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The Vagina Monologues

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The Vagina Monologues is a play by the American feminist/performer/activist, Eve Ensler. It is, needless to say, a controversial work of art.

The play[edit]

Ensler had a violent upbringing and was consequently "obsessed with women being violated and raped, and with incest."[1] Having decided to channel this obsession in a positive direction, she conducted interviews with some 200 women concerning the eponymous part of their anatomy, listened to their stories about their unmentionables, and adapted them into The Vagina Monologues, originally a one-woman show in which she played the women telling their vagina stories.

Interestingly, the most well-known feature of the play is also one of its most minor points: its advocacy of making the word "vagina" mentionable in polite society. The play is sometimes portrayed as if this, rather than rape and violation of women, were its primary theme. Moreover, the play uses the word "vagina" as a euphemism for a source of empowerment.

Controversy[edit]

Anything with a title like this would be criticized; and, as it turns out, the play has been criticized a good deal, not only by religious-right elements but also by feminists and left-wing figures. Ensler has defended the play against most of its critics by stating that she is just the messenger, reporting what she was told in the interviews she conducted.[1] However, Betty Dodson, the pioneering sex educator whose female sexuality workshops were the subject of one of the monologues, complained that Ensler had misrepresented the workshops in the play, in particular by focusing on the vagina instead of the clitoris.[2] In Ensler's defense, The Clitoris Monologues doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

Right-wing criticism[edit]

The usual suspects have the usual boilerplate criticisms. The conservative women's organization, the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute, describes the play as a vulgar "onslaught on decency" that "glorifies social deviancy and encourages women to engage in sexual perversion while assaulting and condemning men."[3] They also describe Ensler as a "radical feminist"[note 1] and "psychotic."[4] The institute also echoes Andrea Dworkin's critique of sexually explicit material as something that objectifies and degrades women.

The right-wing criminology professor and Townhall columnist Mike Adams criticized Ensler for interviewing small girls about their vaginas, suggesting that she had gotten this idea from Michael Jackson.[5]

Sex-negativity[edit]

After its initial run in 1996, the play was repurposed as the centerpiece of a politicization of Valentine's Day called "V-Day." The idea behind V-Day is that instead of men spending February 14 trying to buy chocolates for their wives, and women spending the day wishing that the fellows would get them something different this year, people are supposed to share Ensler's obsessions on that day, and think about/engage in activism against sexual violence against women.

Betty Dodson stated that the play, as well as V-Day, made far too much of a link between sex and violence, promoting the Andrea Dworkin-style sex-negative feminism espoused by people who "have rarely been able to talk about sex without bringing up rape, abuse, wife beating, and genital mutilation."[2]

Positive treatment of molestation[edit]

Ensler focuses on the evils of rape; but an examination of the script of The Vagina Monologues suggests that when she uses that word, she is not using it in the usual sense, that of a sexual act performed upon a person who did not or could not give consent.[note 2]

One of the play's monologues, The Little Coochie Snorcher that Could, was based on an interview of a homeless woman, who described how, when she was 13 years old, she had been made drunk and subsequently molested by a 24-year-old woman from her neighborhood. The homeless woman questions whether or not this was rape, and concludes that if it was, it was "a good rape."

Unfortunately, many criticisms of this particular piece have been right-wingers yowling about "homosexual recruitment," etc., since the homeless woman happened to be a lesbian and defined the experience as a watershed moment when she realized, "I'll never need to rely on a man." This noise has rather muted the more pertinent questions of:

  1. Why did a play written in opposition to rape, now forming the center of an anti-rape movement, feature a neutral-to-positive portrayal of that practice?
  2. Why are the people who are usually there to make a moral panic in these cases either not objecting to this monologue, or focusing on the lesbian aspect of it?

Ethnic condescension[edit]

Several of the monologues are from women not living in the West; for example, the monologue My Vagina Was My Village deals with the experiences of women during the Bosnian War, then a fashionable subject for tongue-clucking in the United States, and monologues added to the play later deal with topics such as the status of women under the Taliban in Afghanistan.

These efforts are, of course, somewhat condescending to the Third World interviewees in that Ensler took some serious liberties in the adaptation of their interviews, and according to one critic also treated them one-dimensionally as quintessential victims;[6] but it could be argued that despite Ensler's bumbling in translation, her heart is in the right place.

Other criticism[edit]

Some people never learn that holding opinions about "persons of color" makes them into ideal KKK recruits, after the fashion of that noted white-supremacist, John Brown;[7][8] in this vein, some criticism of Ensler's handling of the monologues goes beyond the above.

Ensler is slammed by one critic for writing a monologue about a black child, which of course plays to racist stereotypes and is secretly an implication that black men like to rape white women;[6] the same critic also chides her for failing to say very loudly that historically most rapists in the US have been white men. This critic says, furthermore, that Ensler should not have stated so openly to the proles remarks about Vietnamese culture that can only be understood as non-racist by those "versed in feminist theories and ideologies."

Another critic takes her to task for repeating the notion (clearly a colonialist lie) that women in the Third World suffer more from patriarchy than those in the First; for "reinforcing heteropatriarchal regulatory norms" and showing insufficient sensitivity to the hermaphrodite population by using the word "vagina;" for failing to squawk about abortion in a monologue about childbirth; and for exhibiting "ableism" by not including any monologue about disabled women.[9] Truly, you can't please everyone.

Christina Hoff Sommers, in her article "Sex, Lies and the Vagina Monologues", stated that:

  1. "It is atrociously written" (she especially criticizes the descriptions Eve Ensler gives of the themes of each monologue);
  2. "It is viciously anti-male" (all men in the play are rapists, except for Bob, the "better" one, who just likes staring at vaginas all day) and restates that the only "love scene" in the play is a rape scene between a 24-year-old woman and a 13-year-old-turned-16-years-old girl ("What might seem to be a scene from a public service kidnapping prevention video shown to schoolchildren becomes, in Ensler’s play, a love story.") and also the fact that she interviewed a 6-year-old girl about her vagina ("Imagine a male counterpart to this story, a middle-aged man asking 6-year-old boys what was special about their penises. He would likely find himself on the local sex offender registry.");
  3. "It claims to empower women, when in fact it makes us seem desperate and pathetic" ("Now I hope you’ll join in me in asking: what exactly is it that makes this play empowering? Is it the freedom to obsess over one’s intimate anatomy? The freedom to say the v- or c-word over and over again? This is ludicrous. Men did not become powerful in this world by gathering in stadiums shouting out vulgar four-letter words. The comedian Andrew Dice Clay may have led some fans in scatological chants back in the eighties, but he was never considered to be anything but a cut-rate comedian. You don’t hear of men gathering in little workshops taking turns looking at their private parts in mirrors. Men who did that would be ridiculed—not valorized. But somehow when the self-described "vagina warriors" do these things they see themselves as heroines, intrepid freedom fighters combating prejudice and injustice—modern-day Rosa Parkses. I can’t think of anything more demeaning to women than this."). [10]

Notes[edit]

  1. This should be read as two snarl words strung together, rather than in the usual way.
  2. Perhaps she is using the alternative definition made by Susan Brownmiller, according to which rape is not an individual sexual act but a collective act of social oppression, pulled off by a conspiracy of men with the intent to "keep all women in a state of fear." [1]

References[edit]