Pleasure and pain
The Vagina Monologues is simultaneously powerful and pretentious
The Vagina Monologues is one of those plays that elicit strong reactions from their audiences. It’s been performed by the likes of Whoopi Goldberg and Jane Fonda. Translations have found their way to Indonesia, Russia and Ecuador. It’s been heralded for its encouragement of women to be proud of who they are, and criticized for setting back the feminist movement by highlighting women’s sexuality. It’s been called revolutionary as well as biased against male-female relationships.
The Associated Students’ Women’s Center presented the play at Chico State last weekend (Feb. 2-3). The last of the three shows was packed—more than 500 in the audience, most of them women, by the count of narrator Chris Jackson, who has been involved for five of the seven years the play has been performed in Chico. It applies to everyone, she explained—either as an owner/operator, willing participant or innocent bystander.
Some will be shocked to hear that this was the first time I’d seen the play, which made its debut 11 years ago by the now-famous Eve Ensler, who penned it based on conversations with hundreds of women. My feelings on the performance were mixed. The actresses shouldn’t take this to heart. They were wonderful. I particularly enjoyed—and I think the rest of the audience would agree—Barrie Brown’s performance of “My Angry Vagina” and Christine Fulton’s “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy.”
You see, my opinion is rooted more in the content than the performance. On the one hand, it’s empowering to women. It celebrates the essence of femininity and offers a forum in which typically taboo topics are explored. Nothing here is off limits (or sacred, apparently), with monologues or discussions ranging from hair, smell, periods and “vagina workshops” to sex, orgasms and rape.
“It’s really empowering to have a voice and to give a voice to those who might not have had the courage to talk about these things,” said Vanessa Ceccarelli, the show’s assistant director. “It’s a discovery of sexuality instead of trying to hide it, which our society sometimes tries to do. All women should appreciate their vaginas.”
The play also served as a launching pad for the V-Day Initiative, which aims to stop violence against women, like the particularly brutal rape described in “My Vagina Was My Village.” (The “V” in V-Day stands for Valentine, vagina and victory.) The proceeds from Chico State’s shows, for instance, went to the A.S. Women’s Center, the Chico Peace & Justice Center, Rape Crisis and the Stonewall Alliance. Performances similar to Chico State’s are being held on campuses all over the country, most of them also benefiting women’s groups.
On the other hand, The Vagina Monologues is in the same breath unashamedly frank and poetically pretentious. It goes above and beyond the love yourself/ love your body mantra. For example, three women, sitting around a table, discuss a topic—in one scene it’s “What does your vagina smell like?” and in another they ask, “If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?” Other scenes depict women who proclaim that they are their vaginas—that they live through their vaginas. Some might find these explorations profound. But, however comfortable I might be with it, I am not my vagina.
Likewise, Ensler has been extremely successful in encouraging women to speak out and not be ashamed of their vaginas. Wonderful. But there’s a big difference between being ashamed and simply wanting to keep privates private—and where each of us falls in those categories is obviously going to be different.
There are, absurd profundities and personal politics aside, many topics in the play that everyone can identify with in some way or another. And by watching and listening to the audience’s reactions in the BMU, it was obvious that Ensler’s play still strikes a chord.