Every February at Princeton, posters across campus advertise the annual production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. The posters display women of different class years, ethnicities, and interests. The show, which premiered in 1996, has become a staple on college campuses across America. At Princeton, it is often heralded as an activist icon of contemporary feminism. Twenty-three years ago, The Vagina Monologues radically transformed the way young women regarded and spoke about their bodies. In 2006, the New York Times wrote that the show was “probably the most important piece of political theater of the last decade.” Today, however, some wonder whether the show’s revered place in contemporary feminism is still warranted. In conflating all the many facets, nuances, and intersectional expressions of womanhood with the vagina, the show sidelines important tensions. While The Vagina Monologues continues to empower some women, others feel that it painfully fails them. Perhaps it is time for a new show, one that solicits, embraces, and presents a broader range of experiences.
The Vagina Monologues has been roundly criticized in recent years for its exclusion of transgender experiences and for the predominantly race-blind way in which it presents the stories of women of color. In a 2017 interview with Vice, Ensler herself asserted, “I’ve got no room for a feminism that isn’t intersectional…There’s no way we can think about violence against women, for example, without thinking about racism.”
This year at Princeton, Evie Elson ‘19 and Sarah Varghese ‘19, the directors of the show, actively encouraged questions and criticism from the audience and were thoughtful about the show’s limitations. For example, they took meaningful first steps to acknowledge the concerns of transgender communities. They set the show in the 1990s and asked that the audience look at The Vagina Monologues as a “period piece.” The actresses wore scrunchies, and nineties music played in the theater as audience members filtered into their seats. The production team added an asterisk to the show’s advertising materials and to the program: “* People of all genders have vaginas, and these monologues represent a small segment of that population.” This addition was a gesture to transgender communities who have often reproached the show. Despite disclaimers that ““women and girls” is an inclusive term reflecting all those who were assigned and/or identify as female,” many people in the transgender community still feel that the show equates vaginas with womanhood. (Note that in this article, I, too, use the terms “women” and “girls” inclusively.) Because of concerns about gendered representation, at Tulane University in the spring of 2017, a production called Hers, Theirs, Ours replaced the annual Vagina Monologues. At Eastern Michigan University, and Mount Holyoke College, The Vagina Monologues was canceled.
In the talk-back after the show, Kirsten Traudt ‘20, one of the actresses, suggested that The Vagina Monologues be viewed as a piece of theater, rather than as social activism. In a written comment, directors Elson and Varghese added, “the play cannot be considered a perfect piece of intersectional activism. But it can be considered an important piece of art.” Presumably, the show’s identity as an art piece would then absolve it of its responsibility to include a truly diverse set of experiences as it had once openly aspired to do. After all, there are many plays, paintings, stories and poems that we continue to praise for their aesthetic qualities, even if they contain elements that many today would regard as “problematic” or “exclusionary.”
However, this show, throughout its history, was never detached from social activism. In 1998, Ensler founded a non-profit, “V-Day” that permitted royalty-free performances of the show to be held every February 14. The estimated $80 million raised over the years have been donated to female victims of violence and sexual abuse–a remarkable and admirable legacy. From its inception, the play was explicitly connected to activism and fundraising, making it virtually impossible for many to view it simply as art.
What is more, even this year, the show’s artistic elements were intimately connected to its activist agenda. Throughout the monologues, statistics from a 2017 WeSpeak survey were read aloud. The study found that “1 in 5 undergraduate students, and 1 in 11 graduate students, experienced sexual misconduct, including sexual harassment, sexual assault, dating violence, or stalking.” Results of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, which were also announced throughout the play, revealed that “nearly half of respondents were sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime and one in ten were sexually assaulted in the past year. In communities of color, these numbers are higher.” As these jarring statistics were rattled off, a troubling disconnect emerged. Some who count themselves among those grim statistics felt that the monologues, which at their best, try to artistically address and humanize those statistics, left out too many victims. After all, are scrunchies and a retro playlist enough to satisfactorily emend what the original script neglected? And is an asterisk about the transgender community, just one of the many excluded groups, adequate when the play addresses neither the intersection of racial and gender identities nor same-sex love bereft of trauma and abuse? I myself felt left with the tension of a statistic, but not afforded the salving accommodation of that unsettling number in the play’s art and storytelling.
