Should The Vajayjay Speak?

16 Apr

Back in January of this year, 2015, a curious story began to circulate in online education journals like Inside Higher Ed: “A student group at Mount Holyoke College has decided to cancel its annual performance of The Vagina Monologues, saying the play excludes the experiences of transgender women who don’t have a vagina.” Now, I am no big fan of Vagina Monologues, or any kind of speaking genitalia for that matter (I am flashing on a show I saw on HBO a few years ago on “The Puppetry of the Penis”…don’t ask…don’t tell…). But, despite my aversion to genital soliloquies, and my general disinterest from the get go in The Vagina Monologues, I still do not understand the premise for the cancelation.

vaginamonologues

If the students had decided that the play was too focused on universalizing US experiences of womanhood, or that it participated in an imperialist feminist paradigm that cast North American feminist body politics as representative of all versions of body politics, I might have thought ok, shrugged and moved on. But canceling it because it does not include the experiences of trans women or women who lack vaginas just did not add up. The play is not saying that women without vaginas or that women with surgically constructed vaginas are not women after all, it is just saying…well, what is it saying? Love your vagina? Love whatever you have that is not a penis? Love your penis that can now be reterrritorialized as your vagina? Talk to your vagina? Listen to your vajayjay…not sure but it is NOT saying, transwomen are not women.

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Like the debates around the inclusion of trans-women in historically women’s colleges, this all feels like a storm in a teacup. It is clear that we are living at a time when gender norms have so definitively shifted beyond stable concepts of man and woman, that there should be no need for anguished and urgent debates about the admission of transgender women to women’s colleges or about the extension of monologues about female genitalia to trans women with or without surgically constructed vaginas (talkative or not). Trans women will be admitted to spaces formerly reserved for women born women precisely because the activism that would enable us to see an expanded and expanding category of “woman” has already taken place. The current activism on college campuses now calling for for the expansion of the category of “woman” to trans women, in fact, is belated and after the fact. Activism is not simply calling for something. Activism is about creating a context within which the thing that you are calling for comes to make sense – this process, in relation to trans womanhood, began back in the early 1990’s with the rise of poststructuralist feminism and queer theory and it comes to bear now on the discussions about gender protocols.

It is of course true that the time for The Vagina Monologues is surely come and gone – and I am not so sure that it was ever here in the first place — but certainly a few generations of enthusiastic college students did perform the play with pride and gusto and who are we to sneer at that. So why not quietly move on from the performance of talking vaginas to other theatrical projects more suited to this historical moment? Can the very vocal and publicized decision to cancel The Vagina Monologues be understood as part of what has been identified as a new censorious mood on college campuses in general? What fuels this new sensitivity on the part of students to all kinds of “problematic” material and is it part of a new millennial moralism?

In recent weeks, articles by Laura Kipnis in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Judith Shulevitz in The New York Times have generated outrage (and protests in Kipnis’s case) because these authors dared to suggest that we seem to be in the grips of a moral panic on college campuses. While Kipnis took aim at administratively authored “sexual paranoia” at her university, Northwestern, which had taken the form of a ban on consensual relations between professors and students, Shulevitz accused students of “hiding from scary ideas” by deploying the defense of calling for “safe space.” Both Kipnis and Shulevitz articulated what is, I believe, a fairly widely shared belief, that in Kipnis’s words “students’ sense of vulnerability is skyrocketing.” We don’t have to agree with everything Kipnis or Shulevitz has to say in order to feel that something has certainly changed in the way that campus politics are transacted.

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And, there are probably many factors that contribute to this “skyrocketing” sense of vulnerability for college students – students have been produced within the neoliberal university as consumers, dependents, debtors, children and pre-professionals. They have been cheated, patronized, exploited and abused. They exit the university with massive amounts of debt, a sense of futility and a need to make money and they want someone to blame. It is always easier to blame the messenger rather than going after the system that produces debt and despair in equal measure. But it is surely a mistake for students to be “calling out” (the new term for demanding accountability) their Gender Studies professors for showing them disturbing material on sexual assault; or calling out their Ethnic Studies professors for showing images of racial violence; or calling out their political theory professors for arguing that power is productive and ubiquitous not local and possessed. Local calls for this or that form of speech to end does not really help anything. Rather than demanding simply that category X be admitted to this or that, we need wide-ranging structural analyses of the production of violence of exclusion and inclusion within neoliberal forms of governance.

