In this edition of the Knoll there are two articles exploring issues and debates surrounding the play the Vagina Monologues written by Eve Ensler. This article engages in an internal critique of the play, focusing on issues of essentialism, heteronormativity, and racism as well as the concept of ‘political franchise’.
Recently, the student club UBC V-Day produced Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues. Written in 1996, the play emerged out of a series of interviews Ensler conducted with women about their personal experiences relating to their bodies and, specifically, to their vaginas. The Monologues take the form of a series of first-person narratives, which are based on Ensler’s poetic interpretations of these women’s experiences.
The Vagina Monologues are often described as a ‘global phenomenon’, boasting massive attendance, participation, and publicity. Since 1998, productions of the Monologues have been accompanied by “V-Day”, a campaign which raises money in support of grassroots organizations addressing issues of gender-based violence. Throughout this past school year, UBC V-Day has held fundraisers benefiting the AMS Sexual Assault Support Centre, Women Against Violence Against Women, and Vancouver Coastal Health’s Transyouth Program, raising a total of $17, 500. We recognize and commend UBC V-Day’s fundraising towards these important causes.
We also recognise the positive experiences some women have with the play, which openly explores experiences of the body and sexuality. The Monologues discuss female masturbation, eroticism, sexual desire, and other themes generally marginalized or excluded from mainstream public discussion, thereby empowering women as liberated sexual subjects. However, both the Monologues and the publicity surrounding the play arguably position female sexuality as a spectacle to be watched and consumed. We suggest that these voyeuristic and pornographic representations are significant factors influencing widespread interest in the play.
While we recognize the positive impact the play has for affiliated organizations and individuals, we nonetheless maintain fundamental points of criticism concerning Ensler’s Vagina Monologues and the franchising of V-Day. We argue that the Monologues are a successful ‘global phenomenon’ precisely because they represent a fun, easy to digest pseudo-feminism that does not so much as touch – let alone dismantle – existing structures of gender and sexuality.
Before criticizing the content of the Monologues, we must first strongly disagree with the concept of political franchising that denies local organizers, such as UBC V-Day, from making changes to the play. Undeniably, the meaning of a performance varies massively depending on its audience’s geography and socio-cultural positions and identities. However, it is illegal for local organizers to alter the Vagina Monologues, leaving no space for social or cultural variation. In their current form, V-Day and the Monologues are merely ordered then consumed. There remains little space for self-determined forms of political organization. Spontaneous and critical sparks of thought can only be expressed illegally, through minor changes to the script (a strategy employed this year by UBC V-Day, which we appreciate).
The Monologues, written by a white, straight, middle-class woman, predominantly address those occupying similar positions of social privilege. Ensler uses experiences of different women from different socio-cultural backgrounds to create a singular voice of women. The play claims to empower, but what does ‘empowerment’ even mean in this context?
Within the context of the Monologues, empowerment refers to the ability of white, straight, middle-class women to feel that they can openly speak about their bodies, sexuality, and gender identity as women. While the Monologues bring themes relating to the body, sexuality, and gender-based violence from the private sphere to the public, they fail to connect these themes to a critique of the technologies of gender at a systemic, societal level. In short, the Monologues fail to become political.
Instead of developing a feminist politics, the play rests on an asocial, individualized level of experience, embracing the ‘liberated woman’ as a singular subject. Here, we quote from Christine M. Cooper’s article “Worrying about Vaginas: Feminism and Eve Ensler’s the Vagina Monologues”:
The play focuses centrally on the female body, as represented by the vagina. Binding subjectivity to the body, especially through sexuality, has been a double edge strategy for feminists in the past. Fostered “ontological definitions of female nature [were used] against
[women] in various historical moments and cultural contexts, as well as oppositional reclamations of such nature on their behalf by certain schools of feminism.” Especially after the development of modern science, and new “discoveries” in the field of medicine and anatomy, certain knowledge has been produced which inscribes sexual difference in every single part of the body. Since then “natural” differences of the body have been used to legitimate social domination by men, division of labour and the confinement of women to the private sphere. Going “back to the body”, and connecting womanhood with the vagina, does not contest the very categories of men and women but instead further inscribes the essentialist idea of gender.
The Monologues’ collapsing of the self and the vagina carry “the ideological baggage of this essentialist history.”
“We argue that the Monologues are a successful “global phenomenon” precisely because they represent a fun, easy to digest pseudo-feminism that does not so much as touch – let alone dismantle – existing structures of gender and sexuality.”
Another main failure resulting from the reduction of womanhood to ‘vagina’ is the exclusion of people who, for various reasons, cannot or do not want to identify with the vagina. The play seems to suggest that people without vaginas cannot identify as ‘woman’ and that those with vaginas have to.
The play shows women developing ‘healthy’ relationships towards their bodies mainly by enjoying their vaginas in ways that not only exclude and may offend those who are not able or willing to feel this way. Instead of a complicated political analysis around gender and sexuality, women are directed to simply ‘feel good’ about their bodies.
According to UBC V-day organizers, all of the monologues addressing trans issues and experiences are found only within an ‘optional section’ of the Vagina Monologues script, together with pieces about women of non-Western origin. Ensler’s engagement with the cultural and social identities of these individuals is clearly racist and gender-normative; she positions whiteness, Western origins, and stable categories of ‘woman’ as the norm.
At no point in the play is whiteness explicitly recognized; rather, it is the implicit, objective criteria of the subject. Being a person of colour is framed as being something strange, oppressed, and weak. Western women within the Monologues are shown as gaining agency and liberation. These women were enlightened and empowered before their monologues, or became so through the process of story-telling. In contrast, the ‘other’ women remain oppressed and objectified throughout the process, not only through male domination but also as objects of display.
“Instead of a complicated political analysis around gender and sexuality, women are directed to simply ‘feel good’ about their bodies.”
Ensler uses the ‘other’ as an instrument to show what she considers to be the worst form of sexual abuse and oppression. The women in these monologues are not acknowledged to be able to speak for themselves or define their own situations. They are merely posited in negative relation to a liberated, Western woman.
Even if the play claims feminist motives, the way the monologues of the ‘other’ women are presented in relation to the Western ones reproduce or even enhance racist structures of thought and representation. Whenever the situation in a non-Western country is criticized within Western discourse without a reflexive exploration of social domination in the West, racist stereotypes are intensified. Within this discourse, if ‘they’ are sexist, uneducated, and undemocratic ‘we’ must be feminist, critically educated, and liberal. Here, racism informs the representation of non-Western women as ‘victim’ and reproduces the stereotype of the sexist and aggressive non-Western male.
When discussing the subject of female circumcision in African countries, identity is again produced in a similar way. In the Monologues, the impression is created that genital mutilation only occurs in foreign countries. However, in Europe and North America, thousands of intersexed individuals are subjected to nonconsensual surgical modification at young ages. Here, we see the ways in which the binary system of two sexes is violently enforced and reproduced within a Western context. This year, UBC V-Day organizers changed part of the play to critically deal with the failure of the Vagina Monologues to otherwise address this silence.
Considering these serious criticisms of the Vagina Monologues, as well as ongoing debates around the play, the question remains: why is this play is repeatedly performed at UBC?
For further analysis of the Vagina Monologues:
Janet Wolff, “Reinstating Corporeality: Feminism and Body Politics”
Kim Hall, “Queerness, Disability, and The Vagina Monologues”
Susan Bell and Susan Reverby, “Vaginal Politics: Tensions and Possibilities in The Vagina Monologues”
Christine Cooper, “Worrying about Vaginas: Feminism and Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues”