My vagina isn’t laughing. When I saw the poster, it didn’t so much as smirk. In fact, it wanted to throw up. A wave of nausea flooded over me and took my breath, the description of the monstrosity doing nothing to alleviate the shock of seeing it. After the nausea came sadness, then anger. Finally, a thud of hurt fell upon my spirit like a fist upon my chest. Not because this disgusting image depicting a black man raping a white woman who herself is posed as a Venus Hottentot was meant to be funny, but because it was created by a gay man and defended by a lesbian woman. My own community has swung at me and it hurts like hell.
I offer this image to you so that you may reach your own conclusions about it. But I warn you that it is triggering. And NSFW. But first allow me to place it in some context, particularly for anyone outside of CMH.
Wall Street Night Club is somewhat of an institution. With thirty years in the business, it boasts being Columbus’ longest running gay dance club. It has a decidedly lesbian slant to it, with a clientele that ranges from 50/50 to 90% female. It is one of only two lesbian-dominant bars in the city (a third was open briefly around 2009). In contrast, there are at least half a dozen bars that I, a black lesbian, will not walk into alone or with my wife. They are not just male-dominated, but female-averse.
It was with some interest that I learned that Wall Street had been sold to women. I, and some other women that I know, were hopeful that Wall Street would stick to or even strengthen it’s female-oriented programming. Female spaces are rare and sacred and we wanted more of them.
What you probably don’t need is an explanation of the Vagina Monologues. Eve Ensler’s pro-feminist work has been performed at Wall Street for the last six years with proceeds from the show benefitting the Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO). And it fit.
Until it didn’t. Until one of the owners of Wall Street shared on an Instagram account the below image for another, unrelated show that would take place at Wall Street. Then she defended it. Then she attacked those who called out the image for the disgusting piece of violence that it is. And she has continued to defend and attack for nearly two weeks. She has hidden behind phrases and ideas like artistic freedom, anti-censorship, comedy, innocent until proven guilty and free speech. She has derided her fellow woman, hurling patriarchal, ageist and homophobic slurs at them. All in defense of this:
It is, frankly, obvious to me that this image is not merely offensive as a depiction of violence, but is an act of violence itself. But allow me to explain how I reach that conclusion.
1. The Image Is a Depiction of Rape. Putting aside the guilt or innocence of Bill Cosby, he has been in the news for one thing, and one thing only, in 2014 – the alleged rape of more than 20 women. To place him in an image with a nude woman, while he covers her mouth and grins with pleasure, can only be interpreted in one way – he is raping that woman.
2. Rape is Not Funny. Period.
3. Joking About Rape is Part of Rape Culture. Rape Culture is the concept of rape being pervasive and normalized due to societal attitudes about gender and sexuality. Behaviors commonly associated with rape culture include victim blaming, sexual objectification, trivializing rape, denial of widespread rape, or refusing to acknowledge the harm of some forms of sexual violence. Wikipedia Two amazing spoken word artists break down the pervasive nature of rape culture in the most beautiful, heart-wrenching way possible here.
4. If You’re Not Fighting Rape Culture, You’re Part of Rape Culture. There really is no gray area here, not even for art. You must come down on one side or the other. And coming down on the side of rape culture because you don’t want to censor someone else’s “free speech” is a cop-out. Failing to regulate the images that are associated with your business doesn’t make you pro-artist. It makes you complicit in the violence against your fellow community members.
5. Racism and Rape Culture are Bedfellows, Part I. The image of Kim Kardashian is a remake of an image that itself references Sara Baartman, a 19th century South African woman known in Europe as the Venus Hottentot. Baartman’s was billed as a “savage”, and her abnormally large buttocks and genitalia – evidence of her savagery – were the main draw. Upon her death at age 26, Baartman was dissected, and her brain and genitals were put on display.
6. Racism and Rape Culture are Bedfellows, Part II. The legacy of slavery in the US is also a legacy of objectification and systemic rape of Black women. Black female bodies were property that was owned by and could be consumed at will by white males. To justify the violence, enslaved black women were maligned as seductresses who overpowered the morals of their owners. During the 150 or so years between emancipation and today, we have only begun to erase that image from our collective consciousness. Black women continue to be regarded and depicted as Jezebels – sexually indiscriminate and insatiable – in contrast to their chaste white counterparts. The likelihood that the Cosby/Kardashian image was created by a white male for consumption by other white males only intensifies the racist overtones.
7. The Image of a Black Man as a Perpetrator Feeds Systemic Racism. Black men in the United States carry upon their shoulders a thinly veiled assumption of criminality. Fifty years ago, that assumption was a presupposition that any black male, even one as young as 14, who so much as looked in the direction of a white woman did so with malicious intent. That presumed intent alone was criminal and punishable – by arrest, by beating, or even by death. Much like our stunted intellectual growth regarding black women, our society continues to disproportionately associate black men with crime. To create an image that positions a black man as a rapist feeds the systemic, subconscious racism that plagues our country today.
I love the Monologues. I love the idea of talking openly about vaginas and womanhood and sharing that experience with other women. I love the courage that it takes, the community that it builds. I wanted to be part of the Monologues.
But they were still going to take place at Wall Street. I was torn. Could I divorce the venue from the event? Could I remain steadfastly against that image and those who defended while performing within those walls? I could try, I thought. I could hear the producer’s reasons for not changing venues and perhaps be persuaded.
So I made a shirt. On one side it said “NO Rape Culture” and on the other “NO Race Stereo Types”. I put it on over my sweater and I walked into the auditions. And the producer explained her reasons. And I walked out. What essentially amounted to convenience was not enough for me.
So where do we go from here? I’m not really sure, but I doubt the story is over. At least one group has been formed as a result of these events - Columbus Dykes and Allies Against Violence. I look forward to their work. I would like to hear from BRAVO, who will benefit from the performance. I would like the owner of Wall Street to apologize.
But I think what I want most is to feel safe within my own community. So often, the intersectionality of my identity leaves me marginalized at best, invisible or just ignored. At worst, well, it has me feeling like this – like the butt of a cruel, disgusting joke. And everyone but me and my vagina are laughing.
P.S. For a full history of the exchanges between the owner of Wall Street and community members, please see CDAAV’s Facebook page as well as the FB community Boycott Wall Street Nightclub.
P.P.S. Yes, I’ve been on FB. Bite me.