular culture, and more alarmingly from politics, quoting various New Right figures on their unashamedly antifeminist political agenda—which until the Thomas hearings one would have thought was on the fringe, but which those hearings all too aptly confirmed. …


Are men and women enemies? The Jungian men's movement writers do not think so, or at least do not say so. What, then, is the enemy? Surely all these books find too little fault with the objective conditions of modern American life. Besides such major problems as drugs and poverty, and family disintegration, etc., there is another villain, whose shadowy presence in many of these texts is there but nearly unremarked by the authors who put it there. Each of these commentators illustrates the pace and isolation of modern life by noting the human relationships which are actually conducted with machines, especially the car, which enables and thus compels hours of commuting for fathers (compared with the—by someone's calculation—eight minutes a day he will spend in direct conversation with his son). While father is exiled to the freeway, a car, that “adolescent equipment … which is most dear to every man's heart,” is insinuated into the emotional life of every teen-aged boy, with which he is banished to the garage and the mall, as Robert Johnson remarks: “Every car should be named Rocinante.” Keen too finds it an important symptom of puerility, and ridicules the equation of cars and other “toys” as definitions of success: “To the victors belong the marks of status and the repair bills.”

Henry Adams slyly suggested as early as 1906 that American men, being denied the advantages of culture and history, have sacrificed their masculine authority to the internal combustion engine—perhaps specifically the automobile—which has deprived men of their manhood and set women on the path of feminism, and thus began the decline of American civilization:

The typical American man had his hand on a lever and his eye on a curve in his road; his living depended on keeping up an average speed of forty miles an hour, tending always to become sixty, eighty or a hundred, and he could not admit emotions or anxieties or subconscious distractions, more than he could admit whiskey or drugs, without breaking his neck. He could not run his machine and a woman too; he must leave her, even though his wife, to find her own way, and all the world saw her trying to find her way by imitating him.

Perhaps this is all that Bly and Keen are saying out there in the woods with their dads, and their cars and women left behind.


  1. Andrew Kimbrell in The Utne Reader, May-June 1991, p. 66.

  2. By Beauty, she means personal appearance, or even grooming, not Beauty in the sense of form perfected, which of course is something else, a rare quality like tallness for basketball players, not within most people's grasp.

Gayle Greene (review date 10 February 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Greene, Gayle. “The Empire Strikes Back.” Nation (10 February 1992): 166–70.

[In the following excerpt, Greene offers a favorable assessment of The Beauty Myth.]

Those who are living through change may be the last to know it, until something we read brings things together in a way that makes us see that yes, things really are different—it's not just us growing older. These books [Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth and Susan Faludi's Backlash]—both written by young women, both bristling with indignation—demonstrate that something has changed profoundly in the culture's attitudes toward and representations of women, that we are undergoing a “cultural onslaught” that is the more “remarkable for how little it has been remarked upon at all.” Both books contextualize this backlash in relation to earlier backlashes—in the late nineteenth century, the early twentieth century and the fifties—and both explain its ferocity in economic terms.

Just when women were making some progress toward equality, just when we were mobilizing against job discrimination and sexual harassment, the Reagan Administration began dismantling federal programs and blocking progressive legislation. Just when young women were supporting feminism in record numbers, the media declared the advent of a “post-feminist” generation and began publishing scare stories (the man shortage, the infertility epidemic, career-woman burnout) and promoting retrotrends (nesting, cocooning, the “New Traditionalism”). No, it's not a conspiracy, but neither is it innocent: Both these books show how legal setbacks, put-downs from mass media and Hollywood, denunciations from political and religious leaders, fire-bombings of women's clinics, rape, and a beauty ideal that eroticizes violence are all parts of the same picture—of “a counterassault on women's rights” that is intensifying in nastiness and volume.

Women earn 60 cents to a man's dollar; and, as Wolf points out, the economies of industrialized countries depend on this “pool of cheap female labor.” Thus in addition to the lucrative industries preying on women—the $33-billion-a-year diet industry, the $20 billion cosmetics industry, the $300 million cosmetic surgery industry and the $7 billion pornography industry—there are powerful economic incentives for keeping women subordinate. By defining women's value in terms of appearance and making it depend on male approval, the Beauty Myth keeps us anxious, insecure and vulnerable, while also affirming a man's right to confer judgment—that last bastion of male privilege. An ideology that makes us feel “worth less” became even more necessary when feminism was beginning “to make us feel worth more.”

Wolf analyzes the Beauty Myth as a form of social coercion that took over from where the Feminine Mystique left off, as “a direct consequence of, and a one-to-one check and balance upon” women's new rights and powers. Whereas the women's movement gave us some control of our minds, bodies and sexuality, the Beauty Myth wrested this control away, barraging us with “time-consuming and mind-consuming fictions” that drain our energies and absorb our attentions. Whereas feminism challenged the stereotype that we were defined by our appearance, the Beauty Myth insists that a woman is her body and that her body is unsatisfactory. Whereas the sexual revolution promoted women's discovery and experience of sexuality, suddenly the weight of fashion models plummeted to 23 percent below that of ordinary women in a new ideal that keeps us off-balance, food-obsessed, hungry; and a new “beauty pornography” linked self-worth to sexuality at the same time that it degraded female sexuality.

The more legal and material gains we made in the world, the more foolish and insecure we were made to feel in our bodies, and the more strictly and cruelly beauty images were forced upon us. The ideal of female beauty that has evolved in recent years—excessively thin, shockingly young and erotically degraded—is a direct response to our new powers. There is nothing arbitrary about any of these qualities: Each aspect—youth, thinness, erotic degradation—performs important work of social control. Dropping “the official weight one stone below women's natural level and redefining a woman's womanly shape” as “fat” plunges women into endless, time- and energy-consuming cycles of dieting and bingeing and produces self-hate such that the norm now is to be a sufferer of some form of eating disorder: More people die of anorexia in a year than died of AIDS from the beginning of the epidemic until the end of 1988.

Nor is it an accident—as Faludi points out—that this ideal flies in the face of demographics: that the ideal beauty is in her late teens or early 20s at the very time when the largest proportion of the female population is entering middle age. It was no misunderstanding that prompted the fashion industry to push baby-doll lines, bubble skirts, party-girl gowns, miniskirts and pouf dresses, at a time when the average American woman was 32, weighed 143 pounds and wore a size 10 or 12; infantile imagery promotes “a retreat from female adulthood” and “bears a vindictive subtext.” As Wolf emphasizes, the devaluing of older women also eradicates female power. Whereas older men move into positions of prominence—and power is eroticized for men but not for women—older women have to be made to disappear. Making our aging appear unseemly, unsightly, unacceptable assures that we will. Moreover, it performs the crucial work of cutting the links between generations of women and assuring that power is not passed on. This is why the caricature of the Ugly Feminist appears with every backlash—to scare young women away from identifying with older women and prevent the transmission of authority. The Beauty Myth not only sets women in competition with one another on a daily basis but sets younger women against older, which is part of the reason the struggle for women's rights has to begin anew with each generation.

Wolf points out that young people today are bombarded with more images of “impossibly ‘beautiful’ women engaged in ‘sexual’ posturing” than their grandmothers were in a lifetime, and that these images are different not only in quantity but in kind from anything women had to deal with in the past. They glamorize female degradation and masochism in a way that reasserts imaginatively the power inequities that the women's movement challenged. “In a crossover of imagery in the 1980s, the conventions of high-class pornographic photography, such as Playboy's, began to be used generally to sell products,” and “the furious pouting glare of the violated woman” and images of “chic violence” and “designer bondage” entered mainstream advertising. Rock videos, which “set the beauty index” for young women, showing them “how to move, strip, grimace, pout, breathe, and cry out during a ‘sexual’ encounter,” define beauty as “that which never says no,” as that which is abused. Young people are being imprinted with a sexuality that is mass-produced, inhuman and dehumanizing, and the changes are momentous: “Nothing comparable has ever happened in the history of our species; it dislodges Freud.” It may also be producing a generation that confuses sexuality with violence—a generation for which date rape is “more common than left-handedness, alcoholism, and heart attacks.”

Wolf's chapter “Violence” is not about rape or male violence, however. It is about cosmetic surgery—which makes the point that the violence done to us makes us more inclined to do violence to ourselves. Reading of the self-mutilation women inflict on themselves in breast implants, liposuction and face lifts, I was struck by how numbed we have become to our own pain. Smoking to stay thin, risking death for thinner thighs, killing the breast as a site of sexual pleasure to make it the object of another's pleasure (which is what silicone implants do) indicate new levels of alienation from our bodies. But such practices also make sense in terms of a culture that values a woman's appearance more than her mind, where a woman can still make more money selling her body than her skills (the average streetwalker earns more than a secretary).

The Beauty Myth claims to be about sexuality while actually being repressive of female sexuality, leaving women alienated from their bodies and desires. It purports to be about individuality while in fact reducing “the meaning of women to … formulaic and endlessly reproduced … images,” which then become the “reality” against which women are measured and found wanting. It claims to be about freedom while actually being about control, and it disguises its coercions in the language of choice, the language of feminism: Now you can choose to have perfect breasts, higher cheekbones. But in fact it leaves us no choice—we will only have a choice when the loss of “beauty” does not mean the loss of esteem, self-esteem, identity, love.

Wolf urges that we exercise real choice and learn to see differently. Her book shows how we might rethink beauty, the body, and—in a powerful and moving passage—how we might re-envision age:

You could see the signs of female aging as diseased. … Or you could see that if a woman is healthy she lives to grow old; as she thrives, she reacts and speaks and shows emotion, and grows into her face. Lines trace her thought and radiate from the corners of her eyes after decades of laughter. … You could call the lines a network of “serious lesions,” or you could see that in a precise calligraphy, thought has etched marks of concentration between her brows, and drawn across her forehead the horizontal creases of surprise, delight, compassion, and good talk. … The darkening under her eyes, the weight of her lids, their minute cross-hatching, reveal that what she has been part of has left in her its complexity and richness. She is darker, stronger, looser, tougher, sexier. The maturing of a woman who has continued to grow is a beautiful thing to behold.

Wolf suggests that we turn to women's films, novels and art to discover alternative images of beauty and unalienated female desire.1 Second-wave feminism produced many such works,2 and Wolf urges young women to draw on them and to forge intergenerational links that will strengthen them in coming together in a third wave.

Both Faludi and Wolf try to get women to recognize their power. Both books do what feminist classics—Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique—did: They name and identify the problem and give us a new way of seeing. If they are at times prone to exaggeration and hyperbole, so too were de Beauvoir and Friedan. I do wish Faludi had more fully acknowledged Wendy Kaminer's A Fearful Freedom: Women's Flight from Equality and other analyses of the backlash that cover some of the same ground that she does—for example, Katha Pollitt's [“Being Wedded Is Not Always Bliss,” September 20, 1986]. And I also wish she had found a way of discussing Carol Gilligan that did not blame her for what reactionary forces made of her. But what is enormously important is that both books move the discussion outside academic feminist discourse, which has tended to become turgid, inward-looking and politically ineffectual, and into a more public arena.

I'm delighted that these books were written by young women, that they are being marketed enthusiastically for large audiences, that they are available even in Southern California bookstore chains, that the authors are appearing widely on talk shows. I love their indignation—both books crackle with energy and anger. What they do not note—and so I will—is that it's the success of feminism (as much as its failures) that has fueled this energy: It's precisely because feminism has taught us to expect more—that things might be better—that these young women are so angry. So they give us a new way of viewing the legacy of feminism of which the authors may not be aware. I think there are a lot of women out there who will get the message—since these books appeared, Clarence Thomas happened along like Exhibit A—and I hope they will help re-ignite the women's movement to face the challenges that still confront us.


  1. Wolf's description of aging reminds me of the Canadian film Strangers in Good Company, by Cynthia Scott, which accuses on the faces of old women so lovingly that it makes us see their beauty. Films that take women's perspective tend not to become mainstream, however, and Faludi's account of how things work in Hollywood explains why: She describes the chilliness Gwen field encountered with her film Patti Rocks, and the disapproval its independent female protagonist met with, while Fatal Attraction evolved, in response to pressures from its male stars and producers, from a vaguely feminist film into a morality tale that demonized the professional woman.

  2. There are dozens of excellent contemporary women writers—Toni Morrison, Marge Piercy, Alice Walker, Maxine Hong Kingston, Adrienne Rich, Mary Gordon, to name only a few. In Changing the Story I focus on Doris Lessing, Margaret Drabble, Margaret Atwood and Margaret Laurence. Alicia Ostriker's Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America (Beacon) provides a good overview of contemporary women's poetry. See also Visibly Female: Feminism and Art: An Anthology, edited by Hilary Robinson (Universe).

Maxine S. Theodoulou (review date summer 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Theodoulou, Maxine S. Review of The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf. ETC: A Review of General Semantics 49, no. 2 (summer 1992): 251–52.

[In the following review, Theodoulou concludes that The Beauty Myth is undermined by Wolf's narrow thesis and “pedestrian style,” but that the work offers useful insight.]

Women's preoccupation with beauty [in The Beauty Myth] fuels a billion-dollar industry. The “standards” of beauty constantly change, leaving women with closets of outdated clothes and, in the worst case, outdated bodies. To meet the current standards of feminine beauty women diet, exercise, and undertake dangerous and costly surgical procedures. Those who deviate from the latest “norm” meet up with both overt and covert discrimination.

Naomi Wolf contends that the myth of female beauty has replaced religion and that it mimics a medieval torture instrument dubbed “The Iron Maiden.” Whether they meet the current standards or not, Wolf theorizes that the “beauty myth” keeps women out of the mainstream of business and politics and prevents them from achieving their maximum potential. Furthermore, this preoccupation with looking “right” undermines women's freedom. By keeping women preoccupied with beauty, they are kept out of the way.

Wolf zeroes in on ways that our cultural demands encourage women to strive to meet current beauty “standards.” In her attacks on books, magazines, and advertising she hypothesizes that the current fixation on female thinness is really an obsession about female obedience.

Wolf proposes that choices will deobjectify women. She argues in favor of taking political action against these discriminations. The planet, says Wolf, can no longer support the consumer ideology that forms one of the underlying assumptions of the “beauty myth.”

Wolf's thesis seems to imply one, and only one, problem in what might be described as Aristotelian thinking. One could also argue that her thesis should be expanded to include those who for whatever reason are considered different.

Wolf enfeebles her argument by her pedestrian style. Nevertheless, she does illuminate an important feature of the backlash directed at women, and she clinches her argument when she says, “The real problem is lack of choices.”

Melissa Benn (review date 26 November 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Benn, Melissa. “The Big Girls.” New Statesman & Society (26 November 1993): 39.

[In the following review, Benn argues that Fire with Fire oversimplifies women's liberation and the complexities of social reality.]

Absurdly over-hyped, Fire with Fire is the latest in a long line of high-energy, sweeping tomes by American feminists that everyone tells us overshadow our sour, small-minded, home-grown variety. But massive publicity of both book and author will ensure that they get out to millions of women looking hungrily (or lazily) for the text of their age. For that reason alone, it is important.

It is certainly the first feminist book of the Clinton era. Unashamedly, it welds the optimism of a new liberal consensus with what was learned from the dark 1980s: marketability, pragmatism and a fine-tuned sense of individual initiative, to be deployed on behalf of the unfortunate parts of the collective.

Women, says Wolf, are at an “open moment” in their history. They must simply step forward and claim the power that is theirs. Anita Hill's strange mix of humiliation and triumph on Capitol Hill was a pivotal moment. So was the election by proxy of Hillary Clinton. So too was the 1992 Year of the Woman. These were dramatic moments, but do they signify as much as Wolf claims? However important the Anita Hill experience, does it really signal a “genderquake” for all US women? Is a powerful president's wife so new a phenomenon, and even if she is, does Hillary Clinton mark much more than the new opportunities and dangers facing professional women?

But it is when Wolf turns to Britain, and the now customary “add-on” examples that American feminists insert in their books, that the limitations of both theory and language come home. Women in the 1984–5 miners strike were “brilliant entrepreneurs” when it came to raising money; Princess Diana is now an “assertive ambassador on the world stage”; Stella Rimington at MI5 is a new “power-feminist icon.” “Get real” explode my notes in the margin at this point.

Each of these advances is noted without reference to context, emptied of any analysis. Like Susan Faludi's Backlash, whose defeatism she declares dated, Wolf deals almost entirely with popular culture's symbolic and synthetic advances and retreats. In this, she exhibits one of the crippling limitations of all post-feminisms.

Fire with Fire is above all concerned with the individual will. If it has any genre history or equivalent, it is the self-esteem handbook so popular in the last decade. So, the banner emotional headlines run: “Don't dwell on the negatives of the past; remove your blocks to fame, success and money; don't be afraid of criticism and above all, babe, go for it …” The call to agency is the most important and valuable part of Wolf's message, but it is not as new to feminism as she implies. The Second Sex is a far more profound and complex work on this theme. Friedan's The Feminine Mystique placed principal emphasis on self-development. The main thrust of Camille Paglia's limited appeal comes from her urgings to women to throw off the shackles of female passivity. Wolf does not so much create as codify, in a new language, a shift of mood for a generation of backlash-angry, high-earning yet oddly unconfident women.

Yet like every generation, which must reassure itself that it will not repeat its mothers' mistakes, Wolf's message also involves a partial repudiation of “second-wave” feminism, that generation of women who came to adulthood in the 1960s and 1970s. While The Beauty Myth was more generous in paying its debts to this movement, Fire with Fire plays more to the mainstream gallery. Wolf wants to eat her cake and have it, honouring second-wave history and repudiating it at the same time. She merges it into a new synthesis, all her “1990s” own. So, we are assured: socialism is officially dead; sisterhood must make a “new alliance with capital.” Power not victim feminism is the way forward.

I'd hate to be a poor slow sleepy human being in Naomi Wolf's world. There's no place for the sheer bloody ordinary, the woman neither victimised nor thrusting. Conflict, ambiguity, doing things differently, not playing the game: all the things that have been wonderful as well as terrible about feminism are thrown out from this grown-up wardrobe. Complex stories of socialism, radicalism and sexual liberation get boiled down in the eager pot of her simplification.

Perhaps this is why, for all its claims to modernity, Fire with Fire is curiously unreal, a work unanchored in “true” historical time and place. In fact, it's rather like a good TV film. I recognised the characters. I know most of the plot. I enjoyed watching it. But when I turn it off, it leaves no lingering trace in the outside world. Striving precisely to be so unifying and universal, it tells us too too little about real lives, real women. But then the Big American Girls so often do. Maybe that's precisely why so many people like them.

Anne Applebaum (review date 27 November 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Applebaum, Anne. “Laughing All the Way to the Bonk.” Spectator (27 November 1993): 40–41.

[In the following review, Applebaum offers a negative assessment of Fire with Fire.]

Fire with Fire is an odd work. Neither fiction, nor journalism, nor criticism, nor autobiography, it nevertheless retains elements of all four: there are eye-catching, source-free statistics (‘most women have been sexually harassed at work’), up-to-date anecdotes (Anita Hill, Hillary Clinton, and the women of Sarajevo all make appearances), and odd bits and pieces of popular culture (the films Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction get a mention, and advertisements for Donna Karan clothes are analysed at length). All of these are spiced up with the author's very own erotic recollections.

It makes for some confusing reading, but I stuck to it long enough to pick up the two basic themes. The first of these is that it is better for women to make money than not to make money. The second is that it is better for women to have power than not to have power. To these two theses, there is a corollary: it can be very enjoyable for women to sleep with men.

This last discovery seems to have been a particularly difficult one, since it puts Naomi Wolf at odds with the rest of the feminist movement—or so she implies. For in this book, Wolf sets herself up as a different kind of feminist, a ‘power feminist.’ She wants, she says, to dispense with the ugly, dyke-ish feminist stereotype and recreate the movement in her own glamorous image. Now, this may well be a very clever marketing ploy indeed. There has been quite a backlash against feminism; Wolf herself reports with horror that a poll conducted by none other than Cosmopolitan magazine found that 75 percent of women called themselves ambitious, while only 38 per cent called themselves feminists. That means, by my calculation, that 37 per cent of all Cosmopolitan readers will buy books telling them about how good it is to make money, have power, and sleep with men, while dispensing with that uncomfortable ‘feminist’ label.

The difficulty is that by setting herself up in opposition to the ‘old’ image, she also helps reinforce it. The more I read of Fire with Fire, the more I began to sympathise with the nasty, ugly feminists of yesteryear, now put in their place by Wolf for good. They, at least, had something authentic to fight against: unequal laws, unequal opportunities, unequal pay. Many other women are also still trying to cope with the more uncomfortable side-effects of feminism, even if merely trying to balance their jobs against the needs of their families. Wolf doesn't have such problems, or is at any rate uninterested in thinking about them, and so is left struggling with the guilt she feels when she earns too much money. In one particularly heart-rending passage, she describes the pain she felt upon discovering the enormous size of her first royalty cheque:

The cheque was a phantom presence, disrupting my sense of where I stood in the world. It felt defeminising, like a mark of maleness stigmatising me.

Has she really nothing better to write about?

That cheque, incidentally, was for The Beauty Myth, a book which was all about how terrible it is for women to wear mascara and nice clothes, and how oppressive and evil are the mascara manufacturers and fashion industrialists who con women into wearing them. It was, in other words, an example of the sort of ‘victim feminism’ against which Wolf is now setting her standard. Yet amidst all the recent fuss about the lovely Wolf (is there a Sunday colour supplement which has not featured her face on its cover?) no one has mentioned the inconsistency between this book and the last, never mind the fact that Wolf herself clearly enjoys mascara and nice clothes. ‘I want to be a serious thinker and not have to hide the fact that I have breasts,’ writes Wolf. But the absence of criticism of this book is a sad comment on the ‘seriousness’ with which Wolf, and other women, are taken: a man would never have been allowed to get away with contradicting himself so blatantly. Nor would a man be feted and photographed by the weekend newspapers for producing a work of such banality.

In fact, this book provides the clearest indication yet that feminism, whether of the power type or the victim type, is now utterly devoid of ideas and unable to explain, let alone solve, any of the problems which working women actually face. But I did find myself battling against one overpowering emotion while reading it. This was the sensation that by finding feminism empty, I was missing out on something important; perhaps I ought to take it more seriously, and start writing books like this myself. Never mind GATT, or foreign policy doctrines, or property prices, or whatever else journalists who happen to be women concern themselves with: we could all call ourselves feminists—one seems to need no credentials—and then earn lots of money by explaining to an apparently vast audience of clueless women that money is desirable and that men can be pleasant to sleep with.

Katherine Boo (review date 28 November 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Boo, Katherine. “Taking Off the Velvet Gloves.” Washington Post Book World (28 November 1993): 1, 10.

[In the following review of Fire with Fire, Boo finds Wolf's inclusive “power feminism” interesting, but concludes that her recommendations for change are inadequate, particularly as she fails to account for the economically disadvantaged.]

Lordy, what a mess this manifesto [Fire with Fire] is. Proving that even feminists have the right to change their minds, it argues against much of what undergirded Wolf's bestselling Beauty Myth two years ago. It's so full of subtextual exclamation points it reads like an over-caffeinated Katie Couric. And it's so rich in contradiction that feminists from both the Camille Paglia and Katha Pollitt camps are surely sharpening pencil and claw as we speak. And yet—this call-to-arms, however bizarrely argued, makes a crucial, felt, contribution to recent feminist debate. For Wolf here has managed to break free of a compelling feminist, and liberal, tradition that refuses to acknowledge today's progress for fear of jeopardizing tomorrow's “we're-in-crisis” fundraising drive. A card-carrying member of a movement that tends to adorn itself with gags and coat hangers and black eyes and mastectomized breasts, Wolf dares to play Pollyanna—arguing that women, finally learning to use the fact that they possess 7 million potential votes more than men, are on the verge of gender suzerainty.

