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.