Wednesday, February 26, 2014


The Limitations of Eve Ensler's Dance-Based Activism

"If your vagina could talk, what would it say?"

This question, from Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues, has probably been heard by hundreds of thousands of women by now. The play has been performed so often that an entire generation of feminists knows it by heart. It's been staged in far-flung countries, and helped raise millions of dollars for women's anti-violence groups.

I first heard the talking vagina question when it floated through the open window of the ground-floor office where I worked on a large university campus. Outside was a tree-shaded courtyard—a peaceful place, its atmosphere somewhat subdued by a brooding statue of Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston. But a plucky young undergraduate, waiting to audition for a local production of The Vagina Monologues, chose to practice her lines there. Loudly. Repeatedly. And so my personal experience with Ensler's play began as a gradual awareness that someone outside was asking the statue of Albert Sidney Johnston what its vagina would say if it could talk.

I certainly hope the young woman got the part she auditioned for, because she sounded really into it. She genuinely wanted to know what Albert Sidney Johnston's vagina had to say. But despite her enthusiasm, and the well-established brilliance of Ensler's writing, and the importance of The Vagina Monologues as a reclamation and celebration of women's bodies—not to mention the sheer novelty of hearing a slave-owning, Indian-murdering career military officer being interrogated about his vagina—this impromptu performance wasn't a catalyst for me. It didn't awaken me to a new awareness of anything in particular. I was already involved in the fight to end violence against women, and only marginally interested in the anthropomorphic dimensions of vaginas.

I've remained on the margins of Enslermania ever since. Last year, when I first heard about One Billion Rising, the day of action Ensler had declared to "break the silence" about violence against women, I did not immediately think (as 999,999,999 other women evidently did), "Oh hooray, the famous vagina lady is doing something about violence!" Instead I thought, "They're going to tell us to dance, aren't they." And indeed: "On February 14, 2013," Ensler promised, "to break the silence and release their stories–politically, spiritually, outrageously–through art, dance, marches, ritual, song, spoken word, testimonies and whatever way feels right." There were speeches and performances and a choreographed "Break the Chain" dance that everyone was invited up on stage to participate in. Everyone but me appeared to have a wonderful time.

I felt like we were collectively asking Albert Sidney Johnston about his vagina.

Because what happened at the Texas Capitol in the months after One Billion Rising crowded its steps with ecstatic dancers? In June, Governor Rick Perry called a special legislative session and launched a virulent attack on reproductive rights. I was at the capitol many times that summer, supporting Wendy Davis, Leticia Van De Putte, and all the legislators and staffers and healthcare providers and witnesses and volunteers who were there fighting for women's right to control their own bodies. Yet despite all the dancing that had taken place four months earlier, the law passed. It also passed in spite of Wendy Davis' filibuster, and testimony from traumatized women, and the expert advice of medical professionals.

Ensler's conflation of dance with activism unsettles me. I have little faith in dance as a tool of social change. Dancing may make you feel great, but it doesn’t get people to the polls to vote, or persuade Supreme Court Justices, or inform policy debates. And I dislike the way One Billion Rising frames women's bodies as spectacle, as if our anger and our healing have more meaning when they are enacted on a stage, and consumed by mass audiences (if you don't already have doubts about Ensler's appropriation of other women's bodies, read the mind-bogglingly self-absorbed excerpt “The Congo Stigmata” from her new memoir). I find Ensler's encomiums to dance faintly embarrassing, too, in the way they attribute a mystical quality to the "primitive" but "spiritual" customs of third-world women. I also think inviting us to "dance until the violence stops" encourages white western feminism's lamentable tendency to try to solve the world's problems by doubling down on activities that white western feminists already like. Being told that I can stop people's abuse of me by dancing sounds an awful lot like all the people in my life who've told me, "You'd be so pretty if you'd just smile."

Perhaps Ensler would say I need to learn more about dance; that I need to overcome my inhibitions, release myself from something or other; maybe visit the Congo and learn, as she did, that dance is “a formidable, liberating and transformative energy.” But I already have my own liberating and transformative art. I learned karate at the school where I now teach self defense. And because I'm a martial artist, I sympathize with Ensler's promotion of physical, spiritually-inflected movement as a healing and empowering activity. But—also because I'm a martial artist—I see the limitations of that approach.

Dance and martial arts are disciplines with common roots. Both arts are uniquely local expressions of universal needs: dance fulfills needs of expression and communication; martial arts fulfills the need to protect one's self, family, and home. Within a given culture, the two arts often share a vocabulary of similar movement and gesture. And both arts are also commonly appropriated by practitioners outside their culture of origin. Western women have—with varying degrees of cultural sensitivity—made deliberate use of both martial arts and dance to further feminist aims. For me, karate is just as personally liberating and transformative as dance is for Ensler.

But the martial arts are ultimately about impact, not expression or storytelling or moving an audience emotionally. All the discipline and practice and cultivation of spontaneity that make up the martial arts exist for one purpose: winning a fight. So your efficacy as a martial artist is continually tested and measured: Can you break a board? Two boards? A brick? Can you defend yourself against an opponent? Multiple attackers?