The last decade has seen the construction of a vast feminist political infrastructure, Wolf contends, plus the narrowing of the gender wage gap and the bolstering of women's rights to have abortions, not to be sexually harassed, and to secure family leave and women's health funding. We are on our way to obtaining better bean counts in the courts, in the Senate, in the media and in the marketplace. Sure, instead of earning 59 cents to a man's dollar, we now make a whopping 70, but in broader political terms, she says, we're accelerating no less than “the decline of the masculine empire.”

“We have reached a moment at which sexual inequality, which we think of as being the texture and taste of femininity itself, can begin to become a quaint memory of the old country—if we are not too attached to it to let it go.”

This “if” is where Wolf's argument gets interesting. For by her lights it's not just fem-hating media and Victoria's Secret CEOs holding women back from what's rightfully theirs. It's elite, victimization-preoccupied feminism itself. Harboring simpy, noncompetitive notions of sisterhood married to a leftist reflex against rough-and-tumble money politics, feminists have inadvertently buttressed more malign social structures that reward women for self-immolating niceness, indifference to money and disdain for self-promotion. What we need now, Wolf argues, is a “power feminism” that affirms and exercises our long-sublimated will to rule.

To the biological essentialist arguments of Jean Baker Miller and others—that women are nature's nurturers, instinctively valuing connection over competition—Wolf offers the presocialized 2-year-old girl who says “Mine!” and is willing to employ her teeth to thwart hegemony over her Legos. Celebrating this power- and pleasure-seeking side of feminine nature—the side wide open, if nurtured, to cutthroat competition—Wolf aligns herself more closely with Judith Krantz than Andrea Dworkin, and consciously so. She's on to something when she argues that the lowbrow media, from Oprah to Cosmopolitan to Roseanne, have been better at creating morally responsible, inspiring power role models than many ideologically unimpeachable feminists. Catwoman? Beneath the Lycra bodysuit lurks a power feminist icon—not a victim of date rape or an incest survivor, but a sexy symbol of coping and competence and occasional butt-kicking—the kind of symbol the average self-esteem-shorted woman needs most.

Clearly, Wolf's is big-tent, populist feminism: no litmus test for Lycra-wearing or, egads, even abortion, which the author acknowledges qualms about. Wolf's aim here is politically pragmatic—to dilute the feminist agenda enough to persuade a broader swipe of American women to take a drink. Hawk Republican feminists, pistol-packing feminists, come on down!

But now that we're here, what are we standing for? Relax, says Wolf. While in the '70s and '80s, the fledgling feminist struggle needed ideological rigidity for cohesiveness, today the community is strong enough to encompass political difference without unsticking the elemental feminist glue: a belief in women's right to self-respect and self-determination. Once the concept of feminism is elasticized and destigmatized, women can form loose, respectful alliances to obtain their mutual self-interests: equal pay, increased funding for medical research, sensible sexual harassment laws, more political representation. Who cares whether we all believe Anita Hill?

To marshal America's female power, Wolf envisions a massive reeducation program: teaching more women to acquire a taste for autonomy and responsibility, a taste that she believes will prove as delicious as the dependent, exotic status we now—oh, admit it—kind of enjoy. She vividly captures even educated women's current “power illiteracy”: the reluctance to negotiate a raise, to enjoy money and status, to stomach the criticism that comes with voice and power. She is moving in her desire to excise the question marks—“I want to go to graduate school? To study neurophysics?”—that punctuate young women's dreams.

Yet she also trips on one of the power-averse perils she depicts. Sedulously arguing fine points with her fellow-feminists—trying to be “nice” and generous as she polemecizes—she skimps on the world-changing, power-taking details. In a brief final chapter, “What We Can Do Now” she speeds through a dozen ideas. Money to PACS that support women candidates. More female entrepreneurship. Power 101 seminars for high school girls. Wine-sipping “resource groups” that mimic the old-boys network.

Well, maybe brief is better. Because this is where Wolf's realpolitik begins to sound not clear-eyed but cynical—Herbert Spencer in humanist drag. What many gloomy lefty feminists have long fretted over, and what Wolf breezes by, is that old-boy networks don't help all boys. They help the ones who went to Yale. Which points to the nagging problem with Wolf's mainstream power solution.

At the heart of Wolf's amplitudinous feminism is what she calls the “both/and construct”: feminism marked by both economic self-interest and abundant compassion; individuality and community; raucous sex and antisexism; fighting and fun. While Wolf credits Gloria Steinem for the construct, its earlier roots lie in the work of Harvard rhetoric scholar Sacvan Bercovitch, who records the damage done by this sophist sleight-of-hand throughout American political history. Wolf, demurring all the way, cleaves to this tradition.

She wants her uncorseted, aggressive feminists, once they've secured power, to wield it “responsibly,” “to make the world more fair for others.” But when women realize their self-interest through existing political mechanisms, their competitive dark side won't suddenly be transposed into toasty fellow-feeling. Rather, future feminist triumphs will probably look like a recent one Wolf trumpets: the passage of the Family Leave Act, which allows people to take time off to care for a baby or a relative without losing their jobs—and without pay. To low-income moms, this “victory” was as heady as the MFN vote on China.

For all her Redbook citations and interviews with working-class students, Wolf is, in the end, no egalitarian. Poor women, the most needy, fastest-growing segment of the gender, won't be contributing to EMILY's list or rectifying the fact that women now own only 23 percent of “cultural space.” They won't be holding the political system hostage to their needs. Power 101 seminars won't compensate for the fact that these 11th-grade woman warriors can't read. There are arguments to be made in defense of Wolf's lumpen-middle-class power mechanisms—that the rising tide will eventually lift all boats, and so forth. But Wolf can't bring herself to admit the cold choices she's making, the economic wounds that hearty money politics have never staunched.

In one section of Fire with Fire, Wolf lists the many reasons self-respecting, self-defining women recoil from calling themselves feminists (including, natch, the dread hairy-leg imputation). There's one reason she leaves out, one her sunny book provides the evidence for: We have come a long way, baby. We've come so far, in fact, that there are now far tougher, worthier social battles than those that feminists like Wolf are willing to fight.

Maggie Gallagher (review date 29 November 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Gallagher, Maggie. “Party Girl.” National Review (29 November 1993): 66–67.

[In the following review, Gallagher offers an unfavorable assessment of Fire with Fire.]

Feminism has come to a peculiar pass: Feminist ideas are everywhere; feminists, however, are hard to find. How did this happen?

That is the question Naomi Wolf—whose first book, The Beauty Myth, was a national best-seller—takes up in Fire with Fire, a feminist's critique of feminism. This is what she has come up with: Why did feminism fail? Because it isn't any fun. Holding her first large royalty check in hand, Miss Wolf has had an epiphany: Money is good! Power is good! Success is good! Why doesn't feminism, she asks, drop its “trouble talk” and concentrate on the good stuff?

Miss Wolf offers one of the most cogent and penetrating descriptions of why movement feminism is so profoundly unattractive, including: “hangover habits of the revolutionary Left,” “the common perception that feminism and lesbianism are synonymous,” “a clubhouse mentality,” and “rigid proscriptions.”

A Yale grad herself, Miss Wolf has tumbled to the fact that ambitious young women who get into Ivy League universities want primarily to “make it,” and not to engage in class warfare to overthrow running-dog capitalist institutions.

Everyone knows that feminism isn't much fun, but the inside dope shows that things are worse than any of us suspected. At one campus, a coterie of feminists confronted Miss Wolf: “One woman charged that I was too elitist—I had used compound sentences. … Isn't the act of writing a book, asked [another] young woman accusingly, in itself exclusionary to women who cannot read?”

Miss Wolf argues against such “victim feminism” in favor of what she calls “power feminism,” which encourages women to go for it: to make love and money and political coalitions with equal abandon.

This is a book I wanted to like. If it encourages feminists to re-evaluate their reflexive (i.e., stupid) anti-capitalism, it will have performed a valuable service. Nonetheless, it is a silly book, and a profoundly unserious one. What do women really want? “Women like to dress up and hate being required to; women want the right to go to war and don't want to kill.” There, you silly men, don't you understand?

What, then, should women do? “Make diaries, novels, plays, and paintings from our erotic lives: ‘come out’ unabashedly, every one of us, as sexual beings … it's up to us to saturate the airwaves with our millions of erotic truths.” It seems to me the airwaves are pretty saturated already.

And what does Miss Wolf, personally, want? “I want to be a serious thinker and not have to hide the fact that I have breasts.” With all due respect, Miss Wolf, I'm not convinced it's your bosom that's holding you back. If this is power feminism, it is power feminism of a most unthreatening kind: a feminism so inclusive it has no specific content, all psychofluff and no meat and bones—feminism lite.

Having the courage to say the obvious (millions of men don't rape; millions of women aren't lesbians) has so exhausted her that she has no energy left to address actual issues: How do we reconcile individual choice and social obligation, love and achievement, capitalism and the family? Will that feminist panacea, federally funded day care, really help the 50 per cent of working mothers who want more time with their family? Can American women and children ever be secure while marriage remains so unstable? How do we actually stop rape, not to mention murder, assault, and theft? Are the political interests of women who lecture and women who wash for a living really one and the same?

Miss Wolf wants to Think Big and ends up doing no more than tip-toe close to common sense. Yes, money is good; yes, power can be fun; yes, a woman (like all human beings) often wants everything all at once: a high-status job and the time and energy to make deep emotional connections; passionate adventures and emotional commitment; the right to leave her husband and the right not to be dumped for a younger woman; even, by Miss Wolf's own testimony, the right to be a soldier and the right not to kill. Life is full of hard choices, isn't it?

As an aspiring serious thinker, Naomi Wolf has been done in by her own Dragons of Niceness, which make her unable to admit that any woman anywhere at any time has been wrong, at least without prefacing her remarks with a great deal of smarmy flattery: Radical feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon are really great theorists. The only problem comes when other feminists start acting as if their theories were true, and repeating them in public, a kind of backhanded defense these more valiant (or foolhardy) writers must reject with scorn.

We are all feminists now, Naomi Wolf reassures us: Republicans and Democrats, socialists and capitalists. Feminism is the nice warm bath of feminine approval for whatever choices women make, a feminism that prides itself on its ability to distinguish (incomprehensibly) “between the right to have an opinion about a woman's choices and the right to judge her.” It is a feminism so warm and fuzzy, it practically disappears.

Mary Nemeth (essay date 6 December 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Nemeth, Mary. “Who's Afraid of Naomi Wolf?” Maclean's (6 December 1993): 70–71.

[In the following essay, Nemeth discusses Wolf's career, critical reception, and feminist perspective in Fire with Fire.]

Having determined that the restaurant does not offer free-range poultry, free-range meat or free-range anything, Naomi Wolf begins searching for a meatless item on the menu. The 31-year-old American feminist author is in a fancy French eatery in uptown Toronto, talking up her new book and running on adrenaline. Wolf finally settles on a croque monsieur sandwich—but insists that it be prepared without ham. Very gastronomically correct. Then, as an afterthought, she asks the waitress to substitute french fries for the coleslaw. So much for correctness.

A similar dichotomy defines her vision of feminism as a movement that would unite and inspire women whether they are politically correct or not: leftists, rightists, pro- and anti-abortionists, women who wear makeup. Wolf even likes men—she married one recently. “But liking men,” she says with a wide grin, “doesn't keep me from wanting to dismantle their privilege.” Feminists, in Wolf's view, should be able to insist on free-range chicken, and have their french fries, too.

Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century is an imperfect work, prone to repetition and to oversimplification. And Wolf's central thesis—that when Anita Hill in 1991 accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment she provoked a “genderquake” that turned American women into “the political ruling class”—seems grossly exaggerated. But Wolf does raise a key question: how best to bridge the gap between feminist leaders and American women who support their basic goal of equality but reject the feminist label—women who, explaining themselves, begin with the words: “I'm not a feminist, but. …”

To some extent, Fire with Fire is a reaction to the criticism Wolf encountered after publishing her first book in 1990. The Beauty Myth, which turned her into a feminist icon, attacks cosmetic firms, the diet industry, plastic surgeons and pornographers for undermining women's self-esteem. An international best-seller, it was hailed by a somewhat immodest Germaine Greer as “the most important feminist publication since [Greer's own] The Female Eunuch.” But not everyone was so impressed. In Fire with Fire, Wolf describes how women's-studies students accused her of elitism—for using compound sentences—and of being co-opted by corporate media for giving interviews about her book on television. Other critics questioned whether a woman as attractive as Wolf should be telling others not to worry about their looks.

Without question, Wolf's slight build, piercing blue eyes and tousle of long, dark hair make her a beneficiary of the very beauty myth she sought to expose. Even she concedes that her looks, her youth, her middle-class whiteness and even—since her marriage to New Republic executive editor David Shipley—her publicly declared heterosexuality, have lent her a nonthreatening acceptability. That, in turn, has won her wider access to the mainstream media than is regularly granted to many more prolific, more experienced feminist writers and activists. Perhaps a backlash was inevitable. What difference does it make, asked a writer in The Globe and Mail, what “a young Oxford grad who poses in Glamour magazine in velvet pants” has to say about power feminism?

At the Toronto restaurant, Wolf bridles at such questions. That is “exactly the double-standard discrimination that all women face in their jobs,” she declares. “I am a writer, and yet my appearance is continually used to try to label or trivialize the weight of what I'm saying.” While Wolf acknowledges that some feminist leaders are unfairly ignored by the mainstream media, others must shoulder the blame for their low profile. “I try hard to speak in a way that every woman and man can understand and relate to,” she says, adding that she speaks to media—everything from Seventeen magazine to the Oprah TV show—that many academic feminists view with contempt. Wolf claims that people listen to her largely because of her determination “to bring my ideas to the broadest possible audience, to make them available to the 16-year-old girl in the shopping mall that nobody else is talking to. I want to take credit for that.”

In Fire with Fire, Wolf blends personal anecdotes with analysis of popular culture and feminist literature. Arguing that “it is not dissent that is harmful to feminism, but consensus,” Wolf openly breaks some of the movement's most cherished taboos. Although she criticizes controversial writers Camille Paglia and Katie Roiphe—who say that feminists overreact to date rape and sexual harassment—she also argues that members of the women's movement should debate some of the issues they raise, including the nature of consent and the difference between merely inappropriate behavior and criminal actions. Wolf claims that women themselves are partly to blame for some of their failures because they fear power. She insists that women are capable of aggression and should be held accountable for their actions. And she calls on the women's movement to re-evaluate abortion. Although committed to a woman's right to choose, Wolf concedes that she has personal qualms. She urges that both men and women accept their responsibility “to at least try hard to avoid pregnancy.”

Women should debate all those issues, Wolf argues, even as they unite under the banner of a new “power feminism.” They should go into politics and into business, make money, amass power, and then use “the master's tools” to “dismantle the master's house.” Above all, Wolf contends, women should abandon “victim feminism” with its emphasis on women's helplessness and innocence. “Women are fed up with images of their own oppression,” she writes. “We are moved far more by appeals to our strength, resourcefulness and sense of responsibility.”

Wolf's definition of “victim feminism” is exhaustive. Everything that she dislikes about the women's movement falls within its scope. Among other ills, it is “sexually judgmental,” portrays women “as closer to nature than men are,” and “believes it is possessed of ‘the truth.’” In countering those attitudes, Wolf occasionally tilts at windmills, as when she devotes several pages to a defence of heterosexuality. And with such lines as: “Male sexual attention is the sun in which I bloom,” she seems to lose her grip altogether.

In the interview, Wolf explains that she “grew up in the heart of feminism land.” Born in 1962, she was raised in Haight-Ashbury, later San Francisco's hippie district; her father was a university professor, her mother an anthropologist. It was a middle-class and educationally privileged family, she says, but perpetually broke. There were Ms. magazines around the house, and Wolf strolled in peace marches. In Haight-Ashbury, says Wolf, “if you were a thinker, you were a feminist—you'd have to be a bozo not to be. The feminists were having more fun.” (Wolf was not, however, immune to un-feminist pressures. In The Beauty Myth, she recounted her bout with anorexia as a self-conscious 13-year-old.)

Wolf won a scholarship to Yale University in 1980, about the time that “there was a detour into a much darker version of feminism”—victim feminism. Once an avid poet, she stopped writing sonnets after reading feminist author Adrienne Rich's denunciation of poetry as patriarchal. Later, she sought and won a scholarship to study women in the Middle East, expecting to prove that their nurturing maternal natures could transcend even the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “I discovered that the women were just as bloodthirsty as the men,” says Wolf, laughing in retrospect at her own naïveté. In 1985, she won a Rhodes Scholarship and went to England to study at Oxford.

It was there, while doing graduate work, that Wolf began research that led to The Beauty Myth. Although she stands by her book, Wolf now says that, in true victim-feminist fashion, it focused on the obstacles women face. If she had it to do over again, she says, she would add more positives—about women's creative powers and about their ability to transcend the beauty myth.

In Fire with Fire, Wolf writes about the opposite myth imposed on feminism. When she asks audiences to describe feminists, they come up with: “‘Hairy legged.’ ‘Fat.’ ‘Middle aged.’ ‘Scowling.’ ‘Short hair.’ ‘Sensible shoes.’ ‘Big breasts—but the wrong kind.’” She blames that portrayal largely on the media. But she also criticizes feminist leaders for another aspect of their image problem: intolerance. Often, she says, they appear to be armed with a checklist of attitudes to which women must adhere if they wish to join the club: rigidly leftist, pro-abortion, lesbian, anti-male and anti-pornography. She points out that, according to polls, less than half of American women are Democrats, support abortion on demand, or believe that homosexuality is acceptable. American women, she notes, have seven million more votes than men do. And “if women are going to tap their power as the majority,” she writes, “they will have to make alliances at times with other women who hold beliefs that make them want to run screaming for cover.”

Critics have called Wolf unduly optimistic. If feminists forsake ideology, asks a writer in Britain's The Guardian newspaper, “what basic principles will make women identify with each other? Why on earth should any woman who gets on feel it her duty to encourage other women?”

Another point: as long as women believe in equality, does it really matter whether they call themselves “feminists” or not? In response, Wolf said in the interview that the spontaneous genderquake prompted by the Hill-Thomas hearings could quickly subside if women do not keep up the pressure—“and we're not going to do it without a language we can use to target goals and to organize around.” Wolf adds that, as long as feminism is a dirty word, women will be reluctant to attend meetings, or even to sign a petition for equal pay at work, for fear that they will be associated with the movement's negative connotations. Pressed, she concedes that she is “not a strict constructionist about the ‘F’ word.” Obviously, she says, “the most important issue is to have women feel that they own a political voice across the political spectrum.” In Fire with Fire, Wolf's voice has broadened that spectrum. And although she may not offer the feminist movement the definitive recipe for winning mainstream support, at least she has stirred up the pot.

Robert Scheer (review date 19 December 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Scheer, Robert. “Revolution Betrayed.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (19 December 1993): 1, 8.

[In the following excerpt, Scheer offers an unfavorable assessment of Fire with Fire, describing it as “a breathless, noisy and contradictory tract that substitutes overblown rhetoric for analysis.”]

Are women a class with broad common interests? Does a welfare mother in Watts share a common oppression with a female executive in Beverly Hills that can be addressed by the women's movement? The unexamined assumption of both of these books [Naomi Wolf's Fire with Fire and Barbara Boxer's Strangers in the Senate] is that they do.

On the level of civil rights, both books are obviously correct: It is not difficult to postulate a common stake in equal protection of the law and freedom of opportunity. But now that the women's movement is progressing beyond an agenda centered on comparable pay, an end to harassment and busting glass ceilings, unity is becoming a more elusive goal.

What is the common interest of women in NAFTA, trade unions, the capital gains tax or the death penalty? Such issues, on which women would likely be as divided by economic class as men, were not prominent when the women's movement was weak and the struggle for basic civil rights predominated. Now, however, all that is changing.

We are reminded, by both Naomi Wolf and California's new senator, Barbara Boxer, that the confrontation between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas galvanized women as never before. One obvious consequence was the unprecedented outpouring of support for women candidates in the 1992 election that boosted many of them into office.

Now, though, these victories, along with the election of an avowedly pro-choice and equal rights President, threaten to sap the movement of its sense of urgency and clarity of purpose. While Boxer proclaims “the New Revolution of women in America” and Wolf goes further to state that women are now nothing less than “the ruling class,” neither provides much in the way of an expanded agenda beyond pro-choice and gender equality issues.

Both authors report that money from more affluent women made the '92 electoral victories possible, but will these women embrace the cause of the tens of millions of “sisters” who are living in poverty? Boxer, in her effervescent liberal enthusiasm, assumes they will, because women are assumed to be genetically progressive. But Wolf's advocacy of a new “power feminism” suggests otherwise.

If I understand correctly the notion of “flexible power feminism” in Wolf's Fire with Fire, the cause of poorer women should not be championed, for a feminist battle to stop the cuts in welfare payments would once again portray women as victims.

The model Wolf offers instead is the Ms. Foundation-sponsored “Take Our Daughters to Work Day,” which she holds up as “a perfect example of flexible power feminism. It positions no one as a victim.”

But welfare mothers and their children are victims. Last year, while Wolf was book-touring California, there was a ballot initiative to cut the miserable pittance those families receive by 25٪. Wolf ignores that issue but devotes a considerable amount of outrage to the “Naked Guy” case of a Berkeley student who walked around campus in the nude until the complaints of many, including some female students, pressured the university to institute some minimal clothing requirement. This from an author who cannot contain herself from lecturing others about their misplaced priorities.

The one chapter that does deal with the economic struggles of working women is predictably set not in a factory or a huge service facility but at Yale. Wolf movingly details the ways in which the university's clerical workers organized, maintained solidarity and eventually won. But is this really a “New Revolution”? How the strike differed from those my mother joined during her 45 years as a garment worker eludes me.

What happens when power feminists are on opposite sides, as when those female immigrant rights organizers thought Zoe Baird should have paid her Peruvian nanny more? Wolf acknowledges such questions, but she denies that they matter: “We are maturing into the understanding that women of different classes, races, and sexualities have different, and often competing, agendas. Those conflicts should not be a source of guilt to us. They do not represent the breakdown of sisterhood. In the fullness of diversity, they represent its triumph.”

Sounds good, but it ignores a central paradox of our time. Despite the fact that the gender gap in power and income is slowly but surely closing, the divisions between rich and poor have risen sharply. And an alarmingly disproportionate percentage of the poor are women and children.

Fire with Fire is a breathless, noisy and contradictory tract that substitutes overblown rhetoric for analysis. For example, Wolf opens with the claim that the Senate Judiciary Committee's treatment of Anita Hill “set in motion a train of events that led American women into becoming the political ruling class—probably the only ruling class ever to be unaware of its status.”

With that whopper of a sound bite in the introduction, you would think there is no need to read the rest of the book, which is largely a hectoring how-to manual on the transformation of “victim feminists” into “power feminists.” Why bother? If women are already the ruling class and they got there through the example of Anita Hill, an obvious victim, why change tactics?

The answer is obvious; while it made for terrific book-jacket copy, Wolf recognizes that the claim that women have become the political ruling class is plain silly. Her book in its disjointed way provides ample evidence that the women's movement is a long way from achieving the cohesive agreement, let alone the sweeping power, needed to rule.

Wolf tells us that mainstream women feel estranged from the movement's activist core, which she defines as victim-oriented, laced with anti-male and lesbian orientations, and burdened with leftist ideology. She attempts to correct that by staking out an avowedly pro-heterosexual, pro-capitalist, pro-power position.

In doing so, however, Wolf creates a straw woman out of the anti-male and/or ultra-leftist fringe of the women's movement. On the college lecture circuit, it may be controversial for a women to admit, as Wolf does, that “I want men, male care, male sexual attention.” But in the rest of society, Wolf is surely not alone in writing, “I've seen men delirious with affection.”

It is reassuring that Wolf believes there is still a place for heterosexual sex, but I had no idea that any significant number of women disputed this. …

What then is power and whom does it serve? Hopefully, those making the claim that women are taking power are not just speaking of those who are well-educated professionals, businesswomen and others affluent enough to finance candidates. If so, Wolf's “New Ruling Class” would be nothing more than a female replacement of the “Old Ruling Class” of elite white men. Not a few women would call that turn of events a revolution betrayed.

