We’re Talking Vulva

Issues & Themes: 

We’re Talking Vulva (Shawna Dempsey with Tracy Traeger, 1990, 5) is one of the films that brought to an end Studio D’S chronic anxiety about sexual identity in one fell swoop. The package in which it appeared, Five Feminist Minutes (see chapter 6 ), featured sex workers and lesbians of colour, rappers, and all the excluded and dispossessed of the 1970s middle-class white-feminist agenda. A work that cross-pollinates street-theatre performance, rock video, and rap music, Vulva might be thought to mask its sexual provocation through the very traditional NFB vocation of addressing youth about sexual hygiene in their own vernacular. Indeed, fifteen years later it still looks slightly chary as it feels the water of the lesbian continuum, with its lesbian content reduced to a matter-of-fact line or two and no explicit image: “Some of us gals like other women, Touch and suck and do tribadism, That’s lesbianism!” This language play is as strategic as it is self-reflective, and the film is noticeable now for the absence among all the words for vulva of the essential Anglo-Saxonism “cunt”: When I first wrote the piece, as a live performance in 1986, it was at the very beginning of the sex radical movement, when things like S & M , and lesbian sex practices in general were first being talked about. I don’t think we had yet reclaimed the written and rhyming couplets are hard to change … I don’t know what Studio D would have thought of “cunt” in 1990. Certainly the local film funding agency, Manitoba Film and Sound, wouldn’t let us put the word “vulva” in the title. So we said that the film would be called “The Rap,” got the money ($15,000 which we are still paying back) and then titled it exactly as we wanted (same title as the performance). (Email with artist, 25 May 2004) Dempsey’s latinate names for genitals and sexual acts have been standard camouflage since the rise of vernacular languages post-Gutenberg in the early-modern period. Although the word “cunt” would have more aptly anticipated Hoolboom (seventy years after D.H . Lawrence introduced it into “serious” English literature), Dempsey does resort to “fuck” once or twice, and the Studio at least went one better than Manitoba Film in allowing the word “vulva,” rather than pudenda, “things to be ashamed of.”

In any case, the lingering power of “cunt” by other names, the aggressive flaunting of this shame, is deployed by Dempsey in the name of sex education and feminist community, joyously, visually, and theatrically, not only in the studio but also in the the steps of the Manitoba legislature. In fact, we are not only talking vulva, as the blunt title trumpets, we are looking at vulva, and Dempsey’s large pink rubber genitalia suit is at the centre of the screen the entire time. Since the cunt is an external masquerade, not surprisingly it is clitoral, not vaginal, pleasure that is literally foregrounded – all the more so since Dempsey’s face seems to operate as the getup’s clitoris – and penile penetration takes a decidedly secondary role in long lists of vulvar things and activities. The accelerated, zoom-happy, wildly mobile camera accentuates her orgasmic twirling, hopping, and gesturing, and even the nonsexual operations of urination and pubic shampoos take on a queer aura. Dempsey wears sunglasses, and her body is covered from head to foot with this genital mask, and the film is not autobiographical in the sense of individual identity. Rather, a sense of collective identity is transmitted, the agile, voguing clown standing in for the gendered queer body. Her public corporeal transformation into the “scary” “hole,” from the shameful lack into a convex and proud presence, shatters the ideological divide between public and private, performatively transforms the artist as well as the space in which she flaunts it, queering both – as well as the spectators on screen and in the audience. However, the still-cautious mid-eighties period and place in which the work was conceived (“very beginning of the sex radical movement”) and its ultimate institutional context may have dictated that Dempsey’s work (she was still in her early twenties at the time) seems to navigate shame the most cautiously of all the works selected in Thomas Waugh's chapter "Conclusion: of Bodies, Shame, and Desire" in Romance of Transgression.