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Guest Post: To my fellow and future “Vagina Warriors”

December 16th, 2013     by Guest Blogger     Comments

By Rosella Chibambo

I have always been into theatre, and in my second year of university, auditioned for a play–something by Shakespeare. I didn’t get the part.

A couple months later, desperate to get back on stage, I auditioned for another play and got the part; everyone who auditioned got a part.

This play was a far cry from Shakespeare. It was Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, and it changed my life.

After my first year as a “Vagina Warrior,” I started calling myself a feminist. My fellow cast members were bold, brilliant, hilarious women. They called themselves feminists. I felt the girl power. I was a feminist.

Not all the monologues spoke to us. We laughed our way through many and cringed our way through more than one.

Written by a white woman from my mother’s generation, many of the stories in the play bear scant resemblance to my life as a 20-something biracial (Malawrish!) woman.

I did not love being in The Vagina Monologues because I loved the play. I loved being part of a community of women who supported each other and were fighting for a world without rape, sexism, or glass ceilings.

What the play lacked in relevance to my experiences, it made up for in spirit: the spirit of the women on stage, who boldly tackled taboos, wore “cunt get enough” t-shirts around campus, and fundraised for rape crisis centres in our own communities and survivor support programs abroad; I believed in that work.

However, as years passed–I have acted in three productions and co-directed one–the play’s irrelevance to my experience wasn’t the only thing that bothered me about it.

While the play contains monologues about women of colour, they are among the most depressing, with gruesome depictions of sexual and physical violence. Women of colour do experience higher rates of gender-based violence, but reading The Vagina Monologues script can leave you with the impression that only white women have a chance at light-hearted, violence-free, sexual experiences.

While it is unclear whether Ensler imagined women of colour in the play’s happier monologues, it is very clear which monologues are about women of colour. None of these monologues are happy.

Queer women are also discussed in the play, but their stories begin with acts of sexual violence perpetrated by men. This narrative suggested, to fellow cast members and I, that queerness was viewed as a symptom of sexual violence.

In one monologue, a sexual relationship between a 24-year-old woman and 16-year-old girl is portrayed as the 16-year-old’s first positive sexual experience after years of sexual abuse at the hands of men. In reality, the piece depicts a form of sexual abuse, albeit less violent than others included in the play. The power dynamic in the relationship, and the older woman’s insistence on plying the girl with alcohol, are not portrayed as examples of sexual assault–rather, as the girl’s sexual awakening.

Many important voices were omitted entirely from the play, and I’m not talking about (cisgender) men.

There is no mention of (dis)ability in the production, which is not surprising, considering the erasure of (dis)abled women and their sexuality from mainstream media.

There is also no mention of women who do not have and do not want vaginas. The only monologue about transgender women offers a painfully narrow picture that ignores the existence of those who do not need surgery to affirm their identities.

It took me too long to recognize that Ensler’s portrayal of transgender women, and erasure of other already marginalized people, was harmful and represented the most egregious aspect of mainstream feminist organizing: exclusion.

Thanks to the Internet, thought-provoking books, and countless conversations with people whose life experiences are vastly different than my own, I am working to challenge the privilege and ignorance that shielded me from the discomfort others have felt watching Ensler’s limited portrayal of transgender women.

The entire play is based on Ensler’s interviews with diverse groups of women, but in the end, they represent her reflections on the experiences of women whose lives are vastly different than her own.

Feminists often discuss the “the male gaze,” in terms of its distortion of women’s realities. When will mainstream feminisms address the distorted representations perpetuated by the cisgender white female gaze?

One of the greatest failings of The Vagina Monologues is its premise that women’s experiences of sexism and empowerment centre on the vagina, even if they aren’t born with one. This gender essentialism not only leaves many transgender women out of V-Day’s anti-violence activism, but also, many transgender men and people who do not identify within the gender binary: people who share many of the sexual and health concerns outlined in the play.

I know so many women who began identifying themselves as feminists, discovered new confidence and community, through their participation in The Vagina Monologues; this is what troubles me most about the play.

How can we teach young people about feminism–and I’m talking about the kind of feminism that acknowledges and centres discussions on the diverse experiences of people of colour, (dis)abled, transgender, non-binary, and queer people, as well as anyone else routinely alienated by mainstream feminism–with such a narrow vagina-centric viewpoint?

As Mia McKenenzie explains on her Black Girl Dangerous blog, building feminist solidarity based on shared cisgender female experience perpetuates inequality.

