"Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess." – Donna Haraway

That’s Vaginal.

I apologize for the lapse in posting here at The Spiral Dance. My “Spring break resolution” is to get on a regular posting schedule. Really. I have a plan. 

April 1, 2011 (the irony of which is not lost on me), I posted a link to an article in which Scott Randolph, a democratic representative from FL, was chastised for using the word “uterus” on the house floor. I ended the post with the quip, “Thank goodness he didn’t say vagina.” Fast forward to February 2012 when VA delegate David Albo uses the term “trans-v” instead of “transvaginal” in discussing abortion legislation. I’d like to be able to claim prescience but let’s face it, this has been circulating in the political weather system for some time. Vaginas are the hottest topic nobody is talking about right now. In a blog post  on FeministingKatie makes the excellent point that if you can’t say the word “vagina,” perhaps you should neither be probing nor legislating them. The fact that media commentators and conservative legislators are uncomfortable with the anatomical terminology of the female reproductive system indicates a much bigger, systemic problem.

Infographic on Women's Health Issues in 2011-2012

Anyone paying attention to the recent spate of legislation attempting to restrict women’s access to birth control can tell you that the vagina, and the people who have them, are under siege. Women’s sexuality and reproductive rights are being used as a pawn in the 2012 election season. I can’t even begin to succinctly summarize the variety of moves in this game. “On International Women’s Day Congress Debates Measure to Limit Reproductive Rights” by Laura Basset of The Huffington Post does a nice job of summarizing a lot of what has happened over the last year. In addition, here is a woefully incomplete “stack” on delicious that contains links to a variety of stories. And if you don’t have time to browse any of these, Bassett’s post included the timeline based infographic, pictured above, that shows a steady stream of restrictive legislation.

Sometime between when Iowa passed their new legislation and when Planned Parenthood was defunded, Summer’s Eve launched their “That’s Vaginal” campaign. Given the political climate, I had to admire their chutzpah* 

Carlton, the That's Vaginal cat

Carlton, running through his presentation

The campaign centers on a blog entitled “That’s Vaginal.”  The blog is written from the point of view of Carlton, “a rogue agent acting loosely on behalf of Summer’s Eve.” Carlton is an upper class male cat (the euphemistic connection is certainly no accident) with a private plane and a faceless manservant named Geoffrey. The media centerpiece of the campaign is a 02:28 minute video in which Carlton does a “run through” of his U.N. presentation that argues that the word “awesome” should be be replaced with “vaginal.” The blog is updated fairly frequently with short posts describing the life of a wealthy cat, things that are vaginal (the invention of the distillery), and things that are not vaginal (messing with the original Star Wars trilogy). Users may comment on the blog, follow Carlton’s facebook page, and submit photos or video of their vaginality (I just made that up, but I think it works…)

Various commentators have already noted that Carlton shares a heritage with other viral campaigns, such as Old Spice’s The Man Your Man Could Smell Like and Dos Equis’ The Most Interesting Man in the World (here and here, for instance). Most of them find the That’s Vaginal campaign forced and a bit weird (the previous links, but also here).

Personally, I find it a lot less strange than the “V Power” campaign on the Summer’s Eve website in which a woman’s hand is used as a talking vagina puppet. (Really. No lie. I struggled over how to describe it. Go see for yourself.) “That’s Vaginal” is certainly unusual but there are some interesting things about Carlton’s blog and his mission.

For one, it makes an interesting statement about language. Carlton asks,

Why, I ask, is the vagina treated like some kind of leper? Avoided publicly, snickered at privately, it’s synonyms and euphemisms: all slurs (some even doubly offensive to us felines), bleeped out on broadcast tv like there is something contagious contained in its syllables.

Why indeed? We see in our recent legislative examples that Carlton is not wrong about the word vagina being a source of discomfort. This discomfort is related to the wider issues of attitudes towards women’s sexuality. Though the Summer’s Eve campaign is humorous and light-hearted, we may read it as indicative of the need to shift the balance in conversations about sexuality and reproductive rights. To some extent, the campaign is co-opting previous movements that attempt to empower through language, such as Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. They are, of course, two very different things and we should be skeptical of Summer’s Eve’s imperative to make a profit off of an unnecessary product. But Carlton is right, talking about vaginas may be one way to empower women to take charge of their own reproductive health.

The other thing I find really interesting about this campaign is that the video is embedded on the blog, but also hosted on YouTube.  The video has over 400,000 views and 189 comments as of this writing. This pales in comparison to YouTube’s most popular content. But what is interesting is that it seems that Summer’s Eve has not made any attempt to shut down or censor the comments. Among the usual YouTube trolling and vitriol, there are critiques of Summer’s Eve and discussion regarding practices of vaginal cleansing. Which can’t be all bad, right? It is hard to imagine this campaign ever airing in a traditional broadcast medium. So through its 9-month run and 400,000 views we also see the ways that social media and web platforms open up spaces for alternative discourses.

Is “That’s Vaginal” important political commentary? No. Is it going to have an impact on the maelstrom of recent legislation surrounding women’s sexuality and reproductive health? Unlikely. Is it even an example of a successful viral marketing campaign? Eh. Maybe. Maybe not. But given the current political climate around women’s reproductive health, it is refreshing to see someone (aside from Rachel Maddow, of course) talking about vaginas. Who knows? Maybe others will follow suit. And that would, indeed, be vaginal.

*nota bene: my admiration for the concept of the campaign should not be confused with my endorsing their product, which is unnecessary and potentially harmful according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health.

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