Elson and Varghese “tried to approach and reach out to transgender and gender non-conforming people to participate in the show, but had difficulty finding people who were willing to do so.” They noted that the “the process was difficult especially regarding our sensitivity to the possibility of tokenizing people.” The directors ultimately did not feel comfortable having a cis-actress play a woman of a different gender identity, and so chose not to include the trans-monologue that Ensler added to the show in 2004. This discomfort evidently did not extend to their casting women who represented a sexual orientation other than their own, or to women who embodied the stories of ethnicities different from their own. The directors explained, “the other pieces that portray women in non-heterosexual relationships was not a primary concern for us because those pieces were first and foremost about a woman’s relationship with her vagina. Had the monologue revolved around sexual orientation, we would have taken it into account in the same way we did with the trans piece…As for ethnicity–the monologues do not specify the ethnicity or racial identity of the speaker.” The unenviable quandary Elson and Varghese faced hints at larger and more theoretical questions of representation on stage, surely a challenge for any theatrical production.
There were two queer stories in this year’s show at Princeton. One depicted a dominatrix, who likes to help women “find their moan.” The other depicted a story of skewed power dynamics following horrific sexual abuse. After a girl has been raped as a child, at age 16 she meets a woman, who is 24. The woman helps the teenager discover sexual pleasure and personal agency. In the original production that Eve Ensler wrote, that girl was only 13, and the monologue included the line, “If it was rape, it was a good rape.” Though that line has been eliminated in more recent years, the deletion begs the question: why, if the show can be substantively revised in this way, does it remain stagnant in so many others?
Some feel that issues of race in this production arise with a similar urgency to those concerning gender and sexual orientation. Ensler interviewed an eclectic group of women. The show’s introduction boasts of interviews with “African American women, Hispanic women, Asian American women, Native American women, Caucasian women, Jewish women.” Yet, none of the monologues in this year’s production explicitly addressed race. Perhaps they shouldn’t try. After all, how could one show possibly capture all the nuances in identity of its audience members? Still, many women address their ethnicities in relation to their womanhood. Helena Klevorn ‘19, an audience member and Princeton senior felt “something was missing in the show, because, as a black woman, I view the challenges of my ethnicity as inextricable from my feminism.”
The only time race is addressed directly is in one monologue when a young woman notes a “picture of…a naked black woman with a huge afro.” But I was puzzled that there was no context provided for this picture. Who is the woman pictured? Is she the older woman in the monologue? Is she someone else? I was left unsatisfied that there was no engagement with this single explicit reference to race in the entire show.
In this year’s production of The Vagina Monologues, one of the stories details a woman’s visit to a vagina workshop. She goes there seeking help, never before having purposefully experienced an orgasm. She wants to understand her own body. The monologue ends with an explosion of female rapture and the epiphany: “I had to be…my clitoris…my vagina, my vagina, me.” In another monologue, a young girl declares about her vagina, “somewhere deep inside it, I know it has a really really smart brain.” But can’t a vagina be respected without claiming it has a brain? The anthropomorphizing of the vagina is intended paradoxically to be both silly and socially progressive. Eve Ensler asked many women she interviewed what their vaginas would wear, and what they would say. A few cast members explained that the purpose of this line of questioning was to de-stigmatize our imagining and joking about female genitalia. They pointed out that men make jokes about penises, draw them, and personify them, so why shouldn’t women do the same with their vaginas?
But why not seek higher ground? What if we thought about womanhood, feminism, and indeed our entire identity not as connected so reductively to our vaginas, (“My vagina, me”), but rather, or even in addition, to our minds, our hearts, and our souls? Here, an obvious rejoinder would be to point out that the play is called The Vagina Monologues. If its only goal were to tell stories about vaginas though, without expecting or encouraging the symbolism of a vagina to embody a fuller vision of womanhood, what would be the point of the show?
What if we imagined a production where we simultaneously staged women who are running for President, lead businesses, or win Nobel prizes? Women who bring care to their everyday, loving sisters, and beloved mothers? Women who inspire from the pulpit, or from a podium at the front of a university lecture hall? Women who make discoveries in astrophysics, direct films, or work successfully to mitigate climate change? What if we addressed class, poverty, or disabilities? Women in such a show would not thus be relegated, as they have been historically, solely to their bodies. Rather, the show could continue to celebrate female sexuality and women’s bodies, but not stop there. And, if it were to embrace a more expansive view of womanhood than what is implied by female genitalia alone, a new production that seeks to radically transform the way women are perceived and perceive themselves, could also deal more thoughtfully and explicitly with questions of queer, transgender, and racial identities.
