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A review of “Beyond the Body: a dialogue between bell hooks and Eve Ensler”

November 6, 2013 Leave a comment

On Tuesday evening I attended an event at the New School in NYC called “Beyond the Body? A public dialogue between bell hooks + Eve Ensler”. The event was one of two public events that are part of a one-week residency for bell hooks at the New School. I livetweeted it under the hashtag #BeyondTheBody, but I later found out that several people livetweeted it under #bellhooksTNS. Unfortunately this hashtag was not announced beforehand for the purpose of livetweeting, but I assume it is the general hashtag for hooks’ 1-week residency at the New School. I have storified all livetweets of the event that I could find here. Below is my review of the event, with a few of my own reflections (with some context provided). There was so much substance there is no way I could cover all the points that came up during the event, so I can only apologize for anything I may have missed. I welcome comments on any points I may have missed from others who were there. (CW: rape, assault)

Beyond the Body was a powerful and I daresay surprising event. It was surprising because quite a few people (on my twitter stream, in particular) seemed to think that the event was set up with bell hooks and Eve Ensler in opposition to each other. That could not be further from the truth: bell hooks actually chose Eve Ensler as her conversation partner, specifically due to the different “spaces” from which they originate and the spaces they inhabit as a black woman and a white woman.

This was not a debate; it was a dialogue about the bodies of women. It started out by highlighting Ensler’s project City of Joy, a recovery and leadership program for female survivors of violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country where rape is frequently used as a weapon of war. Ensler set up this project after being invited to the DRC by a Congolese doctor by the name of Dr. Denis Mkwege, who she had previously interviewed. Since its inception City of Joy has graduated 300 women in the city of Bukavu, DRC.

A general discussion of what it means to dedicate yourself to “service” ensued. Ensler remarked on being “a part of the struggle” through her service. bell hooks asked Ensler what spurred her personal process of decolonization, which is a process everyone goes through who has dedicated part of their lives to service. Ensler explained that she felt empathy for abused women because she experienced rape and abuse within her family; not only that, but she grew up witnessing the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s.

Ensler spoke very passionately throughout the evening about her work with Congolese women, which I have to admit caused me some cerebral discomfort. I don’t know what her experience with the DRC was like before she set up Cities of Joy, but I suspect it was probably nil. However I also feel uncomfortable with negating the positive impact she may have had on a community of women simply due to her origins. She seemed surprisingly aware of her privilege, and tended to speak very carefully. At the same time, I have difficulty with the idea that a white woman from the US could be “part of the struggle” for rape survivors in the DRC. That whole idea seems incredibly narcissistic to me. In my view, white women like Ensler (and admittedly, like me!) can facilitate the struggle with resources and a platform, but to say we are part of the struggle seems to smack of co-opting. How about we wait until someone within the struggle tells us we are part of the struggle, instead of declaring it ourselves because we feel we are part of it?

Throughout the dialogue, Ensler seemed slightly intimidated by bell hooks, but who wouldn’t be? bell was clearly in charge of the evening; she showed no reluctance to steer the conversation or interrupt Ensler, especially when she felt there was too much discussion of Ensler’s world-famous Vagina Monologues. I loved it when bell, later in the Q&A, refused to answer a question from a man about her theories on education as decolonization. She said “we’re here to talk about women’s bodies, and a lot of people (especially men) want to change this subject – so maybe I can answer your question later this week” and then swiftly moved on.

bell spoke about how black women’s bodies are still colonized by white supremacy, especially the white supremacist medical establishment. She shared a personal story about how her own sister died of cancer due to neglect by the white supremacist medical hierarchy. Furthermore, she argued that black women are kept silent throughout the media. In films about black people, stories are told through black men not black women. Black women are kept silent throughout this storytelling (e.g. the recent film 12 Years A Slave). She noted that anti-racist campaigners who are white women are usually met with suspicion, whereas anti-racist white men are honoured by having buildings named after them. (There was a LOT of head-nodding after this point was made.)

There was some passionate discussion between bell and Ensler about how the bodies of teenage girls are used as “sacrifices to imperialist white supremacist patriarchy” within the media and elsewhere.  My discomfort with such statements stemmed from the fact that I wasn’t sure whether this discussion pertained to coercive sexualization of bodies or sexuality as an expression originating within the girls and women themselves.

However, a brilliant audience member brought up an important point about this during the Q&A: what is the balance between women of colour having a vibrant sexuality for themselves vs coercive sexualization for/by the patriarchy? This is an ACE question, from my point of view. A number of prominent feminists decry the coercive sexualization of teens by others and within the media. However those same feminists often seem incapable of discerning coercive sexualization and chosen expressions of sexuality. Of course, it can sometimes be difficult to discern between the two, particularly in media spaces, but it’s important to recognize that encouraging elective sexuality is just as important as protesting coercive sexualization. I feel that difference was at least somewhat highlighted within the Q&A.

Finally, I was struck by how bell hooks doesn’t personally use the word “ally” when it comes to movement-building. Instead she emphasizes building solidarity between different groups and types of people – to ensure we are all on the same page, essentially. This harkened back somewhat to the discussion on struggle, and who can be considered to be a part of a struggle and who can’t. I was left with the idea that perhaps we can all be part of a struggle, but we have different roles to play. As white women we need to learn how to shut up and be quiet, and when and how to amplify the voices of the more marginalized. And to her credit, this was a point that Ensler made very early on in the event.

Desirée is a feminist social critic, aspiring writer and activist currently based in New York City. She tweets as @libertinegrrl.

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