Stopping the Violence

Ensler, Rossellini, ABC Carpet, focus on women and their bodies

In an extraordinary effort to combat violence against women and girls, Eve Ensler, the Obie Award-winning playwright, has for several years promoted a global effort, dubbed “V-Day,” a frank reference to the female genitalia featured in the title of her popular Broadway play, “The Vagina Monologues.” That public awareness campaign will be given a huge boost this week by one of New York’s most popular retailers.

Many Americans are aware to some degree that physical violence perpetrated against women accounts for a significant number of crimes. National statistics indicate that the frequency of such incidents peaks during high-profile male-oriented events, such as Superbowl Sunday. In the newest stage of her campaign, Ensler aims to significantly broaden public awareness, beginning with a reconstitution of what defines violence against females, to include not only the more familiar crimes of beating and stalking, but other acts such as “dowry deaths and bride burnings” and “acid attacks,” more obscure assaults that reflect time-honored chauvinistic prerogatives still accorded males in many parts of the world.

This Thursday, November 18, along with the international screen star Isabella Rossellini, Ensler will launch “Love Your Tree,” in conjunction with the home furnishings retailer ABC Carpet and Home, in response to what the playwright said was an outpouring of response following the San Francisco performance of her new play, “The Good Body,” this past summer. Like “The Vagina Monologues,” the new play, which opened on Broadway November 15 at the Booth Theater, features Ensler’s portrayal of various characters through a series of monologues, this time focusing on the range of ways in which women from diverse backgrounds and cultures feel compelled to change their bodies in order to fit into culturally-prescribed notions of beauty.

“When we did the show in San Francisco, we got so many calls from people asking ‘What can we do?’” Ensler said in an interview this week. “And we saw this vision, and with the support and collaboration of ABC, we’re creating this space for women and men to come after the show.”

The ABC Carpet and Home outlet on Broadway at 19th Street will host the “Love Your Tree” space through January 16, featuring a structure made of the discarded wood of several different trees by Paulette Cole, ABC’s creative director and CEO, along with Amy Ilias and Jim Deney. The space will also feature the Red Tent, frankly named in reference to menstruation, a structure Cole first designed for the Omega Women and Power Conference this fall.

The tree concept was inspired by one of the characters in “The Good Body,” based on Ensler’s interaction with an African woman asked to describe her body.

“She pointed out a tree to me and said ‘Would you ever hate that tree or call it more beautiful than another tree?’” recalled Ensler. “Women’s bodies are also very much tied to nature. The desecration of women’s bodies is very much the same as the desecration of the earth.”

The Red Tent is intended as a sanctuary and draws upon the tradition in various cultures in which women would isolate themselves from society—and specifically men—during their menstrual cycle, which was considered unclean.

“Women were in service to each other back then,” said Cole, about her thoughts behind the tent’s design. “This is about expanding that space and providing refuge for people to just be.”

Cole acknowledged that one of her major concerns is how best to raise social consciousness and continue to sell goods, especially during the year’s busiest shopping season.

“We want to use business to guide people to vote with their dollars, so that everyone from the maker to the customer is provided for,” said the furnishings executive.

“We make the right choices about who we buy from,” Cole continued, pointing to ABC’s notable efforts to buy products from cooperative profit-sharing ventures, indigenous cultures and environmentally conscious vendors. “For each one of us, our homes are sacred. We’re taking it a step further and saying that if you invest in your values, you’re creating sacred space… it gives a product a much deeper dimension because it has a history and you bring all of that into your home.”

In addition to an ongoing line-up of prominent speakers, discussion groups, music and dance events, “Love Your Tree” will include an impressive and candid art installation, curated by internationally acclaimed photographer Paula Allen. The installation will feature photographs by various female artists communicating the diverse ways in which women relate to the concept of body images.

On December 2, in a session titled “The Costs of Beauty,” Rossellini, the actress who served as the face of cosmetics giant, Lancôme, for more than a decade before being unceremoniously fired when she turned 40, will be portrayed by Ensler in “The Good Body.” Rossellini expressed an eagerness to address the issue of how societies determine what qualities constitute female beauty.

“To me, it’s interesting, I’m honored [by Ensler’s portrayal],” commented Rossellini, in an interview last Friday. “I was very grateful to Eve because this issue of beauty is something that’s so much an element of my everyday life.”

Rossellini demurred when asked if Lancôme fired her because of her age, saying that, “because I turned 40, though, something happens, you lose the puppy-dog eyes at a certain age and it is replaced by a strong look. Unless we really, really make it clear that women can be strong and still beautiful, this is going to continue to happen.”

Rossellini, a prominent activist in the 1970s feminist movement to legalize divorce and abortion in her native Italy, commended Ensler for her international efforts to promote women’s rights beginning with the production of “The Vagina Monologues.”

“Eve is our loudspeaker,” Rossellini said. “It’s incredible what she is able to do. It’s a leadership gift. She says things that voice women’s questions and concerns.

“When I first went to see ‘The Vagina Monologues,’ I saw that it had created a meeting place…and that is what ‘Love Your Tree’ is doing again,” Rossellini added. “It’s useless to complain to the big cosmetic companies about the problem—they are out to sell a product. We have to do it, we have to create a culture and a geographical space, because if you don’t have a space where do you start?”

When asked about the connection between women’s rights and queer rights, Ensler—who is frank about having had relationships with men and women—firmly asserted her feelings of solidarity.

“I have always felt completely connected to the gay community,” said Ensler, pointing to the fact that the first transgender women’s V-Day was held last year. “‘The Good Body’ is saying there can be different kinds of good. Real good is complex and sexy and ambiguous.

“I am afraid of this culture which is terrified of sex—this so-called morality seems to embrace only a few,” Ensler continued. “I don’t trust any administration where every single person is not embraced—when you start to say that certain people can’t exist it gets very scary.”

In an effort to reach out to the lesbian community through “Love Your Tree,” events will include an open discussion group, titled “Lesbians Respond to ‘The Good Body,’” facilitated by a psychotherapist, Leah McElrath. The group will meet four times throughout December and January and will focus on the connection between body images and women’s sexual identities.

Reflecting on the significance of the installation and upcoming educational events, Paulette Cole said, “I think it’s really powerful and strong for us to see ourselves as trees. We’re all rooted in the earth, we’re all organic beings…we draw strength from our trunks. You’ve got to love your own tree.”

For more information and a complete schedule of women’s events at ABC Home and Carpet, visit: loveyourtree.org. For more information on Eve Ensler’s V-Day campaign and her new play “The Good Body,” visit vday.org.

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