Friday, February 17, 2006

in media res

Some of the reservations a professor of mine expressed about the Vagina Monologues during the panel discussion Wednesday evening seem warranted. There is, for example, a fairly consistent identification of women with vaginas, so that the message almost seems to be that woman=vagina. This, clearly, is an ambivalent sentiment: one that is used to oppress and reduce and harm, as well as being a path of affirmation for women who have studiously ignored this part of who they are. This didn't get discussed fully during the panel--mainly because I had so many questions to write on notecards and turn in to the panelists that I simply didn't get to this one. My feeling about it at the moment is, while I don't want to make the move woman=vagina, I think the play represents a necessary dialectical moment in the redemption of the body part for women. Before I can realize myself as a whole being (vagina and more), first there must a valuing of that part of me that's been previously ignored, squelched, not thought about or looked at, off limits to the conscious self. Once that happens, then it is possible to move beyond identifying oneself with the vagina and understand that there is much more to a person than any singular body part.

Other thoughts: among the cast there has been the constant question, how is the seminary at large responding to the production of "The Vagina Monologues" on campus? I myself have heard no negative sentiment, but then again, I'm relatively isolated from the social world in which most PTS students live and move and have their social being. (This isn't just me being socially inept; it's a PhD student problem generally, I think.) Since this is the second time for the play to be performed at PTS (first was 2004), I kindof assumed that criticism might be more muted, or that unenlightened people would have accepted it with the attitude of "well you can't make me go see it and my $5 is buying me lunch, not going to Womanspace." But apparently this is just a product of my isolation and misplaced optimism. I haven't seen anything written contra "The Vagina Monologues" here, but Brent shared this with me from the NY Times this morning: At Religious Universities, Disputes Over Faith and Academic Freedom.

The article focuses on University of Notre Dame's recent statement that "that staging the events on campus implies an endorsement of values that conflict with Roman Catholicism." What I find entirely incomprehensible is that, though the objection is based on the assumption that allowing these performances implies endorsement of values unacceptable to the powers that be, "The Vagina Monologues" was allowed to be performed--just not allowed to raise money to be donated to the cause of prevention of violence against women: "'The Vagina Monologues' was performed in a classroom, not a theater, by a group that was not allowed to sell tickets to raise money for women's groups as it once had." So apparently the monologue "The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy" can be performed--as long as no good comes of it. Forgive me if my ire leads me astray here, but it seems to me that now, instead of endorsing the production of a play which stands for the prevention of violence against women, Notre Dame has now endorsed the performance of apparently entirely gratuitous orgasm scenes with no greater purpose than sheer entertainment value. Does this seem weird to anyone else???

Last night's performance here, though, was wonderfully affirming. People laughed when it was funny--which it is, loud and often. And people gasped when it was shocking, and sobered when it was sad. Despite whatever lingering puritanical sentiment there may be around here, there are enough people who understand the real point of the Monologues. It's not endorsement of a libertine sexual ethic, it's not in-your-face feminist bullying, it's not simply there for the glorious shock value of it all. It's about women trying to reclaim a part of themselves that has for too long been something that means only hurt and vulnerability and the ever present possibility of terror. (Yes, terror. I used the GW word, and I meant it. In a way that I suspect he doesn't and can't when he uses it.)

I don't understand what there is about that that any Christian institution couldn't endorse. To refuse to do so is simply misogyny dressed up in puritanical clothing.

I'm glad PTS can be the counterexample to Notre Dame. Tonight should be even better.


Anonymous said...

I think N.T. Wright made a great observation on American culture in his conference paper:
Women’s Service in the Church: The Biblical Basis
"Part of the problem, particularly in the United States, is that cultures become so polarized that it is often assumed that if you tick one box you’re going to tick a dozen other boxes down the same side of the page – without realising that the page itself is highly arbitrary and culture-bound. We have to claim the freedom, in Christ and in our various cultures, to name and call issues one by one with wisdom and clarity, without assuming that a decision on one point commits us to a decision on others."

I think this is what Notre Dame, and countless other religious institutions and organizations fear-- if they endorse one thing, then it means they endorse everything else that our culture ties in with that one thing. This is also why many of us have a hard time claiming ties to one political party.

I find this journey with "The Vagina Monologues" fascinating, and appreciate you sharing parts of it with us. I've not had any first-hand knowledge with reading or watching this production, so I can't speak from experience. But I understand the reservation your professor expressed about woman=vagina. But I already talked about that before in my comment on your "Why, Part 1.5" blog, so I won't go into that again.

Good post, and good points to ponder.

Anonymous said...

Keep talking. I'm listening.
I need to listen.

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