Yes, men were in _The Vagina Monologues_. And yes, Eve Ensler, playwright, strictly forbids this. But honestly, you probably wouldn’t notice them anyway. When they leave the stage after the introduction, they don’t really come back. Despite some intermittent appearances, the play remains affirmatively feminine in scope and execution – and it is no less audacious, fascinating, perturbing and brilliant with men involved.
All the declarations about angry vaginas, frightened vaginas, shy, hairy vaginas are delivered by women. The play’s three male actors, Gabe Greenwood ’12, Ryan Irwin ’10, and Sam Taxy ’11, do not have distinctively feminine lines. They don’t talk about experiences with their own female parts, nor do they speak provocatively about the pain of being female – all those lines are reserved for women. And the women seize these roles well. They perform these roles with exuberance and mirth, which perfectly ease the audience’s tensions concerning this most sensitive subject.
Instantly, the play delves into the anatomical ins-and-outs of vaginas. The first skit, “Hair,” begins with a lively, anecdotal account by Elizabeth Cooper ’12 concerning her husband’s fervid desire to shave her pubic hair. This opening skit serves as the perfect conduit for the larger issue, because it immediately inures the audience to the fact that this play does not relent on details or imagery. Most everyone laughed as she explained her meeting with the marriage counselor, and as she explained her own fascination with her pubic hair. But we soon discover that there is much more to vaginas than their physical condition; as Elizabeth describes her strong aversion to shaving, and the vulnerability she suffers, she also reveals the momentous weight with which this play engages. After we’ve explored the corporeal intricacies of the vagina in the first act, we discover there are numerous layers to be exposed.
It is the constant combination of humor and poignancy, which is this play’s greatest achievement. Eve Ensler’s comedy stays the discomfort of the audience, which, she suspects, does not contend with this subject often. By wrapping her numerous messages in jokes, she makes them more digestible. In the second skit, Arielle Sandor ’12 plays an elderly woman as she describes her vaginal misadventures in her youth. Reluctantly, she offers the story of her troubled sexual encounters, and her embarrassment concerning female ejaculation. As she slowly reveals details about a traumatic episode surrounding her first sexual encounter, she reproaches her interviewer with an exaggerated Brooklyn-Bostonian accent. Each reference to her vagina, which she calls her “down there,” elicited laughter from the crowd; but I doubt that the importance of this euphemism, and of her reluctance in describing it, was lost on the audience. Of course, not all of the skits were humorous; some dealt with sober issues in an appropriate fashion. “A Teenage Girl’s Guide to Sexual Slavery” told the harrowing story of sexual slaves, how quickly they lose their freedom and how difficult escape can be. Issues such as these are not comedic, nor should they be treated as such. And, indeed, every subject raised in this play has a somber undercurrent. But humor creates a safe space, where such issues can percolate more freely. The play works passionately to foster intimacy between the actors and the audience; this comfort and trust prove invaluable during the performance.
_The Vagina Monologues_ was a play of few props and few costumes. This was not a play of visual splendor, this was not a spectacle, this was a conversation. And the stage itself helped to sustain this dialogue. This year, the play was staged in Whitman theatre, a small, thespian capsule in the basement of Whitman. Unfortunately, the location could not accommodate the high demand from the student body, and the play was oversold. But perhaps this sacrifice was necessary, as the intimate setting enhanced the story. As Maura Kelly, Grad student, raved passionately about her angry vagina, and pointed vigorously at members of the audience, her story truly encompassed that space. This was a bubble flooded with synergy, felt by both the actors and the audience. And the stage served as a shrine to the characters, their stories and their vocalized power.
Forget the vagina, these are Monologues; they are confessions, speeches and stories. These monologues are about the transformation of inner angst and bubbling anxiety into words; it’s about the oration of experience defined by concrete, anatomical differences. And, ultimately, that’s why men can never truly penetrate this play, and attempts to incorporate them, while dignified, miss the point. The point of the play is that women can speak, at last, about their bodies, and their minds. They can speak about their experiences and themselves. Skits like “Say It,” which concerns the Comfort Women and the Japanese government’s refusal to acknowledge their existence, and “Cunt,” concerning the reclamation of the term, work to destroy the repressive silence of sexism. These shorts promote the strength linked to enunciation, and the power of words.
Why should we try to make something that is, by definition, feminine, into something universal? Indeed, the play betrays its attempt at blind inclusion with two skits, “My Vagina Was My Village” and “Comfort Women” – the former concerns Bosnian women in rape camps. The two actors chosen for these roles fit the phenotypic expectations; Katie Cristol, Grad student, might easily have Balkan ancestry, and Becky Bae ’11 is clearly of Asian descent. It would seem unnecessary, perhaps disconcerting to ignore ethnicity in finding actors. We understand that these issues affect different regions of the world, and while the empathy should be universal, pain may not be.
Of course, men made no reference to their vaginas, nor did they dilute the power of the message. Their participation was peripheral, but appropriately so. What remains dubious is the motive for including them. The program states that “for the play to be truly inclusive, it needed to include male allies, and show that men are implicated in-and care deeply about-violence against women as well as women’s ability to love their bodies and embrace their sexuality.” But these men’s roles are neutral, and the play was never designed to accommodate male actors inclusively. _The Vagina Monologues_ are about women coming to terms with their bodies; the audience listens to how women feel about themselves, not how men feel about women. Despite the commendable nature of this decision to erode barriers, the men barely penetrate the core the play, the vaginal soliloquies.
Let me be clear; I am not reproaching the well-intended choices of the directors; men did not harm this play at all, and the performance of the three male actors was impeccable. But the mere inclusion of men did not improve it either. Because they occupied non-descript roles, they did little to change the course of the play one way or another. But how could they? Men don’t have vaginas, and there are some experiences that they cannot share with women; if they did, they wouldn’t be men anymore. Yes, Eve Ensler’s prohibition on the participation of males is problematic, but mostly because it is unnecessarily draconian; men can’t give vagina monologues because they can’t give vagina monologues. Certainly the directors of the play understood this notion, and their production does justice to the spirit of Ensler’s work. But if _The Vagina Monologues_ are, indeed, too exclusive, the participation of men can’t change that. Perhaps we need a new play, not a vaginal monologue, but a sexual dialogue, centered on the experiences that men and women share. But let us not desert this play so quickly. These stories must be told, and, for better or worse, only women can tell them. But we can circumvent this barrier yet; Ensler’s gripping engagement with issues, both public and private, will enthrall and challenge any concerned feminist, as well as her male allies.