Arts and Activism: Changing the Culture of Rape -- a guest editorial by Alexis Stratton

alexis blog rapeculture From my work as co-director of The Vagina Monologues to my time spent with fellow writers and artists, I’ve gotten into a lot of discussions about the arts, media, and representation. Many of these discussions follow the same patterns:

Art is meant to provoke thought and discussion. We can’t govern the imagination.

People just write what they know. He’s a white guy writing about his experiences—he’s not purposely excluding people of different colors/genders/etc.

Sure, all of these characters are based on stereotypes, but at least this film gets people talking about sexual violence/gender stereotypes/race/etc.

As a writer, I have to admit that there is something to be said for some of these arguments. Many of the characters I create are representations of the various facets of my own identity, and while I try to step out of the boxes of my experience and imagine someone else’s, doing so is often a perilous adventure. What if I misrepresent this community? Do I really have the right to write what I don’t know but have only imagined, researched, and tried my best to represent?

Yet, as an artist who is also an activist and a feminist, I think that questions of art and representation must be constantly considered and go beyond my individual experiences as an artist.

As the Prevention Education Coordinator at Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands, I am invited into schools and community groups to teach our six-session Youth Violence Prevention Program. The first lesson that I facilitate is about gender stereotypes and the normalization of sexual harm. In that lesson, we look at the pervasive ways in which the media perpetuates gender stereotypes and also, in the end, promotes rape culture and makes sexual violence “normal.” Think of these Dolce and Gabbana and Calvin Klein ads, or this Rick Ross song, or any movie in which rape or abuse is eroticized (something that’s often hard to avoid on film).

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One might try to argue that “The Arts” rise above this fray of marketing and populism. But it doesn’t, and I’m reminded time and time again that it doesn’t. From perpetuating the myth that “no really means yes” to supporting gender stereotypes (i.e., equating masculinity with violence/dominance or upholding the madonna/whore binary) to pigeonholing female characters/subjects as nothing more than romantic interests, “The Arts” are not immune to these issues of misrepresentation and the promotion of rape culture.

When I bring this up, though, my friends and colleagues often ask me, “Why throw the baby out with the bathwater? Isn’t it enough that this work has this great character of color/Trans* person/ Strong Female Character/etc.?” And my answer is that it’s not. Yes, art is art, art provokes, and I will not control another artist’s work. I may even praise artists’ use of X, Y, or Z, but that won’t stop me from challenging them to reconsider their (mis)representations of race, class, gender, etc. I won’t stand idly by while those works promote the rape culture I work to dismantle on a daily basis.

The film Miss Representation makes it clear that the socio-cultural and economic powers that be will make it difficult to create and distribute art/media that represents the voices of populations that are sidelined by those who dominate such industries. I cannot stop Robin Thicke from telling women what they want and objectifying the female body. I cannot get Adam Levine’s label to decry the intimate partner violence in the music video for “Misery.” I probably can’t even convince the beloved (and self-proclaimed feminist) Joss Whedon that just because The Avengers’ Black Widow is a Strong Female Character doesn’t mean she isn’t still overly sexualized. (Even for those who cheer on Whedon’s female characters, The Avengers still fails the infamous Bechdel Test.)

Robin Thicke - "Blurred Lines" video still

But as educators and artists, we have a choice. As an educator, I can teach others to be critical readers, viewers, and thinkers, celebrating the successes of art and media while also being willing to voice what is problematic about certain works. And I can encourage others to create works that speak out against privilege and that recognize both rape culture and inequalities that occur in the arts and media.

As an artist, I can create art that tells a different story—one that resists stereotypes, creates space for different voices, fights rape culture, and talks back to the racist, classist, sexist, ableist, heterosexist messages we receive day-in, day-out. I can create art that doesn’t think rape is a joke and perhaps instead calls out injustices and maybe even reflects the realities of the violence that many women face. I will make mistakes, but I can listen when those mistakes come to my attention. I can be self-reflexive, enter into conversation, and recognize where my own privilege creates blind spots.

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alexis blog avengers1In Miss Representation, Katie Couric says that the media (and I’ll add the arts to it, too) “can be an instrument of change: It can maintain the status quo and reflect the views of the society or it can, hopefully, awaken people and change minds. I think it depends on who’s piloting the plane.” I challenge you to pilot that plane, creating art that resists rape culture—and changing that culture in the process.

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Alexis Stratton is the Prevention Education Coordinator at Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands, a Columbia-based organization that supports survivors of sexual violence and educates the community to identify and prevent sexual violence. As a graduate of the University of South Carolina’s MFA in Creative Writing Program and Women’s and Gender Studies Program, she has spent years working in the Columbia community (and beyond) to raise awareness about issues of gender-based violence and to empower community members to change the world around them.


