[28 April 2011]
“I think we all have a girl in us,” Eve Ensler told the crowd at the University of Chicago’s International House recently, while speaking about her new book I Am An Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World. The evening fluctuated from book reading to performance to rally to consciousness raising session, until it was unclear where one experience began and the other ended. And herein lies the basic issue I have with Ensler’s work; she invariably tries to create a voice for an audience that have their own voices.
I Am An Emotional Creature returns to the format Ensler is comfortable with, that of the monologue. Ensler used monologues most effectively in her groundbreaking work The Vagina Monologues, written in 1996, after she conducted hundreds of interviews with women asking them how they felt about their vaginas. The format and content was revelatory, and Ensler became a worldwide sensation because of her willingness to have a frank discussion about a taboo topic.
Luckily for all of us, she hasn’t stopped with her latest work. Though her scope has become increasingly global in recent years (largely due to her work in the Democratic Republic of Congo with sexual assault victims), she still sees a universality in the issues affecting women. But the breadth of this book has narrowed considerably—where she once talked exclusively about women, Ensler has shifted to a new focus group: girls.
In I Am An Emotional Creature, Ensler argues that societies around the world don’t do enough to value and respond to the emotions of their children. Instead, they focus on promoting rational thought and, in the case of the girls, emphasize pleasing others. To Ensler, if we stop teaching girls to please everyone around them, we can unleash a new kind of intelligence. They will become empowered through the connection to their own feelings, instead of detached and confused, as Ensler feels women and men are today.
What ills would such effort prevent? From genital mutilation in the Congo to anorexia in Beverly Hills, the battleground is always a woman’s body.
Because Ensler’s priority is preventing sexual assault, I Am An Emotional Creature is almost obsessed with the female form, as was The Vagina Monologues (well, that book was obsessed with a certain specific body part) and The Good Body. As much as she may want to look internally, Ensler’s essays focus on redefining the experience women have with their bodies.
And herein lies I Am An Emotional Creature‘s greatest flaw; as Ensler makes revelatory statements about freeing women and allowing them to connect with their emotions, her essays don’t support her claims. One piece, “Free Barbie”, is told entirely from the viewpoint of a young Chinese girl who works in a sweatshop putting the heads on Barbie dolls. But the piece isn’t about the girl: Ensler tells us that this vendetta is a personal one. ”I hate Barbie and I always hated Barbie,” Ensler said in her talk. “I feel like Barbie is just this worldwide construction of oppression that makes its way into every girl’s bedroom.”
But nothing in “Free Barbie” indicates that Barbie itself is the tool of oppression; Ensler’s piece, here, is a fantastical, meandering diatribe about the horrible treatment of young children in sweatshops. Her use of Barbie does nothing to shed light on the potential emotional damage playing with this unrealistic beauty of a doll can inflict upon young girls. She doesn’t propose a solution to the oppression of women through their bodies, though the implied one is that taking Barbie off the shelves would both end an obsession with an unrealistic body type at a young age, as well as the need for child labor.
Moreover, Ensler has seemingly not considered that teaching girls about what Barbie means in our society, as well as the history behind her creation, might release them from her clutches more than removing her would.
The invented monologues that make up I Am An Emotional Creature aren’t Ensler’s best medium any more. At her reading, the stories she told about the real women she has met were much more moving than imaginative essays like “What I Wish I Could Say to My Mother” or “My Short Skirt”. Ensler has strong, sound ideas and opinions (whether you agree with her stance on Barbie or not), and an amazing motivation to continue to act as an activist as well as a performer and writer. But it would behoove her to let the women she has traveled around the world and found so “beautiful” speak for themselves, instead of theatrically adapting their words.
As she says,“If we free girls, they will free us.” Let them be free, Eve.