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To wind down my rant, let’s turn to an example of what NOT to do as a feminist: In a great episode of Portlandia, Candace (Fred Armisen) and Tony (Carrie Brownstein), the fictional proprietors of the women’s bookstore, Women and Women First, go to a Portland Trailblazers basketball game. They watch the game and are amazed at how much they enjoy it: “these people are really good at what they do!” But then, in a time out, when the Blazer’s cheerleaders come on to dance for the crowd, Toni and Candace become outraged by the exploitation to which they have become witnesses. Candace wonders why the cheerleaders are wearing so little clothing, and they both end up calling for the “liberation” of the “private dancers.” “Let them speak!” yells Candace, “say something! Tell us your stories!” The two feminist pioneers demand a meeting with the dancers in order to “help” them and they ask the dancers to “drop their poms poms.” Providing them with a “safe space,” they call on them to “read and resist” rather than dance and be oppressed and they create a new performance piece for them that involves telling the audience who they are and crawling out from under the oppressive regime of the NBA – all accompanied by a primal scream performed by Toni. The episode is hilarious as a good-natured satire of a feminism that has misguidedly become a crusade to protect and rescue.

Portlandia, Season 4, Feminist Bookstore Dance

Activism, Portlandia reminds us, is not the transaction of change through the blotting out of ‘problematic’ speech  on behalf of new disciplinary norms of conduct. Inclusion can be as corrosive a technique of rule as exclusion and speech as much as silence can be a vector for oppression. In an era when universities are saddling their students with debt, transforming their teaching staff from permanent to adjunct labor, paying their administrators corporate salaries and buying up all the real estate in their neighborhoods for luxury housing, calls for inclusion have to be accompanied by broader critiques of the transformation of the university. In a speech at Berkeley last year titled: “Free Speech Is Not For Feeling Safe,” Wendy Brown reminded us that:” today, the gears of the machine don’t clang and grind out there: they are are soft, quiet, and deep inside us.”  Trans women should certainly be admitted to women’s colleges, and vaginas probably do need to stop monologuing but inclusive policies, safe space, correct speech and sexual paranoia will not change the middle-class demographics of the university and will not stop the university from its rapid evolution into a factory for the production of the next generation of bankers. What we need are new and inventive modes of protest not more safe space.

12 Responses to “Should The Vajayjay Speak?”

  1. Mantodea April 16, 2015 at 2:15 pm #

    Did you seriously just adopt a befuddled stance about why trans women might be upset with regard to our ongoing exclusion in activism, basically insinuate we’re all crypto-fascist neoliberals, spend the latter half of your essay talking about a skit in which a man plays a woman for the lulz… all while riffing in the most supremely self-indulgent manner on the title of one of Gayatri Spivak’s most famous postcolonial essays about the role and voice of non-Western women in activism?

    Oh, what a piece of work is (this particular white boozhy trans) man…

    “Trans women will be admitted to spaces formerly reserved for women born women precisely because the activism that would enable us to see an expanded and expanding category of “woman” has already taken place. ”

    You are so unbelievably out of touch with reality. Trans women still die in vastly disproportionate numbers for lack of access to such airy abstractions as “food” and “a roof over our heads”, and “the means to ensure we have those things more than a couple weeks at a time”… and you want to say that the necessary activism to expand the category boundaries of “woman” has already been done. I guess we just need to wait another couple years and then bam, that’s it, transmisogyny is over, we’re not sidelined and exploited and pathologized in unique and specific ways, and everybody’s working definition of womanhood will include the possibility of us! That’s a lovely fantasy, but back here on Earth, the world still insists on treating us as weirdo deviant men, denying our womanhood whenever it would have substantial consequences like “letting us into women’s shelters”, “including us meaningfully in women’s spaces” or “treating us even remotely similar to other women.”

    But by all means, do on about how safe space is destroying academia, I’m sure that these points are very cogent and meaningful, how would I know, I am but a lowly pleb who dropped out after transition left me homeless and my professors spent an entire semester straight up bullying me in front of a linguistics class…

    Pretentious-ass motherfucker.

  2. dejavu April 16, 2015 at 5:55 pm #

    Tangent: Was the portlandia sketch potentially referring to NFL cheerleaders unpaid nonemployee status?

  3. Tobi Hill-Meyer April 18, 2015 at 4:36 pm #

    I’m hesitant that leaving any response at all will be worth my time, as you seem to continue to ignore or dismiss anything that trans women tell you. You describe trans women’s experience out of a complete ignorance, telling us we should be doing things we are already doing. Previously you’ve used activism I was working on as an example of what not to do, but your only source about my work came from an anti-trans blog that blatantly mischaracterized what we were doing. And here again you are dismissing trans women working on ending discrimination in women’s colleges as doing activism wrong, yet you’ve demonstrated zero understanding of what that activism entails beyond your own speculation and imaginings.

