Ensler Strikes Back
One brings expectations to V-Day - Until the Violence Stops, a documentary about the international grassroots movement inspired by Eve Ensler’s play, The Vagina Monologues. These expectations oscillate between the stereotypical attributes of either the glossy bourgeois liberal or the earth mother. This is in no way denied by New Video Group’s DVD box, which deploys the usual contemporary feminist design: lots of hot pink, images of ethnically diverse women in pashminas, and an aversion to the word “feminist.” The film even evokes the earth mother: women earnestly declare, “In our vaginas we have the universe,” while making vagina quilts and raising their hands in V-for-victory signs.
Thankfully, V-Day also advocates powerfully for the movement. Ensler recalls its inception. After almost every performance of the play, she says, queues of women would form, desperate to report abuse. In response, in 1998 Ensler brainstormed the notion of V-Day, every 14 February, “until the violence stops.” The idea was simple: perform the play in your city and give the takings to organizations protecting women and girls from sexual violence. The play, a set of three monologues about vaginas performed by women at three different stages in life, serves the campaign well, partly because it can be produced inexpensively (essentially, all you need is a copy of the book).
The documentary reveals the profound relationship between the play and the cause. Repeatedly, interviewees note that speaking of the vagina—not the pookie, the pussy, or the twat—is rare and makes it difficult to confront sexual violence. The women who perform, support, and watch the play (often victims of sexual violence themselves) become engaged in a female-focused activity, with support networks, discussion and awareness springing up almost as a part of the process of making the play.
Everywhere it travels, the play has a specific impact, made plain in the film’s introductory montage: the word “Vagina!” is shouted in 11 languages, drawn from the 800 productions of the play around the world in 2000. From here, V-Day - Until the Violence Stops looks at four different locations where V-Day activities and productions have taken place following harrowing periods of sexual violence: in “middle America,” postwar Croatia, Kenya, and the Philippines.
These four sections make clear the sheer diversity of ways that harm is done to women via the vagina, regardless of cultural or political situation. In “middle America,” we are shown how marital rape and battery goes hand in hand with poverty, whether in a Native American or largely white working class town. In Croatia, the documentary visits a women’s shelter, where the staff highlight issues of sexual slavery and trafficking. In Kenya, we follow the determined tracks of a woman who, initially single-handedly, was literally walking across the country campaigning against female genital mutilation. And in the Philippines, the Vagina Monologues was produced for the benefit of the victims of Second World War rape camps, now old women who continue to be ostracized by families due to the shame of their horrific pasts. The DVD also provides short films of four more locations not included in the documentary. (It’s a shame that the documentary does not include more practical information in its extras, which include extra footage and profiles of Ensler and Epstein. The only suggestion for further action is a visit to the V-Day website.)
Though we are subjected to more than a few tear-jerking testimonies, director Abby Epstein relies mainly on humour. The production of such an explicit play produces plenty of opportunities for giggles and the subversion of gender stereotypes. A small community reacts with amusement to celebratory vagina-styled quilts; nuns laugh at a “filthy” joke; two butch sheriffs coyly pose in V-Day feather boas. Additionally, the film is dotted with germane and gutsy comic quotes from the play, admirably performed by many women including Rosie Perez, Salma Hayek, and Ensler.
Indeed, the film’s emphasis remains firmly on the pleasure and solidarity produced through grassroots activism on V-Day. Still, the documentary rarely works beyond this emotional framework. The insertion of one or two “hard facts” would help, and plenty are available from UNESCO, the UN, the WHO, and the Hite reports. While feminist theorists have long argued that the empirical reliance upon quantifiable facts traditionally serves patriarchal purposes, without them, the documentary remains a public relations document.
In this capacity, V-Day does takes expert aim, responding to familiar charges. For instance, it counters the old, often justified claim that feminism only speaks for white, middle-class Westerners, in part by showing (all-too-short) clips of Kim Crenshaw’s The Black Vagina, a black female perspective on vaginas inspired by Eve Ensler’s play. Second, the film avoids the accusation of instilling a victim mentality, by maintaining an upbeat style instead: “Respect is given to those who command it, expect it, own it!” shouts Crenshaw in a clip from her performance in The Black Vagina.
Finally, it answers the accusation that feminists hate men by showing men involved in V-Day activities. In only one section do men appear boorish or broadly comical. The more effective male contributors include a Kenyan who, against tradition, married a woman who was uncircumcised, a Native American who used to beat his wife but now campaigns against battery, and the guys with the feather boas: “As a sheriff,” proclaims one, “I feel very vagina-friendly.”
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