Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Vagina Monologues

I have just seen a production of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, which is peformed in cities across the globe around this time of year. The goal of these performances is to promote awareness of violence against women and to support an anti-violence initiative called V-Day, but I am not sure that should be the goal. I'll explain what I mean, but first some background.

The Vagina Monologues is, as the name suggests, a series of monologues performed by women about their characters' sexual experiences and vaginas. It was first performed as a solo show by its author Eve Ensler in 1996, and has been both lauded and criticized within various branches of the feminist movement. On one hand, the play has certainly been praised for presenting women's issues that are not otherwise discussed much in public, and for including the experiences of women of many different ages and backgrounds. On the other hand, critics of the play have noted that the vast majority of the monologues depict the female experience in a negative light, and that heterosexual experiences in particular seem to get a bad review compared with lesbian experiences. There is even one particularly startling monologue which depicts a lesbian statutory rape in a positive light. Whoa.

Despite that shock factor, my issue with the play is somewhat different from these critiques. Although I may be more awkward than the average woman, I am going to take a leap of faith and suppose that apart from that, I am fairly standard for someone who grew up in the West. This means that the vagina monologues which talk about how much Pap smears suck, how tampons should be lubricated, how gross run-of-the-mill bad sex is, and how hard it is to get off when you're old and arthritic are very relatable to me, even though being 25, I am not yet arthritic. I enjoyed watching these monologues because they made me think of what late-night comedy would be like, if only late-night comedy tried to entertain women. Unfortunately, late-night comedy is actually mostly a bunch of guys making dumb jokes about their balls.

Anyway, The Vagina Monologues. In the very next breath after the relatable stuff - or the very next monologue - I am being told about something that is really not relatable to Westerners at all, like female genital mutilation or tribal rape in the developing world. To me, these things are foreign causes rather than elements of my own female identity and have no business being in the same play as tampon humour, but The Vagina Monologues tries to insist that I identify with all of it equally. After all, the play seems to reason, we are all part of a global sisterhood, and the issue of "violence against women" can be equally well represented by the stories of all women.

I disagree with this way of thinking. Awkward masturbation and Pap smears are not violent just because they involve a vagina, and the presence of a vagina in all of these monologues is too tenuous a connection between them to justify their presence in the same play. Also, if I were going to watch a play about the plight of women who have been subjected to female genital mutilation, it would actually need to be more or less entirely about that subject to be effective, not just a brief little part of a larger thing.

Basically, what I am saying is that this play needs to decide what it is. If it is about violence against women, it should be about violence against women. If it is about the amusing travails of being a woman in the developed world, that's fine too, but then it should be about that. No one play can do everything.


  1. I haven't seen this play but I agree with this post anyway!

  2. Haha. Glad I preemptively discussed it with you.

  3. I think you missed the point of the play.

  4. Just wondering, which is the "particularly startling monologue which depicts a lesbian statutory rape in a positive light"?

  5. @Anonymous: What, in your view, was the point of the play that I missed? I got that it's supposed to be a bunch of monologues about vaginas. I just don't think that works.

    @Anonymous: I don't know whether you're the same anonymous as above, but anyway, the monologue I'm talking about is "The Little Coochie Snorcher that Could." That it depicts a statutory rape in a positive light is actually not my original observation. See the bit about it under the "Feminist Criticism" section here:

  6. I have not seen the play, and have no inclination to, but it seems to me that a play about both genital mutilation and tampon lubrication is probably trivializing one of these phenomena (I would take a leap of faith and guess it is the former), the vaginal link between these 'shared experiences' notwithstanding.