Vagina Dialogues

OK, let’s get some comedy nerdery happening on this blog. Australian comedy nerdery, that’s right, niche. (Some of the things I’m nerdy about are stuff you literally probably haven’t heard about unless you’re Australian and like comedy).

This week Corinne Grant wrote an opinion piece  about gay male comedians making sexist comments about women. Her main contention was that:

Gay male comics can declare how disgusting they find women’s bodies, how ugly older women are, how women are hags, nags, sluts, bitches and whores and the audience will laugh.

It was quite a provocative piece and in the latter part she speaks with Tom Ballard, a gay male comedian who is kind of a big deal, used to date one of the other best known Aussie gay male comedians (it’s a small country OK) and now does the youth radio station breakfast here. Ballard later wrote his own response blog.

I think the politics of this issue (in the social justice sense) are murky and ripe for getting into a oppression-Olympics showdown so lets try and avoid that. I can see the political validity in gay male comedians challenging heteronormativity, of course. Masculinity is often defined as being intrinsically related to being attracted to women. So getting onstage and saying “I am a man and I find lady bits gross” can be seen as a radical move.

However, the paradox of the way women’s bodies are viewed in society is that while women’s bodies are constantly arranged and displayed in a way that is pleasing to men and stresses the desirability of “womanliness”, so too women’s bodies are constantly attacked for failing to reach those standards. An almost impossible criteria of attractiveness are expected for women. Not too fat but not too thin, curvy but not too curvy (because then you’re tacky), enough makeup to appear with perfect skin but not so much you look “cheap”; women’s bodies have to be just right and they are regularly judged to be lacking. And let’s be honest, constructions of female sexiness are usually not about how great vaginas are. Framed in this context, a man on stage talking shit about women’s bodies seems less than politically-pure.

Now let’s get real here, I think that we can all agree that jokes about how old women are gross and people with penises are the only ones worth talking to are not OK. We’re all humourless feminists here, right? But seriously, if that’s the point of your routine, you should really be trying harder. I spend enough time putting up with sexist bullshit in my life, and that stuff makes me want to cry not laugh. Constantly calling women by nasty names is just not cool. Here I am talking about a context where it’s on-stage and public, and the women in question aren’t OK with it. I mean if all your female friends love being referred to as sluts face-to-face I would first triple check and then go for it (because there IS a difference to what you say when performing for the public and what you say to our friends, and there should be). Tom Ballard’s response blog is actually pretty on board with this, and I really admire how both he and Grant have managed to have an actually civil and respectful conversation. I’m also glad that both of them are coming from a standpoint that “political correctness” is worth considering and if you are going to comment on this post this will also be expected as a baseline.

So the real issue here is vagina (and isn’t it always, amirite? Urgh. I don’t even know what that means).  That’s right, we’re going to have an in-depth conversation about what is OK to say about vaginas, PC police/Social Justice League, suit up! I suppose the question is “can you hate vaginas and love women?” There are plenty of women (I have even met some of them!) who would say yes, because that is them. It is really problematic to tell a group of people how their experience of being part of being a member of that group can be, especially if that group is marginalised. (I say “can be” because as is sadly, but not surprisingly, missing from this debate is that not all women have vaginas and not all men don’t, but urgh, society).

I think an interesting corollary to this is that my friends and I went to see Josh Thomas (Tom Ballard’s ex, as mentioned above) a couple of years ago, after he had just recently come out. He talked about how terrifying gay sex was and how you should really avoid it if at all possible. (He also made a particular comment about how great and useful vaginas were.) One of my (straight, female) friends thought that this was a homophobic attitude for Thomas to hold. I vehemently disagreed and then attempted to get into a discussion about the mechanics of anal sex (something it should be pointed out, that is not reserved to gay men), in a quiet cafe, you guys should all be very jealous we aren’t friends IRL. (Sadly my friend was not keen to discuss lubrication right then.)

I suppose my point here is that just because you’re gay you don’t have to be overjoyed about every aspect of the experience of being a gay man, and if you have a vagina you don’t have to be delighted by all its functions. I mean, let’s talk about periods here. There are women for whom menstruating is a beautiful and natural cycle of life (apparently). I mostly find that it hurts, makes me cranky and is kind of gory (yeah that’s right, so much for the fairer sex, blood GUSHES out of my body once a month). I feel pretty silenced by the whole ‘it’s all beautiful and natural’ approach.

On Twitter I saw someone (actually another one of Josh Thomas’ exes, lolz Australia) suggest that unless Grant loved everything about vaginas she was being a hypocrite (see Grant’s pretty hilarious response). I don’t really think women expressing negative opinions about their genitalia and not being happy to hear this as a punchline from men is “hypocritical”. Just like there are words which are acceptable if used by African Americans and not if used by white people, this is not a level playing field situation. You know why? Because it was NEVER a level playing field to begin with. See: privilege. Of course there is overlap here, and maybe gay male comedians would argue that being grossed out by lady parts is an intrinsic part of being gay and by telling them not to I am silencing them.

Tom Ballard in his response to Grant talks about the special relationship that women and gay men share. I certainly think there is merit to this argument, often there is a different dynamic to this kind of a relationship, although obviously its not a get out of jail free card. I thought it was particularly interesting that he referenced the relationship that female comedians have with their gay fanbases. He mentions Kathy Griffen and I was reminded of this clip from her (seriously great, omg I love her) show where she objects to being called “fish” by members of her gay male fanbase. So the relationship is clearly far from perfect.

