Notes: (1) I define “woman” to mean anyone who self-identifies with the term- regardless of assigned sex at birth or (presumed) anatomy. (2) This blog post requires a massive Trigger Warning re: rape, incest, and violences wrought against bodies.
Imperialist, Carceral Feminisms, For Whom?
Eve Ensler is situated in a long (Western) patriarchal tradition that fixates its gaze (and touch) on the bodies of Black and brown women for the sake of knowledge, and experimental explorations of the Other. In her latest piece entitled, “The Congo Stigmata,” casts a voyeuristic gaze upon a Black Other- this time, the body of a Congolese woman and rape survivor undergoing surgery for conditions resulting from sexual assault. She shows no interest in the woman, but fixates on what she terms, “the black hole.” The unnamed, deliberately faceless Congolese woman’s vitality is reduced to orifices and excretions- because she is not a “real” woman by the logics of Western, imperialist humanisms that begin with whiteness and manhood. A white woman like Eve Ensler is adjacent to the default “man” of this humanism, in part, because her Self and her social position is defined in terms of opposition and generative negations (e.g. to be not-Black is to be closer to whiteness- illustrating the way that the Black/White binary is leveraged to facilitate anti-Blackness that defines the being and worth of non-Black POC relative to whites).
Having said all of this, Eve Ensler and her ilk have made it clear that their “feminism” is not for the Black Other. It’s also most certainly not for Trans people either- as revealed by their cissexist and transphobic language that conflates anatomy with gender. Ensler and her ilk’s feminism is, at best, performative and self-serving. She refuses to acknowledge the systemic nature of violence, proposing flash mobs as “awareness-raising,” and leverages this attention for her own aims. Her work is part and parcel of what has been termed the “White Savior Complex” (which I amend to call the “Western Savior Complex”, because not all West-identified people with Messianic fantasies of “saving” Black and brown people ‘over there’ are white). This “White Savior Complex” values, above all, the “big emotional experience that validates privilege.”
Black Bodies, Black Holes
Eve Ensler, writer of the “Vagina Monologues” and ‘genius’ behind “1 Billion Rising” again reduces women and their being to “holes.” In an excerpt of Ensler’s work published in Talk Magazine, she writes of a Congolese woman and survivor of rape who is sedated and immobilized on a table:
I have always been drawn to holes. Black holes. Infinite holes. Impossible holes. Absences. Gaps, tears in membranes. Fistulas [sic]. Obstetric fistulas occur because of extended difficult labor. Neccesary [sic] blood is unable to flow to the tissues of the vagina and the bladder. As a result, the tissues die and a hole forms through which urine or feces flow uncontrollably.
She conjures Delphine LaLaurie, the torturous Plantation Mistress** (and serial killer) who fixated on Black bodies and Black pain when she describes the “discovery” and probing of a raped Congolese woman’s bodily orifices as “spiritual.” She finds life, meaning and a future in the dying (necrotic) tissue of a Black body whose being she refuses to acknowledge or affirm.
Eliding the disparities in healthcare services provided to Congolese patients, Ensler writes:
After three trips to the Congo, I needed to see a fistula. I asked to sit in on a reparative operation. I need to know the shape of this hole, the size of this hole. I needed to know what a woman’s insides looked like when her most essential cellular tissue had been punctured by a stick or penis or penises. Wearing a mask and gown, I peered into this woman’s vagina, as she lay on her back, legs spread, her feet tied to steel stirrups with strips of bluegreen rags made from old hospital uniforms. As always, I was awed by the vagina, so intricate, so simple, so delicate. There in the lining was an undeniable hole, a rip, a tear in the essential story. It was almost a perfect circle, the size of a quarter may be, too big to prevent things from getting in or from falling out.
