The Vagina Monologues was first performed in 1996 and, since then, has become a world-wide phenomenon and the centerpiece of a very impressive charitable organization / event called V-Day. Written by Eve Ensler, and based on a series of interviews with a variety of women, the concept is simple and effective. A number of women perform a number of monologues in which their vaginas are discussed and, in this way, issues in sex, personal identity, and violence against women are identified, addressed, and discussed.
I saw my first production of The Vagina Monologues this past Saturday at Carleton University’s Bell Theatre. This version featured twelve monologues, twenty-nine women, and was entertaining, moving, and illuminating.
The monologues are performed in a very straightforward and bare-bones fashion, with each performer essentially talking directly to the audience using a microphone and minimal physicalization. Not all of the performers are totally polished and refined talents but, because the script is much more confessional than theatrical, every performance is effective and entertaining. The darker moments — concerning violence and abuse — are handled with tact and sensitivity and the lighter moments are ably exploited to the audience’s full delight.
All in all, the show was very enjoyable and well-worth seeing. Sadly, Carleton U’s short run is already over. Notably, ten per cent of all proceeds will be passed along to the V-Day organization (the standard playwright’s cut) and everything else will be donated to the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre. Keep an eye out for next year’s production.
Not surprisingly, some of the issues, themes, and topics addressed in the script and performance align nicely with some of the discussions we’ve been having around here lately. Here are some thoughts that came to mind while watching and thinking about the performance and the script.
Some of the script’s assertions about feminine sexual identity is somewhat perplexing for me and the kind of feminism with which I identify. I grew up intellectually at a time when one of the important lessons to come from feminists (once you cut through all the intellectual fancy-talk) is that we’d all be much better off if men, women, and society generally became much less obsessed with and focussed on the penis — both literally and symbolically. So, from that perspective, a play which celebrates and discusses the vagina is great. From the same perspective, however, a play that makes the claim, as this play does at different times, that a female’s essential nature is intimately tied to — and even reducible to — her vagina seems to me a total misstep. Just imagine some guy going around in this day and age proudly stating that his essential nature is his wee-wee. It feels almost as if the male obsession with genitalia is simply being transfered wholesale to female genitalia. Celebrating and discussing the vagina is a great idea — making it the be all and end all of female identity seems a mistake.
One monologue discusses how a young male’s insensitive reaction to a young woman’s positive but unexpected physical response to his sexual advances (she gets very wet when he kisses her) essentially ruins a woman’s sexual life. This certainly lends credence to the idea that leaving sexual education in the hands of teenagers can be as destructive as anything adults can come up with. I am sure many women and men are still haunted by the thoughtless and insensitive actions and reaction of boys and girls who are simply too naive and insecure to handle certain sexual situations with any sensitivity. Of course, age is no guarantee of increased sensitivity either. We’ve been talking about this over here.
Another monologue documents two very different kinds of rape experienced by a girl growing up. The first is a negative, unexpected, and coercive rape by an adult male when the girl is ten. The second is a positive, (more or less) planned, and consenting sexual encounter with an older woman and, because the girl is sixteen, is still technically a statutory rape in many parts of the United States (in the original version, the girl is thirteen, but the script has been revised to sixteen — the most common age of consent in the US — due to the controversy). This made me think about Amanda’s comment about the uncertainty of picking an age at which we could imagine a girl consenting to a positive sexual experience. Given the tone of the piece, one can only assume Ensler thinks thirteen is an acceptable age (although, she might still claim it depends on the context of each case) and that well-intentioned sex with an adult can be good for a minor. Apparently, in the original version of the monologue, the final line is “If it was rape, it was good rape.” Our discussion about this is also over here.
Several monologues usefully and effectively highlight the too easily ignored realities of violence against women and how it is so often directed towards a woman’s sexuality specifically. I think almost all men and women would agree that sexual assault is worse than non-sexual assault. So, what is it about the human psyche such that the ultimate expression of oppression and dominance is universally regarded to be sexual in nature? Is it simply iconoclasm taken to its most repugnant conclusion?
One monologue claims that to love a vagina one must also love hair and that pubic hair is essential to the well being of the vagina. It documents how a woman is forced to shave her vagina by her husband and then convinced by a female (and a German I assumed based on the accent employed — a very curious detail) couples counsellor to let him do it again. This piece was unquestionably in line with the view that a clean shaven vagina is perverse and ultimately an expression of male hegemony. For more on this topic, see here.
I thought of PPBP during the monologue about birth because of her concerns about the “care of self” vs. “care of other” dynamic in the feminine. In contrast to the other monologues, which emphasized the “care of self” side of the dynamic (e.g. sexual pleasure), this monologue seems to emphasize the “care of other” side — so much so that the birthing woman is reduced to her incredible life-giving vagina and, because of this, the community of other people taking part in the birthing process (Ensler, the nurse, the husband, the baby) seem much more important than the woman who is actually giving birth.
I also couldn’t help but notice a lot of performers were wearing clothing and accessories (heels, skirts, nylons, make-up) that a certain breed of feminists would consider symbols of male hegemony and, furthermore, from a performance and staging perspective, unless demanded by the script, that are also not entirely practical choices. I can’t help but wonder what these old guard feminists might think about these fashion choices. I’m all for women wearing whatever they please but when I see young women let fashion sense trump practicality (hmm, I need to move furniture and dance, maybe high heels aren’t a good idea), my second-wave feminist Spidey sense begins to tingle. Of course, on the other hand, the women found ways to negotiate the practical difficulties and, thereby, indirectly proved that the choice isn’t necessarily either – or and my first / third wave inner feminist is satisfied.
I should also probably note the audience was a pretty solid mix of men and women of all ages. Everyone seemed to me to be enjoying themselves thoroughly.
And last but not least, I can’t help but reflect on Ensler’s accomplishment. She has taken a very simple but extremely effective concept, touched the lives of millions, and leveraged her success to effect real and positive change in the world. She is is living proof that an artist can make a concrete and positive difference in the world, if she chooses to. The life lesson she and her monologues confirm: do what you love and, based on your level of success, do what you can to make a difference.
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