“The word itself makes some men uncomfortable. Vagina!”
As I sat in the darkness of the Black Box theater, the words of Maude, Julianne Moore’s character in The Big Lebowski, echoed through my head. I did not know what to expect from these mysterious Vagina Monologues. As a man, I was prepared to be confronted, prepared to be unwelcome. My friend Sarah Jemison was directing the play, and when she encouraged me to go, it was with the caveat that the play is an “interesting” experience for a man. Not one to ignore uncomfortable but important art, I decided to go, eager to enlighten myself, and hopeful that the play would be accessible to a male audience even if written by women, for women. My goal was simply to approach the play with an open mind and a willingness to learn. The opening remarks, delivered by an ensemble including Mallory Banks, Emily Chang, and Sarah Jemison, include an in-your-face listing out of words commonly used to refer to the vagina—from euphemisms to obscenities—and many, many iterations of the word itself. “We were worried about vaginas,” they say in unison several times. Had the scene not also served the valuable purpose of explaining the concept behind the play—the hundreds of interviews that playwright Eve Ensler conducted, the book, the remarkable types of interviewees, the interesting patterns in the interviews—a bit of an eye-roll might have been in order. “I’m not terrified of discussing vaginas,” I thought. “Actually I’m here to see a play about them.” My concern was that the entire purpose of the play would be to shock: Vagina! Deal with it! Not an ignoble style, but also not one of particular depth or genuine pedagogy—an unproductive style.
What I happily discovered instead was an informative journey, enriched with unexpected emotional highs and lows to a powerful effect—sort of like sitting in a sauna and then running out and jumping into a freezing pond. Brilliantly directed and acted, the stories are in essence women talking about various experiences they’ve had with their vaginas, but are really much more than that. The stories are colorful. They are hypnotic. They are sometimes terrifying, sometimes fabulous, sometimes hilarious. And for this male audience member, they honestly answered a lot of questions. Simply put, it’s hard for us to imagine life with a vagina. I really had no idea. The play helps with that roadblock in the way of constructive inter-gender discourse. It allows a man to briefly put himself in a woman’s shoes in a way that might not be possible without the bluntness of the play.
The individual monologues cover a wide range of content, from the heartbreaking story of gang-rape in the Balkans in the 1990s (“My Vagina Was My Village,” beautifully delivered by Anjali Menon) to the riotously funny “moaning scene,” as “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy” has come to be known. (To Lauren Hoffman, who delivered that monologue: You nailed it. I laughed so hard I could not breathe.) What all of the monologues had in common, however, was their ability to put into concrete and explicit terms the sensations, pleasures, and fears related to having a vagina that are frankly impossible for someone without a vagina to imagine on his own. For instance, the description of a tampon as “a wad of dry fucking cotton” in “My Angry Vagina,” excellently delivered/yelled by Bernice Fokum, brought to light an issue that affects women constantly but that I must admit I had never thought about once, like, ever. I’m glad I got to hear it. I’m glad I got to bask in such eye-opening descriptions. I think anyone who hears these monologues leaves the theater a better person, more capable of positive discourse, and any man certainly leaves with a better ability to emotionally relate to women.
What I’m not glad about—indeed, what puts off many who see the play, regardless of gender—is the limited scope of the overall narrative with regard to sexuality. The monologues are great, but they’re also inaccurate by omission. As director Sarah Jemison put it when I spoke to her, “They make it seem like you can’t enjoy sex with a man…It’s a product of the 90s, this emphasis on the idea that you ‘don’t need a man.’” Now, I do not think there is anything wrong on principle with focusing on women’s experiences with other women, nor do I think that defining a “heterosexual experience” is completely straightforward, nor do I think that women have some responsibility to like sex with men—that’s absurd. Rather, the problem is that in not discussing sex the way that, statistically, the majority of women regularly have it, the play loses some of its power. Only one monologue, “Because He Liked to Look at It,” deals directly with heterosexual experience. I found myself being very skeptical of the idea that of the two hundred women Ensler spoke to about the lives of their vaginas, only one mentioned consensual sex with a man. Ensler is misleading the audience as to many women’s relationships to their vaginas by dwelling on the stories of women who dislike, despise, or are terrified of heterosexual sex. She sacrifices relevance by writing inside a 90s feminist box.
Further, many in the LGBTQ community today might find her views on homosexuality outmoded, even offensive. The play has undertones of the idea that a “real” woman ought to have sex with women, relying on the tacit assumption that sexuality is more a flexible choice than an innate trait. For example, the scene “The Little Coochie Snorcher that Could” follows the story of a woman who is raped by a man at a young age and then later in life, at age 16, discovers the merits of lesbianism when an older woman takes her under her wing (read: statutory rapes her). While Akshata Shirhatti’s performance was beautiful, I found the message of the story dubious. The scene is a powerful account of the experience of heterosexual assault, but it also ignores another form of sexual assault in an effort to get across a message about sexuality that many today would not even consider valid: The idea that women can “turn” to homosexuality as a way of gaining independence from men. Other scenes in the play address rape; this scene also includes undertones of “conversion” as a result of rape, and she was willing to gloss over one of the two rapes in the story to give a voice to that ideal. In the scene, a 24-year-old woman gives 16-year-old girl vodka and tells her that she should “always know how to give [herself] pleasure so [she’ll] never need to rely on a man.” The emphasis here is not on the powerful story of sexual self-discovery, but on the presumed need for women to somehow develop sexualities completely independent from men. In brief, the stories are gripping and informative, but they also represent a skewed view of sexuality that was very much a product of the play’s social context and Ensler’s personal history.
One should of course understand that context. In the 1990s, a small minority supported gay equality, and mainstream culture was just beginning to understand the need to combat widespread assault and discrimination against women. Ensler’s idea for the play was controversial, and it needed a strong, precisely directed voice to make its mark. As a result, today her work comes across as too hardline at times because of the social change to which it arguably contributed. Furthermore, Ensler had strong motives for her focus on assault and evil men because she experienced horrid sexual abuse early in her life and is a renowned activist against such brutality today. And she does manage to weave in stories of birth, masturbation, day-to-day issues, and pretty much anything else you can think of relating to vaginas in some way or another. Yes, the progress of history has dated the play’s rhetoric, but all in all, the positive aspects of the production outweigh the negative ones. And beyond the play itself, one should consider the immensely positive outcomes of the production, such as V-Day, the worldwide celebration of women’s rights and condemnation of sexual violence. Not only do the Vagina Monologues have a lasting effect on anyone smart enough to go see them, but they have also influenced the way women are treated worldwide. And that makes the monologues superb. When next you can, go see them.
Further feminist viewing for fellow men (or absolutely anyone else): Watch French filmmaker Eleonore Pourriat’s new short film “Majorité Opprimée.” It’s enlightening and a more accessible to a male audience than are the Vagina Monologues. The film flips gender roles, depicting a present-day France in which men suffer sexist discrimination and abuse at the hands of a female power structure. I would say it has at least some of the intensity of the Vagina Monologues, but unlike the play, it makes it easy for men to empathize.