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Between Effectiveness and Correctness

paper critiques activist statement out of context

Forum: WMST-L
Date: 07/05/2003

On 7/5/03 11:50 AM, "Gillian Wickwire" wrote:

Kim Q. Hall's article "Queerness, Disability, and the Vagina Monologues" is an excellent piece that addresses both the essentialist discourse of the play as well as the way in which VM otherizes and in fact, demonizes certain bodies. I don't believe this piece is published as of yet. Kim Hall is at Appalachian State University.

As someone quoted in Hall's article: she does not seem to understand that press releases I wrote on behalf of Intersex Society of North America (regarding the use of intersex "vagina fairy tale" in "The Vagina Monologues") were written in activist context, with specific realistic activist goals. They were written to influence a specific group of people in order to bring about a specific result.

Okay, to be more specific: the discussion of intersex in "The Vagina Monologues" was trivializing and offensive, and my goal was to use it as an opportunity to raise awareness about intersex experiences. I chose to do so not by calling for boycotts or pressuring Eve Ensler to change the text, but by urging campus organizers of V-DAY events to compensate for the play's problems by educating their campus about intersex issues through film, discussion, and handouts.

In this process, I intentionally left out other criticisms I could have made about the play, such as its essentialism or its colonialist "othering" of non-Western women. Had I made these arguments, it would have seriously undermined my ability to influence campus V-DAY organizers (which is evident by the fact that even the minor criticisms we've made about the play were dismissed by some feminists as unproductive and unfeminist).

Kim Hall critiqued my activist statements for not going far enough, which is that I failed to address the play's more fundamental flaw of essentialism. But if I had criticized the play's essentialism, I would be criticizing the whole basis of the play rather than just a small portion of it, which would have made it impossible for me to convince V-DAY campus organizers to collaborate with us. The end result of this theoretically vigorous stance would be that there wouldn't be any education about intersex issues.

In activism, being effective is often more important than being theoretically flawless. Effective activists don't simply go around blasting everything they disagree: they carefully devise strategies to change it. Any scholars reading activist statements thus need to recognize the political context in which such statements have been made. I believe that Hall took my statements out of context when she critiqued them as if they came from a scholarly project, demanding them to prioritize analytical and theoretical vigorousness over political usefulness.

Just so that you won't misunderstand me: I am not arguing that activists should be allowed to be less than honest, but that they should be allowed to have priorities that are different from academics who study social issues. ISNA's goal was to raise the awareness of intersex experiences, not to deconstruct binary gender system or to challenge essentialist association between vagina and womanhood.

FYI, here are some of the things I wrote online about "The Vagina Monologues":

Intersex Resources for V-DAY 2003

ISNA's V-DAY Challenge 2002

ISNA & The Vagina Monologues

"Othering" of Non-Western Women in "The Vagina Monologues"

Emi Koyama
Director, Intersex Initiative