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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.