What beef do you have with “The Vagina Monologues”?
Own up: You may have never seen or read the Eve Ensler play, but you probably have an opinion of it, or at the very least, some sort of visceral reaction. For many female readers, that reaction is probably a mixture of pride, enthusiasm and embarrassment. For the men, it’s more likely to take the form of a snicker, an eye-roll or outspoken mockery. When I mentioned to a group of male friends a few weeks ago that I was working to produce Yale College’s own performance of the “Monologues,” I got all three. “Let’s put on ‘The Penis Monologues!'” one laughingly shouted. “Then the world will know what it’s really like to be a man.”
The truth, of course, is that we’ve all heard “The Penis Monologues” many times before. I date my first encounter with them back to the first grade, when I stood on line in my elementary school gym and listened to a classmate discuss — with anyone who cared to chime in — the all-important issue of naming one’s genitals. The excited conversation that sprung up around him struck me as utterly foreign. It had never occurred to me to name a part of my body, and certainly not a part that personal. For boys, the desire to discuss, name and compare has always seemed positively instinctive. Why the shock that women are finally trying to do the same thing?
I do apologize to those readers who are complaining to themselves that they’ve heard this all before, that “The Vagina Monologues” has been around for so long (it was first performed in 1998) as to render questions like these unoriginal and repetitious. I was tempted to think so too, until the mere mention of the “Monologues” around my dorm elicited grimaces and protective leg-crossing from any boy within earshot, as if castration were imminent. As a joke, a male neighbor drew a black line across the poster I had taped to my front door that advertised auditions for the show. Joke or no joke, tensions seemed to be running high where the very idea of the play was concerned.
It’s no secret that misogyny of all forms, both deliberate and unintentional, continues to thrive on this campus. Last week’s controversial campaign of posting Facebook profiles considered to have misogynist and homophobic content spoke particularly powerfully of the negative attitudes that some students here continue to harbor against others. In this continued struggle, “The Vagina Monologues” stands as a kind of trigger point for both sides. Detractors mock the play for its consideration of female sexuality as a subject worthy of special attention and endorsement, for its unabashed celebration of a word that often is somehow still considered taboo. Those also happen to be the main reasons why supporters continue to produce and admire the play. Still, most people are somewhere in the middle, wondering why “The Vagina Monologues” deserves so much fuss and attention.
To answer that question, I find it best to look beyond all abstract jargon of sexuality and feminism and recall my own first experience with the play. I discovered “The Vagina Monologues” in 2002, when I was a freshman in high school. To be honest, I almost missed the moment altogether — despite the great popularity and success of the play on Broadway, buying a ticket featuring the word “vagina,” and in high school of all places, seemed a bit too much to handle at the time. Still, I made it safely into the auditorium, and once there, I sat stunned and shocked, unable to fully believe what I was seeing and hearing on the stage. Women I knew as teachers and students were shouting out what seemed at the time to be a brand new form of gospel truth; questions and jokes about bodies, sex and physical exploration, not to mention pleasure. They used every phrase and image imaginable. For the first time, female genitals were not only given names, but clothing and dialogue. When the monologue “Reclaiming C–” ended with the screeching of that word which I had never before heard said out loud, I almost collapsed in my seat.
“The Vagina Monologues” is, in short, nothing less than the legitimizing of a woman’s right to exist as a sexual and inquisitive being. I continue to consider myself lucky that the play caught me right at the toughest moment of adolescence; for others, this week’s campus production may provide their first introduction to the Monologues, and for that reason it should not be missed. It would of course be preferable if the kind of terminology and ideas thrown about during the play did not need an official venue to obtain validity, at Yale or anywhere else the world. Until that day, it is imperative that “The Vagina Monologues” and V-Week, the worldwide movement to end violence against women, continue to have a strong presence on this campus.
Alexandra Schwartz is a freshman in Saybrook College.