Kio Stark (review date 31 January 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Stark, Kio. “I'm O.K., You're O.K.” Nation (31 January 1994): 137–40.

[In the following excerpt, Stark criticizes what she views as Wolf's lack of concern for socioeconomic disparity and argues that Fire with Fire reflects Wolf's implicit interest in preserving existing power structures.]

Naomi Wolf's Fire with Fire takes its title from the proverb, which is juxtaposed on the opening page with a quote from Audre Lorde: “The Master's tools will never dismantle the Master's house.” Wolf's polemic begins with Anita Hill's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which, she says, marks a major turning point in women's history, one that directly caused “a train of events that led American women into becoming the political ruling class—probably the only ruling class ever to be unaware of its status.” According to Wolf, the only obstacle women as a “class” now face is to recover from their deep-seated insecurities and embrace power and money, sex and beauty. Her motto: Feminism is “easy, fun, and even (forgive me Karl) lucrative.”

In the world according to Wolf, three “obstacles” block the path to a so-called equitable society: “Many women and their movement have become estranged; one strand of feminism has developed maladaptive attitudes; and women lack a psychology of female power to match their new opportunities.” All three are women's very own problems and have absolutely nothing to do with the educational system, informal gender socialization or the larger social and economic order. If women don't earn their equality, “it will be because women on some level have chosen not to exert the power that is our birthright.”

Wolf's conviction that women stand in their own way to power rests on her claim that since 1980 women have outvoted men, and that in the 1992 elections women accounted for 54 percent of the national vote (which itself represents only a fraction of the population). But how much of a difference does it make who's in office when so much of the discrimination and violence that confront women happen in the business and politics of everyday life? A small margin of majority in national elections does not translate into a great stride toward equality for all humans. Wolf tells us that “when women voters get enough political clout and use it, politicians will have to do their bidding, whether sincerely or not.” Undeniably, women and families would get a fairer deal if there were more women among our governing elite, but politicians can't change prejudice. Thirty years after the civil rights movement's greatest legal successes, America remains profoundly racist.

Besides the power of votes, Wolf expects women's money to change the world. “According to the Census Bureau, there are 99,202,000 women in the United States in 1993. … Six dollars from every adult woman would raise $600 million and earn us the political firepower equivalent to twenty-five hundred women leaders,” she reasons. The Census Bureau doesn't have any statistics yet for 1993 (including the ones Wolf cites), but in 1992, 16.3 percent of American women of all races earned incomes below the poverty line. And statistics cannot tell us how many American women have control over their paychecks. Wolf's persistent indifference to women other than those in the professional-managerial middle class proves that she recognizes those women as her constituency (rightly so; they have enough money to buy hardcover books). It also displays her vision of equality and power as sadly exclusive.

Fire with Fire attacks academic and radical feminisms, which Wolf lumps together under the nicknames “club feminism” and “insider feminism.” These categories turn out to encompass anybody who disagrees with her. Like Roiphe, Wolf makes herself out to be a commonsense girl seeking pleasure, battling puritanical and irrational ideologues. Wolf recounts conversations with women all over the country who attend her lectures. They are getting their feminist ideas from mainstream culture (Oprah,Thelma & Louise,Fried Green Tomatoes), she says, and like her, these women feel that those irrational pedants who appear in small groups at Wolf's talks, hurling anti-capitalist epithets and smug disapproval, have nothing to offer them. The funny thing is, while Wolf narrates arguments with such unreasonable women (obviously) in her own favor, Ms. magazine recently printed a conversation among Wolf, Urvashi Vaid, bell hooks and Gloria Steinem that contradicts Wolf's tales. In the transcript, Wolf egregiously argues with her own straw women, inserting her own catch phrases and issues, not really responding to what is actually under discussion, until Vaid and hooks (“insider” feminists, in Wolf's term) ask, “I wonder, Naomi, who are the women you are talking to?” Vaid means, Who are your audiences?, but her question applies equally to their own conversation.

Following her pop psychology, Wolf insists women must claim their dark side. She discusses how young girls are socialized out of their animalistic, self-centered, aggressive behaviors quite early (based heavily on her memories of an empowered childhood), while boys are indulged in their tendencies. Wolf takes issue with the idea, currently identified with Deborah Tannen and Carol Gilligan, that men and women have fundamentally different ways of acting in the world. She advocates a “power feminism,” asserting that (middle-class) women should use their money, their votes and their inner nature (as aggressive as men's) to play equally in the arena of power. She says this is not a call to be “like men” but to “[lay] claim to our humanity, all of it, not just the scenic parts.”

Wolf traces two separate histories of feminism, the “victim” school, whose beginning she locates in nineteenth-century morally superior separate-spheres reformism, and early “power feminism,” which includes the Seneca Falls convention. Rather than recognize that from their earliest stirrings, women's campaigns to gain independence, respect and cultural power have been varied and diverse (as they remain today), Wolf constructs a good parent/bad parent dichotomy. But another way to characterize differences in feminisms is to distinguish between the quest to gain a place in the male power structure and efforts by women to change that structure to a more humane and communal society. Wolf's conception of power, which includes money and an electoral majority, leaves out culture and ideology. Wolf argues with Audre Lorde, saying, “It is only the master's tools [the electoral process, the press and money] that can dismantle the master's house; he hardly bothers to notice anyone else's.” But Wolf isn't talking about dismantling at all, she just wants to occupy that house. And she wants the master('s) bedroom.

Roiphe and Wolf share room in the master's house because the foundation of both writers' arguments is the self-help-style conviction that women are actually powerful in the world, that if women will just wake up and act like winners, all the supposed obstacles will crumble. Both envision a “natural order” that is structurally unchanged from today's power relations. Consider whose interest is served when Roiphe and Wolf (“one of the best-known feminists in the country,” according to Newsweek) constitute feminism in the media's eye. In claiming that things are basically O.K. and that women should just fight harder, Wolf and Roiphe collude with the social order that the women's movement historically threatens. Feminism in the past ten years has increasingly come to focus on women as victims—of rape, abuse, battering, incest, harassment. This focus has met argument from many fronts. While the left critique acknowledges women's oppression but asserts that male sexuality itself is not the source of oppression, the liberal response insists that women are not victims at all. Like good liberals, Roiphe and Wolf present critiques that support rather than subvert the existing power structure.

At a time when much of the organized women's movement has elected to speak the academy's cryptic language, Roiphe and Wolf's brand of feminism sells. In a world of real complexity, they have the talent (or handicap) of making things deathly simple. But we should emulate their commitment to communicate accessibly. We must learn, as Stuart Hall says, to shape culture and educate desire, since “politics is either conducted ideologically, or not at all.” We need a popular feminism that seizes on the contradictions in women's lived lives to reconstitute common sense, not writers like Roiphe and Wolf who reproduce its ideological givens.

Lesley Hazleton (review date February 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Hazleton, Lesley. “Power Politics.” Women's Review of Books 11, no. 5 (February 1994): 1, 3–4.

[In the following review, Hazleton offers a favorable assessment of Fire with Fire.]

Naomi Wolf's brand of feminism is full of energy. It includes laughter, and mischief, and a brash, cleansing honesty. It flexes its muscles and gets women out into the world, not asking but demanding, not self-pitying but doing.

A much better and far more important book than Wolf's best-selling The Beauty Myth,Fire with Fire incorporates two clarion calls. The first is for feminism to re-contact its power base: women. All women. Not just those women who support every tenet of an ideologically pure feminism, but every woman everywhere who is interested in equal rights, without any litmus test on specific issues such as abortion, pornography, sexuality, or political affiliation. The second call is for women to learn the ways of economic and political power, and to wield that power effectively to foster women's interests. Wolf calls this “power feminism.”

The need for the first call is clear if you have roamed any distance beyond the corridors of academe in the past few years. All through this country, women in politics, in business, in the professions, in the military, in blue-collar and pink-collar jobs, are living lives of what I call “applied feminism,” entering previously male-dominated or even male-exclusive fields in unprecedented numbers. They are out for financial, political and social equality, they get a huge kick out of both their own and other women's power, and yet even as they talk a fiery brand of feminism, they say, almost down to the last woman: “But of course I'm not a feminist …”

“Of course”? What's happening here? How could any self-respecting woman identify herself as anything other than a feminist? How did women become so alienated from their own movement?

Clearly, says Wolf, the backlash stereotyping of feminism in the media has much to do with it. Afraid of being labeled extremist man-haters, most women endorsed the general goals of feminism, yet shied away from the women's movement. But not everything can be blamed on the backlash. Many feminists, particularly on college campuses, played into the trap, retreating under the assault into an exclusionist “insider feminism” with left-wing orthodoxies on issues from abortion to gay rights, the military and the environment. Yet women who disagree with this kind of feminism, Wolf argues, may be none the less feminist for that: “Many millions of conservative and Republican women hold fierce beliefs about opportunity for women, self-determination, ownership of business, and individualism; these must be respected as a right-wing version of feminism.”

If “right-wing feminism” sounds like an oxymoron, we need to think seriously about why, says Wolf. “We wonder why so many women are alienated from feminism when we say ‘Okay, we're for women's rights, but only the rights of those women who agree with us,’” she told me recently when we got together to discuss the new book. “But women's lives are immensely complicated, and it is ultimately sexist or reactionary to pretend all women have to agree in order to participate in the political process. I think women's rights are much better secured when women across the political spectrum are mobilized into the discussion. Elizabeth Dole's ideas on how to raise the status of women are different from my liberal-humanist ideas, but I'd be shortchanging us all by saying that only my views are legitimate and hers are not.”

Yes, Naomi Wolf is a populist, and a pragmatist. And the real subject of this book is political power and how to get it by wielding the financial power that women already have. It's a fascinating practical guide to how the two kinds of power are intertwined, written by someone who, as first a student at Yale and then a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, had the opportunity to observe the workings of power from the inside.

Take, for instance, last fall's strike at American Airlines by its flight attendants, which Wolf calls a perfect example of “unlabeled power feminism.” The issue was not money, but power: the right to negotiate as real players in the corporation. The women knew it; the management knew it. The strikers planned well, learning from the mistakes of the failed TWA attendants' strike of some years back, and emerged successful.

Imagine, though, if President Clinton had not intervened. In that situation, what if women throughout the country had boycotted American until it sat down to negotiate with the attendants, using women's economic power to bring management to the bargaining table? What if women began to boycott all airlines with a bad hiring record on women pilots, for example? It's not hard to see how quickly the airlines would see the light, out of pure economic self-interest. That may not be pretty, but it is politics, it is effective, and it is real life.

This is the way Fire with Fire gets you thinking. You get a sense of the possible. What if we were to call any phone company contributing to Packwood's defense fund and say “Cancel my account and here's why”? What if we were to place alumnae contributions in escrow until colleges adopted equal hiring practices or harassment policies? What, in other words, if we started to play hardball?

“The status quo is not subtle,” Wolf writes. “The only language it understands is that of money, votes, and public embarrassment.” This, she points out, is the way democracy works in this country. Well used, it can be a radical system, and a means for radical change. In fact she sees feminism as “at heart the logical extension of democracy.”

All this will not sit at all well with those who argue that women occupy a higher moral ground than men. This has always struck me as a strange argument, based as it is on the classic, rather Victorian stereotype of women as pure, gentle, peaceful, cooperative creatures who would rather bend than fight. Observations of girls playing together may say much about social conditioning, and even perhaps about selective vision on the part of the observers. But nothing as to some essential feminine nature with a special claim to purity.

Wolf quotes liberally from some of the murkier reaches of self-styled ecofeminism, which she says “longs for an Amazonia ruled by Miss Manners”; she concludes that

the current split, fashionable in parts of the progressive community, into male-evil-sexually-exploitive-rational-linear-dominating-combative-tyrannical on one hand, and female-natural-nurturing-consensus-building-healing-intuitive-aggressionless-egoless-spirit-of-the-glades on the other, belies the evidence of history and contemporary statistical reality. It denies the full humanity of women and men. And it re-creates a new version of the old female stereotype that discourages women from appropriating the power of the political and financial world …

(pp. 148–149)

Instead, she urges women to abandon this ivory tower (or gladed nest) and get down and dirty: get onto the political floor, engage in battle, fight as hard and as mean as we have to, and claim victory.

None of this, Wolf stresses, is to belittle the importance of compassion; it is to argue for leavening compassion with worldliness. Some current strands of feminism identify so strongly with suffering that they sound more like nuns preaching the lives of saints than a radical movement for women's rights. Bad enough to see women being defined as victims on evening television shows, stalked and strangled; even worse to see feminists adopting that definition and making it into a raison d'être.

At a bare-walled, bare-light-bulb rape crisis center where she worked for two years, Wolf found that

any attempt to lessen the physical sadness of the place was met with strong resistance as being somehow unfeminist, unworthy … The shabbiness of the center reinforced the “moral” of the rape: You were made to feel like nothing by the crime; now come try to recover in a place where we treat ourselves like nothing, too. …

Suffering a collapse because you had gone on the phone lines without relief (though it was available) for days at a time was admired, but going out to educate police officers and hospital workers, who were actually eager to be trained, conferred little status. It even bore a disreputable whiff of self-promotion. Self-prostration was our theme song.

(pp. 153, 156)

This embrace and even creation of marginality, Wolf maintains, distorts reality. “It's no longer historically accurate,” she told me, “in fact it's actively self-destructive, to cling to a world view that sees us as marginalized when we're the people that elected the first pro-feminist administration in history. Making a glamorous identity out of marginalization only flies in the face of history, and is a huge stumbling block.”

Women are no longer powerless, she argues. Though we do have a few problems with power:

Women underestimate their own power while men do not underestimate women's power; women have trouble seeing themselves as powerful aggressors, even when they are. The backlash is an eminently reasonable, if intolerable, reaction to a massive and real threat. We are not simply experiencing a “war against women” in which women are unthreatening victims. Rather, we are in the midst of a civil war over gender, in which there is not one side waging battle but two, unevenly matched though they may be.

(p. 11)

This is also, then, a war against men, because men are not just being asked to share power, but “are being forcibly pressed to yield it.”

The only way 51 percent of the population can claim its due is by getting out there and taking it, says Wolf. Power feminism “means taking practical giant steps instead of ideologically pure baby steps.” It “encourages us to identify with each other primarily through the shared pleasures and strengths of femaleness, rather than primarily through our shared vulnerability and pain.” It “calls for alliances based on economic self-interest and economic giving back rather than on a sentimental and unworkable fantasy of cosmic sisterhood.”

Strong words, even painful ones, and nobody knows that better than Wolf, who wrote them with considerable pain, giving voice to doubts and questions that many of us have felt over the past decade, but have not had the heart, let alone the courage, to voice out loud. Yet by keeping our counsel, far from furthering the interests of feminism, we may well have damaged them.

Understandably, Fire with Fire has touched off some very raw nerves within the ranks of the feminist movement. Yet most of the reaction has been not to its content, but to its style. I hear academic feminists criticizing it as “journalistic,” by which I gather they mean by this that it is too accessible, as though brilliance lay only in incomprehensibility, and intellectual respectability in as limited as audience as possible. You may well wince at such phrases as “the genderquake,” and long for more rigorous analysis on Wolf's part, but then it's the old problem: you can have purity, or you can have a wide reach. For clear political reasons, Wolf has chosen the latter. And from the way I hear “unlabeled feminists” talking about the book—“it's the first time I feel that a feminist has really talked to me,” said an advertising executive in Detroit—she made the right choice.

Meanwhile, Wolf has been under attack from both the Left and the Right. The Village Voice and The National Review actually joined hands in accusing her of creating a warm and fuzzy feminism instead of a suitably bleak one, and joined in the peculiar argument that since Wolf had made money out of her first book, she had forfeited the right to argue that other women might want to have money. (Wolf should consider this combined attack by the Right and Left a compliment: I have found in the past that when both extremes get exercised about something I've written, I've probably got it right.)

The worst criticism I would level at Wolf is over-optimism. I am far from convinced we are in “the final throes of civil war for gender fairness.” In fact I'd say we're somewhere right in the middle. But I'm not about to argue with what is, of necessity, a judgment call. Pessimism drains energy: optimism creates it. And what we need now, above all else, is renewed energy.

Fire with Fire has that in plenty. This is a book to rejuvenate an ailing feminist heart, to bring light to your eyes, to get you out there in constructive activism again. It argues for a feminism that is tolerant, inclusive and pragmatic, an appealing celebration of strength rather than weakness. And I hope, for all our sakes, that its appeal works.

Clare Collins (review date 25 February 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Collins, Clare. “Genderquakes and Aftershocks.” Commonweal (25 February 1994): 22–23.

[In the following review of Fire with Fire, Collins approves of Wolf's inclusive feminist perspective, but finds shortcomings in the book's generalizations, repetitions, and underlying indifference toward the underclass.]

I was apprehensive about reviewing Naomi Wolf's new feminist treatise. After all, Ms. Wolf not only went to Yale but she became a Rhodes scholar. Besides, I'm not at all versed in feminist literature and have shied away from describing myself as a feminist because I am not adamantly prochoice. The unquestioning acceptance of abortion rights as the cornerstone of the women's rights movement seemed to count me out.

As it turns out, I am exactly the alienated audience for whom Wolf wrote her book. Among other things—many other things—Wolf argues that creating the perception that one's feminist cachet rests on the abortion issue has been the movement's undoing. As she puts it, “While a strong majority of U.S. women passionately endorse the goals of feminism, a large plurality avoids identifying with the movement itself. This estrangement impedes women from attaining the equality that they desire.”

Just a few years ago in her best-selling The Beauty Myth, Wolf, who was a tender twenty-six years old at the time, argued that the major impediment to equality for women was society's obsession with female beauty. Now older and wiser at age thirty, she points the finger of blame not just at external forces but at women themselves who have failed to seize the kind of power that is rightly theirs. Why? Because the feminist movement has lost touch with its constituency, in large part by casting women as victims as well as requiring a uniformity of opinion rather than by focusing on getting more of what's right for women.

Wolf was inspired to write Fire with Fire after the Clarence Thomas hearings. She adorably refers to the reaction among women to Anita Hill's accusation of sexual harassment against the Supreme Court nominee Thomas as a “genderquake,” which blew the lid off years of stifled anger and resentment. Outrage over the hearings led women to raise $6.2-million in campaign funds and elect an unprecedented twenty-five women to national political office. In this case, Wolf theorizes, timing was everything. The kind of debasement Anita Hill talked about was nothing new for women. “Rather, it was that male power eroded as the distribution of power into some women's hands reached critical mass,” Wolf contends.

I do appreciate what Wolf has to say, especially her mission to create a brand of feminism that embraces all women. But there is still much work to be done toward creating an equal powerbase for women, and unfortunately Wolf becomes bogged down in statistical description when trying to make her arguments. After slogging through 353 pages, I'm not sure her material merits a book-length treatment. The same points are made over and over again, as if Wolf couldn't resist the need to drive home her theories with yet one more example. The breezy writing style, rife with generalizations and catch-phrases (the terms “gender apartheid” and the tremulous “genderquake” come to mind) reads like an extended magazine article. In fact, several excerpts from Fire with Fire appeared in Glamour magazine. Wolf even employs a favorite editorial device of women's magazines: the bulleted how-to piece, providing tips on how to implement her strategies. In a section titled “Psychological Strategies” for choosing the status of powerbroker over victim, she makes the following gratuitous recommendations: “Avoid generalizations about men that are totalizing: that is, that do not admit exceptions.” And, “Visualize having the power we seek; then imagine the very worst thing that will happen if we attain it. Does it destroy us? Or do we survive and have a good time?” [Emphasis mine.] And here is my personal favorite: “Remember and take possession of the girlhood will to power and fantasies of grandeur.” She must be referring to my childhood dream of becoming Miss America.

Wolf's own tendency toward sweeping generalizations does little to strengthen her credibility. Although the book jacket tells me Wolf was schooled in New Haven and Oxford and lectures frequently on women's issues, what informs her theories or what kind of solid research her conclusions are based on remains a mystery. Take Wolf's assertion about rape: “The judicial system unofficially maintains a spectrum of female guilt that determines whose hurt matters and whose hurt does not. The rape of a prostitute is fairly meaningless; the rape of a divorced working mother who drinks is slightly more serious; the rape of a churchgoing housewife, more serious still; and the rape of a nun may even matter.” This might be true, but upon what verifiable evidence is such a charge based? A study of actual cases? A cursory reading of newspaper accounts? At the very least, such unsubstantiated generalizations are aggravating. At worst, they may be seriously misleading. Rape, as women have long known, is a notoriously hard crime to prove in any adversarial court proceeding.

At times, Wolf lapses into anecdotal, first-person accounts to illustrate a point. These actually come as a welcome relief from the polemics, helping her writing to become what she might describe as “reader friendly.” And I especially welcomed Wolf's willingness to talk about her decidedly unclear views on abortion, since that is the cause of my own estrangement from feminism. “My friends will tell you that I am sometimes spacy beyond belief,” she writes, providing an amusing list to back up that claim. Yet, Wolf says, not once has she neglected to use birth control. “It feels as if some dark part of my brain is saying … This is a matter of life and death.” She hastens to add she would never judge anyone else's decision to have an abortion. Yet, “For me, the other side of having reproductive rights is taking reproductive responsibility.”

In the end, Wolf's philosophy comes down to this: For women to enjoy true equality they must usurp the economic stranglehold of men. Certainly this is true, at least in one sense. However, I can't help but think that the very audience who needs this message the most, the poor and disenfranchised, is least likely to benefit from Wolf's brand of feminism with a smiling but still elitist face.

Karen Lehrman (review date 14 March 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Lehrman, Karen. “Women's Hour.” New Republic (14 March 1994): 40–45.

[In the following review of Fire with Fire, Lehrman finds flaws in Wolf's contradictory feminist positions and trivial self-help pragmatism.]

Underlying nearly all the commentary on relations between the sexes these days is the notion that we have entered a period of unprecedented contradiction and confusion. A president devoted to equal rights for women now resides in the White House, along side a First Lady who seems to personify those rights; twenty-eight new female members of Congress have helped press legislation concerning women's health and family issues that had been languishing for years; and in the corporate world, women have been steadily amassing in numbers and rising in status. Meanwhile, what is variously called a gender war, a war against women or a war against masculinity, is supposed to be raging. Issues such as sexual harassment and date rape are allegedly creating a deep and permanent rift between the sexes; women purportedly cheer Lorena Bobbit; and men are characterized as belligerent or beleaguered, full of defensiveness and fear. A sense of hopelessness prevails.

Not coincidentally, the role of the women's movement, and the popular understanding of feminism, also seem caught in contradiction. Among organized activists and theorists who claim to speak for women and feminism, changing gender roles are typically viewed as part of an ongoing political crisis, and the usual solution that they envisage is to legislate and to enforce behavior. At the same time, orthodox feminist perspectives and policies are increasingly under attack, exposed as out of touch with the attitudes of many—in fact, most—women. Camille Paglia, Jean Bethke Elshtain and Wendy Kaminer, among others, have all criticized the movement's growing inclination toward puritanism, ideological litmus tests and victim-oriented rhetoric and policies.

Naomi Wolf has set out to clear up the confusion. In her new book [Fire with Fire], she demands a new and improved brand of feminism: “power feminism,” she calls it. Such a feminism would enable women to make strides personally and politically and to bridge the gap between women and their movement. By encompassing men, moreover, it would heal the rift between the sexes. “There is nothing wrong with identifying one's victimization,” she argues, which is precisely what she did in her first book, The Beauty Myth, an indictment of “male-dominated institutions” for inciting a “violent backlash” against feminism, using “images of female beauty as a political weapon against women's advancement.” But now Wolf announces her readiness to move on, to indict “victim feminism” for saddling women with an “identity of powerlessness”: “There is a lot wrong with molding [one's victimization] into an identity.”

