Common Objects

Common Objects Roundtable: Deconstructing “Vaginagate”

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Rachel Held Evans’s recent book A Year of Biblical Womanhood (Thomas Nelson, 2012) has been the source of some controversy in certain circles. Because Lifeway Chrisitan bookstores refused to carry the book, allegedly in part due to passing mention of female genitalia, some have taken to calling the whole episode, somewhat whimsically, “vaginagate.”  

Tony Jones, a an emergent church leader and blogger at Patheos, last week responded to all this by inviting readers to a limerick contest. Winners, which he posted this week, got a copy of the book, promotional copies he received from Thomas Nelson. Here’s how Jones framed the contest: 

So the contest is on! Write a limerick about Rachel, women’s issues, women in the Bible, Mark Driscoll, whatever, and leave it in the comment section of this post. Just remember to obey the rules of limericks. I’ll pick ten winners next week.

PS: Very few words rhyme with vagina.

PPS: Extra credit for rhyming with “vaginagate.”

Clearly Jones thinks he is acting as an ally here. However, the responses of my colleagues to this ranged from indifferent to…critical. Very critical. I asked two of them to shed some light on this complicated set of issues. So what follows is a relatively informal exchange of ideas (via facebook message) with Jennifer Thweatt Bates, a theologian, and Julie Mavity Maddalena, an ethicist, both of whom you should read and know about. Class, gender, ethics of jokes; basically everything comes up. It has been edited for grammar and readability. It’s long! We get sort of punchy at the end! Here’s your weekend read:

Photo Credit: Patheos/Tony Jones

Chris Dowdy: *taps mic* Okay. Thanks for agreeing to discuss this today!

I’ll include a link to Tony Jones’s limerick challenge viz. Rachel Held Evans (RHE) on Patheos, which is what we’ll be talking about. This is a follow up to a social justice limerick challenge he did earlier, which we haven’t really discussed. But in this particular case you both have pointed out how the approach is weird in a number of ways. Not all self-identified religious progressives would agree that it’s problematic, so that’s your first question: what’s the problem with this? Is it more than mildly smug, harmless fun at Lifeway’s expense?

Julie Mavity Maddalena: This is a great idea. AND I’m going to give initial thoughts because Cole woke up at 4:30. So I want to put it out there. Thanks, Chris, for facilitating and initiating this conversation. 

Women’s vaginas have been considered public property for far, far too long. They exist to be dominated, exploited, and used for the pleasure, security, and identity of men. White middle, upper-middle, and upper-class women’s vaginas are either a) virginal or b) pornographic/slutty. This has been a very particular narrative both generated by and supported by biblical imagery and theological language and ideas. 

Lifeway hid behind the vagina language (to really challenge the threatening message of the book) by appealing to those who think a woman’s should stay hidden and only enjoyed and acknowledged by a husband. [As Jen has said elsewhere, t]his contest went the other direction in how it framed the matter—any suggestion that RHE’s vagina is somehow public property to be discussed, made light of, joked about—even to castigate the other binary—casts her into the whore binary of having a vagina that is public property. You asked about what if women had either participated or come up with the idea—I honestly don’t think women (most often) would feel entitled to do such a thing. We aren’t socialized to think that way. 

The Republicans are re-asserting their “rights” to control of women’s vaginas and using theological language to do it. The whole initiative to force women seeking abortions to undergo transvaginal ultrasounds is the idea that their vaginas deserved to be violated for even countenancing abortion—regardless of their motives (re-inforced by the idea that even God has a hand in rape and pregnancy). And that if women are pregnant or violated, they must somehow deserve it or have asked for it—these folks don’t have their wives/daughters/mothers in mind when they’re speaking like this. Thus, by a “progressive” or “ally” framing the “contest” this way, he has reinforced this idea that she opened herself (literally) to this sort of violation/exposure.

