Friday, July 16, 2004

Faking Whoopi

THE MAWRITE SHOW. So Whoopi Goldberg has managed to command center stage once again and play the aggrieved victim of Republican censorship. Getting fired from her million-dollar contract with Slim-Fast has to be worth more than a million dollars in free publicity to a woman who has just had her TV series cancelled. Now she becomes a martyr for having to endure the consequences of comparing the president of the United States to female genitalia. The controversy -- for as long as it lasts -- will swirl around the issue of whether a marketing decision by a business enterprise constitutes abridgment of Whoopi's freedom of speech. But I would suggest that this is a phony issue which obscures some genuinely puzzling questions about the behavior and values of so-called progressive women. (Progressive is the word they prefer to liberal or leftist, isn't it?) The subject and tenor of her joke are both highly relevant to any number of culture issues that matter more than her treatment at the hands of Slim-Fast.

I'll dispose of the freedom of speech nonsense first. Slim-Fast is not preventing Whoopi from speaking her mind. There is nothing in the Constitution that protects a speaker from public or private opprobrium when she chooses to make provocative remarks. The guarantee is that she is permitted to speak, not that she must be uniformly admired by everyone for having done so.

Much is made of the fact that she is a black woman, as if this were somehow the catalyst for Republican outrage at her joke. This would seem to smuggle it into the arena of civil rights or feminism. I'll leave the civil rights (i.e., racial) ramifications to others, though I expect no rational discourse on this aspect of it in a political environment that regards it as admissible for Julian Bond to insult the presidency far more viciously than Whoopi has done. I'm much more interested in the feminist perspective. How might feminists view Whoopi's decision to insult the president by comparing him to female genitalia? And how far would they go to defend her right to do this?

A brave Canadian gentleman named Neil Boyd has just a written a book decrying the excesses of hardline feminism as it is practiced in the heart of its power base, the academic institutions. It is called Big Sister: How Extreme Feminism Has Betrayed the Fight for Sexual Equality, and it describes events from Boyd's own experience as a pro-feminist academic who tried to arbitrate gender issues at a Canadian university.

It all began when Boyd was appointed chairman of the harassment tribunal at Simon Fraser University. He seemed like the perfect choice. A professor of criminology, a lawyer and a one-time parole officer, Boyd was also a committed feminist. Or so he thought. But he soon found himself embroiled in a case in which a female student had lied about being raped. It got worse. An innocent man was fired without due process; the university refused to back down when he was exonerated, and the women's studies department rallied around the supposed victim. Boyd started to wonder: What had happened to the feminism of his youth?

His musings led him to a couple of strong convictions that resulted in his book. His key points are easily summarized:

"My opposition," Boyd explains, "is to a poisonous strain of feminism, a concoction of regressive policies only masquerading as belonging to a vanguard of progressive thought or action. The people behind these policies oppose free expression and due process and favour solving complex problems through an inflexible imposition of punishment by the state."

They are, he writes elsewhere, "a cadre of radical extremists who are spouting bogus science and silencing their critics with a combination of illogical mantras and vicious tirades." Even worse, in their prudery and intolerance, they have made common cause with "the evangelicals who want paintings and sculptures of naked women or men removed from the workplace and from all forms of advertising."

Boyd gives four examples where radical feminists have gone too far: They are intolerant of all pornography; they have defined sexual harassment in ways that are too vague and that ultimately infantilize women; they are apt to define any male sexual advance as rape; and they exaggerate the extent to which women are the victims of domestic violence.

This doesn't look good for Whoopi. It would certainly seem that the hardline feminist prudery would not sanction Whoopi's anatomical references. Nor, if they disapproved her speech, would they be likely to defend it. None of us is supposed to notice or mention the fact that women's bodies differ from men's in any way, and in the new etiquette, we are being urged to conduct all our social interactions as if there were no such thing as physical bodies, attractive or otherwise, or clothing, attractive or otherwise.

But does anyone seriously expect that the feminists won't leap to Whoopi's defense? Of course they will. Because the feminist mentality is capable of maintaining exactly opposite convictions without recognizing any contradiction. Thus, we have feminists who simultaneously espouse the absurd sexual harrassment standards Boyd cites while cheering the quasi-pornographic career of Madonna and the jailbait tartiness that has made Britney Spears a superstar. Her particular brand of sex-based success is called 'girlpower.' The bottom line is that women are permitted to flaunt themselves as nakedly (pun intended) as they will, whereas men are not supposed to read their behavior or dress as an invitation to initiate sexual contact.

This is a ridiculous double standard which can be summed up by a conversation I reported elsewhere. A female acquaintance of mine -- an academic feminist -- was inveighing against pornography, but in passing she allowed that erotica was okay. I asked her to define the difference between the two. She hemmed and hawed for a while and finally conceded that erotica is what women find exciting and pornography is what men find exciting. Even when she realized the import of her definition, she had no problem with it and argued for its validity.