Wolf locates the roots of “victim feminism” in the middle of the nineteenth century, when a number of activists believed that women were not only different from men, but also better than men. Women should have power, the argument went, owing to their special virtues, to their tendency to be more nurturing, more compassionate and more ethical than men. This “Angel in the House” mentality has had a long and fruitful life within feminism: many suffragists used it to help get women the vote, and it has now turned up among so-called “difference feminists.” Wolf argues that viewing competition, ambition and aggression as not only innately male, but also as inherently evil, undermines women's quest for autonomy and self-determination.

But Wolf aims her criticism at more than just the rhetoric that portrays women as passive and helpless. She also denounces the feminist movement's ideological rigidity, its bias against sex, money, beauty, power, hierarchy, leadership, men and dissent: “If in order to be called a feminist one must be ecologically sound, pro-choice, anti-militarist, left-wing and convinced of Anita Hill's veracity, then feminism has ensured its helpless status as a perpetual minority party.” Wolf criticizes what she calls “insider feminism” for its “tyranny of the group perspective.” She describes lecture audiences in which men are “reviled, ridiculed or attacked for no better reason than the fact of their gender”; meetings in which little gets accomplished because no one will take a firm stand; organizations forced to close because of a more-oppressed-the-better culture. The ideal of political sisterhood is “problematic”: “Happily, we are too diverse, our numbers too great and our relationships with one another, properly, too complex and impersonal now for this model of female connectedness to do its job.”

Wolf's “power feminism,” by contrast, celebrates individualism, autonomy, personal responsibility and meritocracy. “Feminism means freedom, and freedom must exist inside our heads before it can exist anywhere else,” Wolf writes. “Saying I am a feminist should be like saying I am a human being.” The roots of power feminism, she believes, can also be found in the nineteenth century, among such leaders as Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. In contrast to “victim feminism,” the more individualistic variety has generally celebrated female sexuality, valued intellectual freedom and reason and refused to ask for special favors. It has also included men.

Inverting the poet Audre Lorde's famous line, Wolf's motto is that “it is only the master's tools that can dismantle the master's house.” Don't sit on the margins and talk in jargon about how oppressed women are, or how powerful the patriarchy is. Use money, use the media, use the political system to create change. She acknowledges that women who are not immersed in feminist theory have done a much better job at this than many activists. And heretically she insists on the progress that women have already made: “We tend to talk about these obstacles [discrimination, domestic violence and so on] as if they were insurmountable, as if we lived under a fascist state in which women can neither earn money nor vote.”

Wolf's individualistic criticism of contemporary feminism is not new. Paglia, Elshtain and others have been making similar criticisms for the past several years, for the most part futilely. But this is the first time that the criticism is being offered by a self-described “insider” feminist. And such a perestroika, especially in the hands of a media favorite such as Wolf, would mark a real and important watershed—except that the revolt from within never quite happens. Wolf ably uses the language of individualism to make her case, but her reasoning finally falls into line with the traditional collectivist mentality of the contemporary women's movement. Rather than successfully breaching the sexual rift. Wolf has produced a document that reflects the reigning confusion.

Her central point is that the women's movement should now be seen as a big tent open to all kinds of women, that individual feminists should feel free to exercise their own “line-item veto.” At the same time, however, she maintains that women must seize “power” with a “concerted, unified effort.” What remains unclear is which women, exactly, Wolf is referring to. Depending on which page you read, the answer is either all women or women who best represent “women's needs.” And how will this power “change the twenty-first century,” as Wolf's subtitle says? Again, it depends on the page. It may produce more justice and fairness, or it may not.

Throughout her book Wolf refers to a “woman's point of view” and to “women's wishes,” and describes how a “political ruling class” would bring the “female side” into politics: “If women were to harness the power of their majority, they would be hard to obstruct”; “We can only [move out of victimization] by uniting toward more power”; “When women have money, the opposition has no choice but to listen.” She talks endlessly about getting more voices of women into the media, though the voices of such women as Jeane Kirkpatrick and Margaret Thatcher are perfunctorily discounted.

This is still very much the traditional “insider” view, in which women are seen as part of a monolithic gender, a sisterhood, with essentially one set of opinions and values, with essentially, well, an essence. While the notion of multiculturalism pushed the feminist establishment to take note of the fact that women have different experiences, it is still assumed that all women have the same (leftist) political views. This perspective holds sway in the discourse of most feminist activists; in most women's studies courses; in the National Organization for Women's conception of a new “woman's party” and support of legislation mandating that Congress and corporate boards be at least 50 percent female; in the desire to mobilize young women (though not young men) for a Third Wave of feminist activism. Wolf says that she seeks “gender parity”—women representing their rightful 51 percent in Congress—by the year 2000, and she supports the British Labour Party's resolution that “women must represent the party at the next general election in 50 percent of its target seats,” and Norway's Equal Status Act, which ensures that at least 40 percent of all public boards be composed of women.

According to surveys, women voters do tend to support a slightly greater role for government in domestic affairs than do men, and a lesser role for the military. But that hardly translates into a “woman's political voice.” Indeed, women voted to elect Bill Clinton by only a slightly higher percentage than men (45 percent compared to 41 percent); and that gender gap was actually smaller than in 1988. There is no question that, at this time, female lawmakers are going to give greater priority to “family” issues, as well as to issues concerning women's health. As the primary caretakers, women still retain more interest—and they may still claim greater experience—in these matters. Implicit in Wolf's argument, however, is the expectation that only women can solve these problems, and that they would all offer the same solutions.

At another point, though, Wolf writes: “The right question to ask is simply how to get more power into women's hands—whoever they may be, whatever they may do with it.” In truth, that is exactly the wrong question to be asking at this time. We shouldn't be putting women in office just because they are women. We—women and men—should vote for women only if they are qualified and only if they suit us, the same standards that we apply to male candidates. Of course, we should applaud the fact that increasing numbers of women have chosen to run for office, for the same reason that we should applaud any breakdown of stereotypes. But the achievement of true equality requires that the focus remain on ideas and merit, not on gender and results. Though it comes masked as a call for giving women of all ideological hues “power,” the underlying assumption of proportional representation, of bean-counting, is still that women are, in matters of politics, interchangeable.

Both types of gender-first thinking ultimately undermined the campaigns of women candidates in 1992. Many ran on their gender: vote for me because I am a woman. This soon translated into: don't vote for me and you are a sexist. Qualifications were typically downplayed in favor of the putative benefit of gaining women's special political views or virtues. This affirmative action in electoral politics has produced the phenomenon of Carol Moseley Braun, who is now considered the most powerful freshman senator, despite her numerous ethical lapses and her lack of any real accomplishments.

The same sort of contradictions characterize Wolf's criticism of the movement's orientation toward the victim. Distinguishing herself from other critics who have pejoratively used the term “victim feminism,” Wolf explicitly endorses the “act of documenting the way others are trying to victimize women.” This, she claims, “is the very opposite of treating women as natural victims. … The point of exposing the information is that women deserve to decide such cases for themselves.” Wolf is obviously right, to a degree: there is nothing wrong with documenting the very real dangers that women still face, and she appropriately chastises Katie Roiphe's The Morning After, which derides the extremism of “rape crisis feminists,” for its self-consciously blasé position. Rape is plainly an issue in need of more scrutiny. Many women and jurists still don't believe that you can be raped by someone you know, or if you dress a certain way; rape remains the most underreported crime; the system still sends far too few rapists to prison; recidivism is higher among rapists than among any other type of criminal.

But what Wolf refuses to recognize is the difference between giving an accurate accounting of the problems that women still face and exaggerating or distorting these problems, blaming them entirely on the “patriarchy,” or interpreting all “negative” personal and cultural trends as political issues. It is precisely such reflexive impulses that characterize “victim feminism” at its core, and unfortunately Wolf's second book, like her first, turns out to be an illustration of the genre rather than the exception that it purports to be.

Central to Wolf's argument is the claim that a “genderquake” began in October 1991 with the Anita Hill hearings. After the “genderquake,” all that is good—politically, culturally, professionally, personally—happened to women. Before the “genderquake,” women were endlessly oppressed, especially during the “backlash” of the '80s. The bulk of Fire with Fire is devoted to blaming the “backlash” in general, and the media more specifically, not only for women's problems, but for the movement's problems as well. Indeed, nearly every one of the movement's problems that Wolf bravely identifies, as though in preparation for some painful self-scrutiny, is promptly blamed on an external cause. Impenetrable feminist theories are the fault of the media's blocking all more accessible discussion of women's issues; sexism forces women writers not only to concentrate on “women's issues,” but to write about them from an orthodox perspective; a feminist bookstore is “reluctant” to stock Camille Paglia because of the “stifled debate.” Throughout her book Wolf deploys the facts so that she never has to place too much responsibility on feminists. And she is not beyond outright circular reasoning if it serves that delicate purpose; she maintains that the extremism of “rape crisis” feminists was merely a response to the “trivialization” of the subject in the media, and then supports this by citing media criticism of the extremism.

Casting the blame externally, of course, not only saves Wolf from ostracism by other “insiders,” it also relieves those who are at fault of any reason to change. Not coincidentally, the external forces that she identifies never act alone; they are typically part of some larger conspiracy. In her better moments, Wolf denounces this kind of thinking. Yet she also reports: “If women have an aversion to ‘feminism,’ it is indeed largely the fault, as the Ms. foundation report concludes, of a ‘persistent and expansive campaign on the part of the mass media, the religious right and others’ to discredit the movement.”

Moreover, Wolf fails to see the inherent contradiction of the “backlash” analysis: If there was such an intensive political and cultural effort to oppress women during the '80s, how is it that women were so perfectly poised, as soon as the decade ended, to take the world by storm? Wolf describes the decade as a period in which “a successful anti-feminist drive rolled back women's rights.” Which ones? She never tells us. There is no question that the Justice Department tried to weaken discrimination laws during the Reagan and Bush years, and that abortion rights were nearly eviscerated. Some social conservatives would have liked to do the same to women's right to work outside the home, to have sex before marriage and to use birth control. But they got nowhere close to succeeding. The most common charge—that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stopped fulfilling its enforcement mission during the '80s—obscures an important shift of focus: the EEOC began to place less emphasis on cases based purely on statistical analysis—on quotas—and more on cases alleging tangible patterns and practices of discrimination.

In fact, while Wolf carefully lists all of the progress that women made after October 1991, she neglects to discuss the progress made during the previous decade. There were real advances. The number of women owning small businesses doubled; the number of women in management positions more than doubled; women began earning more bachelor of arts and science degrees than men. Women's earnings went from sixty-four cents for every dollar earned by a man to seventy-two cents, and the figure is even higher for young women (seventy-nine cents). Indeed, women gained more in earnings in the '80s than in the entire postwar era before that. Moreover, many “women's issues” fared well in Congress: among other things, Congress strengthened the system for collecting child support and the law prohibiting sex discrimination in federally funded educational institutions, and substantially increased funding for battered women's shelters. The Supreme Court defined sexual harassment as a form of discrimination, and ruled that gender-based differences in pension plans were illegal. Finally, it was during this period that many of the female candidates of Wolf's “genderquake” climbed their political career ladders.

Wolf's own evidence undermines her cultural backlash argument. She writes that “before the genderquake, women seldom saw images of female victory in mainstream culture,” yet nearly half of her examples of images of “female mastery” are from that period. And what exactly are we supposed to make of the fact that baby doll dresses have been in and out of fashion a couple of times since October 1991? Cultural “signators” can be telling, but they can also be preposterously overinterpreted. While images of strong, independent women are certainly helpful, women do not have a Pavlovian response to “repressive” imagery, as Wolf herself acknowledges later in the book: they have been doing quite well with plenty of it around.

Wolf laments on one page that “media omission of debate on ‘women's issues’ [was] so absolute that it amount[ed] to a virtual news blackout,” but on another page she writes that “women journalists had the stature to recognize and treat the [Anita Hill] charges as news. … Without the women in the media, all these parties could not have linked up in the unstoppable chain reaction that ushered in the new era.” Although Wolf discusses the women's movement's silencing of dissent, she fails to acknowledge that, despite the cracks in the orthodoxy in recent years, this silencing is far more draconian than anything the media has managed. As a result, the mainstream media still typically reflects the established feminist line on issues relating to women.

Even Wolf's discussion of the progress that women have made since the “genderquake” is continually undermined by an inflated view of the problems that women still face. Two paragraphs after she has rightly denounced the notion that women live in a “fascist state,” she declares that women are “harmed and held back in every way.” Throughout her book she seems to find sweeping declarations of structural oppression impossible to resist. “When some feminists and other left-wing activists on campus cut speech short or circumvent due process, they are acting out of despair. But their impatience comes from understanding correctly that ‘the system’ is corrupt.” Or: “Women and other ‘oppressed’ people are differently situated than white men and, therefore, often cannot take possession of their basic rights.” Like many feminist writers, Wolf still seems to suffer from the expectation that an entire revolution should have occurred overnight.

It didn't; but a political and cultural transformation has indisputably taken place, and a major problem now lies in the failure of the women's movement to accommodate to the change. The argument that women, like other minorities, represent an oppressed economic class was an important tool in formulating the two most crucial civil rights laws—the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the employment provision (Title VII) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—and a host of others that prohibited sex bias in help-wanted ads, education and the extension of credit. Changes in protective labor, criminal, divorce and rape laws were also based on this concept, as was the legal recognition of sexual harassment. But as the movement succeeded in obtaining equal rights and opportunities for women throughout the past thirty years, the reliance on the collective, politicized perspective should have grown increasingly weak. Instead, it has become heavier.

This is not to say that the political work is finished. It is not finished. But Wolf, like the “insider” feminists she purports to be improving upon, brings more intellectual confusion and rhetorical extremism than clarity and realism to the work that remains. Some level of discrimination will probably always remain, making the EEOC and watchdog groups always necessary. Although gaps in pay continue to close as women gain education, skills and experience, “glass ceilings” are still ubiquitous. We have not yet reached the point, in short, where employers can look at women only as individuals. But policies such as affirmative action and comparable worth (a.k.a. “pay equity”), which most women's groups still advocate, should be seen to be potentially as counterproductive as political bean-counting. Of course, single motherhood, teen pregnancy and inadequate health care for poor women, as well as family leave and child care, are integral to feminism in its broadest sense. Yet surely these social and economic gnarls are not amenable to any one solution that can be called “feminist.”

The elitist, enthusiastic tone of Wolf's political agenda, which pays little attention to such matters, can be galvanizing. Her book properly belongs to the genre of inspirational literature. Yet it is also distorting, and in the end trivializing. Instead of simply saying that women have to learn to be self-reliant, or urging that they receive training in self-defense, she celebrates gun ownership among women as a sign of progress beyond victimhood, peddling inaccurate statistics put out by pro-gun groups that purport to prove that guns protect against women's victimization. (More reliable figures show that gun ownership correlates with a higher incidence of violence suffered by women.) Instead of simply saying that feminist anger should be better targeted, she writes that activists shouldn't appear so angry all the time: abortion rights activists shouldn't use coat hangers to fight for abortion; rape crisis centers should be made less “gloomy.” (She suggests hanging “a reproduction of Cezanne's apples.”) Her refrain is that “feminism should be fun.”

To be sure, Wolf's peppy insistence that women should go out and take what they want, rather than glumly wait for society to change, is a useful antidote to the beleaguered tone of prevailing feminist rhetoric. “Which feminism should we choose?” Wolf asks at one point. “I submit that we choose the one that works.” But her pragmatism leads her mostly toward networking for the more privileged. Thus she encourages women to form “power groups” to pool their resources and to pass them around to their friends, as men do. Other suggestions promote a tireless quota consciousness: women alumni should stop giving to colleges until they grant women professors tenure at the same rate as men and achieve parity in admissions for women students; women should call 900 numbers to complain about lack of media coverage or, even better, install a “Billboard of Media Mortification” over Times Square. Though her intent is clearly the opposite, ideas such as these come off as cute and condescending to women, and, ultimately, useless.

Unlike Wolf's exhortations to seize the political moment, her call to women to define boldly their own personal moments is often inspiring. As a motivational figure, Wolf has considerable power; she recognizes the hurdles in the way of action, but she also knows how to rouse the energy to confront them. In her list of “Psychological Strategies,” she writes: “Make it socially acceptable for women to discuss their skills and achievements”; “Practice asking for more money, and urge our friends to do so”; “Question the ritual in which we bond with other women by putting down achievers or leaders”; “Create private pantheons … of women, real or mythical, who braved dissent, created controversy, showed leadership and wielded power.”

This kind of personal “empowerment” has now been relegated to the self-help sections of book stores, and insider feminists tend to dismiss it as “blaming the victim.” But it was integral to the consciousness-raising of the late '60s and the early '70s. Unfortunately, by the time women of Wolf's generation (and my own) came of age, it was largely gone from feminist tracts and rhetoric. Many of us could have used this talk. It is far more strengthening than repeatedly hearing how oppressive the patriarchy is.

The same emphasis on personal responsibility informs Wolf's discussion of the issues of date rape and sexual harassment: “I would rather my daughter learned to talk back or yell back or tease back than that she try to grow up in an environment in which a new code of conduct based upon her powerlessness and delicacy hamper her and ‘protect’ her like invisible stays and petticoats.” Indeed, at times Wolf comes heretically close to saying that what is needed is a depoliticization of sexual relations: “What do we do when we find that even after all of that heightened consciousness, there is a desire—not for violence—but still for the play of pursued and pursuer, possessor and possessed?” She adds that “these longings to have the other and to give oneself are not political, not imprints of the evil patriarchy contaminating even our most secret dreams.”

To emphasize this point, Wolf boldly personalizes her anti-puritanical message. At times, though, her writing on this delicate subject sounds more like exhibitionism than exhortation. Instead of simply saying that most men are not rapists, that desiring and loving men should not be viewed as politically incorrect, that sexual autonomy is essential to women's sense of self-worth, Wolf has continuously offered readers details of her own sex life, as though her example—and her lack of inhibition—points the way to happiness. (“I have seen the word ‘love’ trigger an erection”; “I have done abject deeds for sexual passion”; and so on.) To be fair, this sort of strident sexual confessionalism seems to be part of a trend. Esquire recently ran a profile of Wolf and other “do me” feminists who argue, correctly, that women can now have enough control over their sexuality to write their own social rules. These feminists have decided to use sexual exploitation constructively. At the same time, unfortunately, they all try to outdo each other in discussing sex in the most vulgar terms. This exhibitionism is a long way from liberation or empowerment; in-your-face sexuality displays as much insecurity as the repressed kind.

In general, Wolf's personal strategic compass often makes her “power feminism” look uncomfortably like mere celebrity feminism. She possesses an uncanny ability to discern the zeitgeist on feminist issues and to accommodate herself accordingly. Given the nature of the media, of book publishing and of her own mediagenic person, to some degree this is inevitable. And given her motivational capabilities, this might be applauded, except that this, too, is undermined by her intellectual inconsistencies. On the one hand, for example, she tells feminists that they must use “seductiveness” in the process of “mastering the media” and is not sparing with alluring photographs of herself. On the other hand, one of those shots recently accompanied a piece in Mirabella in which she calls images of beautiful and “sexually perfect” women repressive.

It is equally unfortunate that Wolf doesn't follow her individualistic rhetoric to its conclusions. That would mean retiring the notion that women represent a homogenous gender, that their personal lives always require political interpretation, that they need to be part of a self-consciously unified “women's movement.” When insider feminists stop clinging to these ideas, real debate will emerge among women. And then perhaps we will discover that women and men are not as polarized on issues of “gender” as it seems, that few individuals of either sex agree with the extreme behavior modification policies now being anxiously adopted by universities, the corporate world and Congress. Feminism, by most accounts, has been a huge success. Now we must all learn to live with it.

Ann Menasche (review date May 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Menasche, Ann. “When Feminism Joins the Establishment.” Off Our Backs 24, no. 5 (May 1994): 9.

[In the following review, Menasche offers an unfavorable assessment of Fire with Fire.]

NEWS FLASH: The backlash against women is over. A “genderquake” represented by the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings and the 1992 elections of Clinton and an increased number of female politicians, has brought us to the brink of the end of patriarchy. Now, all we need to do to make things “increasingly all right” is to “change our self images,” stop “bashing” men, and get over our “fear” of power and money.

If this sounds a bit far fetched to you because lately, like most women everywhere, you've been getting poorer, not richer (maybe you've been laid off from your job, can't get anything but part-time or temporary work at low wages and no benefits; or you have seen your rent and gas bill rise while your welfare check has been cut and you're afraid of ending up on the street), you are sure to find Naomi Wolf's new book, Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century, at best, a disappointment.

Wolf's belief that female psychology is the primary obstacle to women's liberation may hold a grain of truth (we all internalize our oppression), but her emphasis is wrong; it has led her to minimize the structural impediments of discrimination, inequality, and compulsory heterosexuality that continue to deny women our full humanity, and to stress individualistic solutions over collective ones. Thus she greatly simplifies and reduces the tasks ahead of us at a time when militant collective action by women the world over has never been more sorely needed.

Wolf posits two kinds of feminism: “Victim feminism” which is anti-(hetero)sex, anti-male, hostile to individual achievement, and portrays women as helpless victims who are naturally non-competitive, cooperative and peace-loving; and “Power feminism:” which embraces women's “power” and success, a feminism that works safely within the constraints of capitalism and the two party system and is both “lucrative” and “fun.” She dismisses the entire left wing of the women's movement—Marxist-feminists, radical feminists, lesbian-separatists, etc.—by throwing them all into the (bad) “victim feminist” pile, thereby ignoring the tremendous diversity of ideas and approaches they represent, and leaving her only with a conservative “new age” “create your own reality” feminism, one that strives to join the Establishment on the Establishment's terms.

Some of her examples of “Victim feminism” are indeed excesses; others are nothing of the kind. On certain subjects she approaches the women-blaming views of Kate Roiphe and Camille Paglia. For example, she criticizes as “Victorian” the policy of Take Back the Night Marches that exclude men; she disagrees with women who focus on the victimization of battered woman Hedda Nussbaum; and she believes advocates against sexual harassment have gone too far by attempting to define unwanted sexual comments and gestures in schools or by co-workers in the work place as “harassment.”

Perhaps more disturbing is Wolf's rejection of what she terms “litmus tests” in her definition of feminism. Two “litmus tests” she throws out without blinking an eye are support for abortion rights, and support for lesbian rights. A feminist, in her view, is any woman who deems to be powerful, a definition that would include Margaret Thatcher, Sandra Day O'Connor, Mother Teresa and even “Feminists for Life” (a group she believes should be welcomed at campus women's centers.) Wolf, though pro-choice, is ambivalent and apologetic about abortion, granting legitimacy to the view that abortion is “violence against women” and “killing.”

Likewise, Wolf claims to support lesbian and gay rights, yet has no real understanding of how the heterosexual institution oppresses and limits all women, nor how the embrace of lesbian issues by the women's movement is absolutely essential for women's liberation to be achieved. Instead, she touts heterosexual relations as mystically leading to “greater knowledge of self,” while adapting to homophobia (and anti-abortion sentiment) in a “get rich quick” scheme to win women to the feminist label even as she reduces that label to virtual meaninglessness.

Wolf's repeated references to “male-bashing” in a world where it is still the case that men, not women, do most of the attacking (clearly women are not beating, raping, and murdering men in epidemic proportions, as is true with male violence against women) shows that she either truly believes that we are on the precipice of liberation and there is a real risk that we will use our newly acquired power to turn around and oppress men, or, more likely, she knows that success in a man's world requires women to temper our anger, as well as our vision.

For what is most lacking in this book is vision. Wolf believes it is impossible to create forms of egalitarianism that do not squelch individual autonomy, leadership, and self-development. At the same time, she believes that women can end discrimination against our sex, can end patriarchy, while we continue to live in a society of rich and poor, exploited and exploiter. I think she is wrong on both counts. Any feminism worthy of the name must champion the most oppressed among us, not because women are helpless victims, but because in creating solidarity among women, in forging sisterhood in struggle against injustice, there is a power that cannot be ignored. And I'll take that any day over Wolf's “power groups.”

