Naomi Wolf


If looks could kill, the cab driver would by now not only be dead but dismembered. If Naomi Wolf’s life were an American action movie, the sexist scum would be removed. Terminated.

We were heading from The Holiday Inn to Bristol’s Watershed Media Centre where Wolf, whose new book is the current bible of ‘post-feminist feminism’, was due to address a gathering of some three hundred female supporters and ardent activists.

I had spent the early part of the evening waiting for Ms Wolf in the bar, drinking a Holiday Inn Special, studying ‘The Beauty Myth: How Images Of Beauty Are Used Against Women.’

Page 242 had half a page on the prospects of male cosmetic surgery – things like “foreskin enhancement”, “testicular injections” and surgery to “correct the angle of erection.” I looked around. The men in the Holiday Inn bar seemed strangely oblivious to Naomi’s imminent arrival.

She then mentions “penis implants” (about which I’m saying nothing). The risks, she writes with discernible relish, would include “implant collapse” and “glands rigidity.” Not to mention “leakage.” Leakage!

Trying to keep composed, I swiftly moved on. She claims that “38% of women” had been sexually abused before the age of 18. “1 man in 10 acknowledged he had sexually abused a child.” “30% of college men” would commit rape “if they could get away with it.” A vision of Wolf as the feminists’ avenging heroine flashed before me.

There was more. Much more. According to Ms Wolf’s book, I read: “Women’s breasts must be perfectly symmetrical; men’s genitals are not.” I gulped. Was my date for the evening advocating this sort of equality ? Would I be a target for redress ? What if she took things (my things) into her own hands ?

Ms Wolf however proved to be beguiling and charming company. Until the taxi driver intervened, slamming the brakes to avoid a white Volvo swerving across us. He then shattered the relaxed atmosphere with a grubby grumble and the words that would – if Wolf’s life were an action movie – be his parting words to the world: “Bloody women drivers.”

My jaw dropped. Seeing her blood boil, I ducked for cover. The cab driver, oblivious to both his crime and his fate, then compounded the gravity of his situation by shrugging haplessly and moaning: “well she was.”

If Naomi Wolf’s life were an action movie, this would be her big scene. ‘Menstruator 2’ would have a “post-feminist” concept: “They asked her to clean the kitchen. Now she’s cleaning up the streets.”

As the most violent member of the organization ‘Vigilantes Against Gender Insults – Naomi’s Anti-Sexism Squad’, the avenging heroine would enforce her own sweet justice and exact immediate and bloody retribution. Producing (from her handbag) her Lethal Weapon (a silver nail file), Wolf would swiftly but cleanly de-sex the errant cabbie, scrawl the organisation’s initials across his forehead in lipstick and eject him into the Bristol streets, tossing a copy of ‘The Beauty Myth’ onto his corpse as a calling card.

If only…
In reality, Naomi’s disdain is dispatched more mundanely – by not tipping him. However, her triumph is slightly dented by the discovery that he has dropped us on the wrong side of the waterfront. We will have to walk, or swim, across. In Wolf’s eyes, no doubt, it all provides further, conclusive, proof: it is a man’s world. Men always have the last laugh.

The native male entering the lion’s den, the lionesses’ den, I escort a, by now, amused and demure Ms Wolf into the venue, which is Radical and Right-On with a capital ‘W’ and packed with all the inevitable, ridiculous clichés of extremism: gamin girls with shaved heads, Soviet caps and nose-rings, scruffy students brandishing copies of ‘Spare Rib’, even the occasional badge supporting L.A.B.I.A. (‘Lesbian And Bi-Women In Action’). I had entered a twilight zone – the Outer Limits of Feminism.

Several feminine heads turn, either with envy, to eye me up, or to decide whether to form a lynch mob. I start hearing imaginary hisses. When I mischievously ask Naomi if the obviousness ever disappoints her, she smartly turns it round. “You mean, ‘why are all feminists ugly ?”, pointing out “the 20 year-old caricature of ‘the ugly feminist’ is old hat.”

