Monday, November 05, 2012

"her body doesn't belong to you!"

My current parenting conundrum is the recurring difficulty in getting my 6-year-old daughter to quit hauling around her 1-year-old sister around like a sack of potatoes. And jumping on her head. And moving around her sister's arms and legs like she's a great big animate doll. And yelling at her to quit picking her nose (an irony, since I still can't keep her 6-year-old fingers from digging for gold). Over and over and over I say, calmly, exasperatedly, quietly, loudly, in small words, in big words, in just-in-time-edited words, "her body is not your plaything, it does not belong to you, she is not your toy, treat her body with respect, she is a person just like you, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah." Yeah. The thing is, she understands all that. It just doesn't make a difference in what she does. Yet.

So this weekend I'm saying this thing over and over, as a frustrated mommy, and it hits me. I'm also saying this same thing over and over, as a frustrated feminist theologian, on that glorious series of tubes that connects us all (except for when horrible hybrid hurricane nor'easters disrupt things), the Internet. My weekend has a weird symmetrical monotony.

So, once upon a time, a much-anticipated book by a well-known author was dropped by a major Christian bookstore chain, apparently for containing a reference to the vagina. And there was protest. And there was a promotional contest for free copies of the book, which invited limerick submissions specifically referencing vaginas. Then there were a couple of people with time on their hands and brains in their heads, and vaginas, who felt a little odd about that--appreciative of the spirit of the whole thing but a little unsure about the strategy. And there was discussion. And ongoing discussion.

What I want to do here is blog through what I think is the best critical observation offered yet, which is that there's a bit of hypocrisy involved in Chris, Julie and me objecting to the limerick contest hosted by Tony as participating rather than subverting the dominant cultural assumption that women's bodies (and in this case it is one specific woman's body) are "public property," in the sense that it's okay for them to be objects of commentary and public consumption. I stand by that critique. I think the contest can't subvert that assumption, and I think that that is the underlying assumption that makes the original "Vaginagate" kerfuffle at Lifeway truly problematic. It's not just simple censorship, in other words. There's something else going on. The interesting critique of our effort at pointing this out is that--this is my gloss on it--that of course we're doing the same thing. We're talking about vaginas as public objects--and again, in this case, the whole discussion is at least loosely tied to one specific woman's body. And look! I'm blogging about it! I'm doing it again! Argh!

Is it hypocritical? I'd contest that characterization. I'd say rather that this conundrum neatly demonstrates the larger point Julie and I were getting at, which is the difficulty of negotiating these contextual assumptions and power dynamics in efforts to stand with others as allies and craft meaningful gestures of solidarity. We don't stand above that any more than the original contest does.

Leaving it here might be depressing--as if the ultimate conclusion is just that everything is bound to be flawed at some level, and oh well. Zenme ban, what can you do. That's not untrue--I think that taking ethical stands and risking action is always going to involve that kind of flaw. Purity is not an actual thing in this world. I'm not really looking for a pure gesture of solidarity.

But that doesn't mean that, when we get ready to jump in and get our hands dirty, that there aren't better and worse ways to go about it and we just shouldn't feel like it's necessary to take the time to ask that question. As my favorite philosopher says, "we must cast our lot with some ways of living and not other ways"--even if all ways of living mean that our hands will undoubtedly be unclean. So, the hard question is, how could it have been done better? Is it possible for the contest to have been framed in a way that did take into account the problem of women's bodies as publicly consumable objects, and avoided compounding that issue?

That's an open question. Winning answers might receive a book about cyborgs. :)

And this quick post is the best this theologian-at-large mama can do, because it's time to pick up the big girl from school.


Jennifer Bayne said...

I think the problem with the controversy of Lifeway is that underlying it all is the belief that women are reducible to their scary, scary vaginas - seductive sex and virginal (yes, ironic) baby-spouting. The author of the book may have done something interesting, written something interesting, but she transgressed in acting like vagina is a matter-of-fact part of life. I suspect that it is secretly the author as a whole person who is feared, but can be cut down by putting down the part that is supposed to represent her. Clear as mud? So I agree with you about limericks, and I agree that there is no way to unpublicize what is already public. Rather than ridicule what has already been scorned, humanizing the woman as a whole. Your mother is not a vagina, your friend, your sister, your daughter, are not vaginas. They have them, and they are non-scary. In fact, they are kind of awesome, but even so, don't make up the whole person.

JTB said...

The thing that makes it all so difficult is that I think everyone wholeheartedly agrees with all of that! And I feel like we tried hard to acknowledge that and honor that. And, it makes a difference (to me) that the author herself seems to be okay with the whole thing. That seems like germane info that might have been revealed early on or even part of the original post, but maybe everyone else was in-the-know enough to assume that was the case without it being made explicit.

Personally I can't get over the conviction that having a bunch of other people say vagina over and over as a response to being told you can't say vagina isn't empowering. That's why I feel like the comment by Ayin in the blog discussion over there is actually really spot on. (Ahem. "") The voice that was the subject of the attempted silencing is still in fact missing from the whole vagina limerick spree and that is one way to capture the whole problem.

I also get why some might see our commentary as some sort of attempt to stand in for that missing voice. That's not what I was trying to do and I don't see that in Julie's words either. I very consciously tried not to frame things in a "If I were her" sort of way, mapping what I see as problematic onto someone else.