Jeremy Waldron (review date 3 June 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Waldron, Jeremy. “Take These Chains.” Times Literary Supplement (3 June 1994): 4.

[In the following review of Fire with Fire, Waldron approves of Wolf's candor and accessibility, but finds faults in the book's simplistic dichotomies and unconvincing anecdotal evidence.]

Naomi Wolf's first book, The Beauty Myth, was a remarkable piece of work: a bitter and compelling argument about the way in which the freedom that women are winning is poisoned by the culture of idealized physical beauty. Wolf's account of the social and psychological consequences of this insinuation was packed with insight. She traced the terror of ageing, the pathology of diet and hunger, the tyranny of glamour, the intrusion of a “beauty qualification” into professional life, the competitiveness, resentment and loneliness that a preoccupation with physical appearance engenders among women, and the dark, dangerous role of beauty's imagery in our modern cults of violence and sex.

Her new book, Fire with Fire, is not only written by, but in large part written about, the author of The Beauty Myth. It addresses the relation between feminism and money, pleasure and power; and for that theme Wolf's success with the earlier book is an almost perfect case study. Wolf tells us, for example, that the royalties she received from The Beauty Myth were initially threatening to a sense of self that had always been bound up with guilt and ambivalence about money. “If I was no longer so actively deprived, I was no longer virtuous. The cheque was a phantom presence disrupting my sense of where I stood in the world. It felt defeminizing, like a mark of maleness stigmatizing me.”

It wasn't just the money, it was also the glamour and the influence that came with success. When a young woman student told Wolf matter-of-factly that she had power and talked about the way she should use it, her first response, Wolf writes, was to say “Ha!” and point out all the ways this wasn't true.

But as I began that ultra feminine, deeply conditioned deflection, I had a dizzying flash of memory: how powerful, how masterful older women had seemed to me when I was in my teens. I stopped in mid-sentence, and began to rethink my power-shy reflexes.

Fire with Fire is the upshot of that rethinking: an upbeat, fashionable manifesto for what Wolf calls “power-feminism,” and a rejection of the “victim-feminism” that she thinks has for too long disfigured the posture, psychology and politics of the women's movement. Power-feminism, for Wolf, is feminism that smells victory, and is intoxicated by the scent. Its basic goals are simple enough. Women matter as much as men do. Women have the right to determine their lives and to tell the truth about their experiences. Women should not be deprived of power simply because they are women; and once they have power, they should use it—each woman should use it—for whatever purpose she pleases. The theme of the book is not equality or equal representation: Wolf delights in reminding her readers that the ratio of men to women in most Western societies is forty-nine to fifty-one and likely to remain that way. Since there are seven million more women of voting age than men in the United States of America, “what is the point of settling for equality when the advantage of our numbers makes us the single strongest force on earth?”

No doubt many of the goals proclaimed by those whom Wolf labels victim-feminists—lesbian separatism, for example—are much more radical and ambitious than this. The difference really has to do with attitude and strategy. Feminism becomes power-feminism, according to Wolf, when women begin to exult in the strength that comes from a real hope of winning, and when they are willing to fight using means (such as money) which might actually succeed. She talks about the “Genderquake of 1992”—the galvanization of American women by the Anita Hall-Clarence Thomas confrontation, the passing of legislation in the United States giving new parents the right to take leave from work to look after family responsibilities, the unprecedented success of women candidates in American congressional elections, and in general the unleashing of the women's vote in elections across the world—and she sees it as a “demonstration of the simplicity with which we can bring about the changes that the polls show most of us desire.”

Of course, victim-feminists regard these sentiments as dangerous and naive. They will point out the enormous obstacles that women still face: job discrimination; lack of subsidized child care; enormous disparity of income; and a culture still riddled with violence, rape and pornography. But Wolf protests that they talk about these obstacles as though they had an investment in their insurmountability, as though it were some sort of collaborationist defection from the samizdat of gendered misery to look now for real ways of overcoming them in the next few years.

Her own view, by contrast, is that neither men nor “society” have the ability any longer to deny women what they want. Women have “enormous unclaimed power”—their numbers, their votes, their money and their ability to organize. If they begin to take possession of this power in a positive and cheerful spirit, the result will be energy, not complacency. “We will fight more intelligently and more elegantly. And we will suffer less of the wear and tear of anger and helplessness while having a lot more sheer fun.”

In its presentation of this manifesto, Fire with Fire is, to say the least, a lot less analytic than The Beauty Myth. That was a sustained piece of cultural criticism—accessible and eloquent, certainly, but dense, well argued, and laden with evidence. By contrast, Fire with Fire often reads like a self-help guide for the modern business woman. There are tables of differences between victim-feminism and power-feminism, and checklists of psychological strategies for the healthy pursuit of success.

Still, not every book is an academic treatise, and the limitations of this one are mainly those of an author who is trying realistically to reach a much larger audience than most of her critics. Early in the book, Wolf issues a timely reminder about the importance of listening to the increasing proportion of women who embrace the goals and concerns of feminism while firmly rejecting the label. She has a pretty low threshold of patience for academic prose which drains all relevance and interest, so far as most women are concerned, from the discussion of issues that are supposed to be of vital importance for their lives.

The response, I guess, is to insist that sometimes the issues just are that difficult. Certainly, there is something unsatisfactory about the cheerful way in which Wolf purports to demolish entire structures of feminist theory with colourful anecdotes from her own experience. On almost every page, her account cries out for questions and qualifications. How typical is the shabby, depressing rape crisis centre where she observed victim-feminists competing in “a hierarchy of miserable saintliness”? How many little girls in fact build “soaring bastions, flagpoles, projectiles, towering turrets” with their Tonka Toys, as Naomi Wolf did, and then surround them with a moat and drawbridge that they can raise or lower at will? Is it true that little girls are born power-feminists and have to be socialized into their nurturing, victimhood-cherishing chains?

Academic critics who had trouble with the unqualified nature of Wolf's indictment of the glamour industry in the earlier book will now be outraged by her simple-minded division of the women's movement into just two categories: power-feminism and victim-feminism. Or, if they were at all impressed with the scale of the problem outlined in The Beauty Myth, they will be taken aback by the suggestion that nothing more complicated than an alliance “between sisterhood and capital” is needed to combat the social and cultural structures that presently define women's place.

For some, the most striking and—depending, perhaps, on gender—the most disturbing or the most comforting aspect of Fire with Fire will be its insistence that power-feminism is “unapologetically sexual,” that feminists should “avoid generalizations about men,” and that Glamour magazine's feature on “Women of the Year” is something to be proud of. (All this coincides with a new preface to the latest edition of The Beauty Myth, which insists that that book does not object to images of glamour and beauty in mass culture, and that women “need to embrace pleasure, choice in adornment, our own real beauty and sexuality, and call ourselves feminists.”)

A lot of careless male readers will, I fear, be amused rather than challenged by Wolf's confession that she has enjoyed male strippers, that she has “done abject deeds for sexual passion,” that she is “perfectly capable of wanting to be surrounded by adoring nubile 17-year-old soccer players,” that she enjoys the reciprocated stare of a stranger in the street, that “male sexual attention is the sun in which I bloom,” the male body “ground and shelter to me, my life-long destination,” and that personally she was persuaded to vote for Bill Clinton by the tapes of his conversations with Gennifer Flowers.

If power-feminism involves a hard-headed rather than wishful understanding of the realities of politics, Wolf will know already that these observations—despite or, perhaps, because of their authenticity—will appal and alienate many feminists. They will see in her reflections on sex nothing much more than the Naomi Wolf featured recently with Katie Roiphe and Mary Gaitskill in the pages of Esquire, as a leader of something called “do me” feminism—a group who, according to Catherine MacKinnon (quoted in the same article), “don't want equality, just better orgasms.”

In fact, I think it will be a pity if Wolf is condemned outright for this part of her discussion. Fire with Fire has many faults, but its reckless willingness to address the conundrums of feminist heterosexuality is not one of them. We all know that sex plays a role of paradox in the civil war between men and women. On the one hand, it is an arena of acrimony, bargaining, coercion, violence, pain and degradation. On the other hand, we are told (by some) that in an ideal world it might become a place of joy and delight. Now if Wolf and her friends are to be believed, it is and can be a place of joy and delight already—“I have seen the word ‘love’ trigger an erection”—and that seems something worth pondering. I doubt very much that Fire with Fire has said the last word on this subject. But I am certainly not convinced that it is unwise or inappropriate for Naomi Wolf to bring these experiences up (if they are real experiences) and discuss their significance in a book that is about the nature of women's power in the immediate and not just the distant and idealized future.

Karina Rollins (review date summer 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Rollins, Karina. “Power Play.” Public Interest, no. 116 (summer 1994): 124–27.

[In the following review of Fire with Fire, Rollins finds shortcomings in Wolf's preoccupation with an outmoded notion of patriarchal oppression and a tendency to resort to unsubstantiated generalizations and truisms.]

Women's fight for equality did not end when women won the vote seventy-three years ago. Equal in theory but often not in practice, many women turned to feminism to help them fight the remainders of inequality. While these remainders were real, the feminist movement of the 1960s and beyond frequently degenerated into extremism and radical excess.

In Fire with Fire, Naomi Wolf attempts to extract the good from the bad. While she applauds the feminist movement in general, she notes a development she believes harmful to women: the notion of women as helpless victims, unable to stand up to the “patriarchy.” Women are anything but, she argues, and it is time they recognize it. Wolf announces a new feminism: power feminism, the feminism that will change the twenty-first century.

Wolf's mission is to show women that they are the real victors in the gender war. Women not only have the power to stand up to the patriarchy, Wolf argues, they have the power to eliminate it. So why does the patriarchy still exist? Too many women are not aware of their own power, a power that stems from identifying “with one another primarily through the shared pleasures and strengths of femaleness, rather than primarily through our shared vulnerability and pain.”

Fire with Fire is not a man-bashing book. Wolf believes that women are no better than men, and that women, like men, have a dark side. “[I]mpulses toward aggression, retaliation, dominance, and cruelty,” she writes, “are as innate to women as they are to men.” Nor is Wolf always hostile to capitalism—she supports the right to make money and to become wealthy; in fact, she believes it crucial for women to do so: “every woman's work ha[s] a market value and one purpose of feminism [is] to raise every woman's market value so she [can] use her own money to determine her own life.”

But is Wolf's feminism really that different? She champions individualism as the means to women's “empowerment,” yet urges women to put forth a “concerted, unified effort” to “harness the power of their [2 percent] majority” so that “the side that best represent[s] the spectrum of women's wishes [will] win.” She praises individual merit and achievement, yet defines “fair” representation of women in terms of sheer numbers (e.g., her goal that Congress be 51 percent female by the year 2000).

Wolf's view of women's oppression is not complimentary to anyone (male or female) who disagrees with her. Instead of pitting men against women (as does victim feminism), her power feminism pits her “egalitarians” against others' “patriarchalists”:

The civil war of gender does not involve “men against women” on two distinct sides. The patriarchalists' worldview, shared by women as well as men, is battling the emerging egalitarian worldview, which is also shared by people of both sexes. … [I]t is just as foolish to assume that all men are opposed to women's equality as it is to assume that all women favor it.

Wolf is contemptuous of the millions of American women who do not believe that there is a systematic campaign by the “opposition” to keep them down. Wolf describes this opposition as “those men and male-dominated institutions that are actively resisting women's advancement.” As for women who do not believe in the opposition—they must either not recognize their oppression or enjoy it.

Wolf goes on to provide evidence of women's oppression. For instance, there is her account of how the mainstream media discriminate against women. Wolf spends several pages listing magazines that have published more men than women, talk shows that have had more male guests than female guests, and various sectors of the media that have more men than women in high positions. Her interpretation of these numbers is often bizarre. Some of the women who appear on talk shows, she says, do not count. Morgan Fairchild does not count because she is a soap star; Iman does not count because she is a model. Wolf dismisses Phyllis Schlafly's presence as “perennial,” Jeane Kirkpatrick as “trusty,” and notes with disdain that Margaret Thatcher was the only woman to provide a “female perspective”—presumably unwittingly—on a show on Bosnia. Of the forty-five articles by women that Harper's published in 1992, nine do not qualify as independent women's journalism, Wolf explains, because they “were part of forums that conscientiously included men.”

Wolf complained about “the closed infosystem of the White Boy Rolodex” in an article last year in the New Republic. She wrote that women “are forced … to speak ‘for women’ rather than simply hashing out the issues in a solitary way,” yet her disdain for a woman who does just that belies her sincerity.

An extreme of the female public voice is perhaps represented by a Jeane Kirkpatrick: a voice so Olympian, so neck-up and uninflected by the experience of the female body, that the subtle message received by young female writers is: to enter public voice, one must abide by the no-uterus rule.

Interestingly, the author of The Beauty Myth is attacking another woman for lacking femininity. Wolf's assault discredits her central claim that she believes women should be diverse, that a woman should “claim her individual voice rather than merging her voice in a collective identity.” Since Kirkpatrick does not say the correct things about the correct topics, Wolf deems her a non-woman who must have learned that women “have a much better chance of being published in a big boys' magazine if they present a viewpoint disdainful of feminist reasoning.”

Many of Wolf's statements will find few challengers; some of what she says is so simple and obviously true (“women matter as much as men do”) that one gets the impression she is trying to validate her ideology by stating already accepted truths as tenets of power feminism.

There are also a few issues that Wolf discusses cogently. For example, she presents a nuanced view of pornography, neither advocating censorship nor denying pornography's potential harm, and criticizes various forms of political correctness. Wolf distances herself from the negative extremes of the feminist movement and rightly points out that much of feminism is made to suffer for the excesses of the radicals. But the majority of her arguments are a whirlwind of assertions about the “patriarchy,” the “opposition,” the “backlash,” “oppression,” “gender apartheid,” and “men's tools,” as well as unsupported statements such as “most women have been sexually harassed at work.”

Wolf's power feminism is not new. Her methods may be different, but her goal is the same as that of the victim feminists she criticizes: to free women from the oppression of the ruling white male patriarchy. The paranoia of her premise overwhelms the rationality of her discourse.

Inequality exists. So do discrimination and sexism. A true power feminism would urge women to stand their ground and fight against the individuals who commit these offenses. A truly new feminism would recognize an old truth: the man who does not take his female co-worker seriously because of her sex is a jerk, not a part of the systematic oppression of women by the “opposition.” Any feminism obsessed with something called patriarchal oppression is not new, nor is it likely to be powerful.

Helen M. Sterk (review date 13–20 July 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Sterk, Helen M. Review of Fire with Fire, by Naomi Wolf. Christian Century (13–20 July 1994): 694–95.

[In the following review, Sterk offers an unfavorable assessment of Fire with Fire.]

We have met the enemy, and she is us. This is Naomi Wolf's message to women, especially feminists. Wolf tells women that they are “suffering from too much subordination for no more pressing reason than that we have stopped short of compelling it to end.” Ignoring the history of gender relations in the West, Wolf says all will be well if women just accept and use the power they already hold. Marked by good intentions and marred by poor execution, Fire with Fire cleverly taps into contemporary currents of feminism-bashing.

Wolf's youthful good looks and her embrace of the media limelight, as well as her facility with the literature, themes and language of contemporary feminist theory, have made Fire with Fire popular and influential. Its cover endorsement by Gloria Steinem, who praises its “energy and honesty,” and a Ms. cover employing its term “power feminism,” suggest that the book is required reading for anyone interested in the current state of arguments on gender relations. A Yale graduate and Rhodes scholar, Wolf is well known for her controversial first book, The Beauty Myth, which explored the impact of the beauty industry and advertising on women. With the publication of Fire with Fire, Wolf takes her place among a new crop of antifeminist-feminists such as Katie Roiphe and Camille Paglia.

Fire with Fire argues that the U.S. is in the “final throes of a civil war for gender fairness” and optimistically predicts that gender equity is just around the corner. Wolf points to the early 1990s—with the Hill-Thomas hearings, the rape trials of William Kennedy Smith and Mike Tyson, and the Tailhook scandal—to illustrate the “barrenness of democracy without female representation.” Then she argues that women currently do hold political power, citing as evidence Bill Clinton's election and the increasing numbers of women in state and national government. She concludes by urging women to exercise their power through joining political action groups such as EMILY's List (a nonpartisan funding group for women politicians), becoming more aggressive about earning, investing and using money, and strategically networking. Ultimately, Wolf argues, women have to jump into public life, accept its competitive practices and act as if they hold as much authority as men.

Wolf draws upon feminist literature and a superficial sampling of popular sources, such as Vanity Fair,Time and Newsweek. While this gives the book an up-to-the-minute feel, it slights the past. Because Wolf wants to prove that women do hold power, it is convenient for her to ignore the 3,000-year history of women's exclusion from public life. Current books that fill in this social, cultural and historical gap include Gerda Lerner's The Creation of Feminist Consciousness from the Middle Ages to Eighteen-Seventy, Nancy Tuana's The Less Noble Sex: Scientific, Religious, and Philosophical Conceptions of Women's Nature, and Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen and colleagues' After Eden. Any reader interested in a full picture of gender relations in Western culture should read these.

Fire with Fire adds to our language for talking about gender such clever terms as: genderquake, gender apartheid, trousseau reflexes, victim feminism and power feminism. Each crystallizes an issue currently under negotiation in both popular and feminist discourse. For example, by “victim feminism” Wolf refers to the kind of approach that regards women as always on the receiving end of men's decisions. By “power feminism” she means women acting as if they had all the authority and power needed to make political and social decisions. But such terms dismiss or overlook the potency of systems of institutional and cultural power. They do not advance the debate, because they beg the most important question. Wolf's language (and accompanying arguments) recall the cynical political ploy of “blaming the victim.”

Eve Pollard (review date 9 May 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Pollard, Eve. “The Virgin Myth.” New Statesman (9 May 1997): 45.

[In the following review, Pollard offers a mixed assessment of Promiscuities, finding fault in Wolf's focus on the loss of virginity as the defining point of a woman's maturation.]

Just before the feminist movement seriously got under way, a rash of Hollywood films explored the sleep-over teenage sisterhood of America. Dazzlingly acne-free, Sandra Dee, Connie Francis and the rest would stay overnight at one another's houses, or in each other's hotel rooms and spend innocent hours wondering where the boys were. As lightweight as an asexual version of the TV series Friends, these movies were a definable group of West Coast offerings that said women could and should be pals.

Naomi Wolf must have seen them, too, because her book [Promiscuities] has several of the same qualities. Described by her publishers as the most outspoken feminist of her generation, she has written her third book on the basis that, unlike men, women hide their erotic autobiographies because even in this post-feminist age any woman who has a sexual past can find it used against her. Ask any rape victim.

She goes through the history of how our male-dominated world has always feared the unleashing of women's desire. She starts with the abomination of female circumcision, and goes on to medieval European laws which decreed that a widow who had sex could lose her property. She ends with O. J. Simpson's attorney in the civil trial, defending his client by describing Nicole Brown Simpson thus: “Nicole was exercising her wings. She had many boyfriends … she was the pursuer.”

Wolf's response is to ask the tribe of white, middle-class women who were born in the 1960s and lived in the San Francisco area for their early sexual histories. These show how these girls were affected by the collapse of the traditional family. Fathers stopped being dull, square and there. They grew trendy and sometimes vanished, possibly to return with a new wife and eventually a new family. The mothers refused to age because they found the way to be was young, fresh and slim—like their daughters.

Dolls, previously cuddlesome baby substitutes, turned into the vampish Barbie which, for millions of girls, embodied the vital importance of a pair of pert breasts, a tiny waist and a life lived on perpetual tiptoe so that she could wear spindly high heels.

Wolf was more sure-footed when she wrote the best-selling The Beauty Myth, which described the problems of modern, independent women still caught in the vortex of lookism. By pinpointing the time when girls “become women” as the moment they lose their virginity, she enters an unreal world. That may have been how it was in Haight-Ashbury but she doesn't pause to consider that this transition could well be very different and somewhat earlier for a girl who lives in poverty, squalor or hunger—or suffers inadequate or absentee parenting.

I asked around my friends, very few of whom had told me how their virginity had been lost. Were we ashamed? Were we worried that, as Wolf avers, we are all “bad” girls? The response was that this was not a defining moment. They all felt becoming a woman was more subtle and complex and did not necessarily have to be sexual.

This book simply feeds the curiosity we have for private behaviour. The most dangerous part is in the title: even now “promiscuous” is used to describe the behaviour only of women and gay men. When it is applied to straight men, too, we may have reached true sexual equality.

Mary Kenny (review date 10 May 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Kenny, Mary. “Created, Not Begotten.” Spectator (10 May 1997): 36.

[In the following review of Promiscuities, Kenny commends Wolf's personal observations and provocative questions, but concludes that her assertions are undermined by a dogmatic view of gender as a social construct.]

The trouble really began when Simone de Beauvoir announced, ‘One is not born a woman, one becomes one.’ From this single sentence comes most of the discourse, over the past 40 years, on the feminine condition. If one becomes a woman, how does that process occur?

In the 1960s, some very clever feminist writers dissected this process of becoming a woman: works like Eva Figes' Patriarchal Attitudes (a brilliant book), and Kate Millett's Sexual Politics profoundly influenced me at this time. I was also hugely impressed by Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, which was simply smart journalism, but none the worse for that. Mrs Friedan showed that many American women were basically bored by married life in the suburbs, and in that boredom were searching for something more ‘meaningful’ than the mystique of femininity which Madison Avenue preached at them incessantly.

Fair enough. But the common de Beauvoir assumption underlying virtually all feminist writing was that the feminine condition was merely a ‘social construct’: that it was something thrust upon women by society and by social conditioning. Girls played with dolls because ‘society’ told them to do so. Boys played with guns because ‘society’ persuaded them to do so. The claim that it is merely ‘society’ which makes us what we are has remained a dogma of feminism, and a dogma which has turned into a cul-de-sac. Anyone, such as the mad but extraordinary Camille Paglia, who suggests that men and women may be born, not made, is dismissed as a ‘biological determinist,’ than which no insult could cut deeper.

This dogma of ‘social conditioning’ underpinned Naomi Wolf's first, and highly successful work, The Beauty Myth, which was a world best-seller. It was an interesting tour d'horizon of the cost, the anxiety and the big bucks that go into the beauty business, but again it assumed that this pursuit of physical attraction was merely a ‘social construct.’ No quarter was given to the notion that there might be something within us, even, whisper it, something biological which prompts our yearnings.

Promiscuities rests on the same old supposition: that some social agency ‘creates’ a woman. ‘What makes a woman?’ Miss Wolf asks at one point. ‘Who gets to decide?’ And it is not long before the traditional culprit is fingered: men, of course! All those male-dominated societies which punished women for their sexuality, which categorised women as ‘sluts’ if they were promiscuous, and promulgated a double standard of sexual conduct for boys and girls. Too predictable, and too wrong, as well: historically, many of these harsh sexual codes were imposed, maintained and upheld by women themselves. The ‘slut’ was rather appreciated by men, but women feared that their sons or brothers would be drawn into a bad dynastic arrangement by an alliance with a ‘woman of easy virtue.’ Miss Wolf mentions feminist heroines such as Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger in passing, but fails to explain—which is important—that the birth control pioneers were often more ardently supported by men than by women.

Women themselves, taken as a group, have always feared that removing all restraints from sexual taboos would threaten the family and corrupt the young, and, through her descriptions of growing up in the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco in the 1960s, Naomi Wolf illustrates that point quite compellingly. It could be threatening for a very young girl, being surrounded by all that unblinking sexuality. As a coming-of-age text, Promiscuities is well-observed, excellent on the detail of girls' rites and sexual games at puberty, and often highly entertaining. Miss Wolf's mother—her parents were liberal, nonreligious but culturally respectful Jews—was working on a doctoral thesis on the lesbian community in San Francisco at one point and Naomi's description of the Marxist-lesbian housepainters her parents employed is hilarious.

