Thursday, April 17, 2008

How I learned to Relax and love the "V" word.

Rebecca Traister has one of those irritating articles she writes for Salon up, about Eve Ensler and the Vagina Monologues . In the article Traister, as usual, explains to us that she is personally sick of all that gyno feminism and has no idea why it continues to speak to women who don't have a writing career or really, any kind of career or social power. She explains that she is so very important that a previous article attacking Ensler made Ensler not want to be interviewed again which is so totally not, like, nice of Ensler that it calls into question all the great work Ensler has ever done around the world raising consciousness about the physical abuse of women and seeing her work performed around the world to enthusiastic audiences. Because if Ensler doesn't want to be best friends with Traister, who like, totally doesn't like her shtick, well, Ensler is really mean and so her work can't be important.

I love the Vagina Monologues, at least the version I saw with my grandmother many years ago. We both found it side splittingly funny and it spoke to us both, at opposite ends of the female life cycle. I have a personal love and respect for Eve, as well. For many years she went to Bedford Hills Prison, where a cousin of mine was in prison, and led a playwright's workshop for a number of the women. The work that they did, week after week, privately, and often agonizingly, began with Eve asking them to come forward and write about something they had never before had the courage to say to anyone else. The end of the process, many years later, was a performance both at the Prison and on stage at Alice Tully Hall (there's a film as well) called “What I want my words to say to you.” Its incredibly powerful, honest, sad, and it grows out of the very thing that the Rebecca Traister's really hate—Eve's willingness to do what isn't cool, or popular, for years and years and years in an utterly quiet and unthanked way. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it feels like kitsch, sometimes it feels like a revelation. That is what makes it great art and, sometimes, lousy art. Its daring and it sometimes fails. But its not what any one else is doing, that is for sure. And that fact that it merely appeals to or talks about 50 percent of humanity? That's not exactly a limited or elite audience. (Check out the hysterically angry posts after Traister's essay. The first ten are men who feel insulted that any woman should feel she has permission to work on the subject of female bodies and female lives. Doesn't she know that talking about women's stuff is a distraction from what is real and unfits women from being good wives and mothers?)

When I saw the Vagina Monologues Eve was just starting her V day project. I marveled then at the incredible gutsiness of this little woman to try to make her work so powerful that it could affect millions around the world. She doesn't do it from a place of personal power, or privilege. She's a person who has had a difficult and frightening life and who has mined it, produced a piece of work that engages people, and who has used that tiny bit of power to (as she sees it) improve the world one woman at a time. Traister's piece unwillingly and begrudgingly acknowledges that but it drips with resentment that Eve has chosen to do it using icky body parts, and dramatic language, and metaphor and symbolism. It cracks me up, as well as makes me angry. Traister's a cultural critic who doesn't like culture. A spoken theater piece that includes vaginal iconography? A happening that uses pink imagery and circles? One scarcely knows whether its the word vagina, the DFH'ness of the happening, or the use of symbolism and imagery that she considers more dirty and declasse. She is especially irritated when Eve uses common bodily imagery to describe political and social realities like calling New Orleans “america's vagina.” Shocking. One would think she'd never seen the Washington Monument or watched Dr. Strangelove.

Well, there will always be the Rebecca Traisters of the world, more concerned that they not look impressed by someone else's work than that they honestly evaluate that work in context. I hope there will always be Eve Enslers in this world to forge on with their improbable mission so they can be taken for granted by the next generation who will not be able to remember the world they fought so hard to describe and change.