Until recently, I only knew The Vagina Monologues as cultural shorthand for strident feminism. It turns out, it has an interesting history, and an impressive legacy often unknown to those who write it off as bitches bitching.
Here are the basics: The Vagina Monologues is an episodic play, developed and performed by Eve Ensler in 1996. As the title suggests, it explores everything vagina-related, especially those topics that might make us squeamish: sex, body image, genital mutilation, reproduction, menstruation, sex work… Gloria Steinem says in her foreword to my edition: “On every page, there is the power of saying the unsayable,” (page xvi).
Ensler spoke to over two hundred women about their vaginas, and formed monologues (some composite) out of their experiences. The interviews began as casual conversations with friends, then expanded to stories about friends-of-friends, then a continuing chain of referrals to people willing to talk about their most intimate body part. “Women secretly love to talk about their vaginas,” Ensler says (page 5).
What surprised me was the diversity of the women she spoke to and stories she featured – surprisingly progressive for a mid-90s piece. These were women of all ages, races and ethnicities, sexualities, and abilities. She’s revised the content a few times since its initial run, but the guts of it was all there in the beginning. Naturally, it’s been criticised for excluding some groups, or for reducing women to oversimplified biology (“more like a Second Wave consciousness-raising group than a ground-breaking inter-sectional Third Wave cornerstone”), but I give it credit for its progressiveness in context all the same.
Ensler has said that she doesn’t actually remember writing The Vagina Monologues. The idea found her, and the power of the material these women shared with her flowed of its own accord. The play opened at the HERE Arts Centre in New York City on 3 October 1996; it was originally scheduled to mid-November, but that run was quickly extended to the end of December. Most performances were sold out, media coverage was glowing, and word-of-mouth was powerful. The play has since been performed in over 20 countries, including those we wouldn’t necessarily think of as progressive or accepting (like Turkey and China).
Women call up for tickets to ‘the Monologues’… The punk ticket seller tells women that if they can’t say it, they can’t come.The Vagina Monologues (page xxx)
This edition, the V-Day Edition, is almost as much about what came after The Vagina Monolgoues as it is about The Vagina Monologues itself. Though she originally wrote the play to “celebrate the vagina”, Ensler had a bit of an epiphany and changed tack a couple of years after its debut. She decided to harness the power of the piece to start a movement, to stop violence against women. V-Day is a non-profit movement to raise funds and support for existing local and grassroots organisations. Through performances and protests, V-Day has raised over $100 million for shelters, crisis lines, and legal aid.
The Vagina Monologues is maybe a bit of an artifact now – could Ensler ever have conceived of WAP in the early ’90s? – but many of the issues it addresses remain unresolved, and the goal of V-Day (to end violence against women) remains unmet. New issues have arisen, and old issues have re-emerged, since Ensler first started performing her play Off-Off-Broadway. You couldn’t have an equivalent today without specifically addressing, for instance, the transgender experience, or recent backwards steps in access to reproductive healthcare in the United States.
That’s not to say that Ensler hasn’t done anything to progress alongside community standards, or that her play has no ongoing relevance or resonance. In 2004, for instance, an all-trans cast performed The Vagina Monologues for the first time, a production documented in Beautiful Daughters. Ensler herself writes a new monologue to add to the original text, highlighting another issue affecting people with vaginas – that same year, 2004, she wrote one called They Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy… Or So They Tried after interviewing women whose gender identity didn’t matched that they were assigned at birth. Unfortunately, that addition isn’t included in the V-Day edition, but there are versions available online.
All told, I found The Vagina Monologues interesting on multiple levels: as cultural artifact, as feminist literature, as relatable content. My personal favourite of the monologues? I Was Twelve When My Mother Slapped Me, a composite account of first periods. Hilarious, and insightful!
My favourite Amazon reviews of The Vagina Monologues:
- “I am a man and I learned a lot about women from this unique book. Although, I thought it would be better.” – Darron Vanman
- “A masterpiece that lets you appreciate and love your wife, your mother, your grandmother and your mother-in-law in a whole new way.” – Amazon Customer
- “For those sane women who threw this obsenity down before the end, don’t let it bother you. When the disgusted leave only the disgusting remains.” – Hosehead
- “to call this moronic is an insult to morons everywhere. It’s sub-moronic.” – R. Pichlik
- “Hard to believe this was a ‘live show’, and was put into a book. That women would discuss their vaginas is one thing, but to discuss on how to dress it, what it would say, etc was pretty much outrageous and needless to say disgusting.” – S. Gratz
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