V-Day: A Failure of Feminism and Theater

The basic question: How did Eve Ensler’s play, The Vagina Monologues, transform from a downtown New York one-woman show into a worldwide non-profit franchise, with college girls and celebrities alike doing hundreds of benefit performances annually on Valentine’s Day (or “V-Day,” as it has been designated), “to stop violence against women and girls”?

I see the question as: what does it mean for feminism in this country that young women have canonized a charming if mediocre text, based on interviews with women of their mothers’ generation or older, channeled through narcissistic therapy-speak, and somehow find it an empowering feminist act to recite it verbatim?

Ensler conceives of the question a little differently—”I don’t know why I was chosen,” she writes in the introduction to the V-Day Edition of the Monologues, before going on to list “vagina miracles, sightings and occurrences”: the women who have stormed her dressing room with thanks and tales of sexual trauma; Kathie Lee Gifford and Calista Flockhart chanting vagina for a studio audience; a seventy-year old male viewer announcing, post-show, that “he finally got it.” One gets the sense that if Ensler didn’t exist, God would have had to invent her: she was just the divine conduit for the inevitable, the right “vagina lady” at the right time.

I don’t mean to be grumpy. Really. Anything that raises money and awareness for women under threat of sexual violence—great, you can’t argue with that. God bless Eve Ensler for making the vagina a pop culture phenomenon, worthy of headlines and 72-point font in newspaper ads. And I’ll be honest: as hundreds of people can probably attest, I found it incredibly empowering to talk about my vagina and its various uses when I was in college.

But even back then I don’t think I found V-Day or the Monologues politically or artistically notable. It’s certainly not in the same league as Anna Deaveare Smith’s Fires in the Mirror, a solo performance piece about the 1989 Crown Heights riots. Smith interviewed hundreds of people directly and indirectly involved in the riots, and, in performance, completely transformed herself into her interview subjects, recreating speech and gestures with laser-like specificity, surrendering her performer’s body. Instead of presenting a single truth, Smith allowed painful shards of truth to emerge from every subject’s story, forcing the audience member to make her own sense of the contradictions, and in doing so, to become aware of her own assumptions—a difficult, radical act.

The Vagina Monologues does not possess nearly the same power—mostly because it does not acknowledge difference. It is meant to be the story of our Collective Vagina. Ensler reports that she interviewed over 200 women of all ages and races and backgrounds for the piece, yet the language, boiled down by her voice, all sounds the same (From the openings of three different monologues: “My vagina’s angry. It is. It’s pissed off.” / “I call it cunt. I’ve reclaimed it, ‘cunt.’ I really like it. ‘Cunt.’” / “I love vaginas. I love women. I do not see them as separate things.”)

The show’s original presentation contributed to this sameness, one firmly grounded in Ensler’s own body. It’s the iconic image of the Monologues: Eve, a white middle-aged woman with a glossy Louise Brooks bob, seated in a chair, her strong arms folded across her lap, wearing a sexy black tank top, lipsticked red lips grazing an erect microphone.

Ensler’s interview process seems laden with techniques most appropriate to therapy (asking women, for example, “If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?”). The stories she chooses to tell—an older women finally confessing her lifelong shame over her vagina; a woman discovering her clitoris in vagina encounter workshop; “a wild collective song” of collaged menstruation stories (“I got lost in the bleeding,” Ensler writes)—contribute to a play that’s more catharsis than conflict. It’s a play with an agenda: it wants you to become a Vagina Warrior.

As I wrote about the Medea Project almost two years ago: self-help theater, no matter what it’s about, is ultimately reactionary: it allows its audience to participate complacently in the emotional spectacle of “healing,” after which they can “feel better.” Epic theater is not supposed to make you feel better—it’s supposed to distance you from your life, to makes the normal strange by placing everyday experience in its larger sociopolitical context, so you can see it more clearly.

You might argue, as many have, that nothing is stranger than putting the vagina center stage. Arguably, the Monologues did that in 1996, taking an organ swaddled in shame and secrecy and making it the ingénue—a sassy, sweet reversal. It still seems shocking to some campuses, that women would gather to speak about their vagina onstage—vulgar, as some right wingers have put it. It’s something that the V-Day Initiative seems quite proud of, even, how much trouble the whole thing stirs up–like every Catholic campus that prevents a production allows Ensler to retain her radical card. Unfortunately, with every year V-Day is celebrated, the entire affair becomes normalized, rote.

Epic theater should also challenge us. The Vagina Monologues don’t.

Which is perhaps exactly why young college girls prefer to chant Ensler’s cozily therapeutic text as an annual ritual of feminism. It’s franchised activism: send in stamps, get a V-Day kit, and you, too, can perform your mother’s vaginal empowerment. It’s comfortable. Cute. But most of all, it’s safe. Why ask difficult questions about your own sexuality, when Eve Ensler can do it for you?

An acquaintance directed a big benefit production of The Vagina Monologues this year. In an effort to enliven text that sounded stale and seemed like odd drag worn by the bodies of the college aged performers, she attempted to get her actors to think about their relationships with men, sex, their bodies. The young women mostly refused. They giggled and shut down and got defensive and spouted cliches and avoided the question.

