Daphne Merkin: "Our Vaginas, Ourselves", The New York Times Magazine
One evening last week I plopped down on the couch with a cup of tea. My Poor Wife was watching some Trashy Culture Is Fun program on Discovery, or The History Channel, or Bravo, and about the time I got situated came the commercial exit teaser, a rapidly spinning neo-retro-faux-Mod montage promising me if I stayed tuned I'd learn the history of the Lava Lamp. I knew what was up, but as usual, I didn't have the remote.
After a brief history of the development of the Lava Lamp (hereafter LL) came the obligatory Everybody in the Sixties was a Hippie and they all Tripped Out staring at Cosmically Undulating LLs in their Crash Pads, excepting the ones who took too much acid and stared directly at the Sun, thus melting their eyeballs. There was the obligatory shot of body-painted young nubiles frugging in a park somewhere. It's always in a park, leading me to believe I've been seeing snippets of the same thirty-second piece of film for thirty-five years now. The only time I ever saw anybody wearing body paint was on Laugh-In, and the only place I ever saw body paints on sale was in the back of Spencer's Gifts, with the other "adult" merchandise like the "Tonight's The Night" nightlight, aimed at married couples who did not speak to each other but still occasionally Had Sex, and the nude calendars featuring morbidly obese women. Wherever the counterculture was gathering in the late 60s, it wasn't in the back of Spenser's Gifts.
Needless to say there weren't any LLs visible in the park footage. So it was followed by a very dark, hand-held Super 8 pan of an actual Hippie Pad, or something, over which the narrator intoned "LLs could be found in every Hippie Pad, or something". And to make up for the notable lack of anything remotely resembling the ubiquitous LL in that shot either, they immediately cut to a still of an actual LL. Not to say they were trying to fool anyone--good thing, too, since the still was of a modern L, not vintage. It isn't supposed to matter. We're just all supposed to be in agreement that in the Sixties everyone under a certain age dressed funny, took drugs, and stared mindlessly at floating blobs of wax. And never mind that the actual spokesman for the actual LL company came on a bit later to say that the combined sales of the 60s, 70s, and 80s didn't match the numbers for the retro-chic of the 90s. Groovy and out.
(The only time I remember seeing a LL was at the home of a grade-school friend, and it belonged to his decidedly non-Hippie parents. It fascinated us for about ten minutes, after which the conversation naturally turned to what might be inside the thing, but my friend got squeamish before we did any empirical testing. The damned things were redolent of the Playboy After Dark circular bed vibe, if you ask me. And aside from getting high and trying to play ping-pong by strobe light--conveniently borrowed from the science lab at school--and a single Jefferson Airplane concert which featured that squirty-looking light show thing on a big screen behind the band, I don't remember much fascination with light at all. Dark was much better.)
Maybe that show was still in my head when this afternoon I sat on that same couch and opened the Times magazine to find Daphne riffing on the latest in vaginal fashions. (You may recall the last we saw of the Is That A Pen Name? Ms Merkin she was singing the praises of the "authentically unhip" Sam Alito, and the other brave souls who dared buck the John Sebastian/Roger McGuinn eyewear hegemony.) You didn't expect me to skip it, did you?
Okay, first, Ms Merkin is a fine writer from what I've seen, and I certainly share her distaste for plastic surgery and befuddlement at the supposed trend of hymen-reconstruction. I'd counsel just ignoring the whole matter myself; you can always go to that awful-plastic-surgery site if you want to wallow. But since the web is the enemy of the Gray Lady, and since there's a "The Way We Live Now" column to be filled every week, I'm not going to quibble. Okay, my sources tell me that pubic depilation as a trend is approaching its mid-teens, and that it is frequently engaged in not, as Daphne would have it, because the natural state is "an aesthetic hindrance to the unfettered male gaze", but for certain tactile benefits. I can only report that as a rumor.
Truth be told, I always considered myself lucky to have escaped coming of age at the height of the consciousness-raising era, when anatomical self-examination took on the aspect of a collective ritual. Those were the days when women felt obliged to convene in sisterly circles with mirrors and flashlights the better to study their bodies, themselves. Never having been one to enjoy group activities of any sort, the thought of becoming more closely acquainted with my private parts in a public setting seems potentially traumatizing rather than liberating or, God knows, celebratory.
deserves a peek through the moss for an unobstructed view. Ms Merkin (somebody, stop me before I have to type that again) is, presumably, about my age. She graduated from college in 1975 (Barnard, which may explain why she was innocent of the veritable battalions of authentically unhip, short-haired, Buddy-Holly-specs wearin' L7s on Midwestern campuses). She might have been an eight-year-old prodigy, but in the absence of such from her bio, I think something's fishy, and yes, an FCC fine is the least that should happen to me for that one. I'd like to suggest that she did, in fact, come of age precisely in the era of "consciousness raising", and that, in fact, her own consciousness was raised, if required, and that the process had nothing whatever to do with sitting in a circle passing around a mirror and a speculum. It had to do precisely with Our Bodies, Ourselves (1973), a book she seems to want to toss on the cultural trash heap with Steal This Book. I really don't care whether Daphne wants to look Down There or not. But the idea that women realizing their health had for too long been in the hands of "experts" who were largely male and largely clueless and uncaring is not a quaint cultural icon of a bygone era. It's those same experts who were telling women that the clitoris had nothing to do with orgasm. Better we spend every late night watching Girls Gone Wild ads than another generation be lied to by sexophobic guardians of decency.
I didn't ask my wife whether she ever participated in any Pudendum Parties. She went to summer camp. It's enough to note the etymology: Latin pudenda, used as the noun form of the neuter plural of pudendus, the gerundive of pudere, meaning to be ashamed.