Another part of the issue is the feminist idea of the male gaze—which is that media, etc, are constructed by and for male viewing pleasure/interest, with females as the passive/powerless objects. Often, particular female body parts are objectified for viewing—bottom, breasts, legs. In the recent Olympics, there was considerable outcry (though no real changes) to the disparate coverage of female and male athletes—the cameras focused on female body parts (volleyball players had more closeups on their butts, etc) than males (much more panned out coverage). So, again, by buying into the Lifeway language of reducing the fullness of RHE’s message to a male-controlled female body part, this context of a contest introduced by a male (theologian, apparently, so even worse) has reinforced the focus on one damn body part to the exclusion of the whole person and message.

Saying that it’s funny b/c it mocks the inanity of Lifeway by using the same motifs and entitlement assumptions, just promotes the same issue. She was voiceless—and her voice wasn’t the subject anyway. It’s too raw to be funny, especially because of the way it was framed.

My initial, sleep-deprived thoughts.

Jen Thweatt-Bates: Julie mentioned the “male gaze” as part of the context that contributes to the framing problem. In this case I’d call it the “male pronouncement”—the unexamined assumption that men not only can but should hold forth on what women’s bodies mean, how they work, what they can and can’t and should and shouldn’t do, what is and isn’t legal and moral to do with them (including finessing what counts as rape—as new definitions of “forcible” and “legitimate” rape have now been introduced.) I am glad that there are men out there who want to stand up as allies for their co- laborers in the church, but being a good ally is about more than good intentions. How you stand with people makes a difference.

There used to be a commercial spot on MSNBC for the Ed Shultz show that is the perfect example of what not to do. Ed claims in the commercial that working class folks have no voice and says, “I’m going to be that voice.” No, stupid. If you’re worried about folks not having a voice, hand over your damn microphone. It’s the same problem here. The problem is that Lifeway thinks they have the right—even the moral obligation—to determine what speech about women’s bodies is permissible, and in that way they assert control through censorship. As Julie said, the contest still operates within this framework—it’s sympathetic to RHE and well-intentioned but it doesn’t challenge the real problem, which is that mean presume the privilege of what I’m calling “male pronouncement.” And structurally, it can’t, because it’s an invitation to comment on women’s bodies.

I think it’s the P.S.’s that really get me. As if the whole thing weren’t doomed to this kind of fate anyway, the explicit instructions about using the words “vagina” and “vaginagate” just really piss me off.

In the right context, mind you, I think it would fantastically healthy if we all could say the word vagina in church, in public, without blushing or giggling like we never left junior high. But a limerick contest hardly seems like the context for leaving behind junior high scintillation.

 And—it’s not like we’re talking about Naomi Wolf here. She uses the word vagina ONCE.

CJD: What I hear both of you saying is that this particular attempt at jokiness is less liberation and more reification (as you point out with the cringe-worthy inducements in the postscript). On a similar note, I was struck by how…insidery the post seemed; Jones clearly knows the theological issues at stake and the political landscape—the Young Reformers, Mark Driscoll, and so on—and wants his readers to feel like they get it. There’s just a sort of animal satisfaction at being in on a joke, I think.

Offering the anatomy at the end really exposes the shared assumptions at work, however. All this supports, in my estimation, your ultimate claim that this supposedly allied, even conspiratorial discourse just reinscribes women’s bodies as consumable—and I am thinking of Carol Adams here. Clarify this summary if I am mistaken.

Given that consumability and violence of many kinds are all linked, this is very serious stuff, but I happen to know that you are actually both funny people. So how does humor, or even an ethics of humor, play into this—in terms of responses to RHE’s experience, in terms of liberative humor more generally?