One Billion Rising -- A Guest Blog for the Vagina Monologues by Jennifer Whitmer Taylor


I have a lot on my mind these days. Earning a Ph.D. in history with a focus on women and gender requires immersion into the darker side of history. Black History Month unfolds into Women’s History Month. I also joined the cast of The Vagina Monologues to raise money for Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands. Yes, I’ve got a lot on my mind.


My mind wanders to the antebellum South, where the white constructed myth of black women’s promiscuity, personified in the myth of the Jezebel, justified sexual abuse. Slave dealers commodified this abuse with the “fancy girl” market, where some women sold for a staggering $5,000 and could be as young as twelve. During Reconstruction, rape and sexual abuse continued as there were no legal precedents established against them during slavery that could prevent their use as tactical weapons to promote white supremacy. In an act many may have performed as overseers or slaveowners a decade earlier, men cloaked in the protection of hoods, darkness, or legal impunity stripped women’s clothing to their waists or pulled it up to their necks before beating them. Whether in urban or rural areas, black women were raped, often because their husbands violated some southern white code, such as participating in politics or landowning. Occasionally, urban women found an outlet to voice their outrage via access to the Freedman’s Bureau, a federal prosecutor, or a Congressional hearing, although the witnesses were repeatedly questioned about their attire and level of resistance. The impact of this culture of violence permeates the modern civil rights and feminist movements as well.  A decade before she initiated the Montgomery bus boycott, Rosa Parks organized efforts to bring a rapist to justice.  When Joan Little killed a prison guard who attacked her in 1974, she proved that all women, even an incarcerated petty thief, deserved the right to protect their bodies.


At some point, this historian had to separate her emotions from these histories to press on with her work, yet in the last year I took my nose out of books just long enough to catch sound bites on the national news. I discovered that my body could shut down a legitimate rape. I heard “vaginal ultrasounds” used in the same sentence with “pregnancy resulting from rape.”  I found myself defending my reproductive rights forty years after Roe v. Wade. And like Sandra Fluke, I felt branded a Jezebel because I was enthusiastic about my right to receive free birth control. Suddenly, all of this information combined with the dozens of friends who have commiserated with me about our shared experiences with sexual and physical violence proved more than I could bear.


So I rose. I rose along with other amazing women in this year’s production of The Vagina Monologues. While it is disheartening to recognize that women must still wage this war for control of their own bodies, I am hopeful because I see a unity that history has never witnessed but has been simmering, rising if you will, beneath the surface of history’s pages. I see one billion rising.



This year The Vagina Monologues at USC is part of the One Billion Rising campaign (, a worldwide movement inviting people across the globe to take a stand against violence against women. Join us at the show and be a part of this uprising. The Vagina Monologues at USC will take place February 15 through 17 at 8:00 p.m. at the USC Law School Auditorium (701 Main St.). Tickets cost $8 for students and $10 for the public. Proceeds will be donated to Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands. (Find out more at


-- Jennifer Whitmer Taylor

The “Angry Vagina” Speaks -- A Guest Blog by Wanda Jewell

I have always wanted to belong to an underground radical movement for good. That’s why I got involved with The Vagina Monologues. Well, it's not so underground now, but it felt underground when I first auditioned about 15 years ago.


I was so excited to be a part of the show. That first director videotaped each of us introducing ourselves because she had so many people auditioning. I remember thinking how was I going to distinguish myself, and when I got behind the video camera, I said as proud as you please, "Hi, I'm Vagina Jewell!” I didn’t have a part in mind when I first auditioned, but “The Angry Vagina” turned out to be the one for me. I loved getting to be so angry, and the audience was so entertained with my rage that it just further enraged me. We did two performances that year, and I loved every minute of it.

The year after my debut as The Angry Vagina, I wanted to do the monologue again. I had thought all year about all the ways I could make it funnier and better. The show was having difficulty finding a director that year, so I talked a friend of mine into directing the performance, and another friend wrote an original poem on the that year's topic and performed it as the closing of the show. It was at the Koger Center, and we only had one chance to do it right. But it was a magical night. For weeks afterwards, everywhere I went, people would say, "I know you—you were the Angry Vagina. You were so funny." And that felt wonderful to be recognized for my participation in this not-so-underground radical movement for good. We had the cast party at my house, and I loved being around so many women from so many different walks—of various ages, races, interests—but the one thing we had in common was the radical notion that women should be treated like people! “The Angry Vagina” was a great part, and I knew I had to share it. I’ve taken ten years off, but I'm back in The Vagina Monologues and so excited. Ironically, I'm not nearly so angry anymore, and therefore, I'm able to have so much more fun with the part. I'm a good deal older than I was then, too, and the young women involved in this year’s production are inspiring, generous, and hilarious! Who doesn’t want to be a part of that? And if we can do some good along the way, even better. This one is rising!