If you're engaged in activism, simply expressing yourself isn't enough. If you're truly under attack, you don't dance. You fight.

Is One Billion Rising helping us win the fight? What is its impact? Can we measure it? Ensler claims the event has been a success; that "said afterwards that she was "‘gobsmacked’ that the government doesn’t see the need for comprehensive and compulsory education for relationships and sex." If they'd danced a little harder, would the government have seen the light?

Ensler also touts One Billion Rising's impact in the U.S., implying that the event helped pass the Violence against Women Reauthorization Act: "campaigner Pat Reuss credits the campaign with support for and passage of" VAWA. Given that VAWA passed by a vote of 286-138 in the House of Representatives (the Nay votes were all Republicans) and 78-22 in Senate (ditto), it seems unlikely that One Billion Rising was really instrumental in tipping the vote.

"In Guatemala," Ensler reports, "Marsha Lopez, part of the V-Day movement since 2001, says the most important result of One Billion Rising was the creation of a law for the criminalisation of perpetrators who impregnate girls under 14 years old." Ensler provides no link to verify this claim, but according to press release posted on the One Billion Rising website, titled "V-DAY’S ONE BILLION RISING IS BIGGEST GLOBAL ACTION EVER TO END VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN AND GIRLS," Ensler claims that "the European Parliament plenary voted the resolution 'Elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls' inspired by One Billion Rising activities." It's not clear what "inspired by" means, exactly. The resolution itself, which Ensler in her explanation of the new justice forums. "How do we create justice when the state is paralysed or against us? What does justice look like? How do we address root causes of violence? How do we join our struggles? How do we distinguish between justice and revenge?”

If your vagina could talk, General Johnston, what would it say?


Previously: The Shark Has Pretty Teeth, Dear: Why I Teach Women Self-Defense

Illustrations by Maya West.

Susan Schorn is the author of Smile at Strangers, and Other Lessons in the Art of Living Fearlessly; she also writes the column Bitchslap for McSweeney's Internet Tendency. 

14 Comments / Post A Comment


If my vagina could talk, it would say "Shut up, Eve Ensler."

I get what Vagina Monologues is trying to do and am generally on board, but as something to watch, it's hamfisted, irritating, ineffective, and now getting to be dated. There is a long and unfortunate history of women being reduced to their body parts (wombs, vaginas, boobs, asses, etc.), and I don't think Ensler did us any favors with her play.

Her heart is in the right place, but Eve Ensler's work doesn't seem to be very effective or well-thought-out--this dancing business included. Fun-sparkly-colorful-free-spirited-woowoo does not necessarily equal activism. Sure, it's fun and feels good but rarely (if ever) has any demonstrable influence on the people and institutions that actually effect social or political change.

And I will always hate The Vagina Monologues.

Mary Beth Ostlund-Wood@facebook

@yunkstahn PRECISELY HOW I FEEL, well done. Why do some women have to be so damn dumbly ineffectual and girlie when they present their feminist point of view? As if they are still all wrapped up in "being nice and not tooooo emphatic, or the boys won't like me" which I see from college aged girls all too often, sadly. Vagina Monologues? It embarrasses me to be a woman every time it comes up in conversation or on the news or whatever. STrikes me as some not-very-smart or not-very-brave woman's attempt to be "ooooo...so rebellious and flying in the face of convention, using the word VAGINA in public!!!! My Mother will HATE THIS, and I LOVE THAT!!" ----ish. And just coming across as a wimp. And Dancing? Yeah right. That will really help. I'm sure entire nation's of violent men will immediately lay down their knifes and their fists and tuck their dicks away if they SEE US DANCE. How about marching, carrying a sign, picketing those who picket abortion clinics, starting a movement or contributing to one that already exists. Hell, how about screaming on the street corner, confronting politicians, running for office, speaking out, writing something direct and fact-driven and powerful and MEANINGFUL????? You know: DOING SOMETHING. Dancing???!!! Vagina Monologues? Seriously? How completely nonproductive and nonconfrontational and......girlie. Embarrassing stuff and in my opinion, all "aren't I precious" and self-aggrandizing as the gal urgins us to dance or sit through the horrors of the VM uses the occasion of her "art" to put a bit of pretty prose out there, making herself out to be all artsy and filmy and ADMIRABLE. Bite me. Women are dying out there from violence and sexual slavery and forced prostitution and the men they're married to as well as complete strangers in the alleyways attacking them. Not to mention frat boys and high school football players who are then protected by the town and the culture and the administrators of the schools. Dance? Ask a vagina what it has to say? Mine says you people make me sick and tired. Get serious or shut up.


Yes. perfect @l

Brooke Shelby Biggs@facebook

Dancing needs not be everyone;'s thing, but it's a lot of people. This article expresses why for some, it actually is very meaningful to infuse the fight with joy. http://www.sunstar.com.ph/davao/opinion/2014/02/14/maglana-one-billion-rising-one-billion-radiant-328411

"I find it vital that the One Billion Rising call to rise, release and demand justice is intertwined with the invitation to dance.

I am reminded of the slogan 'Bread and Roses' derived from the speech of union leader and feminist Rose Schneiderman who said, 'The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.'

