Posts Tagged 'Womanism'

Yet another exam season

…making me neglect my blog again. My apologies! It’s funny how being so mentally stimulated elsewhere in classes makes it so difficult to collect my thoughts without some sort of prompt or essay question. I haven’t asked myself in a long time, “what do I want to write about?”

Maybe I want to write about gender, which is the central topic in my senior seminar for Women’s and Gender Studies majors. I seem to be on a different wavelength than the other women in the class–and although we have a fantastic class dynamic, I do feel some underlying discomfort and isolation. I think a lot of this has to do with our differing economic and social backgrounds– most of my peers have come from high-income prep or boarding schools, and a lot of the reasons why they take WGS classes is because they’ve experienced objectification from men, and struggled with body image and eating disorders. Women’s and Gender studies has helped them to assert a sense of self, and self-worth.

The reason that I take WGS classes, on the other hand, is for humility. Looking at the larger histories, society, and cultures, reminds me that I am not a totally independent and autonomous being– that I am very much shaped by these larger forces. And it has forced me to take responsibility for my participation in those larger forces: my privilege as a white person, for example, is connected to the oppression of a non-white person, and I have been complacent with that most of my life.

Although this sort of education has at times led me to feel guilty, shameful, and even sometimes utterly heartbroken and full of sorrow, it has also pushed me past that point– to a place of connection, communication, and healing. I’ve had to learn how to confront my pride and listen— just listen, openly and humbly, without defensiveness or anger –to other women’s experiences, and to feel empathy for them… and sometimes, to feel a little righteous anger on account of the sheer injustice that surrounds the lives of women.

I say this because much of the tension in my seminar tends to be about issues of appearance, and self-presentation. A lot of the women in my class have a paranoia about stereotypes of feminists– that they’re masculine, butchy, etc., etc. And they are also conscious that simply dressing in a different way doesn’t in itself lead to liberation, which is absolutely true. In fact, many of those “alternative communities” can have equally strict rules about how to dress in order to fit a certain identity. So as a result, the other women in my class tend to still dress femininely almost all of the time… and I definitely do not.

This relates back to my experience in gender studies being a process of humility. Because my education has been a process of de-emphasizing the self, I no longer view my appearance as an extension of my “Self”– that is, my identity. And actually, this has been an excellent way to think about (or not think about) how I present myself to the world. It has allowed me to develop a sense of playfulness, particularly in terms of appearance (what we call “gender performance” in gender studies classes). Now, I make playful (or playfully political) decisions about how I want to dress, or wear my hair or makeup, in different contexts– because I don’t feel any angst about that appearance being connected to some sort of “boxed in” identity.

So, for example, I wear my hair short at Kenyon. I do this because a) I enjoy the low-maintenance style, b) because it makes me feel empowered, and c) I feel uncomfortable with the attention I get from men when I wear my hair long. BUT, I also wear my hair short because d) no women at this college have short hair! And yes, I do believe that it’s really important to have a diversity of appearances in any given context, because otherwise you’ll never know that there are other possibilities! And this diversity of appearances applies to more than “femininity” –it also has to do with racial diversity, and diversity of backgrounds. So yes, my short hair is a political decision– and a personal decision, and a playful decision. I’m sure I’ll have long hair after I graduate, in some different context later in life.

A moment of deviousness my Junior year (last year)

I do think that the fact that most of my peers still dress femininely almost 100% of the time does say something about their methods for liberation. I think it represents an (unconscious) unwillingness to give up the privileges that go along with dressing femininely. The result of this is that these women are unable to connect with the experiences of women who don’t dress femininely– and I don’t think that that is a productive feminist method for liberation.

I have to make similar requirements for myself. Even though I’m more comfortable dressing androgynously, or gender-neutrally, I think it’s important for me to wear a dress every once in a while. It helps me to remember what it’s like to be a woman walking around the world in a dress– the different ways that people look at you, talk to you, make eye contact with you, etc.

My point of all of this is: It’s important to transgress. But it’s also important to feel comfortable.

(It’s important to do both.)

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Postscript to a Monologue

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.

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* 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.

Continue reading ‘Postscript to a Monologue’


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