In the end, I have failed to come up with some kind of grand unified theory for comedians talking about vaginas on stage. I think there probably isn’t one to be found, because there are a lot subtleties, statements like “I think vaginas are gross” “We all know vaginas are gross” and “Every time I hear the word vagina I want to gag” are different levels of problematic to me, and I think there is an argument that the first one is acceptable but you can argue with me in the comments (respectfully! And I don’t promise to answer. I have important things to Tumblr work on, OK).

9 thoughts on “Vagina Dialogues”

  1. I have never heard of any of these people, so I am not sure how ‘informed’ or ‘relevant’ I am being. But this is the internet so I’ll just go ahead and comment, damn the inanity.

    I think that a lot of the visceral, emotive force of most arguments against reproductive rights for women comes from the widely accepted notion that women’s reproductive systems are gross and weird. Like, ‘if women are allowed the pill or abortions or whatever then they’ll be able to do disgusting things’. It’s obviously not the only argument these people use, but the queasy sensation that these topics purportedly evoke biases people against vaginas from the off; and the more laffs comedians make about the grossness of vaginas, the more widespread this effect. This is why I generally have no time at all for genuinely held ‘vaginas are inherently gross’ opinions. If you actually feel the need to express that you should probably grow up.

    ALSO: Literally every human organ is gross and fucked up. Why focus on vaginas???

    1. “I think that a lot of the visceral, emotive force of most arguments against reproductive rights for women comes from the widely accepted notion that women’s reproductive systems are gross and weird.”

      I disagree. I don’t think the emotive arguments against various women’s rights are based on anatomy at all. I think the emotive arguments come more from sexism and the subversive effect that women enjoying their sexuality in an open way has on the patriarchy. Obviously the things that are said tend to be along the lines of it being bad for women to be “sluts” or whatever, but I think it comes from being threatened by sexually liberated women more than considerations of anatomy.

      (Although, perhaps you’re right – the term “loose” when referring to women who admit to enjoying sex seems an obvious example.)

      Conversely, I think primary the emotive force behind intolerance of male homosexuality DOES stem from considerations of anatomy (especially when the intolerance is religiously inspired. I haven’t read the Bible or any other holy books but there doesn’t seem to be the same focus on vaginas as there is to sodomy). But I’m off topic…

  2. “can you hate vaginas and love women?”

    The question also is, can you hate vaginas and love men? Women are not the only ones with vaginas, and going on stage to attack that genital configuration and equating it with women will also hurt some trans men. As will talking about it as if they don’t exist…

    1. It is so saddening that trans identities are often forgotten and treated as second class within LGBTQI circles. I think “Can you hate vaginas and love men?” is great question to ask, but unfortunately the answer might be “I only love cismen” because a lot of transphobia comes from within queer communities too. And that’s pretty horrifying.

    2. I was thinking of exactly this (though you put it a lot more eloquently than I could have).

      I’m a gay man who happens to have a vagina. The idea that it’s not only common but flat-out expected for another gay man to automatically find me undesirable just because I have a vagina kind of makes me feel like shit.

      Comments like “finding vaginas revolting is hating something that is exclusively female” (from the linked opinion piece) also kinda make me feel like shit.

    3. Ommm… Why do most social justice blogs spend a significantly higher amount of time and space and activists’ energy talking about 0.3 % of the population (transgender people) than about cisgender women?! This has instead of a fight for justice for transpeople turned into the most successful derailing of the feminist movement yet. In many feminist spheres it’s also usually cisgender women speaking out for transfolks which can get very tiring and mouthpiece puppetry- it takes away space from transfolks rather than giving any [just like if the VAST majority of comments against racism “and what it feels like” were made by Whites].

      1. This is a really stupid comment in a few ways. First of all, neither this blog nor any other social justice blog I can think of that isn’t specifically aimed at trans issues spends more time talking about transgender than cisgender people. Second, the fact that trans people are a small percentage of the population (I disagree about 0.3% but whatever) has nothing to do with how deserving they are of their rights being protected and fought for. That’s not how rights work. If two groups of people are being oppressed, the bigger group isn’t more oppressed just because there are more people in it. On the contrary, insofar as number have anything to do with anything, the fact that transfolk are such a small minority means that their voices are often even more marginalized and harder to hear, and that it’s even more important to keep transgender rights in the discourse. Third, transgender women are women, and the oppression of transfolk (male-identified, female-identified, or neither/both) IS a feminist issue and stems from misogyny and gender policing. Talking about transgender rights is not in any way “derailing” the feminist movement, it’s what feminism is all about.

        I do agree that it’s infinitely preferable for transfolk to be their own spokespeople when it comes to their needs and perceptions and rights, but that doesn’t mean cisgender people should never talk about transgender rights. No one on this blog is claiming to be a spokesperson for transfolk, we are just trying to include, rather than ignore, transgender rights in our discourse as is required of us as feminists and social justice campaigners.

  3. I don’t have clear thoughts on the topic, there’s a lot there to unpack. But the first thing that comes to mind is that any discussion of vaginas being gross has to be put in the context of a society where we talk a lot about penises (and things associated with them) being awesome, powerful, etc. There’s something about how willing we are to talk about the gross aspects of vaginas, but we’re not really as interested, seemingly, in talking about the gross aspects of penises. The question, ‘is it OK to talk about vaginas being gross’ has to be contextualized within broader discourses about male genitalia. I think that gendered dynamic makes a big impact on this whole discussion, and why it’s so awkward to have people revel in discussions about gross vaginas. Even though it’s obviously something we should be able to talk about; like you, I also feel uncomfortable with the whole ‘everything my body does is natural and wonderful’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *