Naomi Wolf: A Perfectly Packaged Would-Be Feminist, She Can Turn Even the Most Highly Political Issue into Her Own, Personal Story

Article excerpt

What are the great issues facing feminism today? Equal pay? The gross sexualisation of popular culture? The paucity of childcare? No. To read the papers over the past fortnight, one would think that the big question for feminism is whether Harold Bloom put his hand on Naomi Wolf's thigh 20 years ago. For those who don't know, Harold Bloom is the charismatic and "Falstaffian" professor of literature at Yale and author of The Western Canon. Wolf is the telegenic author of The Beauty Myth. She was a student of Bloom's in the 1980s and invited him over to her house so that he could read some of her poetry. He had been on the sherry and made a clumsy pass.

I sympathise, but cannot say that I know exactly how she felt. When my personal tutor called me into his study to utter the memorable line, "I've got a wife, I've got a mistress, but what I'm really looking for, Suzanne, is a girlfriend" I simply made sure that everyone I ever met knew about this scumbag.

Wolf, however, had kept shtum about the incident. Until now. She has chosen to recount it all in an article in the New York Times magazine. Bloom, now in his seventies and in ill health, has remained silent, but the attack dogs of feminism have been let loose. Camille Paglia, Rottweiler-in-chief, has always hated Wolf ("little Miss Pravda"), chiefly on the grounds that she is pretty. What is more, Paglia idolises Bloom, who also taught her. She compares this charge of sexual harassment with the Salem witch-hunt and accuses Wolf of having spent her entire life "batting her eyes and bobbing her boobs in the face of men" and of making "a profession out of courting male attention by flirting and offering her sexual allure".

Now this may be all good, knockabout fun, but it has nothing to do with feminism whatsoever. The serious issues that Wolf's behaviour has raised are being ignored in favour of all-female mud-wrestling. Aren't they always? If we want a grown-up discussion about sexual harassment this is hardly the way to do it, and Wolf must have known it.

The hostility that Wolf arouses is always put down to her stunning looks--but I fail to understand this. Lots of feminists have been great-looking women: look at Gloria Steinem. Surely we have got to the point where feminist beliefs and attractiveness are no longer considered mutually exclusive.

The question should be not whether individual feminists are too sexy for their books, but about what kind of feminism is being proffered for the 21st century. This is where Wolf falls down. I hate to spoil the fun, but the problem with Wolf has nothing to do with the way she looks and everything to do with the way she thinks. The daughter of liberal academics, she was born and raised in San Francisco, studied at Yale and went on to Oxford. Wolf, it appears, has never had to struggle for anything in her 41 years. Yet to read her work is to encounter the story of a heroic struggle to speak out honestly about the experiences of women, from anorexia to casual sex and childbirth.

The Beauty Myth, the book that brought her to prominence in 1992, was "an attack on unrealistic, impossible standards of female beauty as destructive social control". In it, she documented the rise of eating disorders and the myths propagated by the diet and cosmetic industries. There was not an original thought in it, but that did not matter. It was important that a young woman was retelling these truths to a new generation. Whatever you think of The Beauty Myth, it remains the only feminist text that many young women have read.

The book itself has dated rather badly and, as Ros Coward pointed out, "recycles the old feminist analysis that women are dupes of men's needs". Yet Wolf was never going to take on the more complex question of female culpability. Instead, she played to her great strengths: her accessibility and her ability to popularise old arguments. She did so by repackaging them--and what a great package she was. …