Friday, March 14, 2008

Is The Vagina Monologues A Feminist Play?

To continue in a self-referential vein, I wanted to thank Rachel Achs for her article on the most recent Yale production of The Vagina Monologues, which I directed last month.

The article was remarkably uncritical, however, and I don't think it had to be. The play is problematic, both artistically and politically, and I wish there was a forum in which to discuss it with nuance. Check out Basha's "The Absence of The Vagina Monologues" on Broad Recognition for a basic point of departure for such a discussion. In the post, Basha mentions her doubts about a celebration of female physicality that may emulate male body-talk. There are many other feminist angles, of course, from which to approach the play, once you've read or seen it. (Does it truly represent a pluralistic vision of the female body? Should it presume to reference international women's issues, or is the American focus a stronger and more fruitful approach? Is it too unquestioning of the "domination" of women that a female sex worker, in one of the monologues, voices? Is the portrayal of birth that ends the play an appropriate ideological choice, or is it in fact unrelated to the issues of sexual violence that come before it? The list goes on.)

That said, I do think that The Vagina Monologues is remarkably relevant to modern Yale life. For all the talk about sex and sexuality and sexiness on this campus, there's very little discussion of the body itself, what it means to be a body living among other bodies. Which I find odd, since college students basically live on top of each other in dorms and off-campus buildings, how there's so little privacy around here, how we all feed at the same watering-holes and walk the same handful of streets. Given the conditions of life here, doesn't it seem like we'd have more awareness of bodies? It also bears noting that the bread and circuses provided by Yale also contribute to the marginalization of women's bodies (and all bodies, whatever the gender, that don't fit a traditional male norm). The Yale-Harvard Game-- the single biggest tradition at our school, and the event that attracts the most alumni (and therefore donors)-- offers a grand spectacle where glory is achievable only by the bodies of strong men. What a set-up for gender anxiety.

Feeling comfortable with one's physical self shouldn't be hard, but a wealth of cultural facts and social pressures make it hard. The Vagina Monologues is wonderful to see if that's a discomfort that you have; the women onstage speak frankly, funnily, sadly about their own bodies in a way it's hard to see people do in everyday life, especially at Yale. For women, The Vagina Monologues provides what the play calls "a context of other vaginas." Of course, it's an important play for men to see, too; it's important for all of us, as young people, to use our imaginations to relate to the experience of others-- seeing the play includes men in the wider conversation about women's health, sexuality, and identity, a conversation that is necessary if men and women are to live well together at Yale, or in the wider world.

A letter to esteemed columnist Brent Bozell

I'm a little distressed that my critique of Sex Week at Yale, and of its manner of presenting pornography, has been appropriated by conservative "journalism" with dubious (if any) feminist sympathies. Transparency, I think, will bring some relief. Below is the full text of my recent letter to a gentleman named Brent Bozell, who in a recent article seems to be laboring under some false impressions (perhaps he should have read my piece more carefully before using it in his own). I also forwarded the letter to the websites that have reprinted his column.


Mr. Bozell,

I feel compelled to correct some apparent factual errors in your column, "Rape Films at Yale." Your writing suggests that feminists from the Yale Women's Center "[e]nter[ed]" Sex Week at Yale's pornography screening, that I "declared" the porn to be objectionable, and that the film was shut down as a result of these two actions. In fact, leaders of the Yale Women's Center did not attend the screening-- nor did they issue any kind of statement (or declaration) about it. My opinion editorial in the Yale Daily News-- from which you've lifted your quotation of me-- is just that: my personal opinion. While it is true, as you say, that many members of the Women's Center were "not pleased" about the screening, we did not interfere with the screening itself. Free speech is a cornerstone of university life. My view is that discourse is far more constructive than blanket censorship, as I hoped to suggest through my critique of the Sex Week organizers' apology, and my expressed hope that we may talk honestly about porn as a powerful cultural product (not a genre to be categorically, or institutionally, banned).

Also, I am pained at the assumption that my op-ed should be taken as representative of the Yale Women's Center. I am listed under the op-ed as a "junior in Branford College" and the "Amy Rossborough Fellowship Coordinator of the Yale Women's Center." However, this identification does not mean that my opinions are those of all juniors or all members of Branford College, let alone of all the members of the Women's Center. When the Women's Center wishes to issue a statement, the entire board signs as such.

One more note, if I may: you seem to imply in your piece that feminism is a more powerful force at Yale than Christianity. If you must deal in false dichotomies, I am not sure that "more powerful" is the best way to characterize campus feminism in comparison to campus Christianity. "Less funded" and "more vibrant" might be better choices.

Sincerely yours,
Presca Ahn