|Janelle Reinelt, "States of Play: Feminism, Gender Studies, and Performance" (page 4 of 4)|
Where Do We Go From Here?
In this last question, "we" refers to unreconstructed feminists like myself or fellow travelers who want to preserve and continue the commitments of feminism while also moving on into a present and future where the exact entailments of those commitments are not clear. Let me offer two senses of direction. One is moving on into an uncharted future, the second might be designated "Back to Basics." In the last few years, American playwright and performer Eve Ensler has had an enormous popular hit with The Vagina Monologues. Playing in New York and London and other major cities to sold-out houses, the play is a series of solo performances composed of material from interviews Ensler conducted with a wide variety of women about their attitudes toward their vaginas. Since 1998, it has been accompanied by a yearly celebration of V-Day, a set of demonstrations and activities aimed toward ending violence toward women. It has a website and is more or less a genuine movement. 18,000 women raised $2 M in 2001 at Madison Square Garden in NYC. In 2002 there were over 500 events world-wide. The monologues include women from different races, social classes, and nations. The thrust of the performance, while detailing instances of violence toward women and deep suffering, is nonetheless celebratory.
I must tell you that I was annoyed by the performance when I saw it in San Francisco in 2001, and quite frustrated. It seemed to me to simply repeat very basic Second Wave feminist concerns, and I had "been there, done that." My displeasure was not at the affirmation of bodies or the naming and attention to vaginas; that was fine with me, if somewhat of a cliché. It was the universalizing and essentializing gestures of the piece I found problematic. The common denominator for women in the play is the vagina, with its biological properties and its essentializing tendencies. And although difference was represented through the range of women's stories presented, there was also a tendency toward equivalency, toward balancing one story of a Bosnian woman with an African woman and a middle class American woman. As often happens with multicultural inclusions, the difference turns into a certain homogenized sameness under the sign of vagina.
But I came to criticize my own criticism of this performance. I turned to look around me in the theatre, and there I saw in San Francisco a range of women, and many of them were young - the very sort of young student I was disappointed in, because they won't identify with feminism. And they were enjoying the performance tremendously. I noticed many of them there with their mothers or older women I imagined to be their mothers. I noticed the audience was ethnically diverse - a large number of Asian American women in particular in San Francisco. And while they were probably all middle-class, because of the price of the ticket, they were not narrowly elite to judge from their clothes and their mannerisms. There were a number of men in attendance too, having come with female friends or partners, and they were attentive and responsive to the performance as well. And I began to think, if this play goes all the way back to the beginnings of Second Wave Feminism, and even if it makes some of the same undertheorized mistakes about representation, isn't it a good thing if young people are having this experience and if us older ones are reminded of the early feminist work on the body? What can it hurt? Even stronger, why is it such a successful phenomenon at this time - is there an opening in culture for a new wave of feminist consciousness? Perhaps it won't take the form of previous struggles. And perhaps scholars like me will need to interrogate its practices in our classrooms and our writing, but along with the dark and sober musings of Sarah Kane, whose work I champion and defend, could I perhaps get behind the organizing potential of something less profound but perhaps no less valid in a play like The Vagina Monologues? I think it's worth a try.
1. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Trans. By Willard R. Trask, Princeton University Press, 1953, 491.
[Return to text]
Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. By Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953.
Churchill, Caryl. Far Away. London: Theatre Communications Group, 2001.
Denfeld, Rene. New Victorians: A Young Woman's Challenge to the Old Feminist Order. New York: Warner Books, 1995.
Gamble, Sarah. Ed. Routledge Critical Dictionary of Feminism and Postfeminism. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Hesford, Wendy. Framing Identities: Autobiography and the Politics of Pedagogy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
Kane, Sarah. 4.48 Psychosis. London: Methuen, 2001.
Wolf, Naomi. Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How it will Change the 21st Century. New York: Random House, 1993.