Wednesday, February 02, 2005
Conversations with . . .
Susanna Rinehart, directing and performing
in the Vagina Monologues, discusses the play
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It's almost Valentine's Day, and that means chocolates, flowers and the Vagina Monologues.
Eve Ensler's hit play is produced only at this time of year and only for three performances, raising questions about gender roles just in time for the ultimate gendered holiday. Ten percent of the proceeds from local productions goes to a beneficiary selected by Ensler, while the remaining 90 percent benefits educational and aid organizations that deal with violence against women. Susanna Rinehart is directing and performing in this year's production on the Virginia Tech campus for the second time. Rinehart recently took time to discuss questions about the play's cultural importance and problematic implications in its fight to end violence against women.
What do you see as the significance of putting the focus of the play on the vagina and the V-Day campaign's focus on stopping violence against women? What is the significance of that correlation the play makes and of focusing so much on the vagina as a binding thing that makes you woman?
Susanna Rinehart: Well that's a great question because it bewilders people. . . . The difficulties we have with saying that name and with allowing our collective minds to all think, "Oh my God we're all in this room and we're all thinking about the external sexual organ of a woman," and how uncomfortable sexually that makes us, brings into really sharp focus the objectification and invisibility of women's sexuality that makes violence against women easier. That in some ways, the more silent we are, the more invisible and hidden and shamed we keep that, it is easier to perpetrate violence against something that you don't name and that you don't see and that you don't have to feel or visualize.
But do you think that there's a danger in that? For example, why not focus it on their strength and their endurance and their ability to defend themselves?
SR: First of all, I think it's not an either-or. I think the desire is to stop separating those two things out. If you think in terms of literature and even mass culture, what tends to happen is that women are separated into pieces of themselves and so we can all go to motherhood, we can all go to strength and endurance and intelligence. And then over here is the Playboy centerfold and the hard-core sexualized. And the problem is in always keeping them separate and somehow thinking that at any given time a woman is only one of those things.
Right, and so you have that classic virgin-whore binary. In literature, women are often projected as opposite only. But what I wonder about this play is, is it still doing that same sort of thing by identifying woman by her vagina? If you wanted to make a play about male violence on one another, you wouldn't bond men together by the fact that they have a penis or by their sexuality — you would bond them together emotionally.
SR: Maybe part of the reason . . . is because it's the absence — the whole treatment of women in our culture is about absenting their sexuality. Then maybe for men it's the opposite — maybe for men the theme would be absenting their emotional landscape. Maybe the same damage has been done to boys and men in terms of "boys don't cry." Your question is a really good one, although what it implies is that the show itself as a whole only focuses on the vagina. What it does is, for every piece . . . it's connecting that to all the other layers of experience . . . A lot of times people will ask me, why should men come to this? There are a lot of really obvious reasons why they should, but a lot of people in answering that immediately answer, "so they can learn more, understand, have compassion, see through the eyes of women," which is all very valid, but I also think this play is just as much about men as it is about women.
Yes. This is about how people are sexed by society.
SR: I think that's exactly right.
Another question. Usually, money from the production will go toward s stopping violence against women on an emotional level, a spiritual level, a nurturing level — things like such as shelters for battered women, education — but not on a physical level, for example self-defense education. I think the idea is that self defense self-defense entails violence.
SR: That is complicated. I think the reality is that a lot of the organizations involved in supporting and defending and educating around violence-against-women issues do increasingly include active training in self defense self-defense. So that may be less true than it appears from the outside. I certainly know the Women's Center here, in addition to counseling and support and education and advocacy, also does sponsor self-defense workshops. And you're right to recognize the complexity of that for women. I know that in my own experience there's a lot of confusion with that . . . And the important thing to recognize is that you can't equate self defense self-defense against violence with active perpetration. But it's an interesting question because you get into again all the socialization against aggression, against self protection self-protection, against even the right to protect yourself. And I think one of the great untold stories of women's lives, including my own, is all of what falls under the radar in the way of the fundamental belief that "my body is my own and not somebody else's." And so self defense self-defense implies a "no" that many women don't necessarily immediately feel entitled to say. . . . I think, more and more, it is a piece of what people recognize has to be part of the whole in dealing with the issue.
The Vagina Monologues will be performed Feb. 4-6 at the Squires Haymarket Theatre at Virginia Tech. Tickets may be purchased at the Virginia Tech Women's Center and at Squires Student Center.