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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary/cultural history / sex

     

The Vagina

by
Emma L.E. Rees


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Vagina



Title: The Vagina
Author: Emma L.E. Rees
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2013
Length: 317 pages
Availability: The Vagina - US
The Vagina - UK
The Vagina - Canada
The Vagina - India
  • A Literary and Cultural History
  • With five figures and fourteen color plates

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Our Assessment:

B- : reasonably interesting if somewhat limited overview

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent A- 24/8/2013 Kaite Walsh
New Statesman . 28/8/2013 Helen Lewis
Times Higher Education B 15/8/2013 Shahidha Bari


  From the Reviews:
  • "Although Rees is an academic by trade, the book gleefully mixes highbrow and lowbrow, from Chaucer to 21st-century horror. She doesnít, as Wolf did, focus all of womenís self worth there, but it is an engaging discussion about how the controversy of the words we use to describe it mask a deep-rooted fear of vaginas and their owners. (...) Ever the cunning linguist, she leaves no pun unmade, but doesnít skimp on the theory either, the perfect antidote for those feminists who find too much of the terminology dry and academic. This may not be the definitive text on the vagina -- Rees is clear that she canít overturn centuries of embarrassment and taboo in a single book -- but itís an excellent place to start." - Kaite Walsh, The Independent

  • "The focus is inevitably western and anglophone, or it would have required far more than 350 pages, but the examples are well chosen and engaging." - Helen Lewis, New Statesman

  • "Reesí The Vagina is no memoir masquerading as cultural history; rather, it is a sensibly researched study that catalogues a range of artistic and literary representations of female genitalia, and demonstrates an understanding of the various aesthetic, intellectual and political discussions that frame them. It is a study that critically scrutinises our (in)abilities and (dis)inclinations to acknowledge the place of female sex, sexuality and sexual health in discourse. This is not to say it is a book that is revelatory in any profound way, but it is an informed, often interesting and decently historicising effort" - Shahidha Bari, Times Higher Education

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Vagina is, as its subtitle has it, A Literary and Cultural History rather than, say, an introduction to or consideration of that piece of anatomy (as anatomy), and representation -- literary, artistic, mythological -- is much on author Rees' mind. Focused on that -- often what's visible to the eye (as in paintings such as Courbet's L'origine du monde) -- it remains very much a surface-study: The Vagina doesn't delve too deep, or penetrate (sorry, Rees' extensive wordplay is catching ...) its ostensible -- or at least titular -- subject. Yes, the vagina -- the birth canal (yet another too-freighted term dealing with that ... area, since it shifts the focus entirely to parturition) -- doesn't exactly come up empty here, but one might have assumed that in a book with this title the author would have immersed herself (and readers) more deeply in it.
       Rees is aware of the nomenclature-issues, and does address them. Late in the book, she discusses the titles she considered for her study (in a section criticizing -- and, yes, she notes she's aware of the irony -- Eve Ensler's choice of title for her The Vagina Monologues), revealing a preference for something more 'cunt'-focused (Can't was apparently a working title (and it even got as far as an Amazon-listing), but the American pronunciation of the word wasn't near enough to the mark for that to work). And Rees' Introduction immediately jumps on the subject, discussing the 'naming of parts' -- and specifically the difficulties the word (or rather, the use of the word) 'cunt' poses. It's an interesting issue, and Rees' discussion of it worthwhile; nevertheless, left with the title The Vagina, it also makes for some confusion.
       The barrier to entry is reinforced by Rees' fascination with and extensive discussion of the idea/myth of vagina dentata, the 'toothed vagina' (which might not entirely prevent entry, but certainly makes a mess of things if breached). It's a striking choice for a book with this subject-matter, perforce dictating a 'stay-out'-attitude -- as is also then reinforced by the fact that there's some mention but little real discussion of much that regularly is considered to go in and come out of the vagina (most notably: menstrual discharge, babies, and penises).
       Still, even sticking largely with the surface -- the cunt/vulva -- Rees does have quite a lot to offer. Her tour of how it's been represented and discussed is somewhat limited in ambit -- there's relatively little cross-cultural exploration (beyond FGM (female genital mutilation, or 'female circumcision', as it is sometimes still (ridiculously) called), which is a shame, and she's quite select in what she hones in on -- but what she focuses on she does consider very closely. From Courbet's painting ("a visual illustration of the idea of the independent or autonomized cunt", since: "Courbet does not include the woman's head or limb in his image") to Judy Chicago's 'The Dinner Party' to various texts, performance pieces, The Vagina Monologues, and even some episodes of the TV show Sex and the City, Rees is especially strong on the rapidly evolving (and more in-your-face) artistic (or would-be artistic) representation of the cunt in contemporary (Western, and even here basically American and British) culture, both fringe and more mainstream.
       At times, The Vagina loses itself in its forest for all the trees: admirably extensively annotated, the sheer number of chapter-endnotes (158 for the Introduction alone) suggest an over-reliance on example -- and, indeed, much of The Vagina bogs down in its litany of listings.
       Rees' personal touch -- there's some first-person confession and commentary throughout -- and a general playfulness (especially regarding (apparently irresistible) sexual wordplay) are, for the most part, effective. Occasionally, she can get carried away -- suggesting, for example, storylines that have been: "exuberantly and fearlessly examined by the wonderfully talent Lena Dunham", without providing any basis (other than her personal opinion) for these claims ('wonderfully talented', in particular, really demands some elaboration) -- but for the most part when she imposes her experience (as in the nice opening anecdote) or interpretation it works quite well.
       As her discussion of what to call her study, and of the difficulties of employing the word 'cunt' (generally, specifically, titularly, socially, etc.) suggest, consideration of that general area of the female anatomy remains fraught with difficulties, even when one tries to be as open as possible about it (as some of those performance artists she presents certainly do). The Vagina is far from a definitive study of the subject matter -- even just as 'literary and cultural history' -- but a useful addition to the conversation. Rees offers many interesting examples and the odd titbit (Courbet's L'origine du monde comes from the collection of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan !), and though she works more by example than evaluation, there's a lot of useful information here.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 October 2013

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Links:

The Vagina: Reviews: Emma L.E. Rees: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Emma L.E. Rees teaches at the University of Chester.

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© 2013 the complete review

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