The problem is, no-one has told all the audience that they look old hat, or that the concept of “ugly feminism” is just a male means of discouraging women from “coming out” as feminists. Looking around, there is, in fact, not much evidence of the insidious effects of the Beauty Myth in the hall at all.

When Ms Wolf and her alluring assistant assess the male contingent and conclude something like “you’ll probably be the best on offer”, I feel like saying: “so will you.” I’m not sure whether to feel relieved or disappointed when talk of “succumbing to mad desires” on the road transpires simply to refer to eating or shopping impulses.

On stage though, Wolf transfixes the audience, generating a mood somewhere between a Ku Klux Klan meeting and a gospel gathering, speaking with an evangelical fervour, an American enthusiasm and energy that strays between dogma and inspired idealism in a way that suggests she is speaking in feminist tongues.

“I nearly died of the Beauty Myth,” says the Born-Again Wolf, referring to her anorexia as a teenager, describing it as her “privilege” to be able to spread the word. Conspiracy theories abound. She talks of “enemies”; of “a spell on women and their activism”; “a secret underlife poisoning our freedom”, and compares women’s isolation in society to that of political prisoners.

I wonder if, in fact, I am guilty – guilty by association; if I am the “enemy”; if the original sin is being male. Am I, like the other men there, to be brought forward, made to repent and either converted or sacrificed ?

I begin to feel defensive, proud, to be male. I feel like resorting to rather more direct tactics, to get all yob-by. I wonder, in short, whether to shake my balls at them and say ‘what about that for symmetry then, girls ?’ On reflection, though, I think better of it.

Wolf talks of discussing the issues with “women”, rather than “people”, and one Wolf supporter suggests the men there have been dragged along by their girlfriends, and certainly they look smug, gaining MAJOR points (going to see Naomi Wolf!!!). They look tortured with guilt – liberal idiots and quivering victims. One man, as if pleading for mercy, states that he doesn’t treat women badly – and neither do his friends. The words “some of my best friends are women” are not very far away. Another asks what he should DO ? How should he BE ? The girl next to me holds her boyfriend’s hand and squeezes it occasionally as if to see him through. Poor lamb.

So, I ask her later: Who’s Afraid of Naomi Wolf ?
Men, she says, are not.

We are at Sergio’s, the only Italian blues restaurant in Bristol. Away from the arena of sexual politics, Naomi Wolf is vivacious and stimulating, relaxed enough to chat about men and debate any issue with indefatigable energy and exasperatingly erratic logic.

Those who’ve accused her of getting enormous publicity because of her own beauty would be shocked to hear her immediately suggest the media have used her appearance “to silence” her. The couple sitting next to us would be even more shocked.

Quick to assume what I (as a man) have assumed about her, she proffers apologies for her “totally obvious” taste in music (“people like Tracy Chapman”), apologies which, given the gravity of her confession, I accept.

She has, she says, sucking a snail, “always had men in my life… Living your life as a feminist weeds out men who aren’t attracted to strong women. I mean, what could be less interesting or erotic than a weak man ?”

She professes to be shocked at my, perhaps un-chivalrous, suggestion that some men might find her unapproachable – either because of her public profile, her staunch feminism or evident sexual confidence.
“But aren’t those things attractive to men ?” she asks, almost hopefully (noticeably not denying the last).
“If you feel that, we’re obviously not destined to be together.”
I take a large drink.
“It’s true my last relationship was wholly hastened to its demise by the stresses of bringing out the book, but otherwise, I’ve had many male friends and lovers and admirers, and they’ve certainly found it, erm, delicious, and charming, and attractive.”

I feel obliged to reassure her I’m sure it would be delicious and charming and attractive.
“One doesn’t LIVE a polemic. I don’t snarl feminist polemic over the breakfast table. I think you’ll find I’m a friendly, cuddly person.”

Was this an invitation ?

