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The Vagina Monologues: A Wake-up Call for Men
By Rob Okun
Broadcast on Public Radio Station WFCR-FM, Friday, February 13, 2004
Will men ever "get it"? Will we ever recognize that the days of trying to limit women's freedom of expression are long over?
Those supporting both women's empowerment and men redefining masculinity owe the play's critic, Larry Kelley, a thank you for illuminating the need to bring more men into this crucial conversation. Certainly, Eve Ensler's play is about women's lives. But it's also about men waking up to women's reality.
Mr. Kelley's discomfort with the "C-word"--"I can't say it out loud," he told a school committee meeting last month--symbolizes men's discomfort with admitting how little we know about the dangerous world our mothers and daughters, wives and partners, sisters and nieces live in: a world where sexual harassment and sexual assault are commonplace. A world where personal security means checking the backseat of your car before getting in it. A world where going out at night means carrying a whistle, or a can of Mace. A world most men, myself included, find it hard to personally feel. It's not easy for men to acknowledge how widespread violence against women is, nor how much further we have to go to create a safe, egalitarian society. Hardest of all is to admit that getting there means giving up some of the privilege we enjoy.
Mr. Kelley grabbed a few headlines with his complaint, alleging The Vagina Monologues is inappropriate for high school students. It's too bad, though that he obscured the fact that no students are required to attend, and that the evening performance is scheduled when school has recessed for vacation. In addition, tonight's show culminates a week of "V-Day" workshops spotlighting issues raised by the playpromoting greater awareness of, and actions to prevent, violence against women.
It is understandable that men are vulnerable and confused about male and female roles nowadays. And it's natural that men are going to stumble crossing this new, unfamiliar landscape. I certainly have. But such vulnerability is not an excuse to try to censor women, including female students meeting life's challenges head on--even if those challenges appear years earlier than either they or the adults in their lives would like.
The male students at the high school, and men in general, owe a debt of gratitude to the brave young women who discovered in The Vagina Monologues an artistic and educational forum to draw attention to women's plight. Perhaps the support the 40 female students are showing one another will inspire their male counterparts to find their collective voice to challenge the box of conventional masculinity most are trapped in. As the father of a son at the high school, I hope so.
As for the students? One involved in the show wrote: "Is the content of The Vagina Monologues appropriate for high school students? No. Absolutely not. Teenagers should not be dealing with issues of rape, domestic violence and abuse... however...[we] already deal with these [problems] on a daily basis.... It is absolutely appropriate for women (and men) to have a forum to deal with these issues in a safe and positive environment."
Given the highly sexualized nature of so much of popular culture--from song lyrics to computer games, from MTV to Hollywood, that The Vagina Monologues is being performed at a high school is a refreshing educational strategy. With parental permission, and during their lunch period, students have been attending a week of workshops on dating violence, healthy relationships, and men's roles and responsibility in preventing abuse.
I am relieved to know my son will have an educational setting in which to discuss these sensitive issues. I expect the workshops will serve as an antidote to the nonstop, one-way, misogynist assault pop culture directs at all of us, particularly the young. Still, like a growing number of men worldwide, I know we must redouble our efforts. For women's sake. For men's sake. For our children's sake. Perhaps one day, more and more men will stop participating in The Patriarchy Monologues, and instead will join women and men engaged in what I think of as The Egalitarian Dialogues. No doubt the ensuing conversation could be worthwhile for all of us.