Miss Wolf's gift is to ask questions about the way we are, and in this work she is asking questions about how young women grow up in a world where sex is easy, but coming to maturity is without true signposts. ‘Social constructs’ do exist, and they do matter. But because she is restricted by the feminist dogma that being female is only a ‘social construct’ (the very word ‘gender’ was introduced to make that point), she is restricted in finding the answers.

Barry Gewen (review date 19 May 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Gewen, Barry. “The Seat of Women's Delight.” New Leader (19 May 1997): 19–22.

[In the following excerpt, Gewen offers an unfavorable assessment of Promiscuities.]

Not long ago I read an article on South Africa that was so smug and sanctimonious, so pleased to bask in the warmth of its own progressivism, that it made me want to come out in favor of apartheid. I had a similar reaction while reading Naomi Wolf's latest book, Promiscuities. In its effort to celebrate female sexuality—or, as Wolf puts it, “to redeem the slut in me”—it is so self-important and inflated, so sentimental to the point of ickiness, that I found myself thinking purdah might not be such a bad idea for women (or at least for Naomi Wolf).

It's not that one disagrees with her. Who on this side of Pat Robertson would deny the joy and value of female desire? And even if Wolf sometimes seems to be pounding away at so many open doors, she can be provocatively instructive, as in her thumbnail, hide-and-seek history of the clitoris. She points out that a Venetian scientist identified this “seat of woman's delight” as early as 1559, but over the years there occurred what she calls “the great forgetting,” until our own era when the various advocates of open and honest sexual relations—from Havelock Ellis, Margaret Sanger and Theodore van de Velde to Shere Hite and the authors of Our Bodies, Ourselves—have had to assert and reassert that the clitoris has a vital role to play in female (not to mention male) sexuality. Each time the announcement is made, it comes as a fresh discovery, a liberating revelation. It's as if we keep misplacing the damn thing. Clearly, Wolf observes, there is something in our culture that makes us uncomfortable with this essential piece of human anatomy.

But if Wolf's research serves her well here, more often it weighs her book down with the burden of half-digested erudition, the gleanings of the autodidact. Eager to show that other times and places have treated relations between men and women differently than our own, she draws on a great array of scholarship from all the disciplines—anthropology, history, theology, etc.—to prove the contingency of Western sexual practices. Things could be other than they are. One might have thought this was a lesson that had been digested at least since the time of Franz Boas, if not that of Herder, but Wolf goes through the exercise all over again because she is determined to demonstrate that Western women get a raw deal, that other cultures have placed far greater value on female sexuality. So we are barraged with observations about Zuni Indians and 5th-century Alexandrians and the Uapas of the Amazon rain forest and, most notably, the ancient Chinese, who get several pages all to themselves.

In the Han Dynasty, around the time of Christ, Wolf explains, “female desire was not treated with fear nor with contempt and ridicule. It was regarded as a powerful elemental force. It was taken to be a force that, properly directed, would bestow health and well-being on men as well as women.” Sex manuals instructed men on foreplay and on how to give their mates multiple orgasms. Rape was considered harmful to the aggressor as well as to the victim. Lovemaking was an act of harmony. “In this sort of atmosphere,” Wolf says, “a woman would have no need to ‘fake it.’” Even the language of ancient China displayed a respect, indeed a reverence, for female desire. A woman's genitals were portrayed in poetry as “the open peony blossom,” “the golden lotus,” “the receptive vase,” “the golden cleft”—“metaphors of beauty, sweetness, artistry, rareness, and fragrance,” Wolf writes. And then, with a longing that makes you want to look away, she sighs: “To appreciate women so much!”

Now, what is wrong with this picture? Few of Wolf's readers are likely to know much about the history and culture of China, yet if there is one thing they will certainly know, it is that, amid all this appreciation of women, the Chinese practiced the custom of foot-binding, crippling girls for life in the pursuit of a misguided ideal of beauty. Nowhere does Wolf mention this. Or course, she could respond that foot-binding arose about a thousand years after the period she is discussing (and then lasted for about another thousand), but surely she owes it to her readers to explain how the Chinese went from adoration to disfigurement, and what the implications of that history are.

Moreover, a few minutes in the library will reveal that Wolf is not telling the whole story about China, not even half the story. Contrary to what she claims, women of that society were not valued; they were devalued, peony blossoms and all. As young girls they were separated from boys, secluded, and taught to be timid and submissive, never to raise their voices. They had almost no property rights, or any right to divorce, though a husband could divorce his wife if she failed to produce a male heir. Fathers sold daughters into slavery or prostitution, and the poor were known to engage in female infanticide (a practice that has been said to continue down to the present day). An old Chinese proverb declared that the most beautiful and gifted girl was less desirable than a deformed boy, and one ancient poet wrote: “How sad it is to be a woman. Nothing on earth is held so cheap.” Ah! To appreciate women so much!

Wolf likes the Chinese erotic poetry she has read, and because she has a thesis to push she doesn't feel it is necessary to bother with anything else. Culture for her is not a web of interconnections, a totality, it's a kind of smorgasbord, allowing her to a choose a bit of Taoist sex instruction from this bowl and some chopped liver from that one. As a result, she can repeat and repeat with mindless approbation that many cultures outside the West have viewed women as far more carnal than men, without ever reflecting on the fact that those same cultures have often kept their very carnal women hidden away under lock and key.

This is an important point because it speaks to an unresolved conflict at the heart of Promiscuities, a kind of excluded middle. Wolf grew up after the sexual revolution of the 1960s, so that the rights the first generation of modern feminists had to fight for were a given for her—especially for her, since she was raised in San Francisco, not far from Haight-Ashbury, the daughter of liberal, indulgent parents. (“My parents trusted me. It drove me berserk.”) The city, she says, “conspired to turn you into a hedonist”; she and her teenage friends were made to feel “that we were not alive if we were not being sexual.” She claims that in college the girls she knew were expected to sleep with between 10 and 30 boys. Her book is full of ugly stories of joyless, compulsive couplings, date rapes and predatory males (many of them her friends). Predictably, when she lost her virginity at age 15, her reaction was “that's it?” And she was lucky. Her first lover was a sensitive, caring guy. Some of her friends had far more gruesome experiences.

As Wolf tells it, everything came too fast and too easy for her generation. (It's clear that everything came too fast for her.) The freedom that the adults had won, she says, turned into a “moral chaos” for the kids. Yet she wants to have it all, so at the same time that she champions female desire, she calls for “rules that make sense,” a “coherent new sexual ethic.” She believes there is no necessary contradiction between appeals for liberation and for limits, and maybe there isn't. But obviously these are horses that tend to pull in opposite directions. They require deft handling, and Wolf is not up to the job.

Her argument turns on the sort of sexual education we are going to offer girls. (Boys are another matter.) Wolf is right that the conservative demand for a conspiracy of silence combined with the message “just say no” is irrelevant and ineffectual. She is also right that the liberal concentration on teaching sexual mechanics and distributing condoms in the schools, to the exclusion of moral content, is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Her own recommendation is for a type of middle way, what she terms “sexual gradualism.”

“It is important to teach girls about the consequences and dangers of sexual intercourse,” she says. “But not in the absence of positive information about what to try instead.” By “what to try instead” she doesn't mean volleyball and cold showers, but “other kinds of sexual exploration that help them wait for intercourse until they are really ready.” I wish she had been more explicit than she is. She thinks it is all right for young ladies to be instructed in “petting” (whatever that means). But what about, say, fellatio? Or lesbianism? Wolf calls for female retreats, in which older, more experienced women would answer “every single question the girls want to ask.” Yet she is hopelessly vague about what those answers should be. Similarly, the moment when the girls are “really ready” for the Big Step seems to arrive, Wolf primly suggests, with “their 18th birthday or their engagement or their marriage.” She gives no reason why she thinks these sexually aware young women will choose to wait that long. This, after all, is part of what the '60s were all about.

Just when you want Wolf to get down to specifics, she drifts off into one of those overblown reveries that make this book so annoying, rhapsodizing about how “female sexuality participates in the divine image,” how it is something “sacred” and (one of her favorite words) “magical.” Worse, she starts talking about women as sorceresses, priestesses and goddesses, with a need to be worshiped and adored. That's when you are likely to wish that she had had stricter parents, or a first night that had gone better than hers did.

For a book that is supposed to be celebrating sexuality, Promiscuities is remarkably grim. Wolf seems to be angry at a lot of people—her parents, large numbers of men, society in general. Anyone who is looking for a genuine celebration of sexuality is advised to turn instead to Susie Bright's Sexual State of the Union.

Bright and Wolf share many qualities: They are both from the West Coast (Bright now lives in the hedonistic San Francisco); they have both worked with abused women; they both have young daughters. There are differences, too: Bright was raised Catholic, Wolf Jewish; Bright, unlike Wolf, is bisexual, with an apparent preference for women; Bright has a tattoo and pierced labia (I'm assuming Wolf has neither of these though she doesn't actually say). But the main difference is that Bright writes with a light touch, a kind of pagan exuberance. Where Wolf is pretentious, she is plainspoken, aphoristic and, most important, particularly when the subject is sex, amusing.

Scott Shuger (review date June 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Shuger, Scott. Review of Promiscuities, by Naomi Wolf. Washington Monthly 29, no. 6 (June 1997): 49–51.

[In the following review, Shuger offers a generally positive assessment of Promiscuities, though notes shortcomings in Wolf's evasion of personal accountability and failure to recognize the importance of responsible parenting.]

An aspect of political correctness that is particularly troubling from a public policy perspective is its hostility to distinctions among and within different social groups, distinctions often crucial for formulating and implementing solutions. Thus, even if Group A has a pronounced and disproportional tendency towards problematic Behavior B, the typical blue-ribbon commission report or party platform document will do its level best to moss over this news with lots of time spent on the non-A's who B, even if this less-prominent activity verges on statistical insignificance. This is the logic that made it too difficult for too long to discuss the growth of AIDS as somehow more related to drug-users and bisexuals than to the rest of the general population. And the logic that still clouds discussions of race and crime.

Another politically inconvenient differential that this leveling logic has fuzzed over with a vengeance is this: Sexuality (especially at a young age) is more personally and socially toxic when exercised by women than when exercised by men. Compared to a time—say, 1950—when women were encouraged to be (and were) far less sexually free than men, we now have stratospheric rates of unplanned births, births out of wedlock, births to teenaged mothers, pregnancy-related high school dropouts, low birth-weight and diseased newborns, abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases.

Most of these differences exist because sexually free women have a greater risk of getting pregnant. But there are other, perhaps more mysterious, damaging consequences of increased sexualization that also impact women more than men. For instance, according to recent studies by the Institute of Medicine and the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the rise in sexually transmitted diseases disproportionately affects women, who are substantially more susceptible than men to the diseases themselves, and also to their complications, such as infertility and uro-genital cancer.

And put a five-story poster of Marky Mark in his underpants above Times Square and only a negligible portion of the peer male population will do more sit-ups, take steroids, or otherwise change their lifestyles. But a poster of Kate Moss up there in hers is generally thought to encourage large numbers of young women to get caught up in anorexia, bulimia, and other life-threatening psychological disorders. Similarly, when the reader learns in Jeffrey Toobin's book on the O. J. case that all four of the Brown sisters “had breast implants, but not one had a college degree,” it comes to mind that the two developments are probably not unrelated, that the connection is probably not all that rare for women, and that a similar one would be rather rare for men.

What 1950 had going for it that is for the most part no longer operative today was what we might call the Official Virtue System (OVS), according to which female virginity before marriage was publicly much prized. In many ways, the leading social policy takes on sex in recent years, from Charles Murray on welfare to William Bennett's virtue books to Dr. Laura's Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives, can be viewed primarily as calls for reinstating this system.

The problem is, though, that in addition to providing excellent social controls, the OVS was also unfair: It winked at the sexual adventures of single men and endorsed the formation of a class of women—prostitutes and other sex workers—whose primary function was to service them and suffer the consequences. And it was repressive: Women's sexual needs were downplayed and often ignored completely.

So even if we could somehow go back to the OVS, it wouldn't be right. A very interesting question and a central one of sexual politics is: Is there another fairer, less repressive way to reinstate (many of) the virtues of the Official Virtue System?

Promiscuities is a valuable attempt to work out a “Yes” answer to this question, and it uses sexual narrative to build towards its policy prescription. Wolf, who was raised in a middle class Jewish/academic/bohemian San Francisco family and came of sexual age in the '70s, tries to capture the particular flavor of that passage by drawing on her own sexual history and those of her teenaged friends. As filtered through her fine prose, it's a moving and often scary trip, sort of a Ten Stupid Things I Did to Almost Mess Up My Life. The list includes a physically abusive relationship at age 14, losing her virginity in a seedy hotel at age 15, drug abuse, and being pawed by a professor she revered. Although this last encounter is unfortunately so common that it seems a cliche, Wolf's description of what was really wrong about it made my heart hurt. “My manuscript lay dead on the table,” she writes. “I felt emptier than I ever had been, and sore—even more sore than I would be when I found, at the end of the term, that he'd lowered my grade. I was sore in exactly the place where my creative self-regard, still so new, had just begun to seed.”

Wolf often punctuates her revelatory material with historical and anthropological excursions. Some are more successful than others. For instance, her use of Margaret Mead's conclusions about female sexuality in the Pacific Islands to help articulate the sexual predicament of the women of her generation was excellent. But a 14-page stretch covering the zig-zags of scientific theories about the clitoris and its connection to sexual arousal struck me as unnecessarily digressive to the point of being show-offy, and worse still, as marked by forced, cutesy humor, the point of which usually seemed to be what dim bulbs male sex scientists can be. And besides, is it really big news that men (or women, for that matter) are somewhat confused about the physiological details of female desire?


Wolf will no doubt be commended for the bravery of the book's confessional side, which is in fact crucial for the way she pre-empts the political correctness trap: A man who wrote a book disclosing these sorts of details about women's sex lives as a basis for reform wouldn't get much of a hearing. But Wolf's use of her material is not as probative as it might have been. For instance, she says of her sexual education that “not at the clinic, at school, in our synagogue, or anywhere in pop culture did this message come through clearly to us: sexual activity comes with responsibilities that are deeper than personal.” And she describes the events immediately preceding her first intercourse this way: “A civics class drove me over the edge. The thought of plowing through the electoral college—which, in its stubborn irrationality, seemed to represent all the rigidity and hopelessness of the adult world closing in on me—was finally too much.” Maybe Wolf's upbringing and schooling had all these shortcomings, but she never quite brings herself to admit that (with the exception of the professor's unwanted advances) sex is something she did, not something that happened to her. In focusing on the operant cultural forces, Wolf's narrative tends to shortshrift her accountability. While doing the hard thing of describing her past, she doesn't fully own up to it.

Having said all this, it's still true that Wolf's stories do indeed provide powerful evidence for her acute observation that in the status quo culture, “men were deciding for us if we were women. Heck: teenage boys were deciding for us if we were women.” In Wolf's view, changing this feature is the key to reform.

But Wolf is a so-called “third wave” feminist, so her approach here is more ironic than alienating. If the motto of the first wave (Friedan and Steinem, say) was “women have a problem” and the motto of the second (Dworkin and Brownmiller, say) was “men are the problem,” Wolf's basic approach has always been more on the order of “women can fashion solutions, and can ally with men to do so.”

Under the male-oriented OVS, single female sexuality was publicly denied and privately encouraged. The plausible idea undergirding the OVS is that publicly, culturally encouraging female sexuality leads inexorably to the whole nasty nexus of problems listed above: high rates of out-of-wedlock births, abortions, sexually transmitted diseases, etc., and to boot, women feeling besieged and guilty about it all. Wolf's idea for cutting this Gordian knot is to hold that if women were somehow publicly and culturally to take charge of their sexuality, they could be sexual without being so prone to these consequences.

The vehicle she advocates for bringing this about is a public, even quasi-ceremonial rite of passage from girlhood to womanhood, in which adult women teach their younger counterparts technical sex information—which would include an emphasis on “petting”—in return for promises to postpone intercourse until they feel safe and ready, never to have sex without being fully conscious, or to use sex to get love, status, or money. (As a martial artist, I was glad to note that the rites would include the teaching of self-defense, because real deferral requires real deterrence.)

Wolf envisions this rite as built around female-only retreats away from daily life. Skeptics will be quick to portray this as girl talk gone mad—“Join the Sex Scouts and get a merit badge in 3rd Base”—but as Wolf notes in some detail, this kind of approach has been viable in many different (primarily non-Western) cultures, so it is certainly worth considering. At the very least, it has this advantage over the OVS: In recognizing female gratification and distinguishing it from intercourse, it treats the emerging sex drive of young single women (and collaterally, of young single men) not only as real but also as a continuum capable of being managed, whereas the OVS treats it as an On-Off switch to be (officially) left in the Off position, but with not much of a plan for when it's flipped On. And as Wolf points out, whether we like it or not, in our society young women already widely engage in a much less desirable rite of passage: getting pregnant too soon.

However, there is an important element that is fundamental to improving the way our culture manages young female (and male) sex to which Wolf seems a little blind. Just what that is can be gleaned from Wolf's sex tales by negation. At one point, she sums up the ground rules of the house she grew up in this way: “I couldn't have my new boyfriend, Martin, spend the night if I didn't clean my room. …” She describes her routine with another boyfriend thus: “We would shower together in his parents' bathroom …” And one of Wolf's friends relates how she lost her virginity as a high school junior at a classmate's home high on acid “right in line with the whole parents-aren't-there-during-what's-going-on kind of thing.” The major point I wish Wolf had seen and made is that no matter what direction sex reform for young people takes, it must include the reinstatement of the social safety device that was at the core of the OVS: strong parents.

Ellen Wilson Fielding (review date 2 June 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Fielding, Ellen Wilson. “All-American Girl?” National Review (2 June 1997): 54–56.

[In the following review, Fielding offers an unfavorable assessment of Promiscuities.]

You remember Naomi Wolf. She was the author of a much discussed article in The New Republic titled “Our Bodies, Our Souls.” In it she coaxed her fellow pro-choicers to admit that abortion does kill a human being and is usually undertaken for reasons of convenience and therefore could be, may be, might be wrong. She got in some sharp jabs at the self-serving obfuscations of her allies on the Left, but ultimately her efforts petered out into suggestions on how to establish mourning rituals for abortion, while she continued to defend its legality.

That publishing event, and the extensive media reaction to it, happened more than a year ago. Since then Miss Wolf has completed a new project—a kind of autobiographical account of the sexual coming of age of the author and those she grew up with in those promiscuous, post-Pill pre-AIDS days following the sexual revolution. From this she intends to draw lessons about the role and meaning of women's sexuality, and the way in which girls should be inducted into womanhood today.

In her introduction, Miss Wolf tells us she thought of this collection of sexual anecdotes, recollections, and reflections as the story of “an ordinary American girlhood.” This astonishing statement highlights one of the central flaws of her scheme of exploring how girls became women in liberated 1970s America, for her upbringing was spectacularly untypical.

Naomi Wolf grew up in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, the daughter of a leftist professor and a mother whose graduate studies would lead her to examine, among other topics, the dynamics of the San Francisco lesbian community. Promiscuities is dedicated to Miss Wolf's grandmother, “who was a pioneer champion of sex education in a course she taught at the University of the Pacific for many years beginning in the 1950s.”

Miss Wolf describes her childhood friends as coming from assorted Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic backgrounds, but there is no indication that any took religion seriously. When these women complain about being made to feel guilty for their sexual attitudes and desires, they are criticizing Society rather than parents or the local pastor or rabbi. Miss Wolf mentions that her parents were “ethnically Jewish,” and she went to a Zionist summer camp, but the closest she comes to dealing with God's demands is in describing a rabbi-chaperoned trip to an Israeli kibbutz, where she is rebuked for hanging out with the Irish hired laborers (she becomes sexually involved with one of them, mostly, she thinks, as an act of rebellion).

Though her own parents remain married, her friends' families seem ahead even of the late-Sixties and Seventies divorce curve, with all the attendant collapse of parental involvement and moral energy. What Naomi Wolf's girlhood has to tell us about normal or average girlhoods remains unclear.

But there is a deeper problem, a confusion in Miss Wolf's mind that never resolves itself. On the one hand, she is candid about the parental lapses encouraged by the sexual revolution's preoccupation with self-fulfillment: “Though tolerance, joy, and honesty were real legacies of the freedom of that time, there is no doubt in the minds of my friends and myself that children and parenting fell in value as the exploration of the self and the senses gained in value.” She can also see that girls and women were often used in the name of the sexual liberation that was supposed to place them on an equal footing with men. Yet Miss Wolf's focus remains obstinately on the question of whether social mores celebrate and enhance the satisfaction of female sexual desires.

She and the women she interviews talk endlessly about how the “sluts” were differentiated from the “good girls,” and how awful it was that girls were made to feel worried or bad about being or appearing sexually advanced. Miss Wolf wistfully describes the temple prostitutes of ancient Babylonia, and the world of the Kama Sutra and of older Chinese erotica that paid tribute to the power of female sexuality and fertility.

But Miss Wolf should seriously consider whether the absorption of herself and her friends in the fulfilling of sexual desires is so very similar to the recognition of ancient societies that fertility and human sexuality are powerful in a sacred, cosmic sense. Those restrictive, patriarchal societies she so dislikes—the Romans with their Vestal Virgins, the Christians with their emphasis on chastity—at least had this in common with the fertility religions: they took sex seriously, as something important and powerful, which had enormous repercussions beyond individual itches or self-absorbed fantasies. For all those multicultural references, Miss Wolf's understanding of the nature and purpose and scope of sexuality is in the end depressingly thin, incurably late-twentieth-century secular American. (She attributes the high divorce rate in part to sexually frustrated wives whose husbands pay insufficient attention to their need for orgasms.)

So it is not surprising that in her concluding chapters she tackles sex education in the same old bankrupt secular-liberal manner. Teens can be restrained from early sexual intercourse, with its attendant health dangers, by the Joycelyn Elders method of teaching them all the fun ways of achieving sexual bliss short of intercourse. That Miss Wolf can convince herself that this will postpone the onset of sexual intercourse in teenagers is a kind of tribute, I suppose, to the power of Haight-Ashbury and her grandmother and the romantic dreams they peddled.

In a move that seems borrowed straight from Robert Bly, Miss Wolf and some friends fashion their own female initiation rite, the modern counterpart of African and Indian tribal rituals, suggesting that pubescent girls go on retreats in the wilderness with trusted older women, who can “pass on to the younger everything they have learned about womanhood, and answer every single question the girls want to ask.”

However she may imagine that hers was an “ordinary American girlhood,” Naomi Wolf's coming of age in the heart of the counterculture was anything but. She hopes that something like her experience will become the norm for other, truly ordinary American girls, but we must cross our fingers and hope that her plans and prognostications never come to pass.

Jean Bethke Elshtain (review date 6 June 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Elshtain, Jean Bethke. “Danger in Paradise.” Times Literary Supplement (6 June 1997): 12.

[In the following excerpt, Elshtain offers a mixed assessment of Promiscuities.]

Naomi Wolf is another child of the revolution. She grew up in its Mecca, the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. She watched her parents shed the garments of what had become a despised conformism and take on new personae: Mom in mini-skirts, hair flying, wearing dark kohl eyeliner, the sexual object with whom her daughter fell into a weird competition; Dad as renewed adolescent, taking up vampires as his hobby. Wolf, too, must stamp out “repressive hypocrisy” wherever she finds it; but her own narrative is in many ways a harrowing tale. What haunts the reader is a sense of massive adult abdication of responsibility for the world in which their children are growing up. There is a yearning in Wolf's account for a few adults, orderly houses; but that isn't the world she finds in Haight-Ashbury.