Whatever women decide is decent to do or say about sexual matters, even sexual anatomy, in public is acceptable. The best proof of this is the self-celebrating theatrical phenomenon-cum-holiday entitled The Vagina Monologues. If you haven't heard of it, here is a brief description:

The structure of the piece is pretty simple: [Playwright] Ensler describes the project, which was to interview a large and diverse sample of women about their vaginas—how they feel about them, what they call them, etc.—and present a selection of the results as a series of monologues, sort of on the model of Anna Deavere Smith’s recreated interviews in Fires in the Mirror and other pieces, linked by material about how each interview was collected. Ensler doesn’t adhere rigidly to that structure, but that’s the basic device. There are no props or sets, though there’s a nice lighting design that helps dramatize the material.

Does it get explicit? Yes.

...The next two bits—after a Hallmark Card moment quoting a wise-child six-year-old, which actually evoked an “Awww” from behind me—are definitely open to criticism. The first is the “cunt” riff. Much of this is a kind of rhapsody on the word itself, taking it one phoneme at a time and lingering ecstatically over each as the full word is built up. Then comes a comic turn on the reactions women can still get by saying “cunt” in public. Then comes a recommendation to “reclaim” it, not only as a synonym for “vagina,” but as a metonym for “woman”....

For those who haven't been following this kind of theater, do not delude yourselves that this is an off-off-Broadway experiiment. It has become an institution. Every year since 1998, there has been an event called V-Day:

The Vagina Monologues initiated V-Day, a global annual event that raises funds and promotes awareness to stop violence against women. The first V-Day was held on Valentine's Day 1998 in New York, featuring a gala performance of The Vagina Monologues with celebrated artists including Winona Ryder, Glenn Close, Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon, Lily Tomlin, Calista Flockhart, Rosie Perez and Marisa Tomei. The second V-Day was held in London in 1999, and featured Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Melanie Griffith and Gillian Anderson. V-Day 2000 was celebrated in Los Angeles, Santa Fe and Aspen, and on over 150 college campuses throughout the country. V-Day 2001 was celebrated on over 300 college campuses and at Madison Square Garden.

In The Vagina Monologues, Ensler gives voice to a chorus of lusty, outrageous, poignant, brave, highly original and thoroughly human stories. Based on interviews with a diverse group of women, the play brazenly explores the humor, power, pain, wisdom, outrage, mystery, and excitement hidden in vaginas. Having seen The Vagina Monologues, no one - woman or man - will ever look at the world the same way again.

Is anyone starting to see a new problem here, a new contradiction for the feminists to blink away? To understand it, we'll have to look a little deeper into the career of Whoopi Goldberg. Her bio is mostly missing from movie websites, but tells us the following about her background:

Whoopi Goldberg was born in New York City in 1955, as Caryn Elaine Johnson. She was born in Chelsea, in New York City. She worked in a funeral parlor, and as a bricklayer, while taking small parts on Broadway. She moved to California and worked with improv groups, including Spontaneous Combustion, and developed her skills as a stand up comedienne

It was while she was in San Francisco that the author of the first piece about The Vagina Monologues above, John Burke, saw her perform a bit he believed to be a kind of anticipation of Ensler's play:

I saw Whoopi Goldberg at Valencia Rose (here in San Francisco), about 1984—just before her career took off—do a hilarious silent bit in which she tried to perform a pelvic self-exam, perched on a folding chair and using a flashlight, a speculum, and the outside rear-view mirror from (I think) a 1967 Pontiac.

Elsewhere, we find confirmation that Whoopi was not just a casual one-time performer in the play. Part of it was apparently written for her:

Then there is The Angry Vagina (a monologue originally written for Whoopi Goldberg), a hilariously raging riff about a world that seems to prize women's discomfort, from gynecological exams to... [if you must, read the rest here]

She also has a continuing relationship with Eve Ensler, sharing the same honors with her at "The Center":

NEW YORK — On Saturday, October 25, 2003, nearly 800 women are expected to fill the scenic banquet room at New York’s Pier Sixty, Chelsea Piers, to enjoy dinner with actress Whoopi Goldberg (The Color Purple, Ghost, Boys on the Side and the new NBC television sitcom, Whoopi ) and playwright Eve Ensler (The Vagina Monologues, Necessary Targets), honorees of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center’s sixth annual Women’s Event.

Even has discovered a link between the two of them in its own online marketing efforts.

All of this demonstrates pretty conclusively that Whoopi Goldberg has a lot invested in the subject of vaginas -- one might even say in the politics of vaginas. Why, then, would she say in a political forum, in reference to the president, that "bush should stay where it belongs"? In this context, "where it belongs" is generally understood to mean "out of sight, out of mind." This from the same woman who is practically the patron saint of a work that contains:

...a recommendation to “reclaim” [the C-Word], not only as a synonym for “vagina,” but as a metonym for “woman”...

If we're permitted to translate, this means that in her choice of language, Whoopi was actually comparing President Bush to "woman." At this point she's in a hopeless situation. Either she has just libeled her own sex, or she has delivered a fake insult or no insult at all to the hated Republican president. What could she have been thinking? What can all the big league feminists be thinking now?

Well, maybe she wasn't, and they aren't. That's the only way around this metaset of contradictions. It's the way they usually take.

If the Republicans were on their toes at all, they'd thank Whoopi for the honor she did the president by comparing him to this most important metonym in the universe. How could anyone take objection to that?

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