This year, I was a producer in Georgetown’s production of Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues.” We had just over 60 actresses, performed in six shows, and ended up donating a few thousand dollars to My Sister’s Place, a local domestic violence shelter. Overall, it was a large, successful operation that went relatively smoothly — that is, until members of the cast attempted to design and purchase T-shirts for themselves to commemorate their experience.
Let me start by showing the design. Here it is, in all its glory:
This is what happened: I designed the shirts, drawing from designs that the V-Day Foundation sells as part of its One Billion Rising campaign. According to Custom Ink’s requirements, the shirts had to have the words “Georgetown University” on them. Additionally, the shirts were being entirely funded by club members — SAC money was not being used to purchase them. After I submitted the design to SAC, I received an email saying the design had been “narrowly approved.” Wary but optimistic, I accepted the decision.
Unfortunately, the following day, I received an email saying a member of the commission had moved to rescind SAC’s authorization because they believed the matter needed further consideration. I was urged to attend the SAC meeting the following week to present the shirts if I wanted them to be approved.
Thus began the saga.
I want to say explicitly that I am not attempting to vilify SAC. They eventually did the right thing — they passed the design 7-4. The reason I waited a few weeks to discuss the incident was to avoid any uproar over something that SAC (eventually) did right. However, that does not mean the situation was not concerning. It demonstrated the persistence of deeply held, frankly misogynistic beliefs regarding women and their sexuality. The ordeal that was required to pass the T-shirt design needs to be discussed because the attitudes some SAC commissioners displayed are also the underpinnings of anti-women, anti-choice, and anti-sexual health legislation and movements at Georgetown and across the U.S.
There were two major arguments some of the SAC commissioners made that warrant special attention. The first was that if members of Take Back the Night wore the T-shirts around campus, small children might see them and parents might find them inappropriate. Let me reiterate that, as you can see, this is not an anatomical depiction of a vagina. It is an abstract representation of a concept of femininity — the very concept the Monologues tries to espouse. Heaven forbid a 6-year-old girl would look at the shirt and see something vaguely reminiscent of what she, herself, possesses. Further, there are metaphorical phallic images everywhere we look — all one has to do is peek out the window of some New South dorm to catch a glimpse of the Washington Monument. There is a double standard, and, as is so frequently the case, the double standard works against women.
The design is simply not pornographic. To say that the design is inappropriate requires a two-step thought process. First, it assumes that the vagina is automatically sexual, an idea that borders on objectification. Second, it indicates that a woman’s vagina is dirty and shameful. It is this kind of thinking that fosters the slut/virgin dichotomy, catcalling a woman as she walks down a street, and — perhaps most seriously — the stigma surrounding a woman who chooses to speak about her sexual assault or to have an abortion. These cultural norms hurt women, and by deliberating for over two weeks about the shirts, SAC perpetuated the existence of these norms.
Additionally, several SAC commissioners likened the image to a T-shirt design they had refused to approve earlier in the year that prominently displayed a beer stein, which they felt promoted underage drinking. Because, clearly, possessing a vagina is a similarly illegal activity.
It makes the university look good to have an active women’s center. It makes Georgetown look good to have a chapter of Take Back the Night and to put on “The Vagina Monologues.” It is something tour guides can point out as they bring prospective groups through campus. However, by threatening to reject the design, SAC, acting in its role as an advisory commission to the university, said that these are important issues to discuss in a very small, enclosed theater for a few nights a year. Carrying on the dialogue for more than a few hours every February by wearing shirts that symbolize the essence of the show would clearly be too much discussion, SAC implied. It’s a free speech issue, and H*yas for Choice has always contended that the university pays lip service to free speech, but frequently fails in their implementation of it. Unfortunately, this debacle with SAC epitomizes that constant struggle.
Emily Stephens (SFS ’17) is the secretary of H*yas for Choice.