Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Vagina Dialogues

by Josh Franklin

The Vagina Monologues is beginning its campus recruitment. Invitations to get involved in this exciting production abound, except I'm a man, so I can't participate. Eve Ensler has set strict rules for the presentation of The Vagina Monologues, including the stipulation that men cannot participate as actors. What should we make of an institution that fights against sexism and gender violence by excluding men?

It's certainly not fair to say that the prohibition on male actors represents a deep discrimination against men. The justifications for insisting on an all-female cast seem fairly obvious. The play is about the vagina, something men do not have. More generally, male power is so pervasive in our society that the demand for a female space seems legitimate. Nevertheless, creating a space that excludes men seems counterproductive in deep ways.

One of the main objectives of The Vagina Monologues is to work to end gender violence, or more specifically, "violence against girls and women." Sexual violence is a great tragedy for its survivors, and for this reason a women's space is necessary. However, the logic of excluding men for the benefit of survivors does not necessarily translate to the awareness-oriented public performance of The Vagina Monologues. Gender violence is everyone's problem, and men are both survivors and perpetrators. Managing these statistics is always a bit difficult and controversial, but the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network says that in 2003, even though 9 out of 10 rape victims were women, 1 in 33 American men has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. And of course, the overwhelming majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by men. Men are affected deeply by gender violence and ought to claim the greater portion of responsibility for its persistence in our society; how, then, are men supposed to take ownership of the issue of sexual violence if they are excluded from the spaces where it becomes a public dialogue? The goal of an event trying to fight violence against women ought to be to force men to realize their responsibility; The Vagina Monologues seems to merely reinforce the myth that gender violence is a 'women's issue', unworthy of serious consideration.

In a more general sense, I'm worried about how an event like The Vagina Monologues shapes the course of the transforming future of gender. If we perceive gendered relations to be systematically harmful in many ways, isn't that due to our culturally hypostatized notion of binary gender? In other words, the point of feminist critiques of gender is to teach us to stop treating people in certain ways or making certain assumptions about people on the basis of their categorization as a man or a woman. While The Vagina Monologues has the potential to be a radically positive institution that helps people to rethink gender in their own lives and create a motivation for taking ownership of gender violence, I think we ought to be wary of the ways in which it merely reinscribes patriarchal conceptions of gender. There is a culturally salient image of the radical, militant feminist who hates men, and one of the challenges for contemporary feminism in society at large is to overcome this stigma. Even though this conception is unfair, it has a great deal of cultural inertia in part due to the fact that when a feminist woman speaks out against it, it merely serves to reinforce the stigma itself. For feminist concerns, which are really concerns of humanity, to transcend their limiting framing as the idiosyncratic concerns of a minority of man-hating crazy liberals, we will need to see a great diversity of people--including men--taking responsible ownership of these problems that are faced by every human being. Maybe an institution with rules specifically excluding men is not a productive step in that direction.

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