Women of Amherst 2012: “If These Lips Could Talk” Review

This weekend HuckleKat and I attended the annual production of the Women of Amherst show, If These Lips Could Talk (previously The Vagina Monologues). Even though my thesis is due in two weeks I wanted to check out the show because I had never been before, and, surprise surprise, it was incredible. For those who didn’t have time to attend, I will run through the basic structure of the show.

This year the show was held in the Cole Assembly Room (Red Room) in Converse. The space was great for such an intimate show because it could be filled easily, casted a warm red glow over the actors and the audience, and necessitated that the actresses sit on the stairs between acts because there was no “off-stage”. We went to the Friday show and it was very well attended by men and women from different groups and class-years. The largest groups of women were probably sophomores (though correct me if another night had a different composition), and most of the men in attendance were from the senior class. We had to reserve tickets days in advance (all three shows were sold out by Thursday), but they opened up unclaimed seats at 7:45 so that more people could fit in. I think there were some fire-codes violated, but hey, Amherst does what it can with its performance spaces.

Before the show started, Sexual Respect Counselor Gretchen Krull welcomed the audience and explained that this was the second year that Amherst had departed from the Vagina Monologues in creating their own show that more accurately reflected the experience of women at Amherst College. She also stressed that the actresses were in no way trained in acting, and that they would be reading from the script during the performance. Each girl had a black booklet that some had decorated with O’Keeffe-like tissue-paper flowers, an effect that for me really stressed the care they had taken to tell others’ stories accurately. Gretchen also warned the audience that the show may be disturbing or triggering at times, and announced that some PA’s would be available during and after the show. I felt a little bit apprehensive before the show started due to this warning, which, coupled with the following quote from the program, seemed foreboding:

Last year, for the first time, the show was written entirely by female members of the Amherst community. The stories ranged from harrowing to hilarious. When we asked young women for submissions this year, we expected to receive similar pieces. We collected many uplifting pieces, stories we are eager to share. But as we received more submissions, it became increasingly clear this year’s show would be different. Young women on this campus are talking about deeply personal topics and sharing secrets like never before. We were saddened by the flurry of pieces about relationship abuse and outraged by the influx of testimonies about sexual violence here at Amherst College. It’s difficult to acknowledge the presence of such insidious events in the school we all love.

While the show was deeply moving and viscerally upsetting at times, I think it was able to portray a large array of feelings associated with being a woman at Amherst––not all of them bad.
The show was composed of an Introduction, four acts, and an epilogue. The first act was entitled “After Rape –– Anger,” and contained mostly stories of rape, sexual abuse, and pressure from the community to be silent. Particularly interesting to me (and relevant to experiences I have had at Amherst) was the section entitled “Never Have I Ever,” in which a bunch of girls sat around in a circle playing the classic drinking game, and inadvertently managed to shame one of their friends into recalling a sexual experience that she had classified to herself and another friend as unwanted. I have played this game, and I have had good friends call me out for an embarrassingly public sexual experience in front of others––the sketch was well-placed in the “anger” section.

The second act was entitled “Shame –– Injustice” and dealt with different types of female experiences, including homosexuality, unexpected pregnancy, ignorance of the male and female bodies, and cultural expectations. One of these sketches, “It’s For Your Own Good,” highlighted the irony of these two lines of logic in many cultures: “sex is evil” and “save it for the one you love.” It addressed latina women in particular, and how they are expected by their cultures to be sexy and sultry while also being virginal and chaste. Despite the seriousness of these topics, many of these sketches were humorous and witty, drawing attention to the issues while also allowing women and men to laugh at themselves.

In the third act, “Loneliness –– Disclosure,” stories discussed how victims’ friends, families, and current boyfriends/girlfriends have helped them or have been unable to help them confront rape and sexual abuse. It included a hilariously/disturbingly accurate piece called “An Academic Look at the Social Scene of Amherst College” as well as a heart-warming address to a friend (“And She Hugged Me”) explaining how sometimes all someone needs to combat loneliness is the warmth of a friend. This was HuckleKat’s favorite.

The final act was called “Regaining Control –– Speaking Up,” and addressed body image, female pleasure, and recovering or developing a sexual identity. This act contained the comical crowd pleaser “Moans” as well as “Body Image,” in which four cast members bared their bodies in their underwear to demonstrate self-love and positive self-image.

There were a few “politically” controversial moments in the show, and a friend of mine noted the absence of some material that was in the show last year. First, in a few stories the writers called out the administration for mishandling reported cases of sexual misconduct on campus. More specifically, one of the stories demonstrated how the victim had been encouraged by a dean to “take a year off, take time for yourself” and to “wait until the perpetrator graduates so that you feel safe.” I have experienced sexual harassment at a number of parties in my four years in the socials and in the triangle, as well as experienced or witnessed hateful language/sexual disrespect in the context of my sports team. In these cases I did not speak up because I figured, based on the administration’s previous inaction, that it would only create strife in my social life and that there would be no disciplinary action. Due to my own experience and the voiced experiences of others, I think it is important for groups on campus to urge our college to be more active in not only promoting sexual respect, but reprimanding sexual disrespect and harassment. This of course was not the central theme of the show, but it was an issue raised that I, BunniesAreNom, believe to be relevant. The night I went to the show both Dean Hart and Dean Boykin-East among other administrators were in attendance, and I hope that they got the message.