The Vagina Monologues takes place on February 15 through 17 at 8:00 p.m. at the USC Law School Auditorium (701 Main St.).  Tickets cost $8 for students and $10 for the public. Proceeds will be donated to Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands. (Find out more at

V-Day Speak Out -- Listen to the Vaginas

Alexis Stratton, friend of Jasper and essayist in the most recent issue of the magazine (Jasper Watches: An Essay -- Reclaiming Vaginas) shared some info with us about an upcoming event that we think is pretty important. (Jasper adores the confluence of art and politics!) Rather than prattle on about it, we'll let Alexis do the talking:

Come enjoy a night of music, readings, storytelling, and speaking out at V-Day's open mic night at Conundrum Music Hall (626 Meeting St., West Columbia)!

All artists, writers, musicians, and other community members will be invited to take the stage at "V-Day Speak Out: Break the Silence, End the Violence" on Thurs., Feb. 7. We welcome everyone who has a song to sing/play, some spoken word to deliver, a story to share, or anything else you'd like--the sky's the limit! Doors open (and sign ups start) at 7:00, open mic begins at 8:00!

We're hosting this event in support of raising awareness of sexual and domestic violence, so we especially invite artistic expressions that respond to those issues. However, you're welcome to respond to those themes creatively, using them as a launching point or a place to start brainstorming.

Admission is free, but donations will be accepted for Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands ( Tickets for The Vagina Monologues will also be on sale. Find out more on our Facebook event page!

We hope you'll join us for an empowering, healing evening of speaking out, fighting back, celebrating the arts, and building community!

Jasper Calendar (Salon Series & Release Events) January thru March 2013

Last October, Jasper began a series of Salon events in which we invited local artists to give a brief and informal presentation on their work to a small group of fellow artists and arts lovers. Our Salon subjects have ranged from authors to artists to artistic directors with the size of our group ranging from a half dozen to more than 40. Every single one of the events has been a success. Attendees leave more engaged with the arts, better educated and informed, and with a greater sense of community. There have traditionally been no fees to attend, (though we usually have the Jasper Econobar open and, this year, we’re adding an unobtrusive donation box for folks who’d like to throw in a buck or two to help pay the rent.) We’re delighted to announce the Salon schedule for the first couple of months of 2013. Please check back soon though – the schedule is rapidly evolving as we all get a handle on the fact that the new year has started whether we were ready for it to or not! All of our events are also offered publicly on Facebook, too, so please try to RSVP there when you can.

Thanks for all your support and happy New Year from all of us at Jasper!


Thursday 1/10 at 7pm in the Jasper Studios at the Arcade, Author Janna McMahan  talks about her new book, Anonymity, published January 2013


Tuesday, 1/15 at 7pm at the Tapps Arts Center, Jasper Release Party for Jasper vol. 002, no. 002 – Our 1st Photocentric issue with photography from the Jasper staff photographers and their choices of some of the best local photographers in town.

Thursday 1/17 at 7pm at the Jasper Studios at the Arcade, Trustus  “The Trustus ‘Motherfu**ers : Looking Under the Hat” – Jasper invites members of the cast and crew of "The Motherfu**er with the Hat" to give you a behind the scenes look at the new Trustus play, opening on February 8th.


Thursday 1/24 at 7pm at the Jasper Studios at the Arcade presents “The Dark Side of Snow White with Columbia City Ballet featuring William Starrett” as Starrett shares his new vision of the ballet Snow White.


Tuesday, 1/31 at 7pm at the Jasper Studios at the Arcade -- Jasper’s book club, Jasper’s Nightstand, is up and running again and, by popular demand we’re reading Don McCallister’s new book, Fellow Traveler with discussion led by a surprise reader and Fellow Traveler author himself, Don McCallister.



Tuesday, 2/12 at 7pm at the Jasper Studios at the Arcade, USC Vagina Monologues director Alexis Stratton will talk about the history of the Vagina Monologues and this year’s edition. Plus, you’ll get to hear a reading of one or more monologues from the play.

Tuesday, 2/19 at 7pm at the Jasper Studios at the Arcade – Lecture and discussion “Patriarchy & Gender Roles in The Dry Grass of August: The Good Old Days? Sister, Please!” USC Women's and Gender Studies Adjunct Instructor and Jasper editor Cindi Boiter will lead discussion on the social constructs in this year's One Book, One Columbia selection, The Dry Grass of August by Anna Jean Mayhew.

Sunday, 2/24, time and location TBA, Book Launch – The Limelight: A Compendium of Contemporary Columbia Artists, Volume 1 published by Muddy Ford Press.

Thursday, 2/28 at Jasper Studios at the Arcade  Jasper’s Nightstand – The Dry Grass of August 8:30 or immediately following the author Anna Jean Mayhew's presentation at the Richland Library one block away.




Thursday, 3/7 at 7pm at the Jasper Studios at the Arcade -- Panel Discussion with Authors from The Limelight: A Compendium of Contemporary Columbia Artists. More information to come.

Friday, 3/15 at 7pm location TBA -- Join us as we celebrate the release of Jasper vol. 002, no. 003 -- The Women's Issue!