Naomi Wolf has spiked her Facebook page with some upsetting theories lately, among them that the ISIS beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and two British aid workers were staged by the U.S. government in order to instill fear in the public, so that it would support a new war. In a feverish Oct. 4 post, she wrote, “It takes five people to stage an event like this—two to be ‘parents’—two to pose for cameras, one in a ninja outfit, and one to contact the media.” In the post, she accused the New York Times of de facto complicity because it hadn’t verified the videos’ authenticity or double-checked “ANY” sources. Other notions she’s recently proffered are that the U.S. military is purposely bringing Ebola to the United States and that the Scottish independence vote was rigged.
Unsurprisingly, numerous media outlets have pointed out how baseless and bizarre Wolf’s recent Facebook posts are. Crucially, however, these writers have taken pains to differentiate her early work, particularly her 1990 polemic The Beauty Myth, from her current paranoid rants. The consensus was crystallized by Max Fisher writing for Vox earlier this month: “It is important for readers who may encounter Wolf’s ideas to understand the distinction between her earlier work, which rose on its merits, and her newer conspiracy theories, which are unhinged, damaging, and dangerous.”
But is it that Wolf has become paranoid and “unhinged” or is it that, to some degree, she always has been? It’s worth looking back at The Beauty Myth and some of her subsequent ideas to parse her representation of problems and the soundness of her arguments. As The Beauty Myth demonstrates, Wolf is adept at conveying her point in an alarming, emotionally charged way designed to signal that the stakes at hand are very, very high. But impassioned rhetoric often masks flawed logic, or focuses attention on a lesser problem, draining energy from solving core injustices. The clarity of Wolf’s thinking over the long arc of her career is important to explore because if she has always been some grade of paranoid and prone to overstatement, then for decades we’ve had an unreliable narrator at the front of the women’s movement. Failing to scrutinize leaders, getting swept up by their rousing pleas, can divert a movement, or crucial parts of a movement, from the most fundamental issues.
In 2004 Wolf wrote a New York Magazine cover story in which she outed a Yale professor for putting his hand on her inner thigh at a dinner party when she was his student 21 years prior. The piece opens with a confession: She let down the next generation of “young, hopeful women” by previously failing to name the man, Harold Bloom, a famous humanities professor. (She had recounted the story numerous times in public talks as well as in her book Promiscuities, without singling him out by name.) Was reporting him Wolf’s responsibility all those years later? “Yes,” she wrote. “I do have that obligation. I have not lived up to it. I have not been brave enough.”
While Bloom’s act, if it happened, was sleazy and would now violate Yale’s sexual harassment policies, this article also reveals Wolf’s own inclination toward hyperbole. In the piece Wolf describes “an atmosphere at Yale in which female students were expected to be sociable with male professors.” In this depiction, if Yale students wanted to advance as scholars, they had to play along. Instead of offering additional evidence of her professor’s abuse of power and other concrete instances of such sexism, she relied on rumors she’d heard. Many women have endured discrimination at college, sometimes severe, but Wolf’s conjecture and her reliance on her single experience as proof of systemic inequity serves no one because it deprives us of the right tools to fight.
Six years later, in assessing rape charges by two Swedish women against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Wolf was less sympathetic to her sex. She published an open letter to Interpol in which she slapped the global policing body for seeking to arrest Assange who, she wrote, had done no more than behave like many men who are “narcissistic jerks to women they are dating.” Wolf’s narrative framed the rape accusations as arising from two jealous women vying for the same man. Yet one of the alleged victims reported that Assange had nonconsensual sex with her while she was sleeping—hardly a case of feeling snubbed. Instead of grappling with the complexity of the situation—a man who had just published classified U.S. documents having potentially committed sex crimes—Wolf made a leap to a conspiracy. The rape allegations were, according to her, a pretext for capturing Assange to extradite him to the United States to face charges under the Espionage Act.
Since then, Wolf’s conspiracy theories have become more peculiar. Last year on her Facebook page, she expressed her “creeping concern” that Edward Snowden was not an authentic whistleblower but an inside man. He was too calm, organized, and well spoken, she said. As for why this notion made any sense, Wolf asserted, “It is actually in the Police State’s interest to let everyone know that everything you write or say everywhere is being surveilled.” In other words, Wolf nonsensically surmised, it’s more effective to maintain unchecked power over people if they know their rights are being violated.
Rounding out her latest spate of dismaying conjectures, in addition to her theories about the ISIS videos, in early October Wolf proposed that the U.S. government was sending troops to West Africa not to help stem Ebola, but to militarize the region and bring the deadly virus home as a means to “justify military [cordoning] of US populations.” It is important that the public question political leaders, but we learn little of value if the questioner has already made up her mind.
Looking back to Wolf’s earliest work, it is easy to find similar inclinations toward radical overstatement and sweeping, paranoid conspiracy theories. The Beauty Myth says women were starving themselves, carving up their bodies with plastic surgery and accepting less at work because “male power” had found a new lever to control them. Although in the book Wolf explicitly said that hers was not a conspiracy theory, she nevertheless constructed one. She wrote that “the power structure, economy and culture” needed to “mount a counter offensive against women.” According to her, the “ ‘ideal’ imagery has become obsessively important to women because it was meant to become so.”
Wolf’s constant use of passive voice belies a belief in an omnipotent force, offering “men’s institutions,” “institutional power,” “the power structure,” and “the dominant culture” as culprits. We know that women feel pressure to look good, yet the forces creating this pressure are manifold and complex. And beauty is a symptom rather than the root of the problem: The primary barrier for women was and remains sex discrimination in the form of hiring, pay and promotion gaps, lack of worker-centered flexibility, and paid maternity and family leave.
It is less alluring to talk about how women make up two-thirds of the country’s 20 million low-wage workers. The fastest-growing job in the fastest-growing sector of the economy for women is home health aide. It’s less thrilling to talk about how these aides are paid on average just $21,000, less than half the median income. Yet we don’t need conspiracy theories to explain women’s paltry wages; history, politics, and the economic drive for ever-cheaper labor do.
In The Beauty Myth, Wolf targeted glamor as a mechanism that stole power from women who otherwise would have had the physical, emotional, and psychological stamina to organize. But when critical thinking slides into paranoia and overstatement, it becomes destructive because it is distracting. It sucks energy from women—young, hopeful women, who might otherwise demand more—and leads them astray.
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