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Travel Diary: Way down south in Sewanee

I'm going to start this post by admitting that, most mornings, I wake up and immediately turn on the Today show. Partly it's a kind of alarm supplement, to ensure that I don't fall back asleep. Partly it's because I like to know if anything was attacked or blown up or wiped out or otherwise disaster-fied in the previous 8 to 10 hours. And finally, I find Matt Lauer and Al Roker oddly soothing in the A.M.

The other morning I had to wake up several hours in advance of the Today broadcast to catch a plane to Nashville. And wouldn't you know, I missed what might have been the most awesome thing to happen on Today since Tom Cruise freaked out on Lauer for not being appropriately down with Scientology. One of the students at The University of the South in Sewanee, where I gave a lecture on Valentine's Day, asked if I had seen it. Seen what? Seen Jane Fonda say 'cunt' on Today, that's what. That's right: Sitting there with Eve Ensler, talking about The Vagina Monologues, Fonda busted out with the C-word. I am convinced she and Ensler cooked the whole thing up backstage, with the express intent of making Meredith Viera look stricken with sudden gas pains. Because, really, you can't shock the ladies on The View these days. They're ready for "cunt." But Ann Curry and Meredith Viera? Easy prey.

Productions of The Vagina Monologues, as you probably know, have become de rigueur on college campuses around Valentine's Day, and the week-long conference on women at Sewanee, of which my lecture was one part, was going to be capped with one. The students who picked me up from the Nashville airport and drove me to Sewanee explained that they'd run into some trouble publicizing the event: The table tents they'd made for the school's dining hall were confiscated by the head of food services, because he had a quibble with the word "vagina." What if his young daughter were to see it in the dining hall? Couldn't the women putting on the conference just call it, you know, The Monologues? (This is, of course, not an isolated incident; you may remember that last year, a Florida theater was bullied into changing the word "vagina" to "hoo-ha" on its marquee after an angry motorist complained.)

So naturally, my time at Sewanee was spent having quite a few outraged conversations about how, well, people are idiots, and could you image this kind of fuss from people in response to something called, say, The Colon Monologues? (Which is a terrible concept for a show, but you know.) As one student pointed out, the people who tend to have problems with the word "vagina" are invariably the same people who are staunchly antichoice — so you'd think, given their stance on the importance of the actual vagina as the vehicle of that all-important life-giving, they could stomach seeing the word in print. Apparently not.

Anyway. As always when I go to colleges and universities to speak, I was thrilled and gratified to meet so many smart, engaged young women — and once again I wondered where so many people get the idea that young women aren't interested in feminism. During the Q&A after my lecture, there were so many good questions — about sex work and labor issues, about representations of women on TV, about advertising — that I almost wished I hadn't spent the previous 40 minutes talking and just turned the whole evening into a Q&A.

Mainly I was impressed that the school had put on, and that the students had pulled together, a weeklong symposium devoted to women and the media that encompassed movies and panel discussions and lectures. Since my experience of feminism on my own college campus 13 years ago was not, shall we say, all that cohesive — I went to more than a few meetings of feminist groups that were hamstrung by whether the word "feminist" appearing on a banner would be too "alienating" — I had a couple of brief moments of (internal) fuddy-duddy righteousness. ("When I was your age, we had no Vagina Monologues! That's right! We had to walk two miles in the snow for a Xeroxed handout from Sisterhood is Powerful!") But I have to say, I don't think these particular students were taking anything for granted.

I was a little sad not to have a chance to see more of Tennessee. Hatch Show Print, which I've always wanted to visit, did have an extensive exhibit of posters in the Nashville airport, but I always thought if I went to Tennessee I would at least want to see the Grand Ole Opry, to say nothing of Dollywood. But Sewanee was awfully cute. The campus itself, what little I saw of it, is almost like a cartoon of a college campus — green, rolling hills! Hogwarts-esque bulidings! Campus dogs that bound up to you, smiling expectantly! I was put up at a bed-and-breakfast in a neighboring town, and because it was Valentine's Day my room was stocked with roses and chocolate. Actually, cute hardly begins to describe it. Oh, and I did see a Piggly Wiggly. That's something, right?

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