Wednesday, February 08, 2006

the v-day controversy

No, not Valentine's Day. I hate that stupid commercial holiday which I've never shared with anyone special. But I'm not bitter. Really.

No, I'm talking about the V-Day Campaign.

Recently, there's been an ongoing controversy on my campus regarding the Smith College Republicans' "Anti-V-Day" Campaign. They're basing it on this, from the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute, a conservative women's think tank. Now, I'm not going to bash the Smith Republicans, because they're just about the best Republicans I know -- very civil, logical, and honest when debating -- but I will try to give my take on their "statement" regarding their position against the Vagina Monologues/V-Day Campaign.
The Republicans and members of Feminists of Smith Unite/Vag-Mos production staff are actually going to debate this tomorrow night, but sadly, I have class. Thus my voicing my opinions here. 'Cause I can.

(below the flip 'cause it's going to get kinda lengthy)

On behalf of the Smith College Republicans, I would like to issue a statement regarding the “Anti V-Day Campaign” and explain our motives and ideas. Many of you have probably seen our posters and signs across campus addressing this campaign. They will be explained in the following:

To begin, those of us running the campaign have seen the play and/or read Eve Ensler’s book, “The Vagina Monologues.” This campaign is not a protest, but rather an expression of why we don’t believe this play helps women or prevents violence against women. Many argue that the play liberates women by expressing thoughts on women's sexual anatomy. In fact, it does the opposite. The amazing women leaders around the world did not get where they were by speaking through a vagina, they used their brains and their mouths.

a#1) The Vagina Monologues is not about "speaking through your vagina." It's about reclaiming your vagina, reclaiming your sexual organs as your own.
b#2) These same amazing women leaders who did, inarguably, make it to where they are by using their brains and mouths, were inevitably encumbered by their possession of a vagina. If the fact that their genitals are internal instead of external didn't have the meanings that it does in our patriarchal discourse, there would most likely be far more women as leaders, and those leaders wouldn't have had to work twice as hard as their male counterparts. The Vag-Mos, in part, are trying to change the meanings assigned to female genitalia, and therefore make it easier for women to use their brains and mouths, instead of having to compensate for their "inadequate" genitalia at every turn.

In “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy” the character, who is a successful tax attorney leaves her great job to become a dominatrix prostitute. Now, I understand over the years women have become more sexual and more in control of their sexuality. But, leaving a successful job that gives a woman power in a male dominated world to become a prostitute, a socially undesirable and male objectified position in my opinion is highly anti-feminist.

This is problematic in that it prioritizes typically "respectable" and socially accepted means of production and labour over the "unrespectable" vocation of prostitution. Why should this woman have to do something menial and boring as all hell like tax law when she could be doing what she loved, which just happens to be sex work? It is only "socially undesirable" to those with privilege. It is, arguably, a male-objectified position....except she's a sex worker for women. Not as a show for men, simply one woman pleasuring another. I don't necessarily agree that sex work is inherently male-objectified, especially not in this case.
I would argue further that this woman's choice is explicitly feminist, because it is her choice. She was able to make that choice to give up tax law and do what made her happy, do what made her content. How is this any different from a woman choosing to give up housework, which this specific woman may find menial and mundane, to go into the "exciting" world of stock brokerage? It's not.

And besides....this is the moaning monologue. Who doesn't love the moaner???

In the monologue entitled, “The Vagina Workshop” women explore their sexual side as the workshop leader tells the women that their sexual organs are “the essence of me…both the doorbell to my house and the house itself.” If my vagina is the essence of me, the doorbell to my “house” and basically is ME, then where do my thoughts, brain and ideas come in? These are the ideas that suffragettes (sic) during the early women’s movements fought against. The perpetuation of an overly sexed woman has backfired in society creating stereotypes and in essence a tougher time for women to gain respect in the workplace and society in general. This play does not liberate us sexually, socially or otherwise.

First, the "suffragettes" mistake irks me to no end. It's suffragist. The "-ette" only minimalizes the work done by these activists. But that's beside the point.
I will cautiously agree with her point here. Cautiously. Because I agree that women should be seen as more than their sex, obviously. And I can see how the Vagina Monologues, and this monologue specifically, can perpetuate that notion. However, women have been denied their sexuality throughout history, and sometimes, it's necessary to make the pendulum swing fully the other way before it can balance out. True, an overly sexed woman can be just as stigmatized and harmful as the woman denied any sexuality outside of men. But I don't know that we're at that place where women are granted enough sexual agency to be seen as that dangerous, over-sexed woman.
Besides, I'm not at all sure that an "over-sexed woman" is necessarily a negative thing. I do think that it is a status that can be reclaimed as a positive. The Vagina Monologues is all about reclaiming women's sexuality -- why can't this be reclaimed, re-visioned as positive, as well?

