Monday, April 13, 2009

The Power of Fantasy

On Friday night, the Abigail and I went to see a production of the Vagina Monologues at the Abigail's school, the California Institute of Integral Studies. As a production the presentation of the Vagina Monologues the Abigail and I watched was very good. The actors were all great, supported by an effective minimalist set and some powerful, subtle staging choices. The heart of this production was clearly in the right place.

This is my first time seeing the Vagina Monologues, and I wish I could say I was struck by the weight and beauty of the piece and completely blown away, but I wasn't. My problem with the Vagina Monologues (and this is relevant to the Burning Zeppelin Experience, I promise) is founded in some terminology I learned a few months ago at a weekend seminar. I'll do my best to make it quick.

In any conversation, you have three factors: what one person (or faction) is saying, what the second person (or group) is saying, and the way the conversation is taking place. The nature of the conversation. In essence, the way an issue or debate is framed is the third participant in any conversation.

To me, the conversation of the Vagina Monologues was something like "how can we protect vulnerable women from bad men." Of the monologues I saw, most of them were about the pain and suffering of women - women as the victims of violence and cruelty at the hands of men, women as losing something precious about themselves thanks to our male-driven culture, women as needing women to save them, protect them, and teach them - with only one exception. This conversation is extremely well-intentioned. After all, when bad men and vulnerable women come together, the result is always pain and suffering.

The problem is that conversations make themselves true. They need to, otherwise they can't exist. So, the conversation "how can we protect vulnerable women from bad men" requires that women be vulnerable and men be bad. No matter how hard you work at keeping vulnerable women away from bad men (and vice versa), no matter how hard you work to make some women vulnerable and some men less bad, what you are working with is still vulnerable women and bad men. More and less is not a real change, it's just more and less of the same. I saw that the Vagina Monologues was totally caught up in a conversation that would never let it succeed at its goal.

To really transform the world, you need a truly transformative conversation, like "how can men and women live together" or "how can we make a world where everyone is equally valued regardless of gender." Alternately, more personally, "how can the Abigail and I create a relationship that works for both of us" is a more powerful and liberating conversation than "how can we make sure the evil patriarchy doesn't sneak into our relationship." The goal is (kind of) the same, but the way of thinking and talking about it is completely different.

How does this relate to the Burning Zeppelin Experience?

The thing I love most about science fiction, fantasy, horror, magical realism, and every other kind of fantastic literature is the power it has to transform conversations. A favorite of mine is Sharon Shinn's Heart of Gold (which I reviewed here), which tackles issues of ethnicity, gender, and culture. By making its characters blue, gold, and white-skinned humanoids with cultures made out of bits and pieces of recognizeable human ways of life glued together into new configurations, Heart of Gold allows the reader to examine the issues in a new way. With fantasy, we break out of old habits and create new ways of seeing the world. We turn our challenges into games we can play over and over again, until the pain has no power over us and we can give up conversations that can't help us and embrace conversations that will.

That's all I've got to say on the matter. I'm looking forward to your comments.


Anonymous said...

Hi, I've been lurking and reading your entries since spotting your comment in Martin Millar's blog.

I love Sharon Shinn. I find the Samaria series fascinating and I'd love to sit down and chat with her about it--particularly about the Edori and their relation to Jews.

That is all.

Becca said...

Hmm...I respectfully disagree with your theory that the show's conversation was "how can we protect vulnerable women from bad men." For me (and it's perhaps going to be different for me because I'm female), it was about celebrating something that women don't get to talk about. For me, the conversation was about having a voice period.

Anyway, I always find it interesting to see what guys think of The Vagina Monologues, either if they like it or if they don't (and now I want to know what Abby thinks of it).

As for Sharon Shinn, I really enjoyed the first three Samaria books. Then I got to Angel Seeker (one of the side books) and I was so offended (as a Jew) by its portrayal of Arabic culture that it's going to take me a while to be able to read a Sharon Shinn book again. Which is a shame, because I had really enjoyed her books up to that point.

Anonymous said...

@jeepersteepersWelcome to the Burning Zeppelin! I also loved the Samaria series. I thought they were brilliant.

@ BeccaIf that's the case, then why were so many of the monologues about pain? Why were so many of them about how lousy men are? Why did most of those that mentioned sexual abuse treat it as something irrevocable (of the three, one was an uplifting story of someone discovering her own body after sexual abuse, the others were depressing as all hell)?

That's what I mean by conversation: the fact that you see all that negative, painful stuff as "having a voice period" says a lot about what conversation you're having. It's not that you can't talk about bad stuff, it's how. I saw very little that was uplifting or beautifying in the Vagina Monologues. Some, certainly (such as the one about a woman in the misnamed "Vagina Workshop" discovering her clitoris), but even it was tainted by repetition of the "the bad male world is bad for women, who can't be expected to protect themselves from it" meme.

Um... that came out a lot more critical than I intended it to. Really, it's nothing personal and you're not a bad person. It's just interesting.

For whatever it's worth, the Abigail agrees with me.

Anyway, on to Sharon Shinn. Frankly, I wouldn't go too far with comparing Samaria's groups to real world groups. Sure, there's similarity, but this is kind of the point - the Edori aren't Jews and the Jansai aren't Arabs. They just play them in your imagination.

While flat characterization is annoying (DISCLAIMER: I haven't read Angel Seeker, but I have read other Shinn books and discussed Angel Seeker with Becca in person before!) - and that's what you seemed to be describing - it's important to remember that the beauty of fantasy is that that connection, the one that tells you that the Jansai are Arabs, is all in your head.

Not that it's meaningless. It just isn't real.