I am writing to you today as a proud alumna of Mount Holyoke College and the mother of a graduating senior. I am also writing as the Editor of the leading interdisciplinary journal in feminist and gender studies, and a long-time feminist and queer theorist and activist – from my days at Mt. Holyoke to my middle-aged present.
First, let me say that I understand thoroughly that this decision – to discontinue production of The Vagina Monologues – emerged from a particular student group and is in no way reflective of the administration’s stand or positions on any issues at all. Indeed, I regret what appears to be a conflation in the popular press of numerous distinct issues. And I am convinced that campus feminists had and continue to have lively and thoughtful discussions around these and other issues, discussions that rarely get reflected in a mainstream press eager to find divisions and fault-lines within feminist communities. Indeed, the very fact that this was reported in a very conservative and anti-feminist venue – Campus Reform – should suggest that we take all the information circulating with at least a few grains of salt.
But I did want to write and voice my sadness at this turn of events. Had the students simply made a decision to produce other work and not gone out of their way to indict and attack Eve, one could imagine that this “controversy” would had never emerged in the first place. But the statement issued was a full-on indictment of the playwright as “exclusive,” “reductive,” “not intersectional,” etc.
Isn’t there a way to stand in solidarity with all kinds of identities/communities without simultaneously declaring something else “essentialist” or null and void in some way? Of course the theater group has every “right” to make a decision to produce other work, but truly that move needn’t entail a devaluation of Eve, her work, and the countless women (and men, and transfolk, and everyone else) throughout the world she has helped and inspired. It could have been done differently, for sure.
To insinuate that The Vagina Monologues is a transphobic play is patently absurd – what precisely would be the evidence for that argument? And to mistake and conflate issues of inclusion for issues of discrimination is a dangerous and sloppy political error. This is akin to calling the great epic Angels in America misogynist because it doesn’t include stories of women with AIDS.
Perhaps this could be as they say a “teachable moment” where we parse out the difference between, for example, debates around “inclusion,” and concerns about substantive bigotry and discriminatory and hateful representations. No doubt, there is plenty of real transphobia out there in the world to struggle against and in fact Eve has been in the forefront of just such movements to imagine a more gender-fluid and liberatory social and cultural world. And, much to my surprise, Mount Holyoke has increasingly been at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of gender and sexual expression. But pushing those boundaries should never – must never – mean that we lose an “economy of scale” and create instead 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.
In solidarity –
Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society
Director of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Professor of Sociology
Author of The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality (NYU Press 2014)