Vagina overlay

Vagina vs Vulva

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...it was kind of a mistake! The idea was to use humour to get people interested in the project rather than scaring them with words they may not know...

Jamie McCartney

Vagina, vag, fanny, pussy, Myfanwy, grumble, foofoo, front-bottom, bits, cunt etc. These are some of the words womxn have used to refer to their vulva in conversation or correspondence with us. Whether being cast, enquiring about being cast, writing about the experience for the book of the project or on our comments page or just generally in idle chat people tend to use slang. But we all know what they mean…

In recent years the title of the sculpture has been increasingly criticised. It is often pointed out, sometimes politely but more often quite aggressively that there are no vaginas on show here. This is true! (If that is confusing to you, more will be revealed below). The criticism then often continues to lambast Jamie as an ignorant man, who is dangerously spreading misinformation and potentially harming women. That’s hardly fair. He’s only human after all: a solitary artist trying hard to do some good in this world and to benefit womxn by the endeavor. However we do recognise and understand the sentiment and force of feeling behind the criticism and have always given due consideration to people’s arguments. The following text is a reply to such an enquiry in which Jamie explains, in his own words, the reasons behind the title and why, despite considerable pressure, he has not given in and renamed it… yet! 🙂

 

glass internal vagina cast from various angles with anatomical annotations

“Internal Affairs” by Jamie McCartney demonstrating the internal and external female genital anatomy


Thank you for your enthusiasm for my work and for taking the time to write to me to tell me that The Great Wall of Vulvas would be the correct title. It’s been interesting to me how often I get this type of suggestion these days. Back in 2011 when the sculpture was debuted everyone loved the title. This suggests to me that in less than a generation, public education about female genitals has come a long way and I’m delighted my work has played a small part in that.

I can see there is a lot of passion out there re the language. The truth is that when this sculpture was in production genital art was not so common and I was not aware about the sensitivities some people have about using correct medical terms. I actually studied anatomy and I know very well all the parts of the female genitalia. However there are very good reasons for using Vagina in the title. It was a deliberate and carefully made choice and definitely not an ignorant mistake. We’re all learning on the job and it’s easy to get befuddled by language. I recently discovered that the plural for vulva is not vulvas, as you suggest. It is in fact vulvae. But who uses that!?

As you may know, vagina comes from the Latin word for a sheath, such as where one would store a sword. Notwithstanding that it is common parlance for the whole genital area, including the inner and outer labia (such as in the common term ‘designer vagina’ for labiaplasty), you do have a point. It is important to educate and use the correct words when appropriate. But this is the title of an artwork, not a medical textbook. Art is poetry not prose. I use puns in a lot of the titles of my artworks. It’s just a play on words on The Great Wall of China. Vulva doesn’t rhyme with China; Vagina does!

The pun in the title is deliberately humorous. Humour is a great tool in politics and political art. Used well it can get under peoples’ radars, past their natural resistance to tricky subjects and draw them in. Instead of potentially putting them off with medical terms that they may not have heard of, which can make people feel stupid, I chose to use a word in common usage instead. If the intention is to get as many people to see this sculpture as possible then using a word that is easily understood in many languages is good practice. So very simply, that is why I use ‘Vagina’ instead of ‘Vulva’. Mea maxima culpa.

We all know vagina is in common usage for the whole female genital area. I didn’t start that trend, I’m just going with the flow. Our language is flexible and changes to reflect the way people use it. Many people have not heard the medical terms for the area so they use the words they do know or they use slang. This was especially true a decade ago. So as vagina is widely used for vulva it now means both for the majority of people. If I say I have a stomach ache I’m referring to the stomach colloquially not medically. The pain is probably caused by gas in my intestines. Nobody gets confused about what I mean. It’s exactly the same with the title of my sculpture. It is using colloquial language or ‘slang’.

Of course The Great Wall of China isn’t referred to in those words in every country. Maybe that is a problem with using an English pun in the title for artwork that has gone global. I guess the joke doesn’t work except in English. If it doesn’t survive the translation then I acknowledge that’s a problem. I’m just one little artist who made a big sculpture that has made a big splash. I didn’t know it would have such global interest. It’s great though! Trying to name something for a global market is very hard – ask a car manufacturer. They spend millions on researching car names. Yet still the Vauxhaul Nova went on sale in Spain before they realised it means “doesn’t go” in Spanish!

I don’t have millions to research my sculpture titles. So I go with what sounds ok to me. In fact the title came from a brain-storming session when a group of us were filming the work way back in 2011. It’s working title had always been ‘Design a Vagina’ (a pun on so called designer vaginas) but I always felt that was a bit weak. It was a woman, who had participated in the project in fact, who came up with The Great Wall of Vagina as a title. It made everyone laugh and we all agreed it was perfect.

This work has changed the lives of thousands of womxn the world over. Surely that is something to celebrate rather than to knock me for? If you look at the comments on my web page or Youtube channel you can see how significant it has been to people’s lives and wellbeing. Credit where credit is due. If using the correct medical terms is your battle then that’s great. Go for it. I’m sure it is a very worthwhile cause. Education is the key to liberation, equality, health etc. My sculpture educates in a different way. It is demonstrating the range of normal genital appearance, or vulva diversity as is now the common term. This is where people can go to compare themselves and then to feel normal. To that end it is extremely successful and cited in medical literature as the best resource available to do so. I’m happy with that.

That all said when I came to title the next vulva panel artwork, which is currently in production, I took on board this changing narrative. With the explosion in social media in the last decade and the subsequent boom in these discussions, I am learning a new lexicon of terms around gender and sex education and once again I’m going with the current flow; I’m happy to tell you it will be called Viva la Vulva.

You see you can teach an old dog new tricks. I do want to educate and part of me does regret using Vagina in the title in hindsight. If I knew then what I knew now I may not have named it thus but you don’t  know what you don’t know. We all learn from each other. It’s taken a decade for the art world to catch up and recognise The Great Wall of Vagina as such a significant icon. As I write it is set to go on display around the world next year and it would be complex to change the title now, if not impossible. The truth is it does get people’s attention. It got yours! Anything that helps start these conversations can only be a good thing. Having said that, you never know what the future holds. I’m always open to being persuaded by a better argument…

 

With all good wishes,

Jamie

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