Friday, 21 March 2014

Awakenings, Resonances, & Towards Healing

Why do passages like these in Ensler's Vagina Monologues make me well up with emotion?

"It was better than the Grand Canyon, ancient and full of grace" (46).

"There was a choral thing that began to occur, a kind of wild collective song" (33).

"And Bob lost himself there and I was there with him, in my vagina, and we were gone" (57).

"My vagina swimming river water, clean spilling water over sun-baked stones over stone clit, clit stones over and over" (62).

"I began to feel beautiful and delicious" (57).

"I had awakened to what the woman who ran the workshop called 'vaginal wonder'" (46).

"You know, actually, you're the first person I ever talked to about this, and I feel a little better" (30).

Perhaps it's because Ensler affirms our experiences of shame and simultaneously, in this play, awakens the possibilities of our self- and collective love.

Just when we're feeling devastated, incensed, and deeply empathic for the women in the play and their stories, Ensler shares messages of healing.

I've heard lots of people dismiss this play--as a work of literature, as a piece of art--on various grounds. Some say Ensler is an "ugly feminist." Others say her writing has "no literary merit." (ETC.) Yet I've seen and read this play now close to a dozen times, and its form and content both move me again and again.

Ensler finds a way of sharing hundreds of voices, stories, and experiences in this work, and the pluralism of her approach means that the play refuses to be about one thing, one voice, or one narrative. For this reason alone, the wondrous inclusiveness of this play makes it worth our time and thoughtful attention.

Furthermore, Ensler moves in and out of voices across time and place, age and background, as well as kinds of experiences with sex, sexuality, and sexual violence. The effect of this is for the play to become everyone's play, for it to belong to everyone.

Maybe you're reading this and don't know the play. (Maybe you're thinking, WTF? Who knows.) Reading this handful of lines out of the play's whole context won't do it justice. I urge you: buy a ticket to the show in a city or on a university campus near you. Buy a copy of the play. Check out scenes or the script online. Check out Ensler's TED talks.

At least for me, over quite a few years and encounters, this play is worth our careful attention.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

In Praise of Male Feminists

To my brother, Trey, who cherishes being a father to his little girl and shares the labor of her upbringing with his wife (who also works outside of the home)...

To my mentor, Selden, who sees and celebrates his amazing wife and daughters and granddaughters and who tells stories with strong female characters...

To my friend, Bret, who knows himself, tells his story, and brings people together with magic tricks (literally) and jokes...

To my friend, Dave, whose patience and commitment to human development make everyone around him richer, brighter, and more empathic...

To my friends, Naheed and Jose, who make me smarter and wiser and more thoughtful (not to mention their students, friends, and neighbors)...

To my colleague, Greg, for caring about our students, wanting for them a world in which we share and learn together, and speaking truth to power...

To poets, writers, and thinkers like Chris Abani, Tony Porter, and Nii Parkes, who help us pluralize our thinking about humanity and challenge us to think and see beyond a single dimension...

To Byron Hurt, for helping us look at misogyny in hip-hop (and therefore elsewhere)...

To my colleagues like Neil and Jack, who are committed to social justice and building community...

To my friend, Wade, who didn't realize that he self-identifies as a feminist until we let him know that he does!

To my nephews, Spencer and Wesley, for meeting this world with love, creativity, generosity, and enthusiasm for people and things great and small...

And above all, to my partner, Chris, who is the kindest, funniest, smartest, and most generous man I know, for challenging me, loving me, and going through this life with me...

This is in praise of male feminists (whether or not they self-identify).

"What's Your Dream?"

"Femme Maison" by Louise Bourgois

Remember the guy on the street at the beginning of "Pretty Woman" (not to get started on that movie) who stands around Hollywood asking, "WHAT'S YOUR DREAM"? I can hear his voice in my head: "What's your dream?"

What is my dream? What's yours?

Naomi Wolf's from 1990 seems to me a pretty good one, pretty compelling, pretty grounded in personal and general experience (as she saw and felt it, as she found it in her research).

Wolf writes, "Our culture gives a young woman only two dreams in which to imagine her body, like a coin with two faces: one pornographic, the other anorexic" and she calls on us "to demand a better dream" (199).

Wolf wants us to be free, to love ourselves, to be ambitious, to be individuals (and sisters, and citizens), to choose "a woman-loving definition of beauty" (201). Further exploring the metaphor of the Iron Maiden, she describes "an urgent social expedient that [makes] women's bodies into the prisons that their homes no longer [are]," saying, "women's bodies are not our own but society's" (184, 187).

In her chapter on "Hunger," Wolf says, "Whom a society values it feeds well," and she describes the proliferation of eating disorders and disordered eating among women and girls (189). For Wolf, food, weight, hunger, and physical health and wellness are political issues, ultimately about power, who has it and who doesn't. She writes, "Hunger makes women feel poor and think poor" (197). I can't help but remember the hunger young women in my life felt during those years of our adolescence in particular (though perhaps women in my life now are hungry, too).

I'm struck by Wolf's conclusion of the chapter: "Everyone is telling her to be careful" (217). This resonates with me. It is not my dream to have to be careful, yet I have felt in various ways throughout my life that being careful is the message I receive from my culture. Wolf wants us to "be shameless. Be greedy" (291). Is this too bold? Does she go too far? Wolf is interested in courage and freedom--as, I realize, am I.

Wolf talks about literal, physical hunger, but she is also interested in what she calls a "spiritual hunger" (279). She references Betty Freidan's Feminine Mystique several times and "the problem without a name," exploring a domestic's imprisonment's transition to a new kind of imprisonment in the Iron Maiden. Her dream gets us out of both.

"The pressure of beauty pornography and the pressures of achievement combine to strike young women where they are most vulnerable: in their exploration of their sexuality in relation to their sense of their own worth," Wolf explains (213). In my experience, this is profoundly true. In a beauty economy, essentially a beauty caste system, it is difficult (to impossible) for young women to feel valuable, worthy, powerful in our current world of images.

Since I started this post, we're nearing the end of Wolf's book from 1990 and asking ourselves what (if anything) has changed. I'm not convinced that Wolf's dream has been fully realized, of course, yet education and awareness have to be part of getting there.

"Torture of Women" by Nancy Spero Siglio