Why Gillian Anderson’s Golden Globes “vagina” dress caused controversy, but not for the right reasons.
We need to talk about female anatomy
You heard me – we need to have a conversation about vulvas.
As the new year brings in new energy, it also brings in the global awards season. Within two weeks, we’ve had the Golden Globes, The Emmys and the Critics Choice awards. With it has come many well-deserved and triumphant wins, including our very own Adelaide-born Sarah Ruth Snook!
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One dress, however, has prompted more headlines than some of the award winners.
Gillian Anderson, who plays Otis’s Sexologist mother in the show Sex Education, strutted down the red carpet at the Golden Globes in a long, white gown designed by Gabriela Hearst. Not only was this gown beautiful, but it was also embroidered with hundreds of white vulvas. I’m sure you’ve seen it by now, as it’s been plastered all over the internet. The issue? The media can’t stop mislabelling it as a “vagina” dress.
While the gown itself delivers a greater message of sex positivity, female body acceptance and branding towards Gillian’s own sexual wellness brand ‘G spot’, the issue stems far deeper than the dress itself.
As people keep labelling them “vaginas” not vulvas, why is everyone mislabelling such a well known part of female anatomy?
Let’s go back to Sex Ed 101.
Vaginas and vulvas are different body parts. Whilst they both fall under female genitalia anatomy, the dress is embroidered with vulvas, not vaginas.
I want to highlight that whilst I’m using ‘female’ more generically to describe this genitalia, it is important to understand that not all vulva owners identify as female, and that non-binary folk and men can own vulvas too. The vulva is the global term describing all of the structures that make up the female external genitalia. This includes the mons pubis, labia majora, labia minora, clitora, vestibular bulbs, vulva vestibule, Bartholin’s glands, Skene’s glands, urethra and vaginal opening.
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More simply, the vulva is the outside part that touches your pants.
The vagina, is the internal genitalia; an elastic, muscular tube connected to the cervix approximately and extends to the external surface through the vulva vestibule. Basically, it’s where you insert things, like tampons.
Mislabelling a vulva as a vagina is like calling a penis the testicles. It’s extremely common for people to use ‘vagina’ as an all encompassing term for female genitalia, and whilst it’s still better people are using the word vagina over other slang words, it’s harmful to misname such an important body part.
If we don’t understand the correct anatomy, it contributes to shame and a lack of understanding, a disconnect of female pleasure (and orgasm equality), contributes to sexism and misogyny as well as basic health and medical needs.
The history of mislabelling female genitalia is extremely common. The clitoris, for example, is still inadequately portrayed in most anatomy textbooks.
Did you know it wasn’t until 2005 that Australian urologist Helen O’Connel put the full anatomy of the clitoris on the medical map. She compared the clitoris to an iceberg, showing medical professionals it was 10 times the size that most people thought it was, with three times as many nerve endings as the penis. Whilst we’re on the topic of the clitoris, did you know the word clitoris comes from the Greek word, kleitoris, which translated means both “little hill” and “to rub”.
Coming back full circle, knowing the correct genital anatomy is important.
The media, as well as each and every one one of us, have a part to play in changing culture to ensure future generations can thrive.
Now, for your homework.
If you’re not fully confident with the correct terminology for female genitalia, I highly encourage you to either grab a mirror and look at your vulva yourself if you have one, google a medical grade diagram to brush up on your anatomy or ask your partner if you can have a look at theirs.
However you need to get there, understanding female anatomy matters!
Jamie Bucirde has a post graduate degree in sexology from Curtin University. Her advice is of a general nature and should be taken in the spirit of the column.