V-Day is upon us. For the third year in a row, the Agassiz Theater in Radcliffe Yard will host Eve Ensler’s play, The Vagina Monologues, created as a forum for voices marginalized by a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. It expanded into V-Day, an observance around Valentine’s Day meant to create awareness about domestic violence and sexual assault and raise money for feminist organizations.
Most of the proceeds of the V-Day Monologues productions go toward promoting feminist causes, and grassroots theater has real potential to counter patriarchy. However, at some point it stopped being about the vagina and started being about The Vagina. Ensler has taken her well-intentioned project and turned it into a franchise anchored in her own self-promotion.
The Vagina Monologues has become a ubiquitous money-making enterprise with McVaginas sprouting up at more than 300 campuses nationwide, according to Ensler’s website. There are Vagina t-shirts, Vagina buttons, Vagina mugs. At last year’s Harvard performance of the Monologues, audience members could buy chocolate Vaginas-on-a-stick at performances of the play—brilliant cross-marketing.
Ensler is an entrepreneur who has made herself CEO of The Vagina and whose business plan involves all college women as her loyal subscribers, performing their roles in her play and in her audience. Ensler said she and her Vagina franchise would stop sexual assault by 2005. Ensler’s success has clearly dimmed her critical eye to addressing the real problems that women face—if you told a counselor at a rape crisis center that the Monologues were the long-awaited cure to sexual violence, she might suggest Ensler has her head in her Vagina.
Ensler runs her franchise in an authoritarian fashion. Colleges must adhere to strict guidelines to perform the show and run the risk of harsh legal and financial penalties if they violate them. The most egregious restriction is that only women—presumably defined as people with vaginas—are allowed to perform her play. While friends of mine involved in Harvard’s production would like to allow men to perform—especially in the “Vagina Facts” sections, which present information as opposed to personal experience—Ensler made the producers choose either no men or no show.
This requirement reeks of the outdated 1970s feminist concept of “woman-only space,” which held that because men have oppressed women for so long, women need their own space away from men in order to establish their own identities free from sexist oppression. However, as any contemporary critic would tell you, patriarchy is not just about the physical presence of men but about the attitudes and assumptions that devalue femininities, marginalized masculinities and women. Making sexual assault and domestic violence into a “women victims, men batterers/rapists” binary does not reflect the complexity of women’s experiences. Issues like domestic violence and sexual assault may disproportionately affect heterosexual women, but the existence of same-sex domestic violence in lesbian communities proves that “women-only space” is not always safe for women. And men, too, are also victims of sexual violence. If Ensler wants The Vagina Monologues to end sexual violence, she should address all communities and identity categories—including men.
Several of the roles in the show are designated only as “Woman,” “Woman #1,” “Woman #2,” etc., giving no further description of a character except their designation as a woman. This open-endedness allows actresses and directors to craft who these characters are, as long as they fall within the definition of woman. But what definition of woman? Such a question may seem odd to people not involved in gender studies, but there are many ways to define a woman—such as chromosomes, a vagina, breasts, a uterus, clothing, pronouns, using the ladies’ room, self-identification—and no consensus has been reached.
The title and content of the play offers Ensler’s answer to this question—women are people with vaginas. This equation of woman and vagina is meant to make women aware of their own vaginas (as if they were not before) and to create public discussion of vaginas, which are often considered an inappropriate topic for public discourse. However, this equation of women and vaginas presents the dangerous possibility of biological reductivism and an interpretation of the play that says women are vaginas and vaginas are women, period.
One should not read the Monologues as a mere equation of women and vaginas. Instead, we must view them as Ensler’s representation of women, based on her life experience, which includes speaking with many women. Many audience members and critics are complicit in Ensler’s creative control over the vagina. We must keep in mind that the woman, women and even the vagina, with pop anatomy seemingly backing up its universality, are culturally constructed and historically specific institutions. While there may be trends, narratives with which we can identify and terms that are situationally useful, there is no final word on women. And even if there is, that word is not vagina.
Ensler has colonized the vagina as her own personal space and made it safe for all the types of women she allows—but where does this hegemony of Eve leave everyone else?
If the project were really to allow open discourse about the diversity of women’s experiences and women’s sexualities, then individual productions would be free to include a diversity of experiences that may be most salient with their particular audience. Performers could draw on their own experiences without facing repercussions, which might help remove the misleading presumption that the play speaks for everyone.
Ensler’s project is to lift every woman out of the false consciousness that is life in the patriarchy. The play suggests that everyone with a vagina will love her vagina if given the chance—and if she doesn’t, it must be due to patriarchal oppression and/or sexual assault. But false consciousness is inherently condescending. It tells many women—perhaps even most women—that their way of living and thinking and presenting themselves as women is inauthentic. The paternalistic implication is that Ensler knows what these women really think and really want, and if they listen to her, they will be enlightened and realize she is right. After all, you have to trust a girl named Eve to help you “discover” your “true womanhood.”
The concept of “universal women’s experience” is highly problematic, but incredibly marketable. If a set of monologues and “Vagina Facts” can represent half the world’s population, then the Monologues has a huge audience of people who can relate to and enjoy the show.
Ensler’s official website boasts that her play “has given a voice to women of all ages all over the world.” Ensler never attributes her stories to anyone. They may be composites of people she talked with. They may be complete reproductions of one side of a conversation. The monologues were all originally interviews. Ensler has written herself as interviewer out of the dialogue, and re-inserted herself as the interpreter of what she has now constructed as a monologue.
Where’s my monologue? Where’s yours?
Don’t ask yourself, “Which monologue am I?,” because that is just letting Ensler tell you who you are, and her play reflects a tiny fragment of the breadth of women’s experience. Even in the Ensler era, many voices remain excluded. What about women who have not had the opportunity to go to college, who are excluded from performing since the bread and butter of Ensler’s enterprise is V-Day performances at colleges and universities? Where is the transsexual woman who loves her female sexuality, who came about loving her vagina in a different way than the voices that are shown? What about people who don’t want their vaginas touched, not because of any particular sexual trauma, but because that is not how they choose to be sexual? These are the voices that we should seek out, not in a way that tokenizes or appropriates them, but listens to them in order to critique how each of us re-creates patriarchy and oppression in our daily lives. Let’s make the best of Ensler’s empire and use the celebrity status she has imparted to the vagina for a broader critique of patriarchy.
If there’s one thing you can’t deny Ensler, it’s that her play does encourage dialogue about the vagina. If that expands to include broader discussions of patriarchy, gender and sexuality, great. Ensler’s woman-types are more affirming and complex than those presented in much of Western culture. But if it stops with Eve’s Vagina, then we’re not much better off than we were before.
I have a vagina. I don’t ask it what it wants to wear or what its name is or what it wants to eat for breakfast. Asking a vagina to talk is a cute rhetorical device to start a discussion. But that is all it is. It is not going to work for everyone—generally a requirement for something to be “universal”—and it’s not going to always get people to talk about their experiences.
Eve, stay out of my vagina.