Although the play is being marketed as an event that will help women’s violence issues, I have seen little attached to the signs that say this. As I walk into my house and buildings across campus I read, “Do you want to experience multiple orgasms?” Sure, orgasms are the solution to issues of women’s violence. The play provides shock value for sure and claims to be giving money to women’s shelters, which is noble. But the play itself offers no solution to women’s violence issues, no self-defense techniques to protect and educate women and in fact Eve Ensler did not write the play to address violence and women. Ensler said she wrote the play because she “was worried about [her] own vagina…what we think about vaginas and even more worried that we don’t think about them.” Even radical feminist Betty Dodson brings up a very important issue that, "That's the main problem with V-day. Women end up with a false idea that V-day will end violence against women and girls. Ending violence is a worthy cause and I'm all for it, but consistently equating sex with violence offers no real solution." If we are going to take action as intelligent, proactive Smithies why don’t we find a solution instead of simply putting on a graphic and an offensive (to some) play? Why don’t we talk to our legislators about stricter sexual offender laws and help with domestic abuse programs? We have to encompass the whole issue: raise money, educate ourselves on self-defense and protection, and become proactive with all violence issues that women face.

Straightforward rebuttal to this: I don't think anybody's expecting The Vagina Monologues or the V-Day Campaign to singlehandedly dismantle the superstructure of violence against women. But it's a starting point, and it's a rallying point, and it's a part of the fight. And we need as many people involved in the fight as we can get.

Some say that the graphic content of the play is what inspires women to go out and get involved. If we need shock value to inspire us we are not effective members of our community and we have to dig deeper into these issues. In “The Little Coochie Snorcher that Could” a young girl is given alcohol and then violated by a much older woman. Then Ensler writes, “If it was rape, it was a good rape.” Rape is being affirmed here as something good! How can we sit here as women and support this? Some of us will become mothers some day, what if this was your daughter? “Good rape” does not say that rape is bad and does not help with violence against women and young girls. If the young girl were raped by a Catholic priest I can guarantee that the play would not be tolerated and “good rape” would not be a thought in Ensler’s mind.

1) The term, "good rape," was nixed from the monologues after the first performance. No, Ensler should never have put it in there in the first place, but it's unfair to judge the Monologues as they stand now for mistakes that they no longer contain.
2) The girl was 16. She was seduced by a 24-year-old woman. No doubt there was some crazy power dynamics at work in the relationship, but I don't know that this automatically makes it rape. However, I'm not going to say that it is automatically not rape, either. I'm admittedly still pretty torn over this one monologue, especially since it's one of only two occurrences of lesbianism in the play, and the other instance involves a sex worker -- no "typical" lesbian relationships are ever portrayed. But that's another problem altogether.
But while I won't say that the girl definitively was or was not raped, I will say that power dynamics do have a huge impact on the pleasure of a situation. It's very hard to extract pleasure from power, and most people would be hard-pressed to find a truly egalitarian relationship, especially once it extends to the bedroom. Unequal power dynamics in a sexual relationship do not necessarily make it rape. This specific iffy, to say the least.

Which brings me to my next point: the play is extremely anti-male. The play portrays men as perverted, rude and forceful. In “Hair” a husband forces his wife to shave her vagina. In another monologue an “average” male is portrayed as a pervert obsessed with vaginas. Although we attend Smith and love the all female environment, to look at men in this way is wrong. The play praises a woman rapist, but then alienates a male who finds beauty and mystique in a woman’s vagina. Brilliant male professors teach us, some women have meaningful relationships with men whether it is a father, boyfriend or brother and to treat men this way is unfair.

Ok, for one: I never got the impression that the man in "another monologue" ("Because He Liked To Look At It") was seen as a "pervert." He was the avenue by which the woman portrayed in the monologue came to love her vagina. Came to not see it as dirty and gross and disgusting. I'd say he's portrayed pretty positively.
And for another...I dealt with the "woman rapist" question above. But the fact is: A lot of Ensler's monologues deal with violent and negative situations. And these situations most often occur with men. Do they occur with women as well? Could she have been more inclusive in her monologues? Of course. But she wrote what she heard in interviews, the interviews that moved her the most. You can't deny that the majority of violence and negative situations directed toward women is most often perpetrated by men. It's not by any means the only source of violence against women, but it's a huge one, and you cannot blame the Vag-Mos for exposing it, nor can you, in claiming to be pro-woman, deny it or try to protect the patriarchal structure that supports it.

These are the basic ideas of why the Smith College Republicans have endorsed an Anti V-Day campaign. At Smith we are taught to question and critique ideas, we are encouraged to exercise our first amendment rights. The Smith campus claims to be very open to all ideas; so we ask that you read this and think about it for yourself, as a woman or a man reading this. We as a group are pro-woman and simply believe that there are other ways to address a very important subject that we face. I encourage you to attend the Hot Seat debate Wednesday, 8pm, CC Carroll Room.

To summarize: I agree that The Vagina Monologues does essentialize female sexuality, and places far too much emphasis on the vagina, instead of the vulva, or the lips, or the clitoris, or the whole cunt. And I'm not saying that I don't have problems with the Vagina Monologues. BUT, I wouldn't argue that this is a reason to discard the Vag-Mos altogether. No, the Vagina Monologues and the accompanying V-Day campaign alone are not going to solve the problem of violence against women. But they do make an impact. And in combination with other tactics -- legal, political, social, etc -- an impact can be made. The Vagina Monologues doesn't fix the situation. But it does not harm women. And it does further the cause, even if just a little bit. Adding to the campaign is always welcome, and making it more than a once-a-year thing is, of course, necessary. But taking things away from the campaign that do no harm, even if they only do minimal good, is counterproductive.

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