Nevertheless the strident, spirited voice of ‘The Beauty Myth’ is unmistakable.
“Let’s define our terms,” she’ll announce before launching into a passionate discourse about the way the Beauty Myth evolved as an organized “backlash” against “the revolutionary successes of Second Wave Feminism” to repress women not only to “circumvent anti-discriminatory legislation” but as a necessary foundation of the world’s economy. I get tired just listening to her.

Men want to possess women through the beauty myth not for sexual power but as “a political weapon.”
Had I ever done this ? (Where could I learn ?)
Eager to debate this thoroughly, I consider my response – as a man – reflect for a moment, then respond: “More wine, I think.”

By dessert, I have understood several of Naomi’s views almost totally. “Women,” she says, “work… twice as hard as men. All over the world, and for longer than records have been kept, that has been true.”
I was sure the women in the restaurant, galvanized by Ms Wolf, were planning something: an attack.

“It is men…who use their sexuality to get ahead. 35% of men versus only 15% of women say that they use their appearance for rewards in the workplace.”

Had I gone mad ? One of us surely had. Several women in the restaurant were glowering at me.

Her last partner she described as “a committed Scottish Nationalist” while “I have committed my life to feminism. We used to really (grits her teeth) DEBATE it…”
She says this with such force I spill my coffee.

“I have been in very fleeting relationships with a genuine sexist – but not often – I don’t believe in sleeping with the enemy. Being sexist or racist is like bad breath – completely off-putting. It’s true though, physical attraction is a very strong drug.”

She even admits to have fallen for that old male stereotype – the James Dean image, which seems a bit, erm, sexist.

Over the tannoy, Muddy Waters is singing: “She left me, the whore/And one day I won’t love her/Anymore/I can’t stand it/I can’t stand her/Can’t even under-stand her.”
I know how he feels.

After a good-humoured but frank conversation, ultimately, inevitably, we fall out (over the trout). When Naomi’s arguments become deliberately discriminatory, I begin to feel persecuted – as persecuted as she does, a simple specimen for all men. I wonder if I might be about to have an “implant collapse”.

Having incited the wrath of women who think she’s simply stereotyping them as victims, and been dismissed because of her appearance, it strikes me Naomi’s possibly become obsessed by it – on the verge of absolute paranoia.
“You might have to deal with the fact that this was a bestseller because people want to hear what I have to say,” she says forcefully. “Not because of the way I look.”

The waiter raises his eyebrows. People in the restaurant look over – possibly concerned for my safety.

When I ask if, having deconstructed the Beauty Myth, she can exploit it, manipulate it and men’s vulnerability to it, in order to sell her book and thereby undermine the BM’s social influence, she stabs her fork into the trout and shouts irately, “are you suggesting I exchange sexual favours for media access ?”

This is so far from what I had been suggesting, I wonder if perhaps SHE’S suggesting it. Hearing the phrase ‘sexual favours’, the Italian waiter winks at me. The fork is quivering inside the trout. Naomi’s rant continues unabated.
“’Put me on a television show and I will fellate you ?’ Is that what you’re saying ?”

As the word ‘fellate’ echoes round the silent restaurant, it becomes clear that, condemned to represent men and women, we have no idea what either of us is talking about. Or indeed what we ourselves are talking about.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to bite your head off.”
For a moment, Wolf looks, well, sheepish.

We form a pact. We agree that with the advent of gym culture, fashion peer pressure, the growth of male beauty and cosmetics campaigns, male bimbos, cosmetic surgery etc., the evil Beauty Myth has now targeted men as its next market. Ugly/plain men are repressed too – especially by beautiful women.
“Men will soon be suffering the same vulnerability of being sexually judged.”

Naomi Wolf seems satisfied. Men have her sympathies and women, as ever, have mine.

By 2am, extraordinarily, Naomi is so tired even she can no longer talk. Falling asleep, relishing the sudden, ensuing silence, reflecting on all she has to say, my message – oh my brothers – is this: Read her book and do not be afraid of Naomi Wolf.