Eve Ensler says she is worried about the vagina. So are we. To paraphrase Eve Ensler's introduction to her acclaimed theatrical work, but in terms of our concerns rather than hers: We were worried about The Vagina Monologues. We were worried about what we think about the Vagina Monologues and even more worried that we don't think about it. People have gone weeks, months, sometimes years without interrogating it. So we decided to talk to men and women about The Vagina Monologues, to do a Vagina Monologues interview, which became The Vagina Monologues dialogue-an alternative to the overwhelmingly positive (and singular) response that the play and, specifically, a recent production on Brown's campus, have received, even in this very publication.
The Vagina Monologues seeks to form an open discourse around female sexuality. Does it accomplish this?
Woman: The play does present female sexuality and the vagina in a more vocal way than has ever been done before. In doing this, however, the monologues systematically exclude an entire segment of the population from the discourse that they purport to open. It's not people talking about the vagina; it's the vagina speaking through women and only women. If you have a vagina, you can express yourself, but if you don't, you're silenced. The penis is present in the play, but it is not allowed to speak. There's no man on stage. And I think this has the effect of silencing men in real life.
Man: Rather than starting a dialogue that would alleviate current tensions surrounding gender relationships, it seems to effectually bring women together in their own community of empowerment. I have to admit the whole thing has seemed like a kind of club to me.
What does the play offer to the male audience?
Woman: The things the play tells men are lessons. The vagina gets to dictate how men interact with it. Like, when they ask women "If your vagina could speak, what would it say?" the first response that all the women chant together is "Slow down!" Who is that directed towards? I really felt that play encourages laughing at men. People did laugh at that line.
Man: It's fine to create a community, but not if it's done using tactics that humiliate those who are excluded.
Woman: It's those same kinds of tactics that have been used against women for centuries, which merit a response like The Vagina Monologues. To really break that cycle, to really be something different, it seems like The Vagina Monologues should have a new and more inclusive method for approaching these problems.
Does the play allow women to regain control over the meaning of the vagina?
Woman: I think that those instances where the play addresses men are especially founded on the traditional idea that the vagina is an object of male desire. Its power over men relies on the notion that they want it.
Man: It's interesting that the play selects the vagina as the singular object of male desire. There's something curious about that, which recalls, for me at least, the phrase that a particular woman "likes the penis" as a euphemism for enjoying sex. That phrase, and the phrasing the play uses, seems to degrade the notion of equal, loving relationships between men and women.
Woman: I'm interested in that notion of the vagina as singular. Like it's a category. Instead of the vagina being a characteristic that some people have, vaginas happen to come with a woman attached. It's not the woman gaining control of what the vagina means, but the concept of the vagina becoming the sole definition of what it means to be a woman.
What do you envision as the effect of the abstraction of the vagina?
Man: Since the discourse of femininity as effected by the play is dominated by the vagina as an abstract concept, I believe that it has the effect of halting discussion. In a sense, the play presents the vagina as the vehicle through which women can become empowered, which it isn't. It's a body part, no more or less important than a finger, a nose or an ankle. As a body part it can't actually tell us what it thinks-
Woman: It can't actually think anything.
Man: Right. So rather than really engage people about the terms and concepts of womanhood, it loads everything on the vagina's ship and sends it out to sea.
Woman: That discourse isn't just in the play. It expands it to a whole culture or cult, which is reinforced by the continual performance of the play.
A cult of The Vagina Monologues?
Woman: Well, yes. As it's performed over and over again and year after year in the same places it becomes more of an event and meeting than a theatrical production. Many consider it a privilege to be involved with The Vagina Monologues and it's idolized by those who agree with its message, which encourages people to not consider it critically.
Man: I think that's the really sad part. Attending and appreciating The Vagina Monologues requires a lot of forward thinking, and it's a loss to have open-minded people become sycophants for the play, rather than having them further the discussion and push the thinking that the play itself opens.
How does it prevent critical examination?
Man: Well, for one thing, because it has been around so long, the play is kind of old news and so there's not really a call for criticism of it. I mean, at this point, you're either on the bandwagon, or you're not.
Woman: Also, there are the messages that the play hopes to embody: female empowerment and open discussion. They're hard to argue with. If you criticize it, you're immediately setting yourself in opposition to those things. Women are unlikely to take issue with the means the play uses, since the supposed ends are really progressive and beneficial for women.
Man: And men are not likely to take issue with it because by the nature of the play being The Vagina Monologues, they're excluded from the terms of membership, and naysayers would likely be seen not as intelligent critics, but simply as sour grapes upset at not being included. Likely, men would feel that people would see it as part of the perceived male desire to be on top of everything.
Why should men want to criticize it?
Man: Well, I think this comes back to the play addressing men directly. Men are part of the problem and since The Vagina Monologues is viewed by many as a solution, it's important for men in some way to enter the discussion. I think there are a lot of progressive men, especially on college campuses, where the play is most often produced, whose thoughts about the concepts and terms of femininity and male/female gender relations are valuable. Men have a lot to offer to the discussion and exclusion or isolation of the genders is ultimately a bad thing.
Woman: For whom?
Man: For everyone.
Woman: I think it denies men and women access to each other by setting up a relationship between men and the vagina rather than between men and women. And almost every example of a man's interaction with the vagina is extremely negative-men are child molesters or rapists or just plain disrespectful-they're never equal partners. The one positive male role in the play is in a monologue called "Because He Liked to Look at It" where a girl discovers how beautiful her vagina is because a man appreciates it. But, first of all, he doesn't appreciate it in a sexual way, there's still no positive image of male sexuality toward a vagina. All he does is stare at it. He keeps saying to her as she undresses "I want to see you" and he's talking about her vagina. I thought it was kind of sad-she actually says "I'm right here" and he says "no, I want to see YOU."
Man: The real woman is supplanted by the vagina and the male character is simply a voyeur. In a sense, he's emasculated. His desire to view the vagina is his sole definition as a character. And this hints at his implied desire to be a woman himself.
Do you hope to see a Penis Monologues in the future?
Man: No. The penis doesn't need it. The Vagina Monologues tries to establish a symbolic place for the vagina. This already exists for the penis. There are so many symbolic terms for penis in our language-phallocentric, phallic, the conflation of the penis and weapons-that it has accumulated an excess of conceptual meaning. I wonder if this is the real problem; that we've placed so much weight on such a stupid little body part. I don't really want to talk about my penis anymore than I'd want to talk about my shoulder or my finger or anything else. It performs a function, and I'm happy with that.
Woman: I wouldn't mind it, if it displayed some actual information about the body and allowed women into the field of discussion-things I don't think The Vagina Monologues does. It's valuable to talk about these things, to make each other comfortable with our bodies. It's just the methods of The Vagina Monologues I personally don't agree with.
If you could talk to The Vagina Monologues, what would you say, in two words?
Woman: Nice try.
Man: Up yours.
Scott Kolp B'06 wants you to say "Nispy" as fast as you can in rapid succession. Cristi Laquer B'07 has acute angina.