Taking Reformist Politics from Monologue to Dialogue
What woman here is so enamored of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint upon another woman’s face? What woman’s terms of oppression have become precious and necessary to her as a ticket into the fold of the righteous, away from the cold winds of self-scrutiny?
Audre Lorde, “Uses of Anger
This past year, students involved in UBC V-Day organized a series of fundraisers leading up to their production of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues. Following the production, UBC V-Day collaborated with a number of gender-focused campus associations to organize and facilitate the Vagina Dialogues. Advertised as a “critical and respectful response to Eve Ensler’s play”, the Vagina Dialogues were arranged as a forum to discuss “gender, race, class, sexuality and feminist activism in ‘The Vagina Monologues’ and V-Day.”
Such a forum is indeed necessary. Since they were first performed in 1996, the Vag Mons have generated significant debate and criticism. Audience responses and reactions, as well as a growing body of academic critique, call attention to issues referenced in the advertisement of the Vagina Dialogues. From multiple positions and through various means, audience members have experienced, exposed, interrogated, and rejected essentialist, transphobic, and colonial tropes reproduced in the Vag Mons. In this context of contestation and disaffection, a forum such as the Vagina Dialogues has potential to be a critical space in which to question the feminist politics and strategies in process; examine the construction and recognition of various social identities and experiences within the play; and explore alternative feminist, anti-racist, queer, and trans-inclusive organizing.
With ongoing debates around the Vag Mons in mind, we attended the Vagina Dialogues in part to see how UBC V-Day organizers and Vag Mons cast would respond to and engage in analyses of essentialism, transphobia, and racism within the play. We believed that any discussion advocating limited reformation of the play as the resolution to recognized discrimination – without considering discontinuing the Vag Mons on grounds of their reproduction of exclusion and oppression – would be not only a disappointing performance of pseudo-critique, but a dangerous political orientation to adopt as feminists. Taking as a starting point that transphobia and racism are unacceptable in any context and form, we hoped that this forum would produce a serious consideration of alternatives to the Vagina Monologues.
The discussion was structured around individual monologues selected by the organizers (some of which were not performed this year) to lead a moderated deconstruction of “instances” of essentialism, racism, and heterosexism within the play. This exercise quickly turned into an affirmation of the role the Vag Mons had played in the “feminist awakenings” of many of those attending the Dialogues. For many in attendance, the Vag Mons had served as a catalyst for future feminist engagement, primarily in the form of enrolment in Women’s & Gender Studies courses or through participation in later V-Day campaigns. Many also expressed the crucial role that the Vag Mons plays in bringing mainstream audiences, especially men, into the “feminist fold”. Assuming a pre-feminist audience, it was argued that the Vag Mons offer a palatable introduction to feminism. This narrative of feminist awareness-raising and education is one of several ways that the Vag Mons as a political project was framed throughout the Dialogues.
As a deconstruction of the individual monologues continued, there was general agreement amongst those participating that the play does include “problematic” representations of marginalized social identities. However, the discussion did not move beyond acknowledging these issues. In order to accommodate criticisms, the ability of those in attendance to problematize these representations was framed as possible only because of the “feminist awakenings” that the Vag Mons, their Women’s and Gender Studies courses, and further feminist engagement had provided them. This assumes that audience members, without the Vag Mons or similar “feminist awakenings”, would either not be offended by these representations or would be unable to recognize and deconstruct them.
Acknowledging these “problematic” representations, many in attendance nonetheless validated the Vag Mons as an instrument for positive social change, affirming the play’s success both in attracting a large mainstream audience and as a fundraiser for grassroots organizations that address issues of gender-based violence. In discussing measures of the play’s success, many articulated a tension between feminist politics, mainstream reception, and fundraising. While many recognized that the Vag Mons offers an incomplete feminist analysis, they argued that the play “pushes the boundaries as far as possible” while still selling out theatres. Ultimately, many in attendance valued the play’s mainstream appeal and success as a fundraiser over a commitment to critical and inclusive feminist analysis.
Increasingly frustrated, we raised several concerns at this point. Arguing that the representations being deconstructed are not only “problematic”, but offensive, alienating, and unacceptable, we attempted to move the discussion beyond acknowledgment towards an unqualified rejection of these representations and a discussion of alternatives. For much of the discussion that followed, many in attendance, particularly those associated with UBC V-Day, focused on justifying the continuation of the Vag Mons in light of these serious concerns.
Not surprisingly the narrative of “feminist awakening” was used to affirm the value of the play. “While the play might not be perfect, it’s a first step.” This notion of a “first step” was framed as necessary to a broader feminist progression for individuals as part of a social movement. An affirmation of the Vag Mons as a “necessary first step” raises a number of important questions: A first step for whom? Is this particular first step necessary? Where does this step lead?
