Sexual politics

By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  January 22, 2008
ear the strident volume rather than those concerns.
Premiering January 27, the documentary film Venus, Priests and Superwomen, directed by Deborah Monuteaux and co-written by Alexia Kosmider, is about the play being banned last year at Providence College and the resulting protests at the Catholic school.
Sold-out productions of the play had been staged over the previous four years on the campus, though not under college sponsorship. With the arrival of a new president, Brian J. Shanley, O.P., most assumed that the policy would continue, since he had been regarded as a scholarly and intellectual fresh change. Nevertheless, after speaking with faculty and students, he decided that the show would not go on at PC. Instead, Beneficent Congregational Church opened their theater space to the production.
The documentary re-creates the conflict through various voices, both students and faculty. Early on we hear from Fr. Kenneth Gumbert, who teaches film studies at PC, and saw The Vagina Monologues elsewhere. He’s a good representative of those who objected to the play, saying that it reduces women into a body part.
“I think it’s true, I think it does do that,” he says. “I know its purpose is to mirror to every women’s concerns, their most vulnerable concerns. I think it does that well. But I think it also reduces women’s concerns in a way that doesn’t speak to me.”
Just as telling is the response of Mary Anne Sedney, who teaches women’s studies and psychology on the campus. She says that she had dismissed the play after reading it, but then had a completely different experience after seeing it performed.
The Vagina Monologues isn’t a bunch of women who said, ‘Let’s go talk about our sexuality,’ ” she says, “ ‘let’s go yell and scream about nicknames for our genitals in front of an audience! Won’t that be fun, and won’t that make people angry and be provocative?’ But that wasn’t it at all. To me the importance of The Vagina Monologues is the context of all the violence against women in our culture.”
Deborah J. Johnson, who teaches women’s studies and art history at the college, extends Sedney’s response nicely, pointing out the difference between a play on the page and on the stage. Art, she says, “takes us by surprise, and often ends up ambushing the very people that would not address the issues that the art raises.”
She continues: “We laugh. We cry. It’s the power of art to sneak into our consciousness in ways that we may not even have allowed, and this makes it very powerful and very threatening and also very misunderstood.”
As for PC president Shanley, he says that the issue for him boils down to the play being not anti-Catholic but rather not Catholic at all. And “deeply immoral. It espouses a view of human sexuality which is deeply at odds with the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church,” he points out.
Another speaker relates that when Shanley was asked at a meeting whether he would object to an R-rated movie being shown on campus — as they are — since many depict what the Catholic Church considers to be immoral sexual activity, the college head said he hadn’t thought about that.
That quiet and incidental detail might be the most powerful moment in this documentary. The man at the center of the controversy, who had been praised for bringing intellectual credentials to the college, admits that he hadn’t thought about an obvious inconsistency in his position.
Nevertheless, the PC president gets the last word. He makes clear that protests won’t affect whether The Vagina Monologues comes to campus again. As he puts it, “Next year I’m just going to say, ‘Read what I said last year.’ ”

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