Thursday, 21 March 2013

A Found Poem (based on TVM)

The Power of Saying the Unsayable

Fana, Shakti, truth-telling; Kunda, Cunti,
cunt, kin, and country; journey, naming,
alternatives, the sacred center, the womb,
primordial; conceive life energy, some-
thing, mystical, practical; attention, love
revealed; poonani, pal, pajama, tottita;
sweatpants, embrace me; to finally find
the clitoris, dreams, the flood; a choral
thing, a wild collective song; the petals,
vaginal wonder, ancient and full of grace;
orgasms, layers, mystical, magical; find it,
be it; shell, tulip, destiny; suddenly easy,
ready, alive; to feel connection; twice, twice,
twice, love, real looking; innocent and wild.

Worried, scratching, fire; stinky, weird,
cancer; not since, the room, the car; witch
trial, convicted, guilty; throwing up, slapped,
screaming; unsettling, frantic, terrified; out-
rage, systematic tactic of war; monstrous, dead,
butchered and burned; mutilation, anger; scary,
loud, and life-threatening; garbage, exhausting,
package, cutter; terrors, force, twisted, omission; for 
the women we do not see, who hurt and who need us.

Pleasure, heaven, naming things; vulva
girl, vulva song, vulva dance; chalice
essence, the beginning; vagina-friendly,
smart, snowflakes; to make women happy,
the almost- the elegant- the mountaintop-
moan; mystery, to know, touch, satisfy; come
in; to be there, to feel awe and wonder; to
change, expand, forgive, repair, remember;
thank you, all of us, change, day by day; give
birth, sustain, the brave ones, bless them, desire.

*all words & phrases taken from The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler

Can (& Should) We Talk about Vaginas (& TVM) in English Class (in HS)?

Lots of colleges and universities have a Gender Studies or Women's Studies or Women's Literature, etc. course in which this play is studied. Not many high schools do.

When I first considered this text for our class three years ago, I researched its teaching in various institutions, what teachers, professors, psychologists, and other educators have to say about how it works and whether or not it's appropriate.

Eventually, I submitted these pedagogical goals to our school's administration:

Pedagogical Goals
o   For students to experience a safe, personal, and intellectual discussion of controversial ideas, exploring a controversial text
o   For students to cultivate a spirit of sustained inquiry, even when the going is difficult
o   For students to experience a broader range of the literature that exists
o   For students to identify with realms of human experience generally not explored and discussed (and written about) in class
o   For students to find a language to discuss their own experiences around gender and sexuality
o   For students to be empowered in terms of having words, understanding issues, and participating in a wider conversation (a preparation for identifying problems in the world)
o   “As readers, men as well as women, may emerge from these pages not only feeling more free within themselves—and about each other—but with alternatives to the old patriarchal dualism of feminine/masculine, body/mind, and sexual/spiritual that is rooted in the division of our physical selves into ‘the part we talk about’ and ‘the part we don’t’” (Steinem).
o    “Pedagogically, The Vagina Monologues promoted the goals of empathy towards others. The stories of the women opened-up a greater awareness of how other women live for the students while, at the same time, it spoke to many of their unarticulated experiences and feelings. Engaging in discussions with each other about the monologues enabled the students to identify with women's issues and stories (Belenky, 1986; Ensler, 1998; Fisher, 2001; Gawelek, 1994). In this respect, I believe, one key pedagogical goal was met.
o   “Lastly, The Vagina Monologues was a good text to discuss the concept of "the personal is political" (Fisher, 2001; Minnich, 1990). Framing individual women's experiences within the larger cultural norms of American society gave the students in my class the opportunity to look beyond issues of individual psychology to their own community's and family's perceptions of women's sexuality. In my opinion, the reactions the students in my class faced in being assigned The Vagina Monologues also permitted them a real lived experience of how society's norms impact people's attitudes and behaviors. From a teaching position, I believe, that the students were able to take their personal experiences of adversity and confusion, and frame them within the larger social context of women's sexuality as to promote women's issues, and end violence against women” (Linda Chen, PhD (Chair of Political Science at Indiana University)).

I also wrote the following:
I love the arguments Eve Ensler herself and Gloria Steinem articulate (in introductions) for the purposes and implications of encountering this text. Although I'm hesitant, of course, in some ways, about using the text, I also have some concerns about relegating conversations about sex and sexuality to Health Class (and not even there in some schools) and avoiding a topic so relevant, even urgent, for adolescents. My general educational goals always include helping students feel both safe and challenged simultaneously. In my electives with our oldest students (like Craft of Writing, the Individual and Society in Literature, Outsiders in Literature, Modern African Literature, Poetry, American Literature, etc.) so far, I have found that students (once they've established safe, academic and personal, talking relationships around the Harkness table) are desperate to talk about these subjects--particularly in the era of Facebook, hooking up, etc.  Also, I think the study of literature and writing is the study of human experience--what I care most about as an English teacher. Literature, to me, is an expression or reflection of experience (and/or worldview), an art form in itself, and a means of participating in an age-old dialogue with people from around the world over time. 