JTB: This is a difficult question. It’s not necessarily the humor factor that I find disturbing. The whole situation is ridiculous, absurd, laughable, and humor seems like an obvious strategy for pointing that out and more likely to be suasive than outraged diatribe—my forte, I guess :). But there’s more to this strategy than just pointing out the joke. Who’s joking and what’s being laughed at? I’d even say some of the limerick submissions are quite good, but nearly all of them are from men. If the issue is the suppression of women’s voices in evangelical theological discourse and the prurient objectification of women’s bodies, a little forethought might have suggested that the contest be specifically directed to women’s commentary on “vaginagate.” The Internet in any case is a male-dominated space, and making some deliberate room for women’s voices is a kind of obvious corrective…But even so, it would still have the framing problem of a male inviting commentary on vaginas. And as Julie points out, the assumption that women’s bodies are somehow public property subject to commentary anyhow is a problem (ask any pregnant woman how many comments on her body she hears in a given day, as an innocuous example). That problem would remain even if a woman had sponsored the contest! So, fine, humor is great but it has a context and is not immune to the power dynamics of that context. It’s just not that easy. I bet Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert wrestle with this kind if framing problem daily.

I just went back and re-read all the submissions. Most of them are unobjectionable in themselves, I think, but there’s a telling comment on the very first one—“lol…the book about her nook” that encapsulates the whole junior-high snicker dynamic that works against the liberatory potential of the project.

Plus—I reiterate—the book is not about “her nook.” Nor is it about her vagina, and how is the irony of euphemizing the body part in a supposedly critical commentary about the supposed problem of not euphemizing it being missed, here?

[Also, did] you know if you google “vaginagate” there’s more than one? I’d forgotten about the whole “you can’t say vagina in Congress” one. Yikes.

JMM: Well, a large part of what I was going to say was what Jen just said. I didn’t read them all, but enough to get that they missed the point of her book, which really plays into Lifeway’s project of diverting attention to the content and meaning of her work. From what I understand, she only uses the word vagina twice and neither is in reference to her own—which makes the contest that much more problematic—this isn’t even someone who *was* talking about her vagina (in which case it *still* wouldn’t be okay to assume that makes it public domain). It just feels like a personal violation in addition to contributing to the broader issues.

On the issue of humor—this reminds me of Walter Wink, Naming the Powers. I think you can use humor to expose the powers, but this wasn’t it. Why not have a contest where they point out all the inconsistencies in the explanation given? (penis can and has been used in their books. the belief in taking the bible literally and seriously and then silence her for using biblical language and taking the bible literally) Or actually refusing to countenance their language and explanation, and have a contest where people write out the real reason for the censoring.

By the way, I just noticed Jen’s comment that she only uses the word once so I would go with that.

But I would also support Jen’s analysis that the very tradition of the limerick comes freighted with bawdy sexual references, most often at the expense of women’s sexual agency and subjectivity. Thus, compromising the effort from the outset.

Would naming and claiming all these dynamics at the beginning kill subsequent efforts at humor? Or had someone actually thought it through with such analysis, would it be implicitly obvious from the framing? I don’t know.

And I also agree with Jen—should I be disagreeing more?—that it would indeed be ideal for the word vagina to enter common parlance (same for all body parts that are more often euphemized either as “kid-friendly” or “profanity.” Again, it plays into this binary that sex and sexuality are either sanitized and virginal or pornographic. Neither addresses the realities and beauties of the human body and its capacity for healthy, God-given sexuality in all its form.

CJD: Well [Julie] the whole problem with using any well-established cultural form is that it comes freighted with patriarchal weight of one kind or another, right? So limericks and sonnets are sort of in the same boat—except I’m guessing limericks contain a sort of class signaling that’s rather different from sonnets or haikus or whatever.

It is sort of shocking that there’s more than one vaginagate.

JMM: Yes, Chris, when it comes to language and metaphors and forms, it is a constant process of decision (hopefully, conscious deliberation, preferably in community) of considering how something is freighted historically and culturally and whether it can be used, redeemed, re-framed, or whether something different or even new is better. I think given the subject and all we’ve discussed, the particular baggage of the limerick renders it inappropriate. I also think it’s safe to assume the author was deploying this history deliberately to enhance the “irony.”