I’m reminded of Joan Didion’s 1972 essay about the women’s movement, in which she critiques the unrealistic desire in feminist literature of the day to paint a picture of woman’s life, post-oppression, as one of fun and ease, independent of “all one’s actual apprehension of what it is like to be a woman, the irreconcilable difference of it—that sense of living one’s deepest life underwater, the dark involvement with blood and birth and death.”

Every V-Day, young women buy themselves a pass out of asking themselves the basic questions women need to keep asking, especially in the face of changing realities about women’s health and safety, and shifting messages about our place in society: what does it mean to be bound by our bodies? To be “the Other”? What are we rewarded for in this society? Where does our shame reside—and our desire? What does it mean to seek equality when women’s rights are increasingly spoken of in the past tense?

When one begins to ask these questions, it is hard to stop. The answers often don’t result in comfort—but in anger, sometimes in madness. But both feminism and art require us to test the boundaries of our sanity, of our assumptions; at their best, they demand that we are never content with the status quo. To allow both to stay in the realm of comfortable entertainment does double disservice.

Ensler clearly has a schtick she doesn’t mean to change. When one of the actors from the above my friend’s production actually attempted to write her own vagina monologue, about the misogyny of her religious background and her own exploration of her sexuality–Ensler called up and reamed the producer out for daring to add anything to her precious text.

5 responses to “V-Day: A Failure of Feminism and Theater

  1. I don’t usually comment unless I actually have something substantive to say. But I really wanted to say I love this piece and wanted to thank you for writing it. Even though I can think of nothing to add. susan

  2. *disclaimer i’m a boy so maybe… disclaimer gender disclaimer blah blah blah*never been a big “monologues” fan, precisely because it does seem, if not reactionary, then at least totally staid. your friends anecdote about eve ensler yelling at the producer doesn’t surprise me at all, because that *is* what the entire piece feels like. it is essentially the eve ensler show, and by purporting to speak for more than eve ensler, it starts to tread in dangerous territory…i’d have to categorize ensler with boal: people with really interesting ideas who have become phenomena, and — as part of being famous — have stopped thinking up new ideas. and i’d contrast them both to peter schumann of bread & puppet (though i don’t really know enough of his stuff to comment), because it clearly and unabashedly has a “peter schumann” stamp on it…it is clearly his vision, and presented as such. it can get just as agit-prop-ish, if not more, than “monologues”, but it clearly comes from the perspective of a single, individual artist and some folks who choose to work with him; it does not purport to speak for any group larger than b&p, whereas ensler seems to have appointed herself The Voice of Third-Wave Feminism, just as boal (in his levis, writing with pilot pens) is The Voice of the Empowered Third World Artist. does that make them reactionary, though? i wouldn’t say so…i think it is a huge vulnerability, however, because it allows theatre-goers and actors something to point at and call Political Theatre, or Englightened Third World Theatre, or Radical Womyn’s Theatre, while the people who are actually making stuff like that are totally out of view. on the other hand, maybe that’s the price of putting something in the spotlight like that, or at least of doing such a thing before you’ve killed your pesky artist ego…is there a way to get work out there as they do without turning yourself into an industry? and can you think of people who are doing it?(incidentally…i have nothing but love for anna deavere smith, but i’ve heard that she’s an insane hierarchical harpy to work with, which to my mind negates a lot of what she’s doing onstage, at least if she’s trying to bring other people in…)- raphi

  3. it’s interesting… for a performance piece that is so “unchallenging” it certainly has spawned a lot of controversy. and, as a V-Day organizer and survivor of many different kinds of sexual violence,and while I am completely open to reading/hearing differing opinions, I must say that my involvement with V-Day has been the single most empowering experience of my entire life. It has allowed me to take all of the ugly, painful and humiliating things that ever happened to me and turn their negative energy into a boundless source inside of me for creativity, change, connection… it has also changed my life in other ways. It has allowed me to broaden my focus… for instance, I went back to school a couple of years ago with the idea of becoming a therapist… and now I have chosen community psychology instead, as a way to help communities of women empower themselves rather than wallow in personal victimhood. It hurts me that you refer to V-Day as a failure of feminism. I’d take a closer look if I were you…

  4. incidentally, I saw Anna Deveare Smith perform in Eve Ensler’s latest dramatic work, “Swimming Upstream”, a play written by Eve and some other artists who happen also to be Katrina survivors. Its premier was held at V to the 10th in April in New Orleans. they do not cancel each other out…

  5. This is interesting. I've always been a fan of the monologues because it is so mainstream. Even though it isn't the best piece of writing out there, I've seen so many people think about things they've never thought about before because for them it does seem revolutionary. I attended two universities- one of them did V-Day every year and performed, collected donations, had discussions of domestic violence etc. And people talked because of it. Maybe they didn't like the play but at least they were talking about the issues. The other school I went to was in the bible belt, and we weren't allowed to do the Vagina Monologues because they were uncomfortable with us putting the word "Vagina" on posters. This also lead to discussion and debate about the piece. I too would prefer Anna Devere Smith, but I did want to say that I've seen this play start dialogues and that's a huge positive. I'd love for you to check out my blog, about theatre and feminism, at avivapressman.net/blog.html

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