A performance of The Vagina Monologues is usually associated with a celebration of feminism and a desire to stop violence against women. And on dozens of campuses, a return from winter break means organizing performances for February and March. But as a result of an idea from student directors and producers of this year's production at the University of Michigan to focus on "women of color," that message has become much more murky.
This fall, four students -- Lauren Whitehead, Jillian Steinhauer, Molly Raynor and Kelly Sheard -- wanted to accomplish something deeper with their production than they felt had been done in past years. Their idea was to cast every role in the play with a minority woman, in an effort to rectify what some view as racial biases of the show. One reference to race in the script is a monologue based on an interview with "A Southern Woman of Color." Some professors who have read the main script and optional parts of the play say that Arab, Asian-American and Native American women fare particularly poorly in the play -- being presented "from a reductive and troublingly narrow perspective."
"This play is very problematic," said Maria Cotera, a professor of Latino and women's studies, who has been advising the students. "Basically, the implied center of the monologue is white women's experiences with sexuality and violence. And then you have all these 'diversifying' pictures that are sort of marked and cast for black or other minority women. Those are the figures that are meant to bring in diversity, but the fact is, the central figures are white women."
Megan Sweeney, a professor of English and Afroamerican and African Studies, also has reservations. "The script itself tends to flatten and conflate a wide variety of women's experiences into a homogenizing portrait of women's victimization," she said. "In doing so, moreover, the script inadvertently contributes to a colonialist 'othering' of non-Western women and a silencing of these women by corralling historically, culturally, politically, and economically distinct situations of violence into one overarching portrait of non-Western women's pain."
Some students have said they would have preferred that the university stop performing the play, rather than prolonging what they call "a disservice" to minority and foreign women. Students at the university have been putting on the performance without much controversy for the past several years, raising many more dollars than controversies. As a result of ticket sales, thousands of dollars have gone toward supporting Ann Arbor safe houses and other organizations that aid abused women in the area.
According to organizers of V-Day -- the organization that disseminates Eve Ensler's script to students who wish to perform the play -- the production has raised approximately $30 million to date, nationwide. But, as several students at the University of Michigan have learned this year, rights to use the script come with strict guidelines -- guidelines that some professors and students say make it next to impossible to bring "women of color" issues to the forefront.
In November, Whitehead, co-director of the show this school year, made a statement to The Michigan Daily that got her and fellow organizers into trouble with the national V-Day organization. "We can't change the words of the script, but we can change the way the words are presented," she was quoted as saying. "The script is flawed in its attempt to give all women a voice because it seems to give certain women certain voices. I often wonder why angry vaginas can't be white and happy vaginas can't be Asian." The statement was viewed as a plan by Michigan organizers to bar white women from parts in the production.
As a result of Whitehead's statement, the national V-Day organization threatened to pull the script -- in turn, ending the funds that would be distributed at area women's shelters -- unless white women were also allowed to be a part of the production. According to students, several white women were already involved in the production, in helping raise funds and create the show.
"[W]e applaud the efforts of the organizers to proactively engage a diverse group of students who may not have been deeply involved in previous V-Day benefit productions of The Vagina Monologues on campus," Shael Norris, a V-Day campus director said in a recent statement. "However, we feel obligated to clarify that it is not in the spirit of V-Day to engage some women to the exclusion of others, and that V-Day will not endorse a production of The Vagina Monologues that does. The materials that V-Day provides to its approved organizers specifically directs organizers to incorporate as diverse a cast as possible with consideration to race, age, disability and size. Everyone that expresses interest is to be included, whether on stage or off.
"We also reject the notion ... that the script is inherently racist," said Norris. " The Vagina Monologues is a play based on Eve Ensler's interviews with over 200 real women. The vast majority of the monologues are composites of the interviews with women of various ages, races and creeds, and the script intentionally refuses to instruct directors to cast any particular role as a particular race."
Cotera, for one, finds the actions of V-Day organizers to be troubling. "The national V-Day committee is very, very sensitive about publicity being brought to the play that criticizes it," she said. "It seems that their wish to control and shape the appearance of the play tops their concerns for women," she added. "Plus, they object vociferously to any objections that the play is racially flawed -- and they will punish the [student] producers if they think that critiques are emanating from them."
V-Day organizers were not the only ones who took offense with the idea of limiting the play's parts to "women of color." The student directors and producers received countless e-mails from students labeling their plan as a "reverse discrimination" tactic.
Jeffrey Kelly, an engineering student at the university, recently posed a couple of questions on a heated Live Journal discussion regarding the plan. "Why does the minority community in this university feel the need to be so confrontational?" he asked. "You never hear about anything constructive. It's always a rally in the Diag featuring vulgar middle schoolers or a play not open to white participants. Where are all of the positive events?"
When contacted on Friday, Kelly elaborated, saying, "Suppose in response, I formed a student group that was only open to white students. There would be an outrage on campus from minority groups. Yet these same groups practice the policies that they attack when they form a group for 'women of color' only."
Should men be allowed in the play? "From a strictly ideological viewpoint, I suppose the answer is yes, but on the other hand, men do not have vaginas, do not know what it is like to have a vagina, and will -- for most men -- never know what it is like to have a vagina," said Kelly. "Therefore, if a man were denied a part in the Vagina Monologues, while I would not be impressed with the group for denying someone membership, I would understand why they felt he didn't belong."
In response to the V-Day threat to pull the production, which is currently scheduled for February 19, the students made their rules much more fluid. They let white women audition to perform, and bent the traditional meaning of "women of color" to also include "women who may identify as white ethnics," such as Italian or Jewish women.
Cotera says that if the production ends up having a majority "women of color," it will "reorientate the production" in a way she finds useful. Students have been reluctant to give a breakdown of the racial make-up of the cast because there is still concern that the play could be cancelled by the national V-Day committee.
Added Sweeney, "[U]nlearning white privilege necessarily causes discomfort, so the discomfort that some white women may feel in having their own experiences decentered, or in being pushed to relate to representations of women that do not immediately reflect their own senses of identity as women, can be an important step toward achieving the greater well-being of all women."