Gloria Steinem writes, “Slowly, it dawned on me that nothing was more important than stopping violence toward women—that the desecration of women indicated the failure of human beings to honor and protect life and that this failing would, if we did not correct it, be the end of us all.”

She describes a tradition of “shaming words and dirty jokes” to do with female (and I would add, male) sexuality—a trend that has surely affected most, if not all, of our students (and us). I echo Steinem’s sentiment of wishing “my own foremothers had known their bodies were sacred” and with her celebrate The Vagina Monologues’ notions of reclaiming traditions and beliefs to do with female power formerly “marginalized or denied” and “reclaiming devalued word[s]”, using “outrageous voices and honest [language]”. In what Steinem calls “the spirit of self knowledge of freedom” in this text, Ensler takes her audience or readers on a “journey of truth telling”, speaking the “truth of violence against the female body”, “bringing these hidden experiences into the open, naming them, and turning our rage into positive action to reduce and heal violence”, “purging a past full of negative attitudes”. Yet perhaps the phrase I most admire and embrace from this essay of introduction is “the power of saying the unsayable”—ever relevant for teenagers (and adults alike) as they navigate modes of communication, in an ever-growing range of genres, voices, and technologies. As teens go through adolescence and inevitably grapple with their identities, including gender and sexuality, this text meets them at a time when their questions about gender and sexuality are urgent, authentic, and personal.
Moreover, as we focus increasingly on our mission statement’s inclusion of both intellect and character, these issues could not be more pertinent or powerful in terms of cultivating empathy and a global perspective. As Ensler herself explains, “In order for the human race to continue, women must be safe and empowered.”

And three years on, I find myself asking the same questions. The text feels as relevant to me as ever and for the same reasons. Yet it's a challenging as ever to talk about vaginas in English class in high school. 
I still think we should so venture forth, as before, with questions, with curiosity, with wonder. 

Friday, 15 March 2013

On Reading: Fiction & Beyond

Why do we read? And why do we read Women's Literature? Why study or discuss a particular piece or body of work? And what is literature anyway?

These questions are central to our course.

C.S. Lewis said, "We read to know we're not alone." Isabel Allende said, "Sometimes the story is truer than true." In his "Ode on a Grecian Urn," John Keats pointed us to truth and beauty as the dual pursuits of life (and, by extension, literature). That debate continues.

When we come to English class, what do we expect, and what are we prepared, if anything, to do? Do we expect to think, to learn, to be changed? Are we willing to do these things? I hope so. Reading is wonderfully dangerous, if so. It has the potential to change us--who we are and how we live.

Wolf cites the century-old belief that "if a woman read too much, her uterus would atrophy" and Friedrich Engels' claim that "'the education of women would sterilize them' and make them sexually unattractive" (225). Even though these ideas are obviously both wrong and oppressive, I love the fact that they honor the power of words.

So is Naomi Wolf's book, The Beauty Myth, literature? The question arose today in class. Are we reading it to learn the truth (or some truth) or to be moved by its art? What about Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale? What if they both do both? Did I learn more from Wolf because this book is non-fiction? Did I experience more pleasure because Atwood's novel is fiction?

Allende, for me, identifies the paradox--that it is possible for fiction to resonate as much as or more than non-fiction, that it can be "truer than true." I think fiction and non-fiction are different vehicles, both worthy and powerful, for exploring human experience. They are both capable of edifying the intellect and captivating the imagination.

Someone very dear to me is in surgery today for breast implants--probably as we speak. I can't help but respond emotionally to Naomi Wolf's chapter on "Violence," a moment when non-fiction breaks into the real, visceral, painful truths of this very day:
Beauty pornography is making women violent toward ourselves. The evidence surrounds us. Here a surgeon stretches the slit skin of the breast. There a surgeon presses with all his weight on a woman's chest to break up lumps of silicone with his bare hands. There is the walking corpse. There is the woman vomiting blood (142). 


Thursday, 7 March 2013

How Are We Doing (in 2013)?