In my role as a cast member and co-director of the play, I ignored many of my own concerns about the script (it’s all for a good cause, right?), electing to change lines when I could, cut certain monologues from the line-up, and encourage the addition of new pieces–mostly poetry written by the cast. None of this was permitted by Ensler’s V-Day organization, but we did it anyway.

Nevertheless, these actions were inadequate, and I should have done better. The depictions of women in The Vagina Monologues and the play’s erasure of people who do not fit into Ensler’s vision for vagina solidarity are unacceptably problematic.

Our sense of girl-power was not worth this harm.

Changing the movement

Ensler’s V-Day movement–annual events aimed at ending gender-based violence, of which, The Vagina Monologues is the best known–is a powerful thing. It has powerful supporters and thousands of participants around the world, but it has to change.

Earlier this year, V-Day came under harsh and much deserved criticism after Ensler published an excerpt from her memoir In the Body of the World, entitled “My Congo Stigmata.” The piece explores Ensler’s realization that her uterine cancer caused similar physical injury to that experienced by survivors of rape in the Congo.

Ensler describes her newfound connection to these survivors as her “Congo Stigmata,” and says that, after several trips to the Congo, she “needed to see a fistula.”

She further fetishizes the suffering of rape survivors, saying, “I have always been drawn to holes. Black holes. Infinite holes. Impossible holes. Absences. Gaps, tears in membranes. Fistulas.”

Many critics of the excerpt have described it as imperialist appropriation of the suffering of women in the Congo. I wholeheartedly agree.

Some of the online criticisms of the piece have been aggregated on Storify by Mikki Kendall, originator of the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag.

V-Day has also been condemned for ignoring and overshadowing the work of grassroots organizers fighting violence against Indigenous women. Lauren Chief Elk, a co-founder of the Save Wiyabi Project, addressed the issue in an open letter to Ensler.

Critics point out the hypocrisy of V-Day’s most recent project One Billion Rising focusing its Canadian efforts on ending violence against Indigenous women, while ignoring and overshadowing existing initiatives run by Indigenous groups.

I was in Ottawa during this year’s international One Billion Rising events, scheduled for February 14th. This is the same day as the annual Memorial March for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women: an event organized in Ottawa, by families of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

It was perturbing to imagine mobs of non-Indigenous Ottawans “rising”–gathering to dance in support of anti-violence work–instead of supporting an existing campaign led by the communities directly affected by racist violence.

In response to public outcry over Canadian One Billion Rising events overshadowing existing Indigenous anti-violence activism, V-Day apologized and asked Canadian organizers to choose another day to rise.

Apology aside, one wonders why V-Day organizers, invested in ending violence against Indigenous women in Canada, were initially unaware of the annual grassroots event. What does this disconnect tell us about V-Day’s approach to activism?

A similar disconnect was evident in V-Day’s initial encouragement, through the One Billion Rising campaign, that survivors of gender-based violence report to police. The organization backtracked on this statement following criticisms that it ignored the realities of state violence and the all-too-common re-victimization of survivors once they enter the justice system.

Blogger Andrea Smith adds her voice to these criticisms and explores what “Organizing Around Gender Violence Should Look Like,” in this thoughtful piece.

What I wish I had learned from V-Day

There are so many things I wish I had learned from my participation in the V-Day movement, things I want a new generation of feminists and activists to consider.

By teaching young feminists to build exclusive movements that overshadow existing grassroots work, we teach them to become oppressors in their own right. I wish I had learned that feminist solidarity should not be built through the exclusion and silencing of other marginalized voices.

I wish I had learned that vaginas are not essential to womanhood, and that there is room on this Earth for people who live outside the gender binary.

I wish I had learned that, while patriarchal oppression is not felt equally throughout society, cisgender white women are not the only people capable of liberated, light-hearted sexuality.

I wish I had learned that queerness is not a post-script to sexual assault, and that sexual assault is not a phenomenon exclusive to heterosexual relationships; ignoring this is dangerous.

I wish I had learned that rape is not always accompanied by excessive violence and that sometimes, survivors don’t know they’re survivors right away.

I wish I had learned that women in countries far away from my own are also capable of happy, healthy sex lives. I wish I had learned that their stories are not always one-dimensionally tragic, and that they are definitely not ours to appropriate and fetishize.

I wish Eve Ensler had said, “write your own monologues.”

So, I’ll say it. Write your own monologues.

Rosella Chibambo is an Ottawa-based (dope)feminist media development professional and freelance writer, currently working in Mwanza, Tanzania. @Chibambo

Tags: gender, guest blogs, race and racism

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