The best parts of this volume [Promiscuities] come when Wolf brings to life a particular version of coming of age in America and offers a critique of sexual liberation, including the canned feminist version. Wolf remains a Rousseauian at heart: nature made us good. But culture has gone astray. So what do we need? Here the wind goes out of Wolf's sails. We get a call for “better information that can shape a better sexual culture,” a manifesto against sexual shaming, a determination to “present our stories” and to tell girls they are okay. Wolf even imagines a scenario in which rites of passage like those of tribal cultures can be institutionalized in urban America, with cohorts of girls in their thirteenth year trekking off “into the wilderness” and hearing stories from older women about the passage into womanhood with “every single question” the girls ask being answered. There is something charmingly loopy about this call for Candid Camping, because what Wolf so keenly feels the lack of is a world of rules and rituals. But she can't quite follow through on the force of her own observations of, and arguments against, the relentless hyper-sexualization of young people in contemporary America. So: we should put pornography on the top shelf of news-stands “where children can't quite see it,” and “civilization has survived.” The adult right to express and consume words and images remains “absolute.” This is called eating your cake and having it.

Annie Gottlieb (review date 9 June 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Gottlieb, Annie. “First Person Sexual.” Nation (9 June 1997): 25–28.

[In the following review of Promiscuities, Gottlieb criticizes Wolf's “reverent rhetoric” and selective history of non-Western cultural practices.]

I'll never say another bad word about the memoir. Reading Promiscuities, which aspires to be so much more—to vault from the “first person sexual” into cultural critique and change-the-world exhortation—I was at first exhilarated by the grandeur of its reach, a familiar yet oddly dated emotion I traced to the early seventies. Here was a throwback to an earlier, nervier genre, a feminist Big Book à la Beauvoir and Greer, vowing to break the silence shrouding a key piece of female experience—the sexual awakening of teenage girls—in a way that would fuse the personal and the political, the erotic and the intellectual. How strange to feel again, even for a moment, the extravagant expectation of a quarter-century ago: that the female millennium was just an orgasm and an epiphany away.

But just for a moment. Naomi Wolf ultimately overreaches, and grandeur turns to grandiosity, leaving me surprisingly homesick for the memoir's stubborn modesty, its chastened apprenticeship to actual, singular life. At the end of a century sick with “isms,” grand ideas seem bound to go wrong, deaf as they are to the paradox and ambivalence that will surely subvert them. The memoir returns us to William Carlos Williams's dictum, “No ideas but in things.” Wolf's best ideas in Promiscuities are the small, sharp ones that leap right out of the “things” she is considering: her own and her friends' experiences as young girls trying to claim their sexual selves in the lurid hot-house of seventies San Francisco.

To write the book, Wolf tracked down old friends from junior high, high school and summer camp and swapped memories. As long as her thinking stays close to those memories—astringent as the scent of eucalyptus that pervades them, as much about betrayal, class and competition as innocence and yearning—she hits the nail on the head. The first half of Promiscuities harks back to the best of second-wave feminism, those early consciousness-raising sessions, before the stunning authority of simple storytelling got drowned in a wave of bloated theory. Before she succumbs to that wave herself, Wolf manages to give us a girl's-eye view of two “revolutions”—the sexual and feminist—that promised to set young women free, only to spawn new ways of disempowering them.

Even before the sexual revolution engulfed Wolf's generation of girls, it took away their parents—figuratively, as they stopped being parents (“Grown-ups blew bubbles, played dress-up, and danced. … Sometimes it seemed as though everyone was a child”), and also literally, as fathers split for groovier pastures and mothers morphed into breadwinners. Wolf's family stayed intact, “perhaps because of my father's Eastern European and Orthodox Jewish immigrant background, and his age—fifteen years older than my mother,” but even in her house, “time was marked by my parents' growing brighter and brighter, furrier and furrier.” Down the block, Wolf's friend Michelle, her divorced mom and little sister “would gather around the Formica-topped kitchen table to process marijuana.”

Funny, wistful and understated, Wolf's portrait of “liberated” parenting still adds up to a devastating indictment that will pour fuel on the family-values fire. This is not the only place in Promiscuities where Wolf, now the mother of a daughter, sounds almost … conservative, no surprise to anyone who read her qualms about abortion in The New Republic. While not a neoconservative, she would have to be called a post-liberal, struggling to reconcile her beliefs in freedom and tolerance—and her joy in daring—with a growing longing for a protective, meaningful moral order. Watching hip parents caper through her 10-year-old eyes, one remembers that what children expect from adults is not only protection but consistency and some sort of dignity—traits not only to rely on but to admire. In their feckless pursuit of freedom, self-discovery and self-gratification, most adults around the young Wolf let their kids down on all counts.

As the kids too began to experiment with sex—as much from loneliness as hormonal readiness—few were provided with any boundaries, limits or curfews. Here's what it meant that Wolf's parents were stricter than most: “I couldn't have my new boyfriend … spend the night if I didn't clean my room.” (Their rare and welcome insistence that she break up with the old boyfriend, who hit her, she credits to feminism, not parental vigilance.) From the mass exodus of fathers, girls learned a particularly insidious lesson:

How could one grow up to become, through sex, the kind of woman a dad would not want to go away from? The way they had to relate to their distracted, weekend or summertime fathers—the need to compete with the glamorous new wife, the other children, the father's self-absorption—was necessarily seductive.

Now supposedly as sexually “free” as boys, girls were actually being lured into a devilish double bind: Sexiness was powerful bait that commanded boys' attention (which in turn conferred coveted status among girls), but it also attracted swarms of “skanky” adult predators, and a smidgen too much of it—especially if you were poorer than middle class—would put you on the far side of an old and unforgiving line. In the narrow slot between the prude and the slut—which the sexual revolution actually made narrower—Wolf and her girlfriends fought to come of age, like an ailanthus in an airshaft. The chapters that track their progress around four “bases” (appropriating boys' old makeout metaphor) are the best in this book; anyone who has ever been (or is now) a teenage girl will read them with hungry recognition—and giggles. Wolf is a good storyteller, with an imaginative empathy and an eye for the sensuous, emotionally telling detail:

In her room, alone, [Dinah] would spread out each hand in turn and lacquer each nail with colors that sounded like experiences she still wanted to have: Tangerine Sunrise, Parisian Gala, Mist on the Moors, Bronze Fandango. The bottles were ranged in rows around the table, like her own army.

In some ways, nothing changes. The girls invent vivid, sometimes cruel words for the stages and shapes of developing breasts; get poignant, sensuous crushes on each other; practice French-kissing a pillow; jockey for position in the hierarchy of cool; and react with defiance and dismay to the clipping of their wings as their bodies blossom:

We needed space so badly. When we discovered that, if we went with boys, space would open up for us, we found, to our surprise, that we needed boys. And yet boys were part of the danger.

In that sense, girls were no more “free” in the seventies than they had been in the fifties or the thirties. And yet, at 14, Wolf and her friends were discussing the fine points of blow jobs; by 15, ready or not, they were having intercourse (even the coolest now confess they weren't ready); and a few years later, they were notching their belts like a girl Spur Posse, “expected to have slept with anywhere from ten to thirty guys while they were in college.”

But this was hardly “freedom,” either (where was the freedom to say no?), and it was only the most brittle and risky form of power—never mind pleasure. Wolf's insight is that girls had once again been robbed. The prescribed standard of conduct had merely flipped from prim to prurient, never touching on women's sexual nature, which remained obscure even to the girls themselves. They were too busy striving to please and mimic men to know (or, if they knew, to say) what might actually please themselves—a chance for sexual exploration prior to and short of intercourse, for instance (Wolf thinks the old culture of “petting” was much more girl-friendly than either the left's condom classes or the right's hands-off abstinence); or an acknowledgment that their fertility was something more integral to their sexuality than just an inconvenience.

Wolf attributes these omissions to the West's timeworn loathing of female lust, but also to our lack of an empowering “women's culture”—a problem feminism, ironically, has made worse. Before Wolf hit puberty, mainstream women had ditched their C-R groups to prove themselves one by one in a man's world; ever since, we've modeled our adult power on male sexual and professional behavior, while straight women close ranks mainly around damage already done (as in the rape-crisis and incest-survivor movements). Female initiation, as Wolf notes, is left in the inept hands of teenage boys, while girls fill the void with the makeshift ordeals of anorexia and abortion. Only adult women could show them how to be women … if only we knew.

If all this rings so true, why do Wolf's prescriptions for change strike such false and windy notes? I think it's because when she comes to the heart of the matter—the truth about female desire—she too loses her nerve. She abruptly flees the very sources she trusted—the living voices of women—for the safety of physiological expertise (yet another round of the lost-and-found clitoris and Mary Jane Sherfey's multiple orgasms) and exotic history (the Taoist sex manuals of Han dynasty China). Suddenly, the woman who was just dishing with her girlfriends is intoning, “Let us ask the question again, this time not of Western anatomists or psychologists but of Chinese philosophers: what is female desire?” Why not ask women? The actual female voice—wary, edgy, wistful, angry—is lost in a goosedown of reverent rhetoric about “the human embodiment of holy natural cycles” and “the wild, powerful, magnetic goddess Shakti.” What this language so utterly lacks is ambivalence—a surefire marker of truth-telling, and a tension Wolf has elsewhere proven admirably able to tolerate (she cannot, for example, simply condemn that physically violent boyfriend).

Of course, she is trying to inspire girls and women to value their own sexuality by reminding them that it wasn't always held cheap, that there have been times and places where it was honored, artfully serviced, even worshiped. Like other post-liberals sick of pornographic anarchy, she is also ransacking the archives of pre- and non-Western culture in search of a moral order that is not anti-pleasure and anti-female. What makes this disingenuous is that those cultures are so conveniently distant that we can imagine them ideal and conflict-free, although of course they weren't. The same cultures that worshiped female sexuality also acknowledged its wild, destructive side; any goddess groupie who ignores Kali's necklace of skulls or Cybele's self-castrated priests is dabbling in “elemental lite.” (Anarchist Emma Goldman, the one horse's mouth Wolf nervously quotes, sometimes found her own “frantic,” “maddening” desire almost too anarchic.) Some cultures that lavish care on the female orgasm do so to get sons, and the complementary constraints placed on women's power—such as restriction to domestic and maternal roles—are ones no modern feminist would accept.

Wolf is definitely on to something. Female sexuality, and who controls it, is central to the problem of women's power, both subjective and social (the subject of her last book, Fire with Fire). And real female pleasure may be central to the problem of saving marriage, as Dalma Heyn also points out in her closely related book Marriage Shock. There's an inchoate sense that the key to a girl's self-possession—and perhaps to a female-friendly moral order—lies in her owning both her no and her yes. But we and our daughters won't find that key in goddess fantasies, any more than we'll find it by propitiating or mimicking men. We'll unearth it the way Promiscuities started: by sticking together and telling the truth.

Wendy Smith (essay date 30 June 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Smith, Wendy. “Naomi Wolf: Confessions of a Feminist.” Publishers Weekly (30 June 1997): 56–57.

[In the following essay, Smith provides an overview of Wolf's life, career, and critical reception upon the publication of Promiscuities.]

Discussing the books that have made her a prominent figure in the feminist generation she has dubbed the “Third Wave,” Naomi Wolf is articulate and forceful. When she feels something she wrote has been misinterpreted, she can be emphatically (albeit politely) combative. But she reveals another side after a fan approaches her in the Gramercy Tavern, praises her books, and urges, “Keep up the good work!” Wolf thanks the woman, then upon her departure flashes a wry smile and confides, “That doesn't happen to me very often out in the suburbs where I'm wiping poop.”

Wolf's daughter, Rosa (named for civil rights activist Rosa Parks), recently turned two, and the author has experienced the feelings of loneliness and isolation that afflict virtually every first-time mother. In her case, it's exacerbated by what she hopes is a temporary exile in Chevy Chase, Md. She moved there from New York City with her husband, former New Republic executive editor David Shipley, when he became a speechwriter for President Clinton and the First Lady, but she is by upbringing and inclination a city person. “New York mothers seem so connected,” she says wistfully. “In the 'burbs you have to get in the car to do everything.”

Career issues and dirty diapers can loom equally large in contemporary women's lives, and the resulting complexities and ambivalences have increasingly preoccupied Wolf as a writer. Her first book, The Beauty Myth argued that unrealistic mass media images of beauty were part of a backlash against feminism aimed at undermining women's self-esteem just as they began to gain political, economic and social power. The controversial Fire with Fire criticized “second wave” feminism for falling into bad habits, in particular, ideological rigidity and hostility toward compromise, that alienated many women.

While second wave writers like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan spoke to women who were outside the power structure banging on the door, third wavers tend to be younger women grappling with “the ambiguities of assimilation,” as Wolf puts it in The Beauty Myth. That book and Fire with Fire were relatively conventional works of analysis and advocacy. Wolf's new work, Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood, just published by Random House, is more intimate and personal, chronicling her own and her friends' sexual coming of age in San Francisco during the 1970s. Her aim is “to elucidate the emotional truths that emerge from a particular generation's erotic memory,” Wolf writes in the introduction, dubbing Promiscuities “not a polemic, but a set of confessions.”

Among the charged topics Wolf addresses are her experiences with a physically abusive boyfriend; feelings of emptiness and alienation she and her friends felt when losing their virginity proved to be a non-event; the treacherous line they negotiated between being properly “liberated” and being a “slut,” a term the author believes still has tremendous power to regulate girls' behavior; and the painful confusions prompted in children by the sexual and social revolutions of the 1960s, as families fell apart and parents abdicated adult responsibilities.

Now that she's a parent herself, was it difficult to write frankly about such matters?

“I think that, if anything, being a mom made me want to be that much more honest,” she replies. “Because only real honesty from adult women can change the sexual culture that we have for girls. I feel that as a mother it's my responsibility to write, say and do what I can to create an alternate culture for my daughter's generation so they have more positive images of female sexuality to grow up in”

As examples of images of female sexuality that are more positive than the demeaning stereotypes of Western popular culture, Promiscuities offers the erotic literature of ancient China, the sacred texts of Hinduism and the teachings of Mohammed. Wolf bristles when it's noted that China, India and Islamic nations have been, if anything, even more repressive of women's liberty than the West. “I think you need to go back to the text,” she suggests firmly, “because I say very clearly in the introduction that these are not ideal societies for women.

“I'm using their ideology about sex to dislodge our ideology about sex. Think of the words young girls growing up hear used to describe their bodies—‘pussy,’ ‘cunt.’ They don't even know that there was a place and a time [Han Dynasty China] where those same body parts were called ‘precious cinnabar cleft.’ Now, you can laugh and think that's a frivolous piece of information, but it's also quite life-saving.”

Her combination of first-person recollections with historical and theoretical material has seemed maladroit to some critics, but Wolf believes it's an essential aspect of Promiscuities. “This is a new genre that I'm creating as I go along,” she comments, apparently forgetting for the moment the mountains of second wave literature linking the personal and the political. “I understand that readers sometimes feel, ‘This isn't either a memoir or a history, this is a combination I've never encountered before; and there's some initial resistance. But I know from the internal pressures that lead me to keep trying to develop this genre, and the effect it has on my readers, that this is exactly the right way to do it.

“Our sex life doesn't unfold only personally and intimately, it unfolds within historical and cultural assumptions. The deepest truth I'm trying to get at is that it's one dimension to write personally, one dimension to write theoretically, but when I merge the two, each illuminates the other and adds more than the sum of the parts.”

As these remarks indicate, Wolf has a habit of claiming as her own insights that are hardly new to anyone familiar with feminist history and literature. This has prompted sharply divided opinion of Promiscuities. In the Sunday New York Times Book Review, Salon columnist Courtney Weaver, like the young women who flock to Wolf's readings and talks on college campuses, felt personally engaged by the author's story of her sexual experiences and enlightened by her once-over-lightly history of other cultures' sexual attitudes. New York Times daily critic Michiko Kakutani echoed many older, better-informed readers who have found fault with Wolf in the past; she judged Promiscuities to be sloppily researched, pompously written and staggeringly ignorant of other material that covered the same ground.

Wolf is more than capable of defending herself against such charges; she is confident of her ideas' importance and is polished in defending them. Today, dressed in a business-like pale green suit and fashionably chunky shoes, she looks and acts the part of the media-seasoned social commentator she's become in the six years since The Beauty Myth became an international bestseller. Her emergence as a media figure, however, was somewhat startling to a graduate student who viewed her first book as a temporary diversion from her doctoral dissertation on views of female beauty in 19th- and early 20th-century literature.


Academia seemed the likely destination for the daughter of an English professor at San Francisco State University and an anthropologist specializing in women's studies. Born in 1962, Wolf majored in English literature at Yale and went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. Her research there, combined with personal experiences, sparked The Beauty Myth. “I was looking at how, in the 19th century, as women got more power, ideals of beauty were becoming more passive, death-like and rigid. Then I had this insight that the same thing was going on all around me: we were ten years into the surge of second wave feminism, and all the most brilliant, ambitious young women I knew were starving half to death or vomiting in bathrooms, consumed with self-loathing just at the time when they could have been positioned to completely transform society”

To sell her manuscript, Wolf turned to a family friend, John Brockman, and his associate, Katinka Matson; they have agented all three of her books. Jim Landis at Morrow published The Beauty Myth in the States. “I wasn't surprised that it resonated with readers, because I knew it was true and I knew it was a deep preoccupation of women of my generation,” comments Wolf, whose own bout with anorexia is chillingly described in the book. “It certainly astonished me that I went from being a graduate student to leading a very different kind of life.

“Jim Landis took a gamble on this graduate student out of nowhere and really mentored me,” she continues. “The first draft of The Beauty Myth was not what it should have been, and I remember Jim sitting me down at a table with like 11 other editors and explaining to me, ‘You can't do it this way; you have to do it that way: The seriousness of what I needed to do was really borne out by that; I could not have been happier in my work with him.”

Wolf subsequently signed a contract for Promiscuities with Ann Godoff of Random House. “There are things that immediately resonate between us just because we're both women and of similar generations,” she explains.

Godoff stuck with Wolf when she set aside Promiscuities in the wake of the Anita Hill hearings, which the writer felt signaled the beginning of a crucial new phase for feminism. “In light of the hearings and the spontaneous voter uprising that followed by women, it became clear to me that we were now positioned to dismantle the patriarchy. That required a massive shift in our mind-set and a crash course in realpolitik.”

In place of what she termed “victim feminism” Wolf proposed “power feminism,” which would eschew setting a party line on divisive subjects like abortion and pornography in favor of meat-and-potatoes organizing to get women fairer treatment, better jobs and more political clout. She expected the “howls of outrage” from second wave feminists that greeted the book. “I think it was necessary. I was critiquing my own movement, pointing out—I hope lovingly and constructively—that some psychologies we were trapped in were not appropriate for a time when we were about to set the national agenda. In fact, our victories have far outstripped anything I foresaw in Fire with Fire, especially in the last presidential election. To have both conventions kowtowing to women and falling all over themselves to create some sort of family policy: that's power feminism”

Asked if she regrets the term “victim feminism,” she replies with a trace of irritation, “I was so scrupulous when defining it to acknowledge that women are victimized. But people like Katie Roiphe and Camille Paglia came up with the term simultaneously—sometimes the zeitgeist does funny things—and they were throwing it around in a way that I couldn't control. There were a lot of stupid things said about victim feminism which were not germane to the critique I was making, but on college campuses my analysis is the one young women cling to, because it lets them clear a way through the thicket of what they found unpalatable in 1980s feminism and direct their energies.”

Despite her role in popularizing the terms, Wolf is reluctant to make too much of the differences between second and third wave feminism. “Women always face the same basic issues—work-family conflict, sexual violence, domestic violence, poverty—and third wavers will battle in their own way the forms those hydras take for their generation”

In the long run, says this young mother whose earnest reformulations have done so much to make feminism appealing to a new generation, “My most fervent hope is that feminism will become obsolete, that someday I can tell my granddaughters about that hilarious, strange and quaint belief that women were not entitled to 52٪ of everything. I'd like to imagine them laughing.”

Naomi Glauberman (review date 27 July 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Glauberman, Naomi. “Hot and Bothered.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (27 July 1997): 9.

[In the following review of Promiscuities, Glauberman finds shortcomings in the book's lack of focus and organization.]

Naomi Wolf, either through brilliance or luck, captured the gold ring of feminist punditry with the publication of her first book, The Beauty Myth in 1991. Her denunciation of the cosmetic industry in her discussion of beauty, health and feminism resonated with a new generation of young women, many of whom had never read a feminist text. Her second book, Fire with Fire (1994), shifted gears. In her new role as public feminist, she suggested that feminism itself was partially to blame for so many women rejecting the movement. Power was in reach, if women would but seize it.

Distinguishing between what she called “victim” and “power” feminisms, Wolf became an outspoken proponent of the powerful approach, charting out a program of power networks and fund-raising that she argued would ultimately reach all classes of women.

In Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood, her chaotic and frustrating new book, Wolf moves from the political to the personal, from power feminist to “bad girl.” Here, she will write in “the first person sexual,” to boldly map out the terrain of female sexual desire; through her own sexual history and those of her childhood girlfriends, she will analyze how girls become women and offer guide posts to help them along that peril-filled path.

Her expertise, such as it is, derives from the joint accidents of birth and geography. Born in the early '60s, she was a member of the first generation to come of age in the wake of the sexual revolution. Her neighborhood, just blocks from San Francisco's Haight Ashbury, was for many the epicenter of the transformations of the late '60s and '70s, and Wolf considers herself uniquely equipped to understand the world that today's young women must negotiate. Drawing not only on her own recollections, she returns to San Francisco from Washington, D.C., where she lives today and interviews the women she knew as girls; she will capture their collective “erotic memory” to clarify the present.

The project brims with possibilities. With 20 years' perspective and a commitment to collective excavation, perhaps she will see clearly through that hormone-muddled adolescent fog. But it is exactly here that her project falters. Wolf remains trapped on a cusp of theory and memory. When she plunges into her own memories, the reader gets a glimpse of the turmoil and contradictions of those years, but these glimpses are soon obscured by the mass of data and theory with which she surrounds them.

In addition to her own narrative and the fragmented memories of her friends, Wolf drags in armies of experts, anthropologists, historians, and social theorists. But none of this coheres. The voices of the women she interviews are indistinct, their recollections remain undigested and unmediated; their thoughts, pulled forth in late night conversations, illuminate little. Her research is flung together with so many random thoughts and dangling insights that it's hard to know exactly what she thinks. The initial promise of a memoir is abandoned. Wolf doesn't have faith either in the specificity or significance of the erotic memories she has unearthed. Rather than a set of confessions, the book reads like several projects pasted together: a memoir, a polemic, a random assortment of readings on female sexuality.

As children, Wolf and her friends watched their parents transform from suited and hair-sprayed paragons of middle-class domesticity into men and women of the counterculture. “Time was marked by our parents becoming brighter and brighter and furrier and furrier,” Wolf writes, describing her own household, where Dad interviews aspiring vampires for a book on the subject, and Mom is working on a dissertation on the San Francisco lesbian scene.

The fathers of many of her friends and neighbours have departed for the front lines of the sexual revolution, leaving the mothers at home with the kids. The adults, in the throes of cultural upheaval, have little time for their children. Wolf emphasizes that it was the absence of the fathers that was particularly damaging: “The fathers' departure created in many women my age a feeling of cynicism about the durability of the bonds of commitment and love and an almost blind religious faith in the strength of the bond of sex.”

Wolf evokes some vivid moments in this sexual searching, but despite all sorts of sexual details, the book is curiously vague and a-historical. Wolf came of age at a moment when many people thought everything might be possible in all zones, erogenous and not. But she barely touches on the astounding shifts in the sexual zeitgeist of the past 20 years. The book's organization doesn't help. The chapters, vaguely chronological and loosely tracing the girl's progression from Barbies to womanhood, often read like pastiches of memory, history and after-thoughts. Even the more carefully argued chapters fall short.

In her polemic, Wolf sets herself up as a champion of female desire, a “bad girl,” who reminds her readers that teenage girls—“the same ones who are so often genuinely victimized—are also, at other times, sexual marauders and adventurers, cultural analysts and subversives, fantasists and Sapphists, egoists and conquistadors.” But despite this declaration and a veneer of free-wheeling sexuality, many of Wolf's tales are permeated with a sense of loss and foreboding. Wolf's point might lie exactly in these contradictions, but it is not always clear.

