On the The Spanking Writers blog, Abel wrote a cute-ish post about the reaction to the Vagina Monologues suspensions at John Jay High School in Cross River, New York, a public school. The principal in question, Richard Leprine, had told the girls their performance of excerpts from the piece could not include the word “vagina” because he deemed the term was “inappopriate.” The line the three opted to read in defiance of the order was
My short skirt is a liberation flag in the women’s army. I declare these streets, any streets, my vagina’s country.
The girls were initally suspended for one day by the school’s principal for having disobeyed his order. Their suspension was overturned, despite the girls not having appealed it, by the president of the school board, apparently after it was pointed out that a male student had been allowed to say the word “fuck” in his performance without his being sanctioned.
One of the questions I had when I first started thinking about this issue is how could the author and work even have been cited as the performance source if the word “vagina” wasn’t allowed to be spoken? Would the students have to have had to say “this selection is taken from a play with a title this school’s principal deems too obscene even to be uttered”? I suspect that wouldn’t have gone over very well either.
As part of his reply to some of our comments in support of the students, Abel (who’s from the UK) made the point that (edited to add the entire passage for context)
I’m not sure even the most ardent fans of the play would necessarily
argue that it’s written for consumption “by all the family”, though. So
the performers – apparently – pledged to steer clear of certain
passages given the age of some of the audience. This isn’t censorship:
it’s more akin to TV programmers avoiding more sensitive material until
after the 9pm ‘watershed’.
I could understand Abel’s “watershed” comment if the word used had been one of the FCC “bad words” or of the passage the girls were forbidden to quote from was the the section on rape or the play’s exploration of the usage of the word “cunt.” In fact, when I first started reading about this case, I had expected that the word they’d said after being forbidden not to was “cunt” which would have made the principal’s objections more understandable. But the word “vagina” is one that can be said on TV at any hour. It’s the correct medical term for that part of the body. And it’s actually part of the title of the play. There isn’t another word that could be put in its place to somehow be less obscene because the word itself isn’t any sort of an obscenity.
The comment that he made initally that the reason the word wasn’t to be allowed was that there were members of the audience who were very young. This objection turned out to be false — apparently the youngest audience members anyone can confirm were there were 13. The original statements out of the principal were that the girls had defied their teachers, a statement which was denounced as false by the teachers themselves, who were apparently supportive throughout. My feeling is that respect isn’t some sort of default — it has to be earned. I haven’t seen much regarding the principals actions in this case that would be worthy of respect. Aside from everything else, he was apparently verbally outsmarted by three sixteen year olds, assuming because they didn’t say they disagreed with him that he had their agreement not to use the term. As the child of a retired high school vice principal and someone who themselves works with teens and twenty somethings, I don’t find this impressive for a school administrator. By contrast the girls made a good choice and were willing to take the fallout from it. What more could one want from 16 year olds?
Also, the girls in question didn’t request that their suspensions be overturned — their original comments after the fact were that they expected to be suspended but decided leaving the play’s language intact was worth taking whatever punishment the school might give. The overturning of their suspension was a decision made by the school board president. He decided that the decision to suspend them was incorrect because the orginal order to remove the material was not a correct one, especially given that, as stated above, a male student’s use of the word “fuck” hadn’t been questioned.
School, especially public (or “state” for my UK friends) schools are in an interesting position. School attendence is required — school is not a freely-made association that a club or even a place of employment might be. Yet students remain part of a free society with free speech rights. It is therefore important that schools not abridge the free speech of students unless doing so is absolutely necessary. This clearly wasn’t the case here — another alternative could have been presented rather than attemption to restrict student speech. If they issue was concern over audience sensibilities, the school could have included a mention in the program that selections from “The Vagina Monologues” were being performed. One would guess an audience member, reading that, would realize that the word “vagina” might be used and could opt to leave if they didn’t want to be exposed to the “v-word” word. Instead, the restriction would seem to speak more to the principal’s discomfort with normal medical terms for parts of the female body rather than anything to do with the content of the play itself.
What bothers me most about this is not even the issue of censorship, but the fact that by is actions (which I have to think were done without a lot of thought) this principal went a long way toward inappropriately shaming and sexualizing the female students. I don’t have children, but I know from friends with teenage daughters that one of the hardest tasks they undertake is keeping their teens from developing shame about their bodies.