—Suzanna Danuta Walters
[This piece originally appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education.]
Vaginas keep causing trouble. The latest labial kerfuffle involves none other than the mother of all things “down there,” Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues. A few weeks ago, a student-theater group at Mount Holyoke College (full disclosure: my alma mater and the current home of my daughter) made a decision to discontinue production of the play and instead to do something more, as they wrote, “inclusive.” This quickly became a media firestorm, with Ensler herself arguing that “The Vagina Monologues never intended to be a play about what it means to be a woman. It is and always has been a play about what it means to have a vagina.”
Had the students simply made a decision to produce other work and not gone out of their way to indict Ensler, one could imagine that this “controversy” would never have emerged in the first place. But the students’ statement referred to the work as “extremely narrow” and “inherently reductionist,” among other dismissive language. (Another disclosure: Ensler is a friend whose work and advocacy I have long admired.)
This is, of course, not the first time that feminists have directed their resentment at other feminists. Indeed, feminism, in both its theoretical and its practical applications, is well known for vicious infighting. As early as 1976, the pioneer activist Jo Freeman wrote about this phenomenon in an incendiary article in Ms. Magazine calling out “trashing” or, as she put it, the “dark side of sisterhood.” And when Ti-Grace Atkinson resigned from the radical feminist group The Feminists in the 60s, she wryly commented that “Sisterhood is powerful. It kills. Mostly sisters.” Internecine battles have long been a staple of most vibrant social movements, particularly those with left-wing aspirations, because they are generally more open to democratic debate.
The instant world of the Internet—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and the rest—has not only upped the ante but also accelerated the speed at which nominal disagreements get morphed into full-fledged “wars.” Contemporary punditry has weighed in on this, as in “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars,” in The Nation, and “The Incomplete Guide to Feminist Infighting,” in The Atlantic. And our broader media culture amplifies anything it might see as conflictual, so what gets retweeted is often that which is most easily slotted into a for-or-against model that does precious little to deepen the debate. This latest round of trashing comes at a time when (some version of) feminism has an increasingly public and popular face, and when feminist activism—around sexual assault and harassment, reproductive autonomy and sexual freedom—is witnessing a refreshing renaissance. In other words, we are at a critical moment, when the flourishing of feminism—both online and off—has a potential that should not be derailed by an endless circuit of self-destruction and misdirected ire.
This anger seems particularly targeted toward women in the public eye who explicitly define themselves as feminist and who espouse what certainly look like feminist beliefs, whether reproductive autonomy or freedom from sexual harassment. When the actor and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson gave a speech in September, calling for more male involvement in the struggle for gender equality, she fell prey to hyperventilating tirades accusing her of ignoring racial differences, asking men to protect women, and other sins of both omission and commission. Not long after, the anti-street-harassment campaign Hollaback! released a video depicting a day in the life of a woman whose walk though New York elicits endless undesired harassment by a stream of male bystanders. The video went viral, but so did immediate condemnation of it as exclusionary and even racist: The woman was white, and most of the harassers were men of color. Even the apology of the video’s producers did not derail the onslaught.
The wunderkind Lena Dunham was next in what has now become a long line of women—many of them young celebrities—to come under intense scrutiny in the vibrant feminist blogosphere. Dunham is no stranger to eliciting strong emotions; her hit HBO series, Girls, was roundly excoriated for its overly white and upper-class portrayal of a Brooklyn we know to be much more diverse. And her self-abnegating narcissism has rubbed many the wrong way. Her book, Not That Kind of Girl—part memoir, part self-help, part comedy sketch—has further amped up the Dunham wars, as she has now been accused of child sexual abuse in recalling and writing about what appears to be innocent childhood curiosity about the female body. In her book, she remembers looking into her sister’s vagina—when they were both young children—prompting the accusations of abuse and Dunham’s angry response (and that of her sister, who defends her by saying, in part, that “I’m committed to people … determining for themselves what has and has not been harmful”).