Taking as a starting point that transphobia and racism are unacceptable in any context and form, we hoped that this forum would produce a serious consideration of alternatives to the Vagina Monologues.
To the limited extent that the Vag Mons are a progressive political project, they rely on the “enlightenment” and “emancipation” of a privileged and irreflexive audience. For women who can identify exclusively and essentially with the vagina to the subordination and exclusion of other social variables, the Vag Mons provide an asocial and apolitical feminist narrative, which can be easily incorporated by intersecting regimes of privilege and oppression. Here, “emancipation” is equated with an individualized reclamation and normalization of the vagina and female (hetero)sexuality. This framing operates from the premise that internalized social stigma surrounding vaginas is the root of women’s disempowerment. In reclaiming the vagina (as a stand-in for female gender and sexuality) without dismantling the binary in which it is positioned, the Vag Mons merely valorise a previously denigrated identity without displacing the system in which it is reproduced. For this reason, the Vag Mons are a palatable and safe introduction to feminism for socially privileged and irreflexive women and men alike. In privileging this normative audience, this “first step” cannot lead to a sustainable and equitable politics of empowerment, but can only serve to perpetuate stigma, exclusion, and oppression against socially marginalized and non-normative identities. As such, we completely reject the claim that the Vag Mons offer a “first step”, let alone one that can be deemed “necessary” to feminist organizing.
Those advancing this “necessary first step” argument took for granted both its short- and long-term efficacy as a gateway to feminist engagement and social change. Failing to recognize and interrogate the limits and repercussions of such a strategy (or even what a “second step” would entail), they oriented themselves towards an assimilationist and reformist feminist politics. Reacting to the deconstruction of the individual monologues UBC V-Day had selected, as well as broader criticisms of the play, UBC V-Day organizers and Vag Mons cast members first attempted to distance themselves from the Vag Mons. Shifting the discussion to Eve Ensler’s prejudice, those participating in this conversation engaged in a dangerous transference of responsibility at the expense of a self-reflexive analysis of their role in the reproduction of the play and its inequities.
At this point, the obvious question is, given Eve Ensler and the Vagina Monologues’ racism, essentialism, and transphobia, how can we continue to produce this play? In response, UBC V-Day organizers offered a number of strategies used to “resolve” recognized issues of discrimination. These included illegally altering limited aspects of the play; letter-writing to Eve Ensler; and organizing the Vagina Dialogues, while continuing to organize UBC V-Day campaigns and the Vag Mons at UBC. Clearly, those involved with UBC V-Day not only accept and reproduce the assimilationist, exclusionary, and oppressive “feminist” politics of the Vag Mons, but in their response to these criticisms, actively culture and engage in an irreflexive, reformist, and ultimately apolitical brand of feminism.
In framing the Dialogues as a response to “Eve Ensler’s play”, UBC V-Day organizers attempted to obscure their agency and role in the reproduction of inequities through the Vag Mons.
After three hours of discussion, it was evident that a serious consideration of alternatives to the Vagina Monologues would not occur in this forum. As UBC V-Day organizers, the moderators of the Dialogues were already implicated in the production and invested in the reproduction of the Vag Mons at UBC. In framing the Dialogues as a response to “Eve Ensler’s play”, UBC V-Day organizers attempted to obscure their agency and role in the reproduction of inequities through the Vag Mons. Ultimately, UBC V-Day organizers created this forum as an apologetic justification for their production of this play in light of already widely recognized and repudiated issues of discrimination. By taking for granted that the Vag Mons will continue to be performed at UBC, the Dialogues were limited to pseudo-critique and reformist politics to the exclusion of critical perspectives and consideration of inclusive alternatives.
We left the Dialogues disappointed by the empty discussion and disturbed by both the Vagina Monologues’ and Dialogues’ failure to move beyond reformist politics towards a feminism actively committed to inclusion, empowerment, and radical transformation. In the context of the ultimate acceptance of an essentialist, racist, and transphobic play, there is a clear need to explore and create alternative feminist, anti-racist, queer, and trans-inclusive organizing. Within ongoing radical, feminist, and other anti-oppression forms of theatre, there exist already multiple and diverse forms, strategies, and texts to draw on to create these alternatives. We desire an accessible and challenging alternative for those who wish to self-reflexively explore issues of privilege and oppression and an alternative space for those who do not feel included, empowered, or affirmed by UBC V-Day efforts and initiatives. In place of the Vagina Monologues, we desire forms of theatre through which performers and spectators are mutually implicated in the exploration, performance, analysis, and transformation of the realities in which we are living.
If you are interested in exploring and creating inclusive, empowering, and affirmative theatre and organizing at UBC, please contact us at: knollpaper(at)gmail.com