JTB: Julie, I’m not sure [about the number of times “vagina” is used], and I [just] tried to figure it out but I can’t remember where I saw that stated or why that was my impression. I GUESS I OUGHT TO BUY THE BOOK! :)

JMM: I [understood there to be two references to “vagina”] because one of my gender studies students responded to a blog post on the issue, and that’s what he reported. It made for great class discussion. I might have to tell them about the contest as a followup.

Maybe if Chris submits our dialogue, Tony will see the error of his ways and give us the free copies!

JTB: Ha! Maybe we should put it in iambic pentameter?

CJD: Mmm, I’ll dissent from you on the form issue, Julie, because I think that transgression from another direction could reclaim it in interesting ways, or at least in a different context would not be as cringeworthy. Either way, what I hear you all saying is that what makes the limerick thing a bad joke—bad aesthetically, bad morally both, let’s say—is that it doesn’t get at the actual incongruity at work!

Like, I don’t think sonnets are less sexist than limericks necessarily, but they are less classy. You see what I’m saying?

And yes, I will re-sort this all and edit it into verse.

JTB: I’m with Chris; I think limericks could work as a form, but the project would have to move out of vaginas-as-problem mode and into celebrating them. Some of the limericks by women come close to that. 

CJD: But I certainly agree on the principle of very careful reappropriation you are basically implying, Julie.

JTB: I don’t think we need classy. Too close to “chivalrous” [shudder]

JMM: Well, I did say we can re-claim forms at times. I just didn’t think so in this particular case. Although that’s without seeing it framed in a more empowering way.


Right, so I agree with you in principle Julie, and in fact in the way this particular case unfolded we are also in agreement. I just wanted to make sure limericks could be retrieved for future use.

That is probably the most important contribution I can make to the future of theological ethics, is what I’m saying.

"He saved limericks." —epitaph

JMM: But—in this case—empowering limericks about vaginas from women still silences RHE’s actual message and point. So it would have to be an independent project (or with explanation, but I would argue that FIRST, we need to do the work of some sort of effort to correct, or reclaim, what’s actually going on here and with RHE’s important work).

JMM: I see an SCE session for you already, dowdy

CJD: Exactly, Julie. Back to the fact that what makes it a bad joke is that it doesn’t really get at the reversal at stake.


     Lifeway is stupid, let’s get that straight.

     Vaginas are awesome, no room for debate.

     powerful, and scary,

     women are: very.

     And their words carry much weight.

Your literary judgment please.

CJD: *applause*

JMM: ha!

CJD: So my completely untheorized proposal here is that humor is never just transgressive, it always aspires to make communities of agreement. And the power of a really good joke is that it jars you into assent with a better view of the world.

Like this LEGENDARY limerick you just wrote.

I think what I am getting at with all this is that the reason to be bothered by this is not that “feminists can’t take a joke”

JTB: That’s nice. I would also add that its power is non-coercive, unlike direct persuasion can be.

Yes. Feminists are not ugly women with no sense of humor :)

 CJD: I guess it depends on context, but yes, that seems right to me.

that was in response to the first statement, not the second.

har har

(Okay sorry heating up bottle, S winding up a little here)

JMM: hmmm, the question of power and coercive power and how they operate in humor and direct persuasion is interesting. it seems like it can be more subtle in humor, which is its own sort of power, perhaps not unlike coercive since unconscious shifts occur? (very initial thoughts)…it would be interesting to study the Colbert effect, etc, to see how or whether his humor does create changes (slow or abrupt)…

It’s funny that there’s no “like” option here. I keep wanting to “like” things ya’ll are saying!

JTB: like! 

Z awake now so that’s it for me, though I did have another tangent to follow up on so maybe later?

CJD: Absolutely. I’d like to explore the larger issue that has come up here, which is how to connect reverence and transgression, but we could save that for another conversation! Or a book project!

Many thanks to Jennifer, Julie, and the miscellaneous babies that contributed to this conversation!