Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Lowdown on Down There

The supermarket checkout rag quoted, in pink, some woman yacking about her “vajay.” “Oh, it’s got a nick name now?” I thought, a tad disapprovingly. Then the girl in my head kicked my internal schoolmarm in the shins.

People are talking about vaginas! On the cover of supermarket magazines! And on TV. Tyra Banks, a glamorous African American talk show host who aims her show at the young and female, did an entire show last fall called “What’s Up Down There?” entirely about women’s privates—the vajay. Meanwhile Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan keep flashing theirs to the paparazzi, we learn on Yahoo “news.”

The world has fucking revolved, people.

Women’s privates have been so private for so long that many women never learned to talk about that part of their anatomy at all. As a girl, I only learned the vaguest terms--allusions to a neighborhood like “down there” (by the docks, probably) or that void “between your legs,” neither here nor there. And since then, we have only had those dirty words assigned by men for the double purpose of jacking off and insulting—pussy, cunt, snatch, cooch, and so on. Women have had mixed success in reclaiming these words. Educated white women have for a couple of decades been able to choke out the clinical word vagina in private circumstances—to a group of other women, a doctor, or a good-hearted boyfriend. But the vocabulary was carefully correct. And this kind of talk was not available at the supermarket checkout counter in big pink letters. The result has been that the freest women in the world have not felt free to talk about their sexuality, the very core of freedom and creativity. A little progress was made in recent years with the cute “girl parts,” the full equivalent of cute “boy parts.”

Now at last we have the gift of speech.

And we’re talking not just about breasts, women’s secondary sex characteristic, but the primary sexual attribute, and quite possibly a healthy, lusty one, too. What a concept. “My vajay.”

The schoolmarm claps her hands together one time. The girl dances a little dance and goes on to the next thing.

Who should we thank for this gift? The source is probably threefold.

Black women have long been less hung up about sexual matters than whites. They have known the female genitalia as a “chore girl.” The term is a joke that brings together the image of the steel wool scrubber of the same name, which shares its curly appearance with pubic hair, and the chore that women’s genitalia so often perform of keeping men sexually satisfied. I believe it was Woopie Goldberg who introduced the term “hoo-hoo” to the wider world in a major motion picture. I suppose--and I hope readers will send me their list—Black American women have a variety of other names for the vagina, too. Possibly, vajay was among those. Possibly not, before vagina went mainstream.

But how did vajay break into the mainstream press? Eve Ensler must get the lion’s share of the credit, for taking the Vagina Monologues national, and international. Never before the Monologues had the word vagina occupied so much public space in newspapers, marquees, and conversation. The power of the title alone is hard to overestimate.

And finally, a little credit to the men who own the media that carries the word. Men have always had words for male and female genitals—and more importantly, permission to use those words. By easing control over women’s public use of the word (albeit in full expectation of financial reward) they remove the final barrier to this freedom of speech. Naturally, vagina would get shortened to our intimate friend vajay.

Thanks, Eve.