Is it “spiritual” (a sacrament?) because she derives a Self from her voyeuristic gaze upon a Black Other? For whom is this spiritual “moment?” Is she positioning herself as a “messiah” to the nameless, faceless Congolese survivors of sexual violence in a war borne of colonialists’ inexorable greed? She looks upon a “black hole” (hinting at the dehumanization of Black/African women, and the ways in which Black women’s humanity is defined in terms of negation) and sees absences, seeking to fill them with her self. Considered in light of colonialist constructions of Black/African women as hyperfecund bodies and bodies as sites of power, this is not unlike the ‘Terra Nullius’ justification for settler colonialism (so reminiscent of phallogocentric logic)- “there is nothing there, so I must fill it.” “I must give this body- whose utterances I ignore, whose orifices I explore- meaning.” For these Congolese women’s bodies are not legible to a Western, imperialist audience- which necessitates (according to her) divorcing them from their social and historical contexts (the colonial roots of conflict in the Congo region) and reducing them to their orifices (“black holes.”)
The unasked question is “why was she so fixated on the ‘holes’?” Is Black womanhood and being a “lack” to her? Why does she reproduce the voyeuristic fascination with orifices and excretions of Black bodies? And why does this reproduction always entail apathy regarding the felt pain of the Black body gazed upon? I addressed the inability to see (or tendency to dismiss) Black pain in a blogpost entitled, “Black Bodies, Black Pain: (In)difference, Disparities in Medical Care, and the Legacy of Dysaesthesia Aethiopis,” in which I wrote:
Another study, conducted by Anthropology student, Jason Silverstein found that white-identified subjects, when shown pictures of white subjects in pain versus Black subjects in pain, perceived Blacks as feeling less pain. This is hardly surprising in light of a history of the medicalization of Black bodies. For example, J. Marion Sims, a white man experimented on the enslaved African woman we know as “Anarcha” 30 times between the years 1845 and 1849 (in addition to experimenting on the bodies of enslaved African women by the names of Betsy and Lucy and 8 unnamed others), making advances in the study of gynecology.
Two years later, U.S. physician Samuel Cartwright (who also proposed that “drapetomania” was a mental illness afflicting enslaved Blacks, which caused them to desire to run away) used the term ”Dysaesthesia Aethiopis” to refer to the supposed insensitivity of Black bodies to pain. The cure, according to Cartwright was the cleansing of Black skin, the beating of still-wet Black skin, and (forcible) hard labor under the sun.
At the end of the excerpt, Ensler’s gaze turns inward, even as she never takes her eyes off of the body of the (again, unnamed, faceless, dehumanized) Congolese woman on the barebones operating table. She compares her own rape (at the hands of her father) with the systemic violence Congolese women face, consuming and subsuming the Other to re-center herself.
As I stood there in mask and gown, I realised I had stopped breathing. This woman’s vagina was a map of the future, and I could feel myself falling, falling through the hole in the world, the hole in myself, the hole that was made when my father invaded me and I lost my way. The hole that was made when the social membrane was torn by incest. Falling through the hole in this woman. I was falling. I have always been falling. But this time was different.
What future? Whose future did she see (or rather, imagine and impose)?
** This is not a far-fetched comparison, as the system of chattel slavery (alternatively, racial slavery) depended heavily upon the colonization of Africa, and Europe’s tacit “ownership” of the continent and its inhabitants. This intersection is clearly seen in the Dred Scott descision, which Prof. Andrea Smith explains succinctly in a series of tweets.
- “The rel between colonization & anti-Black racism is clear in Dred Scott decision. Rationale for slavery is that Africa is property of Europe”, 3 December 2013 (link)
- “Because Africa is seen as eternally the property of Europe, Black peoples can never lose their fundamental essence of being property.” 3 December 2013 (link)
- “For Africa to be property, Africa must appear as always already colonized. Colonization must disappear for Africa to have status of property.” 3 December 2013 (link)
- “Dred Scott: Africa “has been by all the nations of Europe regarded as subjects of capture..as property in the strictest sense of the term.”” 3 December 2013 (link)
- “In Dred Scott, Only through the disavowed colonization of Africa can Black peoples be ontologically relegated to the status of property.” 3 December 2013 (link)