There are those who would reduce us to only one aspiration - be it economics, religion, politics or ideology. But the truth is we aspire for a fullness of life that cannot be met by only bread, or in our case, only rice.

In the poem 'Bread and Roses,' we are reminded that "Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;/ Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!"

And so in the face of violence, we dare dance, we must dance.

James Oppenheim, who was inspired by Schneiderman's speech to write the "Bread and Roses" poem, began by saying 'As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,/ A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,/ Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses/ For the people hear us singing: "Bread and roses! Bread and roses!"'

One billion women, men and children rising on February 14 are one billion women, men and children radiant with justice against the dark and gray."

Story #2

@Brooke Shelby Biggs@facebook Bread and roses by all means, but the problem, I would say, is that Eve Ensler is stuffing rose plants into the oven and claiming they make bread. They don't, and they don't make good roses, either.

Mary Beth Ostlund-Wood@facebook

@Brooke Shelby Biggs@facebook If you like to dance, then dance. I love to dance and do it all the time. But please don't try to turn it into a political action of change. It's a self indulgence once you cross that line, and a way for people who are actually NOT doing anything to present themselves TO themselves as people who are. The point isn't that people don't want you to dance, Brooke, or that it is unimportant or don't enjoy it themselves. It's just that it's offensive as hell when people thing that dancing is a political act. It isn't. I suspect in many cases that people, women, who try to argue that it IS are merely wanting to justify their own nonparticipation in the actual hard stuff that actually changes things and makes a difference while flitting around and getting all the kudos from dancing they receive under false pretenses. i.e., saying they're radical or feminist or progressive or whatever because they dance. Seriously? What astonishing self deception and self indulgence. I suspect they just want an audience, myself. Dance. Fine. But please don't call it "action" in a political sense. By the way, the exhortation for Bread and Roses implied that mistreated workers and women etc were entitled not just to an existence, but to a good existence which included leisure, beauty, and the things that make life rich. They were not insisting on their right to dance. The phrase Bread and Roses, therefore, is powerful. "I want to dance and be considered a member of a movement because I dance" is horseshit and a completely different thing.

Story #2

@Mary Beth Ostlund-Wood@facebook I think art can be a political act, or at least have a political effect -- how many pro-torture people have you heard cite "24"? I have heard a lot. (I'm not saying "24" is good art, but it is art.) But it's not usually a *direct* political act, not in this country. The metaphor I was thinking of was something like... suppose that the aim is to disassemble a structure. There are people with sledge hammers and screw guns. Maybe you don't have a sledge hammer or a screw gun, but you go home and you cut up some oranges and you bring them out to the people with the tools when they have a break. It's not a meaningless act, or a private one. You're acting in support of a cause. But you're not directly advancing the cause. Eve Ensler is taking the paring knife and stabbing it into the wall of the structure. It's basically ineffective and it doesn't do the paring knife any favors.

chickpeas akimbo

I just... think this campaign is so boneheaded. How exactly does dancing turn into measurable change? By all means, dance if it makes you feel good, don't let me stand in your way, but let's not kid ourselves about this.

Also, to expand upon a point the author raised, Ensler did not take it well, to put it mildly, when it was pointed out to her that indigenous women in Canada have been marching in support of MMIW (missing and murdered indigenous women) on 2/14 for years now: http://chiefelk.tumblr.com/post/49527456060/an-open-letter-to-eve-ensler

In short, go home, Eve Ensler, you're drunk.


@chickpeas akimbo
Word, seriously. When I saw all the furore about it, I seriously wondered what dancing was actually supposed to accomplish, beyond awareness. (And then I felt bad for questioning a feminist campaign - bad feminist! Support the cause no matter what!) There are plenty of organisations pushing awareness at legislators and governments already. I like the Vagina Monologues a lot and I see its point and effect immediately. But One Billion Rising was too vague in its aims. The author noticed that its achievements seem to be similarly vague. No surprise to me, but I'm one of these cynical people who likes to see concrete results from a huge initiative like this.

Harris, Emmeline

You are a smart smart lady. I find what you say subtle, incisive and sceptical without being ungenerous. I too want to like EE and just feel uneasy. Specifically: as a feminist I of course want control of my vagina, and understand that tragically, appallingly, vaginas are sometimes where violence and inustice against women gets meted out. But I really don't like the positive version of this essentialism that says 'love your vagina: feel that it's your essence, it's *you*.' I love my vagina, it's great, but it's not me, it's just a part of me, and to suggest otherwise is insulting in its own way.

Also does anyone enjoy the fact that the spam on this article is about plumbing!? SOZ


Yup. The dance thing has always embarrassed me. I mean, I like to dance, but the pressure to be joyful and express it through dance while you're agitating for change is unwelcome. I'll feel how I'm going to feel about it, and I maintain it doesn't make me any less engaged or less of a person if I don't wish to cavort about.

The loose quotation of Emma Goldman (who apparently didn't say it like that) "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution," has always made me cringe a bit. I'm perfectly OK with a revolution, with or without dancing.


Susan Schorn, I like you a whole lot.

Jenny Scott@facebook

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