    Feel free to email me directly if you have any interest in correcting your facts or discussing these issues, but with all these circumstances clouding your words I just have one question.

    When it is so clear you are unfamiliar with our lives and experiences, why do you feel the need to discuss trans women’s experience at all? Are we just an easy rhetorical punching bag to explain your pet issues that aren’t actually about us? Or do you actually believe that you are having a positive impact or somehow furthering understanding and pushing forward the conversation?

  4. Andrea Lawlor April 20, 2015 at 2:02 pm #

    Just a point of information: the “news outlet” which “broke” this “story” was CampusReform.org , a right-wing student publication funded by the neoconservative organization The Leadership Institute .

    The original piece is an excellent example of conservative clickbait uncritically picked up by outlets like Inside Higher Ed. You might take a look at how the student “journalist” who wrote it writes about transwomen and feminism, and the sources she uses.

    And for the record, a different Mount Holyoke student group DID stage the Vagina Monologues this semester, to no protest. You are basing your argument on a controversy entirely manufactured by conservatives for their own political agenda.

    • bullybloggers April 20, 2015 at 2:15 pm #

      Yes, fair enough – I knew it was a right wing source but i have been at several of the colleges where the controversy around transwomen
      admissions is raging and where all kinds of materials are being labeled as transphobic when they do not need to be in order for the argument
      for inclusion to be made. My blog piece is not about whether the Vagina Monologues were or were not staged, are or are not transphobic, it is about the reduction of complex activist practices to “call out” cultures. My main point is that “calling for” and “calling out” are the end point of long histories of inventive campus political projects and that rather than always beginning from scratch we should simply be aware that we are at this point where even conservatives can see that transwomen have every right to be admitted to women’s colleges precisely because of all the work that has already happened!! I don’t need the source of this story about the VM to be queer in order for this argument to make sense. My position is NOT transphobic nor is it critical of trans activism – it is an argument for the bigger picture.

  5. Andrea Lawlor April 20, 2015 at 2:03 pm #

    Not sure why my links didn’t post: Here is the original story: http://www.campusreform.org/?ID=6202

  6. Andrea Lawlor April 20, 2015 at 2:56 pm #

    I guess my issue is with your categorization of the student theater group as engaged in “…a very vocal and publicized decision to cancel The Vagina Monologues” which you then suggest might “be understood as part of what has been identified as a new censorious mood on college campuses in general.”

    My point is this: The student group did not make this change in their theater schedule into a national discussion; a neoconservative student funded by a conservative organization did that. I think that’s worth considering.

    • bullybloggers April 20, 2015 at 3:15 pm #

      Right – but it was a very publicized issue – Huffington Post, Advocate, Inside Higher Ed and others. And it was mentioned on the Bill Maher
      show – did all of these places get their info from the conservative source? I don’t think so. The Huff reported on in on Jan 16, the Advocate on Jan 21, Jezebel on Jan 15, the Washington Post on Jan 16 – so the conservative source- which appeared on jan 21 – was barely relevant except that it included a quote from a student…it did NOT turn the event into a national debate.

      • Andrea Lawlor April 20, 2015 at 4:52 pm #

        Unfortunately, I am fairly certain that all the listed outlets did in fact get their information from the Campus Reform site, which posted its story “on Jan 15, 2015 at 11:29 AM EDT” while Jezebel–the earliest story you mention–posted its version at “1/15/15 10:30pm” and which explicitly and uncritically quotes Campus Reform, thus amplifying an anti-feminist, transphobic, right-wing platform.

        I may be wrong, of course, but I have not seen any story with an earlier dateline than the Campus Reform story, which does rely heavily (and without attribution) on an anonymous website accessible only to people with a Mount Holyoke email address (which the student reporter obviously has).

        As someone who teaches basic research and argumentation skills to undergraduates, I’m disappointed in all the shoddy fact-checking done by these professional journalists.

      • Andrea Lawlor April 20, 2015 at 4:53 pm #

        Again, not sure why my links didn’t post: Here is the original story: http://www.campusreform.org/?ID=6202

  7. privacy matters April 23, 2015 at 12:18 pm #

    In relation to your discussion of trans women who have had surgery in this article, I heard second hand that at a public panel at the Hammer in LA you said “I just don’t get it, trans women LOVE surgery.” Is that true? Can you expand on that in relation to what you’ve said here?

    • bullybloggers May 12, 2015 at 6:12 pm #

      Nope…didn’t say it…

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