Take the slut. Not exactly new terrain, but Wolf declares it one of the leitmotifs of her work and devotes a chapter to the subject, drawing on both personal and historical material. Wolf emphasizes that as girls experiment with sex or live sexual lives as women, they are always in danger of crossing the ever-shifting line that separates good girls from bad.

In one of the book's most vividly written sections, she presents the story of 13-year-old Tia, the star of Wolf's summer camp. Perfectly coifed and tanned, she holds the girls in thrall with tales of her romance with her mother's 25-year-old boyfriend. Her young admirers thrill as Tia tells them of making out during commercials, while her mother is working late. But by mid-summer, the campers have learned that Tia is pregnant. She is now a slut. The girls are sobered. But the reader is bewildered. What exactly have they learned? That it is wrong to have sex with your mother's boyfriend? That you shouldn't get pregnant? In any case, Tia disappears into the oblivion of Slutdom and vanishes from the narrative.

At some point, Wolf and her friends realize that the sluts are rarely middle-class girls—class and race play their inevitable role—but these insights are blurred over, buried in the barrage of facts and observations. Wolf reprises this slut theme again and again, but aside from age-old clichés of good girls and bad, her message is never quite clear.

Although she takes some broad swipes at the “toxic” culture, a culture she indicts as sending ambivalent messages to young girls, Wolf directs most of her criticisms toward inadequacies in the teachings of the woman's movement. Sure, she admits, Our Bodies, Ourselves by the Boston Women's Health Collective, a basic early feminist text, with its explicit information, was certainly on the right track regarding sexual knowledge and autonomy. But Wolf complains that it left out so very much and that the authors acted as if they had discovered female sexuality, when in fact it had been around a very long time.

If that is indeed the problem, Wolf will ameliorate it. She includes within her text several mini-history lessons: One is “The Story of the Clitoris,” which she offers as a substitute for the “History of Menstruation” she received in health class. Another offers a quick survey of sexual practices, with an emphasis on women's sexual desires through the ages, as recognized by the world's major religions and cultures. Like an eager undergraduate, she has amassed piles of data and is bursting with information about China's Han dynasty or Zuni culture before the 19th century.

But, as Wolf admits, the reason she and her friends knew so little of sexual history and culture was that they were just girls. The pressures to have sex at such an early age guaranteed disappointment. Although Wolf offers a range of coming of age rituals—including a system of mentoring and an obligatory trip to the woods with women and girls, followed by a large party, she also suggests that once girls are taught to understand their sexuality, they will not feel the same pressure for early intercourse that teenage girls feel today. Instead, they will turn to time-tested activities like heavy petting, which, she claims, was once the widely accepted social norm. (Talk about the good old days!)

Leaping from subject to subject, from expert opinion to ancient text, the book often reads as if Wolf has already begun the question and answer period on her book tour. And there will always be a talk show where she could clarify the details of her first person sexual odyssey.

Despite its confusions, Promiscuities raises issues and concerns about girls and sex, that while not exactly taboo, are still not easily discussed in most homes and classrooms. Wolf and her girlfriends remember evenings as baby sitters, when they would scour the houses for books with explicit sexual information. Perhaps some 14-year-old baby sitter, girl or boy, in an empty house, once the children are asleep, will pick up Promiscuities (certainly the title would attract), and seek out the Tao instructions on how to kiss, appreciate, and arouse one's female partner. It couldn't do much harm.

Diana Schaub (review date fall 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Schaub, Diana. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Public Interest, no. 129 (fall 1997): 116–24.

[In the following review of Promiscuities, Schaub commends the seriousness of Wolf's feminist concerns, but faults her “sloppy” eclecticism and contradictory aims.]

Clearly, it will not be supplied by Naomi Wolf, whose new book, Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood, shows her to be still in quest of “a better time.” The book is an evocative recounting of the sexual coming of age of Wolf and her friends in the San Francisco of the 1960s and 1970s, interspersed with potted summaries of the sexual mores of other times and places. In “A Short History of the Slut,” for instance, we move from “the Great Mother, with her divine sexuality,” circa 20,000 B.C.E., to Nicole Brown Simpson, all in five pages. Much of the memoir portion of the book is actually quite frank about the costs of the sexual revolution. Wolf describes particularly well the various ways in which children were neglected, bereft, forgotten, or abandoned as adults increasingly put their own gratification foremost. Her comments about the effect of divorce on young girls are perceptive:

Just when the girls needed their fathers to be around to admire their emerging sexual identity from a safe distance—to be the dependable male figures upon whom they could innocently practice growing up—the fathers vanished. … To the female children on the block, then, there was a new kind of anxiety: How could one grow up to become, through sex, the kind of woman a dad would not want to go away from? … The fathers' departure created in many women my age a feeling of cynicism about the durability of the bonds of commitment and love and an almost blind religious faith in the strength of the bond of sex.

But Wolf wouldn't have had it otherwise: “In spite of all the wreckage, I am glad we lived through what we did, where we did.” (This makes about as much sense as Wolf's position on abortion, which consists of a frank acknowledgement that abortion is murder coupled with an intransigent endorsement of the practice.) Wolf continues to believe that as a result of the sexual revolution female desire was “freed in some critical ways.”

The problem, as she sees it, is that the revolution did not go far enough. Everybody learned the technical stuff about orgasms and g-spots, but did not really come to appreciate, nay “venerate,” the distinctiveness of female desire. This is Wolf's answer to the pretty much undeniable fact that the sexual revolution's version of sexual equality unleashed male wolfishness. What we need according to her is to complete the sexual revolution by reviving “female sexuality's sacred and religious aspects.” Thus will women affirm their superior and polymorphous carnality (“There are no good girls; we are all bad girls, in the best sense of the word”), and thus will men learn the delights of apprenticing themselves to such goddesses. Gallantry would return, not in the form of a man's throwing his coat over a mud puddle but in the form of hours of foreplay.

According to Wolf, history offers us plenty of examples of the enshrinement of female desire, from the Han Dynasty of ancient China and its Tao of Loving to the Zuni Indians of New Mexico. To her credit, Wolf is trying to rescue heterosexuality from “feminist commentators” who “equate heterosexuality with a set of assumptions that are innately degrading to women.” In turning to the Kama Sutra and other erotic literature, she is looking for works that “give the lie to the message in Penthouse, the primary teaching text for the teenage boys we know, that female nakedness and sexuality are cheap, as well as those of some second-wave feminists whose wish to restrict images of female nudity is argued on the grounds that they are inherently ‘objectifying.’”

But one suspects that her eclecticism is a bit sloppy. Wolf wants more respect for women without any sacrifice of promiscuous pleasures. Yet, from her own brief accounts of these other cultures, one notices that these elaborate sex manuals were used as marriage manuals by “inexperienced brides.” In other words, womanly pleasure meant wifely pleasure. That observation should at least cause one to wonder whether both maidenly virginity and matronly fidelity might be important components of teachings about the sacredness of female desire. But Wolf, no sexual economist, wants pleasure to be both precious and plentiful. Hence she prefers the Babylonians, with their ritual prostitution, to the Jews, who thought prostitution unholy. One can't help wondering what she'll find a good word for next: maybe the liberationist potential of polygamy.

Wolf doesn't go so far as to recommend ritual prostitution for us today, but she does want rituals: rites of passage for girls, “wisdom initiations,” “mentoring exchanges,” and all-female retreats at which “older women would teach the younger skills and techniques, such as self-defense, contraception, sexual pleasure, and parenting.” Again, she seems unaware that the things she wants don't necessarily cohere. It is difficult to combine real rituals with radical freedom. Peoples with rituals that matter are bound. They don't, as Carol Gilligan's blurb says of Promiscuities, “encourage every woman to tell it her way.”

It is exceedingly easy to mock this book, from its opening invocation of Margaret Mead to its closing call for a sort of updated version of the Eleusinian mysteries. Nonetheless, I do believe that the dissatisfaction fueling Wolf's inquiry is serious. To some extent, she overlaps Lasch, and even the late Allan Bloom, in her concern for the fate of eros in the modern world. Like them, she returns to the thought and practices of bygone times. In the end, however, San Francisco retains its hold on her. As she says early on, “our town made it hard to have ultimate faith in any belief system that made claims beyond the pleasures of the senses.” But a true education of the sentiments is not to be had in the City of Sybaris.

Wendy Shalit (review date December 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Shalit, Wendy. “Daughters of the (Sexual) Revolution.” Commentary 104, no. 6 (December 1997): 42–45.

[In the following excerpt, Shalit offers an unfavorable assessment of Promiscuities.]

The signals of distress currently coming from the fairer sex merit a hearing. They issue from books and magazine articles, and they are echoed in the often impossibly contradictory statements by leaders and spokesmen of the feminist movement on themes ranging from women in combat roles to the threat ostensibly posed to womankind by the all-male Promise Keepers.

On the one hand, we are still being assured by feminists that any behavior on the part of men that suggests a protective attitude toward women is by definition sexist. “Chivalry,” the writer Nancy Henley has declared, is an “oppressive tool”; according to the philosopher Marilyn Frye, even the act of opening a door for a woman sends the abhorrent message that “women are incapable.” As for the Promise Keepers, a movement of men who forswear violence and vow to fulfill their marital obligations, it has been denounced by Patricia Ireland, the president of the National Organization for Women, for seeking to perpetrate a “hidden agenda”: installing “men back in control as heads and masters of the family, government, and every other institution that shapes our society.”

But does this mean that feminists prefer a world in which the sexual playing field has been truly leveled, where men and women alike are free to behave as they please, keeping and breaking their promises as the spirit listeth? That does not seem to be the case, either. In the age of stalking and date rape, of teenage pregnancy and AIDS, some feminists are in fact beginning to wonder, however tentatively, whether women, particularly young women, are really better off without the old, “sexist” codes that once governed the behavior of men. Admittedly, though, you have to read between the lines to hear the message, which is often no sooner breathed than it is denied.

What, for instance, does a paladin of the movement like Naomi Wolf think is wrong with young women today? She would seem to think that they are not being promiscuous enough. That, at least, is what she suggests when she defines the central task of her recent book, Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood, as erasing the stigma against the “shadow slut.” It is also the thesis elaborated upon in her introduction, where she explains that the “fear of being labeled promiscuous [still] accompanies contemporary girls on each stage of their erotic exploration.” And it is the rallying cry emblazoned on the book's jacket: “There are no good girls; we are all bad girls.”

If that were the sum of Promiscuities, it would constitute just another case of equal-opportunity vamping and tramping. Are we not all hip by now to the fact that women and men (in, of course, their uncorrupted state) entertain the same expectations of sex, and that, as the novelist Margaret Atwood reminds us, real equality “means equally bad as well as equally good”? But this is not what Promiscuities is really about. Under its liberated surface, Naomi Wolf has written an essentially reactionary book—or, rather, she has written two books, which run next to each other on parallel tracks.

Promiscuities is a “first-person sexual” account of life from 1968 to 1996. At the book's beginning we tour the dawn of the sexual revolution through the lens of Wolf's own sexual coming-of-age in the hippie kingdom of Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco; at its middle we witness firsthand the AIDS epidemic through the fearful eyes of one who has been sexually active for years; and at book's end we experience what getting married is like for an author who does “not want to return to the values of the prefeminist ‘sexual mystique.’”

The double-track effect kicks in early. Even as Wolf's first chapter celebrates the “gorgeousness” of the hippie life of Haight-Ashbury, which “made us feel that we were not alive if we were not being sexual,” another, less gorgeous story is being adumbrated:

When, as an adult, I saw a documentary on the [1967] Summer of Love that showed a naked four-year-old trying desperately to get his tripping, dancing mother's attention until he started to cry, I felt my heart contract. I had an emotional memory of similar gatherings where playmates of mine had tried and tried to remind their parents, who were having so much fun, that they were still there—and still small.

Wolf's liberated voice returns soon enough. By chapter 3, she is lamenting that even during the heyday of the sexual revolution, girls were still being forced to deny the “‘voice’ of their own desire.” When, at her Zionist summer camp, Wolf's friend Tia—she of the “high arched-feet with … pearly toenails”—is sent away for turning up pregnant one day, Wolf reflects bitterly on “the impulse to equate women's being sexual with their suffering a swift, sure punishment,” an impulse she traces to “the Hebrews [who] equated female promiscuity … with shame, destruction, and just punishment.” Yet Wolf also reports with palpable sadness that, when she lost her own virginity at age fifteen, there was “something important missing.” What was missing was, precisely, a sense of that old Hebrew stigma: “When Martin and I went together to a clinic to arrange for contraception some weeks before the actual deed, no experience could have been flatter,” she recalls. “It was weird to have these adults just hand you the keys to the kingdom, ask, ‘Any questions?,’ wave, and return to their paperwork.”

Throughout this book, Wolf bravely goes on insisting that a girl's sex drive is “at least as intense” as a boy's and arrives just as “early,” and that all the woes girls suffer today can be traced “to the silences created by the fear of entering the Slut's Dominion.” But throughout this same book, she is also incensed at the eroticization of little girls in our post-sexual-revolution age, enraged about the “old-fashioned perverts to whom the culture ha[s] suddenly granted unforeseen access to create sexualized images of us,” and fearful of the dangerous world her now two-year-old daughter will be inheriting. In short, this book, which purports to be about promiscuity, is really about the desire for innocence.

So, in fact, concluded many female reviewers of Promiscuities—and they did not like it one bit. Protest as she might that all she wanted was to redeem the inner slut, Naomi Wolf had managed to convey the impression of a defector, and for her pains she was slapped into purdah. In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called her a “sloppy thinker and incompetent writer” who “pass[ed] off tired observations … and sappy suggestions as useful ideas,” while the columnist Maureen Dowd testified that she found Promiscuities inadvertently “hilarious.” Time's Ginia Bellafante assaulted the book for its “banal stories” about young women “who dated the wrong guys, who wish they hadn't lost their virginity so early, who were forced to deal with unplanned pregnancies.” And Camille Paglia, the buccaneering professor who has elevated the femme fatale to a normative model of womanhood, saw through Wolf's “bad-girl” posturing in a second: “Why, why why why?,” Paglia moaned to a reporter, “Why is Naomi Wolf telling stories about her own virginity? … Who needs these earnest memoirs?” …

To any woman who wants to have her cake of custom and eat it too, this philosophy—pursue whatever “sexual strategies” you like, and then, when you are good and ready, let men know that it is time for them to come a-courting—must be immensely appealing. But just as no one has a right to be loved back, liberal feminists may have a hard time restoring, by fiat, the right of women to be wooed. Already, career women are reporting in irritation that, although they are now ready, having climbed the ladder, and having had their affairs and their abortions, they cannot find men who want to apply for the position of suitor. Surely the trouble cannot lie with their own career plans? (1. Take over big company; 2. Make somebody court me.)

Karen Lehrman writes confidently that “no one—most especially the law—should … underestimate the rationality of a woman, of her ability to make a clear-headed decision about her life.” (She also reserves her harshest scorn for women who exhibit “excessive dependence on men”—their rationality, evidently, can never be underestimated enough.) But there is always the unexpected hitch. Feminists, having discovered that patriarchy did certain things better, may decide one day to grab their cellular phones so as to order up the deep erotic experience that goes with security and monogamy. But what, really, does it mean any longer to seek to win a pledge of marriage, when even the law no longer insists the pledge is a pledge?

The choices we offer, the opportunities we extend, are shapers of our culture, cutting off, in turn, whole sets of other choices and other opportunities. Dislike the fact though they may, even these ladies, in the end, cannot have it all. The floodgates remain open, and for them as, alas, for the rest of us, it is still sink or swim.

Rebecca Abrams (review date 17 September 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Abrams, Rebecca. “More Mummy Lit.” New Statesman (17 September 2001): 55.

[In the following review of Misconceptions, Abrams commends Wolf's “determination” but finds flaws in the book's “hackneyed” and “self-indulgent” qualities.]

It was absolutely predictable that Naomi Wolf would write a book about motherhood [Misconceptions]. She belongs to a generation of women, which is also my generation, for whom becoming and being a mother have undone every comfortable feminist certainty we ever had, and whose trademark response is to write about it. Reared on a weirdly neutered brand of feminism, you regarded motherhood as just a vague idea to keep up your sleeve in case it came in handy later. Children were things you left as late as possible, then farmed out to minders and nurseries while you concentrated on the all-important task of being equal. During those decades of active, angry, acquisitive feminism, motherhood was expunged from the official doctrine, cast as an old-fashioned habit best ignored. “Our great romance was with the belief in equality itself,” as Wolf puts it.

Misconceptions is Wolf's fourth book. It is interesting not so much for what it has to say about the journey to motherhood, a story which has been told rather better elsewhere, but for how it fits into a wider publishing phenomenon, recently dubbed “mummy lit.” The term may be trivialising; the rapidly amassing body of fiction and nonfiction that it describes is anything but. Taken individually, these books vary greatly in style, approach and quality; taken together, they represent something substantial and unignorable.

Wolf writes plaintively of the “collision between expectation and reality” which creates “a kind of statelessness for many women” when they become mothers. In exile from old convictions, we are in the process of discovering ways to talk and write about this collision and its consequences, whether that's the acidic introspection of Rachel Cusk's A Life's Work, the wry humour of Susan Maushart's The Mask of Motherhood or the warm-hearted insightfulness of Maureen Freely's What about Us?, to name three contributors to the genre.

Through the prism of publishing trends we are witnessing feminism in the process of reinventing itself, struggling to draw from the wreckage of an outmoded idealism about gender equality some clues and fragments from which a less grandiose, more realistic—holistic even—feminism may be constructed, one that encompasses rather than denies the centrality of not just our productive, but our reproductive selves.

I have nothing but admiration for Wolf's determination to get up there on her soapbox and tell us how wrong the world is, how badly it uses women. Misconceptions, however, is not a particular success, marred by too many hackneyed revelations about pregnancy, too many unstartling insights about motherhood. A self-indulgent torpor imbues the writing for the most part.

Wolf recovers her usual table-thumping pizzazz only when she turns her attention to anatomising the American medical profession. She depicts the American birth industry as a remorseless machine geared to maximising profit and minimising liability. In the sleek world of private healthcare, time is money; patients are merely the means to a lucrative end. Since the 1970s, the Caesarean rate in the United States as a whole has risen from 6 per cent to 25 percent (compared to 5 per cent in some European countries). In private hospitals in America, however, the rate for healthy, middle-class women stands at 50 percent. “In other words,” says Wolf, “women whose health plans can afford to reimburse the hospital for a Caesarean section are more likely to be told they must have one.”

As her pregnancy progresses, Wolf is drawn into a web of obscure silences, misleading statistics and obfuscating procedures. In a New York consulting room, a leading obstetrician hisses that she will be risking her unborn child's life if she resists medical intervention. Only later does she realise he was probably just covering his ass. The gleaming Alternative Birthing Center in the smart Washington hospital where she is due to deliver turns out to be little more than a cynical showpiece, pretty bait for women just like Wolf who, in reality and on the flimsiest pretext, will be shunted to the unglamorous birthing rooms below. There, epidurals, episiotomies and surgery are as routine as flossing teeth. The many, considerable risks associated with each of these interventions are starkly itemised.

Private obstetricians and hospitals make substantially more money from a Caesarean than a vaginal delivery. Wolf points out that American hospitals would lose $1.1bn in revenue each year if they performed Caesareans only when absolutely necessary.

With one eye on their hourly rate and the other on the cost of litigation, obstetricians pressurise women into unnecessarily hi-tech births that frequently end in emergency Caesareans. Even entirely problem-free labours are routinely “speeded up” with the help of epidurals and Caesareans, if deemed by obstetricians to be taking too long. In comparison with this monstrous piece of profiteering, the creaky old NHS emerges as little short of a birthing idyll.

Marilyn Gardner (review date 27 September 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Gardner, Marilyn. “The Baby Myth.” Christian Science Monitor (27 September 2001): 19.

[In the following review, Gardner offers an unfavorable assessment of Misconceptions, commenting that the book is narcissistic and lacks specific examples to support many of Wolf's points.]

Pregnancy can be a joyous, wondrous time. In the eyes of Naomi Wolf, it can also be a period fraught with confusion, ambivalence, and conflict with medical professionals. As she warns at the beginning of her sobering, often angry book, Misconceptions, the experience of becoming a mother in America is “undersupported, sentimentalized, and even manipulated at women's expense.”

Wolf's own journey to motherhood begins in a small town in Italy, where a pregnancy test confirms her unexpected new state. After she and her husband return home to Washington, D.C., she quickly becomes “inducted into a medical system that had very clear expectations of me—but little room for me to negotiate my expectations of it.”

In the ensuing months, as her figure grows “startlingly big,” those expectations shrink. She encounters dispassionate obstetricians who, she complains, seem determined to withhold information and wrest power from expectant parents. She also learns that the hospital where her baby will be born has a Cesarean delivery rate of 30 percent.

And then there are the smaller terrors of pregnancy. Wolf mourns the loss of her physical shape. She becomes “dumb with fear” when she sees a friend's stretch marks at the gym, wondering if this will be her fate, too. She despairs that she cannot find a “racy” maternity outfit. She finds herself “desperate for positive maternal role models” with whom she can identify. She wonders if she will be “reduced to sentences of five words, of one or two syllables, simply by dint of having given birth.” And she yearns for the “powerful, sexual mother-goddesses” that are common in “a number of other cultures.”

Which cultures? Wolf never tells us. Again and again, she falls back on vague, wistful references to the superior ways in which “other cultures” treat pregnancy and childbirth, and the ways “our culture” comes up short. But aside from a few brief mentions of Britain's National Health Service and the system of midwives in Holland and Denmark, she tends to point to obscure cultures as role models. The Trobriand Islanders of the South Pacific, for example, create ceremonial pregnancy skirts and cloaks. And rural Catholic Filipino communities treat pregnant women “with great deference.”

But what about pregnant women in France, for example, or Germany, Italy, and Sweden? The book would have profited immensely by a much fuller explanation of childbirth attitudes and practices in European countries.

Not until the second half of the book, after Wolf reveals the traumatic circumstances surrounding her own delivery, does she settle into a less histrionic tone, offering a systematic explanation of the problems that can surround childbirth in America.

She describes the tension that exists between medical practitioners and midwives. Doctors, fearful of malpractice suits and eager to expedite deliveries, she says, rely heavily on routine anesthesia, fetal monitoring, and frequent Cesarean deliveries.

Medical technicians, she charges, see birth as “a medical problem to be solved.” The obstetrical culture trains them “not to wait and nurture, but rather to act.” That action translates into an order to women in labor: Produce a baby within 24 hours or be subjected to a Cesarean.

Most midwives, by contrast, “argue that birth is best treated as a normal and healthy process that women, as a rule, are capable of managing without undue intervention. Many midwives believe that the way doctors have medicalized normal births leaves women less able to call up the confidence and courage they need to get themselves through birth without drastic intervention.”

Wolf does have good days during her pregnancy, days “filled with peace and a kind of quiet excitement.” But whatever joy she and her husband experience during those nine months remains for the most part a well-kept secret.

This is a gloomy book. From pregnancy books to childbirth classes to pre-birth hospital tours, little escapes Wolf's ire. Could she find no examples of satisfied couples and successful births, and of caring physicians who could serve as examples of what can go right under the proper circumstances?

It is also a book marred by overwrought prose: “I had fallen into a primordial soup of femaleness …. I was drowning in the Lake of Fecundity.” And: “The image that I was about to become someone's addiction, a cow to be trotted out of the stable, a lifeline, an oxygen tank, grew in me.”

Wolf's basic message—the overmedicalization of childbirth—is an important one. She calls for changes in obstetrical practices that would give parents more control. And she pleads for more support for mothers, who often find themselves isolated both before and after a baby's birth.

How unfortunate that she works against her own best interests—and the reader's—by packaging that worthy message in a book that is too often whining and narcissistic.


Principal Works


Further Reading