As to material left out of the show––a friend informed me that last year the show featured a number of pieces on abortion at Amherst. Though the show was outstanding without it, I wonder why the group decided to replace this section with different material. I didn’t notice a lack when I was watching the show, but I think in the wake of a heated discussion on The Amherst Student’s website about abortion, it is something relevant to intellectual debate on campus. As a woman who identifies politically as pro-choice, I see the best way to hold this discussion with adamant pro-lifers is to remind us all that our friends and peers also experience unwanted pregnancies––it is not in reality a group of unknown “others.”

As I said before, the show was absolutely amazing, not only because it presented stories submitted by our peers at Amherst, but because it was delivered by a community of women who bravely stood before hundreds of students and said, “yo, this happens here.” They may have been victims of sexual abuse, they may not have, but they were willing to stand up for their friends and sisters. I cried during the first act, but I was laughing and smiling during the rest of the production. Some skits, including the “Never Have I Ever” and “And She Hugged Me” pieces, led me to re-examine the relationships I have with other women and how I treat and address women in public.

In closing, I would like to address what I think the Amherst Community should take away from this show.
1. I think this type of discussion belongs in some sort of “continuing orientation” workshops. While we may not want to “frighten” students during the orientation week with stories of rape and abuse (which is covered in some of the orientation videos), I think it would be a very useful show for first-years to see after one semester at Amherst.
2. The sense of community among the actresses in the show is the type of campus engagement that we want at our school. We need to find out how they were introduced to the culture of Women of Amherst and what they learned there, and how this openness and honesty can be replicated in other groups on campus.
3. Finally, I think it is essential that we increase discussion on campus of what feminism is, and how men and women can become more involved in promoting gender equality on campus and after we graduate. In past years I have wanted to see the show (previously The Vagina Monologues) but I had actually been dissuaded from going by some friends, who lauded the show as a bunch of man-hating feminaziism and joked about starting their own production, called “Dick Diatribes.” There is no such man-hating in the Women of Amherst show, and in fact one piece in particular (“Guy Love” ) urged women to respect and love the men in their lives who are kind, loving, and supportive.

I would like to close with a thank you to all of the attendees of this performance, and a reiteration of the Men’s Initiative letter in the back of the program, written by Jareb Gleckel ‘12:

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Don’t we all wish we could know what women want? Especially when it comes to sex?

Let me begin my saying that “If These Lips Could Talk” should never be condescendingly referred to as a “feminist rant.” In fact, the word feminist should not hold negative connotations. I am an environmentalist because I love, respect, and value the environment. I am a feminist because I love, respect, and value women.

“If These Lips Could Talk” represents the values of the women we know and love, and this is an opportunity for men to hear their voices––their REAL voices. One sees the media’s version of sexuality often: women with large breasts and small waists just dying to sell anything from beer to tires. But this is clearly not the whole picture. “If These Lips Could Talk” presents Amherst women’s myriad sexual interests and desires for control, consent, and sexual fulfillment.

On another level, “If These Lips Could Talk” speaks to the injustices of sexual assault and violence, as well as the power differentials that accompany such acts. When incidents of violence occur, there is never just one victim. Whole communities––men and women––are affected by rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment.

How are men affected?

First, every man has a woman in his life who he loves: a spouse, a friend, a mother, a sister, or a grandmother. The women who are disrespected, degraded, assaulted, harassed and raped are someone’s mother, sister, friend, or future wife. What if the woman was the one you loved? Second, when rape occurs and men are consequently importuned into discussions, we go in defensively, kicking and screaming. “If These Lips Could Talk” aims to open discussion without putting anybody at fault. Yes, men commit 98% of rapes, but most men are NOT rapists. By involving ourselves in conversations surrounding sexual assault, we as men can be viewed as allies and not as perpetrators.

“If These Lips Could Talk” is not intended to scare or vilify men in the audience; rather, this candid discussion of sexual disrespect should inspire each man to carry himself through the world in a respectful, aware manner. In the time that it takes you to read this blurb––maybe three minutes or so––three American women have been raped and five more have been sexually assaulted in another fashion. These statistics are unacceptable. We have a responsibility to change a culture that facilitates this disgusting behavior. But cultural shifts do not occur without individual change.

Tonight, the men in the audience will hear stories of women we know and love. Tonight, we hear these women speak out against injustice. Tonight, I hope, we men will add our voices to theirs.

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BUNNIESLOVESWOMEN!