This weekend I attended a marvelous performance of the Vagina Monologues. While I will admit that portions of this make me uncomfortable, I believe that it is an empowering and affirming event and I have attended, both last year and this, in my capacity as a campus pastor. The performance was passionate, heartfelt and meaningful and I am very glad I had the opportunity to attend.
Something happened at the event this year that made me think about a phrase I learned a long time ago. It’s something that I am sure many a wise person knows far better than I do: You teach people how to treat you.
One of the monologues is from an interview of a woman who wanted to “reclaim” a word used as a derogatory name for women. This name is actually a term for women’s genitalia and I do not care to include it in the actual text of this post but you can find it here. Regardless of the ability to actually “re” claim this word*, the intent is to rob those who would use it to wound of their power and that is a desire I can certainly understand. The end of this monolog encourages the assembled people to chant the word over and over together. This often dissolves into cheers and applause as the monolog ends.
This year something interesting happened. There were far more males in attendance this year which is, for the most part, a good thing**. I did hear a rumor that a professor (or two?) gave extra credit to anyone who took an unwilling male which, for a whole host of reasons related to the cast, the others in attendance and the men themselves, is not something I would consider to be a good idea at all. It is unfair to presume an “unwilling male” would benefit from experiencing the monologues. I have no notion that this contributed to what happened with this monolog but it certainly could add a complicating layer.
The monolog culminated as it is supposed to with all chanting this word together loudly. After a few repetitions everyone stopped….. except one. The proud and defiant fists that had punched the air had all dropped to their sides again. In the fraction of a moment of stillness a single male voice shouted out the word one last time. The majority of the women in the room erupted into cheers and applause at this one man’s shout.
I was horrified.
The moment of empowerment that had existed as all present chanted a word that degrades and dehumanizes women by attempting to label them solely as a sex organ was shattered by a single male voice shouting the word at a room full of women. One moment electric with self-defining courage (at least, I believe that is what is intended) the next a chilling reminder of so many who will always seek to continue to hurt. And we will cheer them for it.
Now, I do not wish to roast this guy over the proverbial flames. I have since been told by a female student that the young man believed that they were going to continue the chant and, while there were plenty of visual cues to indicate that they were not, and somehow the rest of the room all stopped at the same moment, I do not wish to assume any kind of malice on his part. It could quite likely be an entirely unintentional act and I am choosing to believe this. Rationally, he could have opened himself up to significant consequences had he done this on purpose, so I doubt that he did.
However, this young man as well as every other male in the room heard a man shout this word in a room full of women and heard all of these strong, talented, powerful women cheer him for using this word. If I were a man, I would find this very confusing.
Many years ago I worked with an African American woman with whom I’d become fairly close friends and I felt comfortable discussing pretty much anything with her. I asked her about something that I’d never understood. ‘Why,’ I said, ‘can black people call one another the “n” word all day long but if a white person says it, it’s a terrible thing?’ Her reply has stuck with me ever since then. ‘Because you will never, ever know what is like to be called that word.’ She could have talked all day about culture and history and dominance and slavery but in the end, that was all she needed to say. That word is, just like the one chanted at the monologs, a word heavy with history, pain and abuse. It is a word that has been “re” claimed (or claimed) by many as a shield; in a sense turning the oppressor/bully’s weapon into an impenetrable defense weapon.
In the end, for the sake of the women who had worked very hard for months on the performance and the cultural benefit the monologs brings to a community, I am very glad that this young man’s ‘accidental’ outburst was not taken offensively by those present (except for myself and, perhaps, a handful of others who may have made note of the horrifying juxtaposition of voices). It could have ended the performance altogether or ruined it. It did not and I am truly glad for that! Yet I wonder what he and the other men in the room took away from that both consciously and sub consciously. You teach people how to treat you. Did a room full of women aiming to educate and empower inadvertently give permission and positive reinforcement to the wrong thing or at least confuse some of the very men they were seeking to educate and have as allies?
Many times, with situations like this, some women will say, ‘well, I wasn’t offended. It wasn’t a big deal so I don’t see what the problem is.’ This is closely related to jokes that degrade women or glorify and humor-ize violence and rape. Some will say, ‘It was just a joke! Can’t you take a joke?’ Just because it is funny doesn’t mean that it is ok. Similarly, just because it wasn’t on purpose or some were not offended doesn’t mean that there won’t be unfortunate consequences.
Like many things I address on this blog, I do not have an answer to this kind of situation so I’m not advocating a particular action. Rather, I suppose I am advocating thought. This isn’t about being too sensitive. It is about teaching people how to treat you, or rather how to treat not JUST you but US. Both ourselves and others, both now and into the future.
*I have some doubts about the ability to “reclaim” a word that was never possessed positively by the particular demographic attempting to claim it a second time. This word, along with many derogatory words used to describe a perceived “sub-class” of person, has never really been one used by anyone in a positive manner. No one, to my knowledge, has previously claimed this as a positive or complementary descriptor and, therefore, I do not know that it can be “re” claimed in an empowering manner.
**It only seems reasonable that I include a tip of the hat to V Men in this post. Please take a moment to read about them.