Eve Ensler is worried about vaginas. After over 200 interviews with women of all ages, races, creeds, and backgrounds, Ensler compiled a novel cross-section of contemporary female society into the play we know today as The Vagina Monologues. At once shocking and profoundly liberating, the Monologues have become a theatrical and social juggernaut, catapulting the word "vagina" into the American vernacular. By disentangling the many euphemisms associated with female genitalia and allowing the thing itself to stand bare on stage with no secrets, many credit Ensler with initiating a modern-day crusade to demystify the vagina. No small claim, indeed.
Ensler takes the word "vagina" and ensures its legitimacy as a subject. Having done so, the shock necessary to incite change inevitably recedes over time. Though not necessarily a bad thing (it has, after all, done its job), The Vagina Monologues risks being counterproductive if it makes the vagina too everyday, too mundane-in effect, just a word.
That said, the experience of watching The Vagina Monologues has lost none of its appeal as a validating project. It has created a community among women with similar experiences and perhaps similar fears and shame. Breaching everything from vagina behaviors to its links to identity and self-confidence, the play has simultaneously incited and capitalized upon a culture of vaginas that has moved far from the historical climate of silence.
The Eccentric Tulip
The vagina as black hole. The vagina as lack. We're all familiar with the array of vagina concepts populating university discourse, or what I call the "Academic Vagina." Freud and Lacan aside, what these ideas translate into in contemporary women's conceptions of "that thing between their legs" is the opinion that the vagina is a void, a nebulous nothing that, though convenient for wearing pants and crossing legs, isn't so interesting or empowering.
That's where The Monologues come in. With the word itself in the title, Ensler's play has catalyzed a culture of vaginas with a canon of stories and a vocabulary of its own. The Vagina Monologues began a revolution that affects women everywhere: us, our mothers, our grandmothers. Aiming to spare no one, the play created and continues to create a community of vaginas united in the phenomenon of menstruation, the frustrations of the wonders of the body, the pleasure and pain of sex, and the links to self-identity and acceptance.
The Vagina Monologues has been presented on college campuses all across America (including a production at Brown last weekend) stimulating a new generation of vaginas. The sudden surge of performances on college campuses is a testament to its tremendous popularity if not reputation that now more than ever precedes itself. In fact, the V-day website itself (vday.org) has published that in the year 2004 alone, 624 schools put on benefit productions of the play, raising a total of $2,137,345.11. But especially in communities that like to think of themselves as liberal and open-minded like Brown University, the question of audience comes to the fore.
Though the same shock that came from the mention of vaginas is absent from our neck of the woods, last weekend the play still carried weight with its College Hill audience. Why? Ensler's writing is as witty and biting as ever. It garners the same laughs, but certainly not the same novelty. With a University internet forum overflowing with posts about masturbation, questions of bodily behavior normalcy, and genitals themselves, there's no shortage of outlets for this sort of conversation. What draws people to see The Vagina Monologues, then, is a combination of its well-known popularity and its power to provide a sense of validation. Here, women come not to be shocked or to witness the shattering of taboos, but rather to hear familiar stories of coming into one's sexual own, to laugh at vagina accidents, and to feel special about their womanhood.
The Vagina And The World
Ensler's irreverence and wit have been translated into the languages of over 24 countries including Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece, Norway, Germany, France, China and Japan. The play has crossed national borders and indeed opened up a vagina dialogue. But how present are the cultural voices of these countries in the actual text? Not very, if at all. However diverse in age and manifold in tone and subject, the Monologues are still written from and American perspective and for an American audience. Ensler's voice is unabashedly American with its use of slang and its experiential pool drawing from uniquely Western and specifically American cultural and social institutions like dating. A somewhat retrospectively problematic lack in the play, it is nonetheless frivolous to assign unrealistic global expectations to Ensler. The project necessarily started at home with as diverse a group of women as could be gathered. The genesis of the vagina dialogue had to start somewhere in order to even begin giving a voice to women and their vaginas.
Rather than The Vagina Monologues ipso facto, it is the dialogue the play has initiated that will scale the globe. Though the play itself may stop at our borders, the future of the vagina dialogue is indeed a global one, and necessarily so.
This global future is fast becoming provocative. Just last month in the country of Uganda, the play was banned in the week before its debut in the capital city of Kampala. According to the BBC, the Ugandan Media Council cited the reasons for the ban to be in the play's glorification of homosexuality. It said the performance could continue if the production organizers "expunge all the offending parts." One of the play's organizers responded, "I am extremely outraged at the hypocrisy. I'm amazed that this country Uganda gives the impression that it is progressive and supports women's rights and the notions of free speech; yet when women want to share their stories the government uses the apparatus of state to shut us up."
I Think I Broke My Clit
While stories centering on the vagina still provoke outrage in many cultures, in an American context, it is easy to critique The Vagina Monologues for its complacent and liberal use of the word "vagina". Bordering on overuse and resulting in ineffectiveness, how many times can someone say "vagina" without wearing off its power and even its magic? If too many secrets are revealed, how can the vagina exist after it has become too exposed, too emptied? Is there a line between healthy discussion and driving the subject into the ground? In a time where tampon commercials reveal even the gritty details of that-time-of-the-month, it's hard to reconcile the need to speak the language of the vagina with a simultaneous desire to keep its grace in mystery.
But isn't the vagina in all its guts and glory graceful? Seeing the reactions across campus recently, hearing women talk about how validating the play was, how refreshing its treatment of vaginas, it's tough for the aforementioned criticisms to hold firm. At the end of one of the monologues entitled, "The Flood," an elderly interviewee addresses the audience. "You happy? You made me talk - you got it out of me. You got an old lady to talk about her down-there. You feel better now? [Turns away; turns back.] You know, actually, you're the first person I ever talked to about this, and I feel a little better." Though somewhat diminished in its previous novelty, vaginas are still healthy and buzzing topics of discussion.
The Vagina Monologues place vaginas on the conversational map. However far past its zenith of innovation and effectiveness, audiences are still laughing and the play is still raising money for important causes. When actress Glenn Close writes of The Vagina Monologues' Eve Ensler that "You don't just hook up with Eve, you become part of her crusade. There's a corps of us who are Eve's army" it is not to elicit fears of militant, vagina-wielding feminists.
Though some of us may still be waiting for a complementary Penis Monologues, Eve Ensler has ultimately succeeded in her project of dispatching an approachable army of empowered, orgasming, well-loved, happy, brave vaginas.
Michelle Snow B'08 is ready for spring.