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Saturday, 16 June 2012

There's been a lot of talk about vaginas

Painting of a flower by Georgia O'Keeffe,
American artist, 1887 - 1986.
Use of the word vagina in the media and popular culture has been more frequent in the last year or so than it was in the past, and women are often the people using it. Yesterday on Twitter a number of women participated in a hashtag, using the word in movie titles substituted for another word. It's a provocative and politically-laden gesture that points to debates around reproductive rights, especially those that are happening in the United States where religion continues to heavily inform public discourse in a striking way. Over 50 percent of Americans go to church weekly. In Australia the figure is about eight percent. In the matter of reproductive rights these figures say a lot.

What's happening in legislatures in the US often appears to us to be overly prurient, out-of-date and politically incorrect. The latest surprising event occurred in the State of Michigan:
In a debate on a bill that would restrict abortion in a number of ways, state representative Lisa Brown finished her opposition speech with: "Finally, Mr Speaker, I'm flattered that you're all so interested in my vagina, but no means no." She was subsequently banned from taking part in a debate on the school employee retirement bill.
This sort of thing is unlikely to happen in Australia because there is nowhere near as much attention given here to human reproduction in our legislatures. But it could happen. If it did, I very much doubt that an elected representative would be censured to the extent we see in Michigan.

American conservatives have a particular interest in how human reproduction is handled by the laws of the land. Now that the Republican candidate for November's presidential election has been chosen we are no longer daily witness to the types of debates around reproduction that often go on in the US but are not normally reported in overseas media. But American women, or at least a lot of them, have strong views on such debates. A surprising video spoof, 'Republicans, Get In My Vagina', appeared online earlier this year showing well-known American actors getting involved in a debate that, for people in much of the developed world, seems surreal, extraordinary, and depressing by turns. Pundits speculating about the outcome in November's election have appeared on our TVs predicting that American women would overwhelmingly vote Democrat in view of the opinions expressed by candidates during the Republican primaries.

So women are taking back the words that are used for anatomical elements they alone possess. And why not? Reproduction is a characteristic human activity. You could (if you wanted) say that we are born to reproduce, to ensure the continuance of the species. Mammals appeared about 210 million years ago, we're told. Among mammals, the placentals are those species in which a placenta is employed to provide nutrients to the foetus, and to remove waste from it while it lives in the womb. Some mammals do not use this method of gestation, and are found only in Australia; we immediately recognise the echidna and the platypus, although when first examined by Europeans such animals appeared freakish. So in most of the world's species you have a reproductive system that relies on a number of female anatomical elements, including the womb, the ovaries, the placenta, the vagina, and the vulva.

Flowering plants, we're told, first appeared 140 million years ago. The flower is the reproductive part of the plant that has it. The flower is designed to appeal visually to insects, especially bees, and its reproductive mechanism evolved in the same way in different parts of the world that were separated by oceans. So native bees and flowers in Australia interact in the same way as the European honeybee and European flowers, even though the tectonic shifts that moved these continents apart happened before the emergence of these lifeforms. This means that certain organic forms are unproblematic, evolutionally speaking. They evolved in the same way on different continents because that was the most efficient way for evolution to solve the problem the species had to overcome in order to succeed in the world.

It's not surprising, then, that flowers have things in common with female reproductive organs. Nobody who grew up in the West can mistake the provenance of the painting used with this blog post, for example. Talking about her art, Georgia O'Keeffe said:
I have but one desire as a painter – that is to paint what I see, as I see it, in my own way, without regard for the desires or taste of the professional dealer or the professional collector.
The striking and ambiguous images O'Keeffe produced during her long life, starting in the 1920s (about the time American women got the vote), point to the incontrovertible fact that organic forms resemble one another. US lawmakers do not vote in their legislatures to ban orchids, so it's just strange that a legislative member could be censured for using the correct anatomical term for a part of the human reproductive system. Most reproduction uses a mechanism whereby dissimilar information is combined to produce a unique and novel code, and in order to achieve this feat the species requires physical organs that are compatible. Another of the vagina's functions is to express the developed foetus from the womb at term and it is a remarkable, and remarkably strong, organ. Anyone who has seen a child being born will know that the woman involved has no control over the events unfolding. The apparatus operates and the woman, herself, submits to the process, which can be prolonged and physically damaging. Like a car crash, they say.

It's good that women are taking back the word used for this incredible organ. The birth canal expresses and we are its utterance. In earlier civilisations the vagina was an object of worship. It is at least part of a reproductive system that permits humans to possess a large brain, the thing which distinguishes us from most other mammals. The weird thing is the complex system of signifiers humans have adopted to avoid being aware of it, not the thing itself. What is unaccountable is the sense of shame we attach to the vagina, and not its own specific appearance or its function.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

that's brilliant Matt