Phallic Balloons against the War

By Pollitt, Katha | The Nation, March 24, 2003 | Go to article overview

Phallic Balloons against the War


Pollitt, Katha, The Nation


Who says there's nothing new under the sun? Monday, March 3, saw the emergence of a new kind of protest against war--the Lysistrata Project. Back in January, two clever and indefatigable New York actresses, Kathryn Blume and Sharron Bower, had the marvelous idea of staging readings of Aristophanes' hilarious and bawdy antiwar protofeminist play, in which the women of Greece, led by the strong, intelligent and fearless Lysistrata, unite to withhold sex from their warrior husbands until they agree to end the Peloponnesian War. Before they knew it, the project had grown to include more than 1,000 readings in 59 countries from China to Argentina. The United States had 700, with 67 in New York City alone.

Ever the enterprising reporter, I passed up numerous opportunities to see the play in wintry parks and outside neoclassical buildings (brrr), on the subway, at Grand Central Station, in bars, libraries and bookstores, and caught a performance at the Barnard College cafeteria, where students offered a high-spirited all-girl reading, complete with balloon phalluses, to their lunching classmates. That night, I saw the all-star version at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which offered gymnasts, bongo drums, a band and yet more phallic balloons, and featured, among others, Kathleen Chalfant, Kevin Bacon (!) and an unforgettable Mercedes Ruehl as the witty and redoubtable heroine.

How to account for the project's triumphant popularity? As Bower put it at BAM, "Nobody can resist an ancient Greek dick joke." Well, yes, there's that. What a pleasure it was to have fun, vitality, humor and sex on our side, not to mention the literary canon, the glory that was Greece and the majority of the world's population, and leave the other side stuck with Confederate flags, Bible study and bigoted prom queens like Ann Coulter. The Lysistrata Project belongs to something new in political organizing--Internet-fueled grassroots arts activity, in which a master blueprint is quickly adopted and freely adapted at the local level--like last month's antiwar poetry readings and V-Day, a spin on Valentine's Day in which Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues is staged at hundreds of campuses and communities across the globe as a feminist fiesta and fundraiser.

Will any of it make a difference? Bush seems about as deterrable as Godzilla, and by the time you read this the bombs may be raining on Baghdad. But the longer our protests prolong the prewar moment, the more isolated the war party becomes. Meanwhile, our movement grows in numbers and creativity.

Like Code Pink, the semiparodic, all-women antiwar group that is conducting a vigil at the White House and demonstrates in garden hats and feather boas, Lysistrata plays on some very old stereotypes. Both say men are violent and women are peaceful, men love guns and women love children, and propose that men messed up the world and women can fix it. The positive aspect of this vision is that it gives disregarded and disrespected ordinary women a platform--as mothers and homemakers--from which to demand attention as significant social actors; the downside is that it valorizes that very powerlessness. …

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