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“If a woman talks about working in a man’s world, we come across as feminists, and I’m most definitely not a feminist. I’m just a woman doing a job,” said Sonia Friedman, the producer of Legally Blonde: The Musical in London. This quotation is alarming because its speaker produces one of the most famous feminist stories of the 21st century — that of Elle Woods.

It may be difficult to identify Elle as a feminist. After all, she is a girly girl, not the image of feminism that popular culture has bred in us: “bra-burning lesbians on horseback, castrating bitches eating men for breakfast or whining victim-feminists crying date rape and sexual harassment without the slightest provocation,” as described by Duke University professor Toril Moi in an essay. Elle was repulsed by the idea that anything but hard work caused her success — a trait that characterizes her as a feminist.

Friedman is an example of how the popular perception of feminism has been obscured by false assumptions. Granted, her comment may have risen out of a desire to distance herself from labels, to perform a job without claiming victimization. But Friedman’s words cast her as irreverent towards, say, the activists who fought for safe working conditions and better pay for women.

Indeed, the core premise of feminism is equal rights for women. Therefore, to deny oneself as a feminist is to deny the need for gender equality. This goal may seem outdated in 2010, but as English professor Melissa Sanchez wrote in an e-mail, “what would seem to be a just and simple goal — equal rights for women — turns out to be fairly complex in practice. This is because defining what a ‘woman’ is, and what it would mean to make woman equal, brings in questions of how we determine sex … and whether it’s possible to separate that definition from socio-cultural ideas of gender, which already imply difference, hierarchy, inequality.”

The “feminist” label is thus not one of extremity, despite what Rush Limbaugh and his coinage of “feminazis” may have us believe. Extremity, however, may be inextricably linked with efforts such as The Vagina Monologues, which had its annual run on campus this past weekend.

Now, there is no question that we should applaud the Monologues as an open forum for discussing sex, sexuality and sexual abuse. “Anything that attempts a frank discussion of female sexuality is a good thing,” Sanchez wrote. Yelling “Vaginas!” on Locust Walk fulfills the Monologues’ goal of encouraging emotion and shedding decorum when discussing women’s issues.

However, this does not free the Monologues from criticism. That the Monologues’ advertising campaign utilizes shock and awe may have some negative implications. After all, uninhibited emotions rather than a calm, critical eye may lead viewers to approach the Monologues as entertainment rather than a learning experience. Also, a woman writhing in rhythm to “cunt” may detract from the show’s worthy emphasis on sexual abuse. According to Sanchez, it is possible that the hyper-sexualized nature of the show “participates in that commodification [of women’s sexuality] even as it ironizes it.”

To College senior Ilana Millner, Monologues’ producer and Daily Pennsylvanian opinion artist, this sexuality is actually “essential.” She wrote in an e-mail that using sexuality “emphasize[s] the fact that women can be sexual, strong, loud, powerful, erotic, etc., and that these things in no way grant anyone the permission to rape or abuse them … we do not need to continue to view sexuality as a negative thing.”

It may be impossible for feminism to make advances without extremity. For the Monologues to fundraise as successfully as it has, it needs to appeal to its audience in more creative ways than a straight-faced documentary could. But a guy dressed in a vagina costume may not be the answer. If our culture is mired in the negative perception of feminists as radicals, then more extremity may not be what feminism needs.

Cyndi Chung is a College senior from Toms River, N.J. Her e-mail address is Slip of the Chung appears on alternate Mondays.

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