As I read on in Wolf's book, I keep asking myself, So how are we doing? Last month, Stephanie Coontz explored the ways in which, in 2013, "our political and economic institutions lag way behind our personal ideals" in her New York Times article, "Why Gender Equality Stalled." She writes:
Today the main barriers to further progress toward gender equity no longer lie in people’s personal attitudes and relationships. Instead, structural impediments prevent people from acting on their egalitarian values, forcing men and women into personal accommodations and rationalizations that do not reflect their preferences. The gender revolution is not in a stall. It has hit a wall.
And while Coontz focuses on political and structural impediments, she acknowledges that we still have default positions, which are more abstract, psychological and emotional impediments. For example:
Eighty percent of the women and 70 percent of the men Ms. Gerson interviewed said they wanted an egalitarian relationship that allowed them to share breadwinning and family care. But when asked what they would do if this was not possible, they described a variety of “fallback” positions. While most of the women wanted to continue paid employment, the majority of men said that if they could not achieve their egalitarian ideal they expected their partner to assume primary responsibility for parenting so they could focus on work.
And that is how it usually works out. When family and work obligations collide, mothers remain much more likely than fathers to cut back or drop out of work.
When the new or better or fairer way isn't possible or doesn't present itself to us, women more often than men accept the other, less equitable way, while men continue to benefit from the long-standing status quo. Coontz proposes that "Our goal should be to develop work-life policies that enable people to put their gender values into practice." I whole-heartedly concur. 

NY Times: Why Gender Equity Stalled

I also want us to explore, discuss, consider, and acknowledge the many conflicting ideas and images all around us in a complex, global, digital age. Mainstream and extreme views alike are readily available at the click of a mouse. 

The conversation has exploded. The web contains billions of ideas and images, from ad hominem attacks, to constructive conversations. You can find support for any argument. The web cultivates extremism and constructive, pluralistic progress simultaneously. 

Every time I read Wolf's book, it strikes me that she is arguing for freedom more than anything else. This still feels both pressing and relevant. In the "Hunger" chapter, when she describes how "Everyone is telling [girls] to be careful" and how "the larger world never gives girls the message that their bodies are valuable simply because they are inside them," I measure our current climate against these ideas and sense the Iron Maiden as much as ever (217, 205). She talks about how a "natural" relationship to food includes "not always thinking about it," and we need to hear this still (200). Wolf links freedom from hunger to sexual freedom, connecting her arguments between the personal, political, and economic spheres--even bravely sharing her own story of starvation in adolescence when she suffered from an eating disorder. 

I'm glad we're talking about all of this. And Wolf enjoins us to be thoughtful in our surroundings, diligent in our observations and research, and brave in the expressions of our ideas and experiences. 

Friday, 1 March 2013

Thinking about Wolf, Living Dolls, & the Oscars...

I wonder what Wolf thinks about some of the things going on in the beauty world at the moment. What would she say, for instance, about the "living dolls movement" proliferating in the Ukraine or the recent Oscars night as a "festival of misogyny." ("The Onion" issued its first apology EVER for calling nine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis a "cunt"!) Seth MacFarlane apparently--I didn't see it--"reduced female actors to 'boobs'" and joked about domestic abuse, among other things. 

Let's take a look at the "living dolls" idea against Wolf's chapter on "Religion" and her broader theory of the beauty myth...

Valeria Lukyanova describes herself as "striving for self-impowerment." She teaches spiritual journey classes and believes that she can travel in her spiritual body. How does this work? I'm thinking about Wolf's ideas about the appropriation of religious and spiritual language to control women inside their own bodies; diet books abound, for example, with "references to religious ideas of temptation and sin" and "the Rites of Beauty redefine original sin as being born not mortal, but female" (88, 95).

In fact, Wolf says, "A woman who does not feel damaged cannot be relied on to spend money for her 'repair'" (96). Susie Orbach takes Wolf's theory in a new direction with her book Bodies, describing the extent to which women have ceased to exist in a real body, to experience our bodies from the inside-out as opposed to the outside-in. We see ourselves as though through a third eye, Orbach says. 

So I don't get it. Lukyanova and her barbie buddies say that it's empowering for them to starve and oppress their own bodies into looking like animate, fictional entities? Isn't this one of those cases of feminist principles being appropriated for anti-feminist ends? Is there anything about this kind of extreme physical manipulation that can be empowering? It sounds to me like arguing the fallacy that eating disorders are empowering because they involve a person's control over her (or his) own body, while in fact, though control can definitely be a part of the explanation, there is something bigger and much more sinister at hand, requiring a wider consideration. 

I did read Naomi Wolf's recent/new book, Vagina: A Biography and took away from it mostly a call to women and men to promote safety, healing, and pleasure in women's experiences of their bodies--sexually and otherwise. And her recent blog posts address issues of politics and power (more than physical considerations of beauty, image, etc.). For instance, she responds to Sheryl Sandberg's new book about the glass ceiling and women leading in the workforce. 

Yet I come back to the current climate around issues of beauty in particular. In what ways and to what extent are we making progress in what Jean Kilbourne describes as a toxic cultural environment? In what ways and to what extent are we making it possible for women and girls to exist in this culture in states of physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being?