Please only read this if you are a woman committed to women’s liberation. If you link or share it, please include that request.
Natalie Gyte, at the fabulous Women’s Resource Centre, has beautifully explained some of the problems with the content and tone of Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising ‘campaign': it covers up the real causes of male violence, it hurts women by implying that we can (and should) ‘rise above’ violence and its consequences, and it is part of a much wider colonialist pattern of white saviour complex. Go read her piece, it is excellent, and the points she makes are more important than these ones. I just want to add a reason about why the very form of One Billion Rising is colonialist.
Most obviously, Ensler’s project takes its name from the Million Women March, and perhaps also from Million Women Rise. What’s that? You haven’t heard of either of those events? Could it be that’s because neither of them have a hugely successful and well-known white person pushing their carefully-crafted brand across the world?
“The Million Woman March was a protest march organized on October 25, 1997, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was founded and formulated by Phile Chionesu, a grassroots activist, human rights advocate, and Black Nationalist/Freedom Fighter. After several months of underground organizing, Dr Phile’, as she is lovingly called, asked Asia Coney to join her and she became the third National Co-Chair. The march was envisioned and intended to help bring social, political, and economic development and power throughout the Black communities of the United States, as well as to bring hope, empowerment, unity and sisterhood to women, men and children of African descent globally regardless of nationality, religion, economic status, etc.
Speakers at the event included Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the ex-wife of Nelson Mandela; Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Sista Souljah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Attallah and Illyasah Shabazz (daughters of Malcolm X), Dr. Dorothy Height, and a message was read from Assata Shakur from her exile home of Cuba. The Million Woman March, (MWM) as it is known, was the largest gathering in the world of any women anywhere. It has been considered a “social phenomenon” due to its unconventional and unique way of organizing and has influenced several mass gatherings by demonstrating a grassroots approach that had not been employed before. The Million Woman March was the launching pad for the development of the first global movement for women and girls of African descent throughout the Diaspora.
Estimates of attendance vary widely… Police sources gave numbers varying from 300,000 to 1 million. Organizers estimated an attendance of 2.1 million.”
Yes: a genuinely grassroots movement of, by and for Black women.
Million Women Rise, meanwhile, is a UK-based, grassroots, self-funding, women-only march against male violence, led by Black and other BME women. You’re going to have to take my word for it; they are so grassroots they don’t even have a wikipedia page.
So Ensler took Black women’s work, and turned it into a very successful, professional* brand (in addition to her very successful V-Day and Vagina Monologues brands) which she has exported all over the world. It has also carried her name everywhere with it.
Even if Ensler came up with the name entirely independently (which seems unlikely, since she was politically active at the time) and forgot to research similar names, she is still working off the backs of BME women’s work. (And other women’s work). OBR has been spread around the world by existing feminist organisations doing actually effective feminist work (rape crisis centres, refuges, consciousness raising groups, activist groups of all stripes). OBR gives these women and their groups a chance to use a slick and patriarchy friendly (look! We’re not prudes, we’re dancing!) brand, to raise some media attention and hopefully some funds. But once the OBR ripples fade away, they’ll be back to the actual work.
To paraphrase one tweeter: I too feel blessed to be part of a global movement to end violence against women and girls. We work under various banners: feminism, womanism, radical feminism, women’s liberation, the women’s movement – all of which make excellent hashtags. We don’t need #1billionrising or, indeed, #danceyoassoff.
I feel bad hating on a women’s initiative, I really do. I don’t like criticising other feminists in front of men and other non-feminists, hence the request at the top. Generally speaking, I’d prefer that there was bad feminism happening to no feminism: for instance, I know that Ensler’s play, for all its problems**, has helped fund various bits of vital feminism. But sisters (especially my white western sisters): we must do better than this.
* I have some vague thoughts about how the OBR video reveals some of the problems with the project: its use of sensationalised explicit violence (without trigger warnings), its victim-blaming (all they have to do is stand up), its slickness (how much money?), and its portrayals of BME women (subjected to the ‘worst’ kinds of violence). Feel free to write that up more coherently, if you can bear to watch it.
** Most notably: (from here, warnings for descriptions of rape/abuse and rape apologism)
Another very painful contradiction I noticed in the show was the treatment of rape and consent. The two most prominent examples of this are, “Because He Liked To Look At It,” and, “The Little Coochi Snorcher That Could.” Both are portrayed as positive, healing experiences, but both stories lack explicit, enthusiastic consent. ”Coochi Snorcher,” involves underage drinking and what amounts to statutory rape; I’d hardly call that a healing experience. Even if the legal drinking age is an arbitrary number, the younger woman’s intoxication mixed with the older woman’s “insistence and thoroughness,” means explicit consent was almost assuredly not given. I think it’s worth noting that the monologue originally called this, “a good rape.” What more needs to be said?
“Look At It,” was just as bad; during the woman’s sexual encounter with “Bob,” she clearly states both, “no,” and, “stop,” as he undresses her. Those words should have been a HUGE stop sign for Bob. Even if the woman in this monologue learned a positive lesson from the experience, the encounter should be called what it was: rape. (Side note: it was also really troubling when Bob said he wanted to, “see her,” in reference to her vagina. It’s not that he wanted to see a part of her, or even an important part of her. He wanted to see her. This reduction of a woman to her genitals is squick-inducing at best (and millimeters away from transphobic at its worst)).