Hedging or Edging?
Originally published in:
Mail and Guardian (South Africa)
An attractive man pulls up in a convertible to ask me where he can find The
Vagina Monologues. I have to tell him that I'm still looking as I wander
towards the closest building at Caesar's Palace, venue of South Africa's
first V-day event, musing that the bizarre interchange is probably one of
the more meaningful I've had on the topic of women's sexuality.
Germaine Greer may mock Eve Ensler's enactment of women's 'search' for their
vaginas (which perhaps are easier to find than the car keys), but to nitpick
this play in her article "Paying lip service", she often has to force a
surprisingly literal reading on her audience. And anyway, hasn't the grande
dame herself had a few false starts after turning on the ignition?
I'm beginning to think critics like Greer simply feel upstaged by a woman
who has managed to popularize feminist issues in a way that few would have
dreamed possible, whose fund-raising campaign to end violence against women
has been so successful world-wide that the Harvard Business School requested
its use as a case study. I recently had the opportunity to ask Ensler about
her friends, foes and future visions.
Among your supporters you have both feminists and "women who don't define
themselves". Why has "feminism" become such a dirty word do you think? I
think it's because everyone has bought into the pathology of patriarchy that
has tried to stigmatise and cannibalise feminism. For me personally,
feminism is about desire. I think that if you know your desire and you have
a vision of your desire, you can fulfill your desire within this lifetime. I
don't think it's more complex than that. If you're a person who has been
battered, abused or raped, you don't have that desire, you don't even have
enough esteem to desire.
Greer says that you're making points about women's attitudes to their bodies
that feminists made 30 years ago, that this is all 'old hat' . Why is that a
criticism? I mean to imply that feminism is outdated means that we're all
liberated and there's no more violence and as far as I can tell that hasn't
What about the area of women taking responsibility for their ambivalence,
their aggressive impulses towards one another? Are you ever critical of
women? I think women need to take responsibility for how deeply we've been
trained to put one another down, but to be honest, I'm never really critical
of women, not publicly. I don't believe in the press reality, the way you
approached this interview by finding my critics, for example .
Dialogue, balance, I think? I've been reading out lines from the critics,
including the Camille Paglia. Instead I say, Well, in a way I feel obliged
to raise them because I feel I am too supportive of your cause. But just
look at that, just examine that as a journalist, what does it mean to be too
supportive of someone's cause?
Well, people don't believe you otherwise, you have to be a bit nasty . What
is that about? And why do we all keep feeding into that, it makes me crazy.
The woman who wrote this piece [pointing to Susan Dominus in the New York
Times Magazine] was sent back to "get more edge" and she bought into it.
But are you so different from a journalist? I often have to find the angle
that will get me the space to say what I want to say . But take that as a
metaphor! That's what's killing women: "I've got to find the angle to allow
myself to come through". Once women do that they give up their big power ...
But haven't you done this too? The celebrities, the sexual angle . No I have
not done it, I have said exactly what I wanted to say in the way I have
wanted to say it. I have not angled myself and I believe that's why The
Vagina Monologues is having this impact.
It feels so refreshing to be chided in this way, like a blessing in fact.
That I should even find myself trying to 'peddle' women's rights through a
defensive or protective 'edge' an utter absurdity.
On the night of SA's first V-day event I watch people throw their heads back
with laughter, wave their arms in the air, and ululate to music performances
so inspiring I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
It's a vision taking shape, something Ensler describes as "the really
empowering thing - when you realise the community is attracting the
community and you don't need outside names". And while feminists like Greer
have in the past provoked what is probably justifiable anger, this
self-professed 'radical' seems to work more with joy - in the most unlikely