One of the cast members, Hannah Wang ‘21, made the undeniable point that no show can succeed in the “herculean” task of representing a universal female experience on stage. But beyond protecting anonymity, doesn’t the shedding of facts (names, place, age, ethnicity, dates) quite openly aspire to the universal? This aspirational gesture, along with the conflation it implies of an individual’s story and the notion of the universal vaginal experience, is currently inadequately reflected in the original script.
Katie Massie ‘21, a cast member of the show this year observed, “a lot of the cast left with the understanding that it is time for an extension or revision of The Vagina Monologues. I think there is a lot of value in the original monologues being performed, but I think it is an incomplete collection of womanhood in 2019.” During a talk-back, while the members of the cast seemed unanimously to agree that the show excludes many voices, they also all agreed that the show continues to resonate meaningfully with spectators. One reason cited: the women’s stories in the show are lived and true.
This discernible authenticity certainly invites us to empathize. And can’t we agree that empathizing with others whose identities differ from one’s own is a good thing? It connects us as human beings to others who are superficially different. And it helps build community. Nonetheless, because of the range of experiences advertised by the show (interviews with over 200 women of so many different backgrounds), many arrive hoping to relate, personally and directly, to stories in the production. One audience member wondered where the deeply religious women’s stories were. Asking to remain anonymous because she prefers not to discuss her sexuality in public fora, she commented, “This show clearly believes that a woman is most powerful when she feels she can talk about her sexuality. There are those of us who think that view is wrong, or at least wrong for some people. I believe that my body and my privacy are holy, and I am empowered by the fact that my body is entirely my own.” Some would argue that the show ignores such women who have chosen to practice abstinence, who have embraced a different kind of relationship to their vaginas. Is a woman who entered a Catholic convent because of her devotion to God less worthy of inclusion? Is her choice, her agency, her relationship to her own form less meaningful, than the choice of the woman who experienced an orgasm at the Vagina Workshop? And what about love? Not one monologue in the play displayed loving and equal sexual partners who engaged in a legal and intimate encounter. What are the implications of considering vaginas only in the context of the selective sexuality or violence portrayed in the show?
One thought is to crowdsource the monologues from Princeton students. The production team seemed enthusiastic about the prospect when the idea was broached during the talk-back. And isn’t that favorable response tacit recognition, if not clear evidence, that the show is still attempting to universalize, in some way, a message about, or for, women? Some cast members cited the very personal nature of The Vagina Monologues as a reason that students might not share their own experiences. Yet, campus publications and other Princeton theater groups have successfully collected deeply personal revelations and narratives. Consider the MeToo Monologues, staged by The Carl A. Fields Center, which encourages and enables students to “open up anonymously about their experiences involving identity, race, sexuality, mental health and more.” Or Zach Feig ’18, who showcased a limited selection of the many stories he received about Princeton students who have struggled with eating disorders. These are also stories about bodies, profoundly personal, but they found a platform, and were afforded a forum in which to be voiced.
Finally, I have been struggling to understand what it means to have a woman who was raped by multiple men tell a graphic story about her assault, and in the same hour depict a woman on the verge of an orgasm, gasping, “This was worth the walk to Forbes” and “Are you in Ivy?” Another way of framing this question: what is the connection between a celebration of the female orgasm and a recounting of traumatic sexual assault? Both stories should be told. But is the connection just the vagina, where these phenomena occur? Arguably, whiplash is the point. This is a show that deals at times crassly, at times gently, with issues of sexual violence and pleasure, and it does not wait for the audience to get comfortable. The shock value of the show serves a role. It is at times funny, and at times devastating. But as an audience member, and as a woman, I crave more subtle and sorrowful transitions between such intense and paradoxical testimonies.
At the end of the show, one spectator asked, in light of all these issues, what’s stopping us from authoring our own contemporary script, a new Vagina Monologues as it were? We could write a more inclusive play, one that encompasses transgender experiences, different sexual orientations, skin colors, and religions. We could include a variety of relationships, some toxic, some tender, some violent, some beautiful. The show could be afforded the time and space its stories deserve to unfold, even if they unravel in a series of performances. The student who proposed the new Vagina Monologues was greeted with finger snaps, nods, and smiles. The cast and directors have clearly given significant thought to these issues, so why the fidelity to iterations of this same production? Perhaps we should stop glorifying Eve Ensler’s show. It was empowering on American college campuses in its time and might still be radical and progressive to women around the world. But it has begun to feel outmoded here. Why not use our brains and our hearts to create new art? And let the creators of this new art not feel compelled to forfeit their social activism, even if art itself need not be activist. For art that moves with the times, indeed shapes the times, is art that we can all celebrate.