Students at Mt. Holyoke College are protesting the annual performance of Eve Ensler’s feminist classic, The Vagina Monologues. Their gripe with the play is that by focusing on vaginas, the play perpetuates “vagina essentialism,” suggesting that ALL women have vaginas and that ALL people with vaginas are women. Transgender and intersex people have taught us that this seemingly simple “truth” is actually not true. There are women who have penises and there are men who have vaginas. Not to mention women born without vaginas! Hence, these Mt. Holyoke critics imply, the play contributes to the erasure of difference by presenting a “narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman,” and shouldn’t be produced on college campuses.
Let’s keep in mind that Ensler would have had to be psychic to anticipate the explosion in trans and intersex awareness when the play premiered in 1996. And in 2005 she did add a monologue based on an all trans version of the play (Beautiful Daughters) that can be integrated into the rest. Even without that addition, I think the play has its own merits; omission is not necessarily the same as discrimination, as Professor Suzanna Walters has astutely explained in a recent open letter to Mt. Holyoke.
It’s possible, of course, that the gender fluidity we enjoy today has rendered The Vagina Monologues obsolete. But I don’t think so. I believe that the play is, unfortunately, just as relevant for young women today as it was twenty years ago when it was first performed. Let’s be honest: not only do most women have vaginas, but many have complicated relationships with this part of their bodies. When Eve Ensler first wrote the play, women (even on college campuses) weren’t accustomed to mentioning their vaginas in public, much less screaming or weeping about them on stage. The play broke barriers in this regard and has helped countless women who have acted in or seen the play come to terms with their difficult pasts, which have often included abusive relationships, rape, or even just an inability to explore what they can’t even name and so must call: “down there.”
I know from teaching Women’s and Gender Studies to college students for the last twenty-five years that women still have negative experiences that affect how they experience their bodies and their sexuality. Eve Ensler agrees. In a Guardian interview she said, “I would like to believe that the play is outdated and irrelevant but sadly it isn’t. . . I travel the planet, I’ve just come from many countries and the United States where 51% of the population has vaginas and aren’t able to have agency over those vaginas. We know that one out of every three women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime – so we know we have a long way to go before vaginas are liberated.” The play gives many women (not all) permission to identify with the readers of the monologues, to see themselves, and perhaps to begin to heal. And it catalyzes young feminists, inspiring them to work for gender justice and against violence in their own lives and in the world — no easy feat, but that’s the power of theater and personal stories.
Transmen who may have vaginas, or transwomen who either have vaginas or who may want them, and women born with Mayer-Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser (MRKH) Syndrome, one of many conditions that involves the absence of a vagina and other female reproductive anatomy, might also be able to appreciate complicated feelings about their bodies, even if the play doesn’t depict their exact situations. In fact, given the societal pressure to be “normal,” it’s hard to imagine too many people completely “at home” with their bodies. Why not encourage people to celebrate their bodies in all their forms, or at least try to recognize and overcome their oppressive pasts, even if we all don’t share that particular celebration or oppression?
Intersex activists have coined the insightful slogan, “No Body is Shameful®,” to draw attention to the shaming and forced cosmetic adherence to the idea of a “normal” body. Of course, here they are talking about people born with atypical sex development, like the one in 5000 infant girls born with MRKH Syndrome. Since the nineteenth century, girls born without vaginas have endured the surgical creation of such anatomy. This reconstructive “corrective” surgery, described eloquently here by Esther Morris Leidolf, in a narrative she calls the “The Missing Vagina Monologue,” has never been done for the pleasure of the girl, but as her physician bluntly explained when she was only thirteen years old: so that she “could have a normal sex life with her husband.”
This is the kind of violence that The Vagina Monologues speaks to, even though there are no intersex characters in Eve Ensler’s play. It doesn’t matter (though it would be a good idea!). Watching the play encourages us to appreciate the profound refrain, “No Body is Shameful,” whether we have a vagina, want a vagina, like vaginas, or just love hearing the word spoken rebelliously and repeatedly on stage.
Susan E. Bell and Susan M. Reverby, “Vaginal Politics: Tensions and Possibilities in The Vagina Monologues,” Women’s Studies International Forum 28 (2005), 430-444.
Feature image: (Matt Kowal/Flickr CC BY-SA)