Sunday, February 13, 2011

Vagina Monologues and Transwomen

I try not to write here without first checking my facts, but this is going to be a kind of second-hand thing because I don't have access to the script I want to write about.

For the second year in a row, my students did a production of the Vagina Monologues, and they did an AWESOME job - it was completely student-run, student-directed, student-produced. This year, the director and I talked about the possibility of including the piece from a transwoman's perspective, "They Beat the Boy out of My Girl." I have not seen this piece, so I can't comment on it, but we were both glad that the Monologues have become more inclusive over the years of different perspectives around vaginas and that at least one trans voice has been added to the production.

However, according to the director (I did not have access to the V-Day scripts this year), this piece is only to be performed by a transwoman. I am guessing that this is to ensure that the piece does not turn into a mockery or a disrespectful portrayal, and that makes sense. At the same time, it is problematic for a college production, especially a small college at which there may be only one out trans student - or, perhaps, none. On such a campus, the question becomes whether to include a transwoman's voice or to leave her voice out. On such a campus, asking an out transwoman to perform this piece may cause her to be out in ways that she had not intended to be, and may suggest to the audience that the written script is, indeed, her own story. Asking a transwoman who is not out to perform, of course, puts her at risk of outing herself.

Other stories in the Monologues are performed across race, age, and other identities. The most problematic one for me is the birth monologue, simply because I often have the feeling that the performers have not witnessed a birth or given birth and that they are missing the significance of portions of the piece - and this sense of not being true to the meaning of the monologue is, in part, what I suspect Ensler wants to avoid when she says that only transwomen may perform the transwoman monologue. But I've seen pieces clearly written in a "Black voice" performed well and respectfully by White women; pieces written for lesbians performed well and respectfully by straight women; pieces written for survivors of sexual slavery performed well and respectfully by women who have never had these experiences.

I have no doubt that these parameters have been drawn to protect transwomen, and after reading that activist Andrea James is one of the people whose interviews inspired Eve Ensler to write this piece, I would even assume that transwomen were consulted about this policy. However, it does not work for all campuses, and as Ensler does not allow productions that add any new works, it seems likely that many campuses will decide to write and produce their own Monologues in an effort to include more and varied voices.


Anonymous said...

I agree with everything you've written here - including that the students on my campus did a wonderful job, too! - but just want to add one note on the birth monologue. I spoke with my student who performed that monologue after Saturday night's performance and mentioned how disturbed I am by the term "Alice in Wonderland spoons" as a euphemism for what can only have been a forceps birth. My student had no idea what that meant and what that entailed, so we talked about it. Yesterday we spoke again, and she said her performance on Monday night was transfigured by her new knowledge. She felt as if it finally worked.

The problem is not just that traditional-aged undergrad students lack experience with birth; most of them don't even have the second-hand experience of hearing detailed stories from friends or relatives.

That monologue also troubles me because it's written from Ensler's perspective - not that of the woman actually giving birth - and so it feels to me as though it's appropriating another person's experience in a way that the other monologues don't.

Sungold of Kittywampus

Plain(s)feminist said...

Sungold -
It hadn't occurred to me that they might not know what the forceps were (there were a couple of other references in other monologues that they didn't know). I think that could easily be the case.

Thanks especially for your comment re. Ensler's p.o.v. in that piece. Something about that piece has bothered me over the years and I wasn't sure why, but I think you've hit the nail on the head. And, because it's from a witness' to the birth perspective, it feels invasive, esp. the reiteration that Ensler and someone else continue to stare at the woman's vagina even after the birth. I would have found that upsetting had I been the one giving birth, no matter how eloquently she wrote about it later!