While moralists at large took the opportunity to deem Dunham an abuser, some feminists, too, jumped on this train, creating the hashtag #dropDunham and calling on Planned Parenthood to disengage from the star, who used her book tour in part as a way to support abortion rights. True, some prominent feminists, such as Roxane Gay and Katha Pollit, have eloquently come to her defense, but the blogosphere was fairly bursting with anti-Dunham fever. Gay, in particular, notes her discomfort with the scene (“I read the passage about Dunham inspecting her younger sister Grace’s vagina when she was seven and her sister was one. I found this disturbing and utterly bizarre”), but then goes on to say that she didn’t take particular note of it and, moreover, questions whether or not the disclosure is what is really animating the angst. Rather, she writes, “there is an undercurrent of rage that seems to have very little to do with the book, its disclosures or ‘the good fight,’ and everything to do with resenting a privileged young white woman succeeding.”
Let me be as clear as I can: This is—of course—not an argument against critical engagement. Criticism and challenge are vital to the health of any social movement, as they recalibrate priorities and assess goals and underlying values. As I write this, I am keenly aware of the ease with which some observers—such as Jonathan Chait in a recent piece for New York magazine—look at this infighting as evidence of PC-mad feminazis run amok. But the politically-correct-or-not framing is tired and illusory, undermining the substantive concerns at the heart of feminist discourse. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of feminist theory and the women’s movement more generally has been its insistence on self-scrutiny in the quest for ever more robust and inclusive analyses. And surely errors, miscues, and worse can be found in these and other examples.
Feminism has long struggled with its own suppositions and assumptions, from unacknowledged white privilege to presumptive heterosexuality to America-centric concerns. Calling these out remains a key ingredient in creating ever more salient and meaningful feminisms. What I am suggesting, however, is that this moment seems to have a skewed heat-to-light ratio.
When criticism becomes rote recitation of overdetermined keywords and loses what might be called an economy of scale, movements end up devouring their own and deflect attention from the larger and more pervasive problems they set out to challenge in the first place. Dunham and the Girls phenomenon might not be the feminist nirvana some hoped for, but she is a celebrity explicitly discussing her support for feminism and displaying an active commitment to (some) of the issues the movement cares about. The same could be said for Watson, Hollaback!, and Beyoncé (another feminist/sex-symbol Rorschach test); it bears noticing that recognizing the continuation of serious gender inequity and violence in a world many have blithely declared “postfeminist” is a position all should applaud. That doesn’t mean that any individual or organization should be above criticism; it does mean, however, that some perspective might be in order. It should matter, for example, that Ensler’s V-Day organization has raised more than $90-million, most of which goes to building feminist institutions like City of Joy, in Congo, or supporting grass-roots feminist organizations the world over.
There are real and potent enemies of women’s freedom out there in the world—those who want to sweep sexual violence under the rug, or do away with reproductive choice, or ignore wage differentials, or constrict sexual and gender freedom, or turn a blind eye to the lopsided gender representation in our halls of government. Perhaps those persistent problems seem too intractable, making the lure of the Twitter pile-on both easier and more satisfying in the face of our vexing inability to solve the larger problems. Easier perhaps to trash a Dunham or a Watson or an Ensler than to unseat an antichoice legislator or put a dent in the rates of sexual assault.
This could be, as they say, a “teachable moment” to parse the difference between, for example, discussions of “inclusion” and concerns about substantive bigotry and hateful representations. Isn’t there a way to stand in solidarity with all kinds of identities and communities without simultaneously declaring something else either “essentialist” or null and void in some way? To insinuate, for example, that The Vagina Monologues is a transphobic play is patently absurd—what precisely would be the evidence for that argument?
No doubt there is plenty of real transphobia out there to struggle against, some of it by the usual suspects and some of it authored by feminist theorists and activists, who should indeed be taken to task. But Ensler’s play is a poor target. And to mistake and conflate issues of inclusion for issues of discrimination is a dangerous and sloppy political error. It’s akin to calling the great epic Angels in America misogynist because it doesn’t include stories of women with AIDS.
Challenging one another and pushing at boundaries should never—must never—mean that we lose an economy of scale and create a topsy-turvy world where allies are enemies and borders are policed in ever narrower ways. When that happens, we let the real bigots off the hook and do a grave disservice to those activists and thinkers whose lives have been dedicated to human flourishing and gender and sexual freedom.
Suzanna Danuta Walters is editor of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Societyand a professor of sociology at Northeastern University, where she directs the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. She is the author of The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality (NYU Press, 2014).