I attended Kenyon College’s production of The Vagina Monologues on Friday, and had an excellent time. When I came home, I wrote the following:
I can’t praise Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, enough. She has written one of the most culturally necessary performances in our society today. She renewed a sense of activism for a generation that is, on the whole, apathetic to the point of atrophy. And, she has a great haircut.
On the whole, I think Eve got it right. Feminism is still very relevant in the United States, not because women are treated as inferior citizens (though it would be unwise to believe that those issues have been resolved), but because we’ve largely abandoned the dialogue regarding the ways that gender plays out on a daily basis. In other words: It’s not that the United States hates vaginas; it’s that the we don’t want to talk about them. A friend of mine left the performance halfway through because he was bored– he had “expected it to be more outrageous.” It is precisely because female sexuality is so suppressed and controlled that the idea of merely talking about it seems “outrageous” to us. Referencing one’s cock, on the other hand, is fairly acceptable in the media and in most casual conversation.
So, in general, I’m pleased to support the cause by attending The Vagina Monologues. I get to spend two hours watching women in little black dresses confess, declare, rant, and have multiple orgasms on stage. I get to watch women talk about things that don’t get talked about. Hell, that’s worth two dollars.
I’ve seen The Vagina Monologues three times now, twice at Kenyon and once at Hollins University. And yet every time, I can’t help feeling that something is off when the latter half of the performance begins to turn primarily to issues of global violence against women. Performers throw out random facts and statistics about “female genital mutilation” (FGM)* and systematic rape in various parts of the world– areas that we often label “third world,” “undeveloped” or “developing” (as though these nations are awkwardly trying on their training bra for the first time). It is precisely the practices and events that the Vagina Monologues denounces that we “first world” activists often use as evidence for the inferiority of those nations. Ensler’s script calls for action, yes, but it feels awfully like a white woman’s burden to me.
* I prefer the term Female Genital Cutting (FGC) because labeling this practice “mutilation” assigns a judgment without acknowledging any cultural autonomy. I do believe that FGC is an issue that needs to be addressed, and I do believe that it is representative of systemized practices worldwide designed to control the female body (both in sub-Saharan Africa and the United States). If the script had only used the term “cutting” instead of “mutilation,” or if it had made note of the complexities involved in judging another cultural practice, I would have felt more comfortable.
Reflexivity in the United States
It’s not that these events aren’t relevant to us. And granted, Ensler does point this out by explicitly connecting our consumerism in the United States to violence in the regions that produce the raw materials (“for our playstations,” as the script puts it). But I wish she would have clarified: the answer is not to get off your ass and go save the Congo. The answer is to get off your ass. It will help you realize how much of the U.S. is built on Too Much Damn Stuff (TMDS).
This article is a brilliant discussion of the irony apparent in an article that Ensler wrote for Glamour magazine. In a magazine devoted to promoting normalized violence against women (“cosmetics, luxury aids, “health” and “beauty” products, liposuction, breast implants and sexually seductive advertising peddling the “perfect” female body and great American culture of sexual violence”), Ensler mourns the brutality and suffering of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As the linked article points out, Ensler’s article reinforces accepted narratives of Central Africa, thus upholding white Western consolidation of power over that area. The violence against women that saturates the pages of the magazine which she is publishing, however, is ignored.
This year, the concluding performance in The Vagina Monologues centered around sex slaves (called “comfort women” by their abusers) who brought from Korea, the Philippines, China, and Indonesia, and then raped and abused to satisfy the desires of Japanese soldiers during WW2. In the performance I attended, this monologue was perhaps the most well-executed of the entire evening, and I commend the students who performed. Yet, even before the monologue began, the introductory note informed the audience that, as a result of global activism, the UN had issued a statement demanding that the Japanese government apologize to these “comfort women,” –who are now in their seventies and eighties, and protest daily outside the Japanese capital. The Japanese government has not issued an apology. This is a massive injustice, yes, and these women do deserve an apology. My contention with this piece is that it provides no sense of empowerment, nor is it clear precisely who should be empowered by this performance: the women protestors? American college students? Japanese citizens, who would have a greater affect on their government’s actions than we ever could? Rather, the piece merely evokes outrage. There does seem to be an implicit call to action—but to what action?*
Given that this piece concludes the show, there seems to be the assumption that the injustice these women are suffering is more important and relevant to us as college students in the U.S. than the injustices happening in our own country, or in our own community. This assumption isn’t communicated explicitly, of course—in fact, the injustice against women in our own culture and committed by our own government are simply not mentioned.
The fact is, white liberal arts college students, like those at Kenyon, like to emphasize our knowledge of the world—the injustices occurring halfway around the globe—while ignoring the tensions and injustice in our community. Or on our own campus. It’s true that there are not several hundred abused women at Kenyon fighting for an apology—but even if there is only one woman who has experienced rape or sexual assault, we are not only suppressing evidence of our own social faults, but we are ignoring the opportunity to fight in her behalf.
* The script also continually emphasizes the “Japanese-ness” of the perpetrators, as though it was being Japanese that caused this behavior, and not the systematic dehumanization and violence of the military structure.
What are we ignoring in our own communities?
An example: the fraternity system at Kenyon is allowed privileges and has control that the sororities do not. They have housing in the historical residence halls at the center of campus. Though anyone is allowed to host a party in those lounges, the fraternities live directly above the lounges and maintain direct influence over them. Fraternities also possess ownership of fraternity lodges off campus, and they are the ones who have the finances to host parties, while there is little effort from the school equalize the financial playing field for the sororities. Last semester, a girl wrote an article in our newspaper about a study that had linked fraternities with sexual assault. There was outrage from almost all the fraternities, and the girl received threatening phone calls and emails. Though the fiasco has since quieted down, the fraternities have done little to address the possibility that their practices may not be safe or supportive for women. Nor have they recognized their own privilege in controlling much of the space on campus. While the issue of Greek inequality and gender injustice has gone unresolved, we continue to passionately debate global politics as though it was the greatest issue directly affecting our daily lives.
Another example: by choosing to attend Kenyon, we have deliberately chosen to spend 4 years in a rural area supported primarily by agriculture. Last month, 3 out of the 5 diary farmers in Knox county were forced to shut down. The fact is, while we were setting up tables in our dining hall about Gaza and Darfur, we could have actually helped save some of the cultural and economic backbone of Knox county, and allowed a family to thrive for another generation. We could have done that. Not picketed it, not petitioned it, not been simply outraged about it—we could have achieved it. We could have changed the world around us.
I do believe in dreaming big. I do believe in caring about the world, whether it’s 30 minutes or 30 thousand miles away. But in a time when the internet fools us into thinking that those two are the same thing, it’s unhealthy and unproductive for us to fight the big fight before even recognizing the small one.
The Vagina Monologues is performed primarily in colleges and universities. Eve Ensler would do well to emphasize the change that students can do on their campus over injustices that we can do little to affect. Turn the lens on ourselves, and take a look at our campus, our community, our state. If we want to focus on gender, fine. If we want to focus on race, fine. If we want to focus on the complexities that are produced by the intersection of categories like race, class, or gender—fine. But there is injustice at Kenyon, and in Ohio, and in the United States, and it occurs both at the institutional level and in our daily interactions. If Ensler communicates one important thing in The Vagina Monologues, it is this: Speak Up.