by Michael Bowen
If you managed to get past the title of this play and read this far, then you're ahead of some of the Gonzaga faculty. Cate Siejk, director of the Women's Studies Program at GU, reports that, during an extended electronic forum debating whether her group should perform The Vagina Monologues on campus, some faculty members went out of their way to refer to "Eve Ensler's play." It wasn't that they couldn't say "vagina"; they couldn't even type it.
Such reticence typifies the knee-jerk revulsion many folks (of both genders) feel at the mere mention of "vagina." And that's exactly Ensler's focus. "Men are encouraged to find power in their sexuality -- when they are sexually successful, they are studs," notes Krista Benson of the Gonzaga group. Meanwhile, girls are taught to feel shame about their bodies and their desires. We all know that women who assert themselves sexually are sluts.
Or think we know it. Some say women have no business even discussing their bodies and their sexual desires in public, much less rejoicing over them. Four years ago, however, in rebuttal, Eve Ensler wrote The Vagina Monologues as a celebration and an empowerment. That last part, though, can be a little unsettling: most heterosexual men would prefer to remain the instigators of dating and sex. It's easier being the one who does the looking rather than being the one who's constantly gazed at. As sociologist and male feminist Allan Johnson has noted, "Every time a woman looks in the mirror, she sees a man standing behind her."
But women shouldn't have to look over their shoulders, either for men's approval or out of fear. Hence the comic tone (of celebration) in the Monologues and the tragic notes (in the fight to stop the violence).
For the Monologues are, as they like to say, both poignant and funny. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll squirm in your seat (especially, perhaps, if you're a man). Here are some of the topics that these supposedly-disgusting-but-actually-hilarious monologues touch upon. Lists of euphemistic names for the vagina. "If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?" "The Little Coochi Snorcher That Could." Categories of orgasmic moans. "If your vagina could talk, what would it say, in two words?" "The Vulva Club." "My Angry Vagina."
As this last item suggests, however, Ensler, having celebrated women's sexuality, also needs to take up the deadly serious topic of sexual violence. Portions of her script describe statutory rape, date rape, gang rape, too much rape. And, as a cultural practice, or just to control "excessive" masturbation, female genital mutilation.
Sad issues, affecting women everywhere. Though Ensler performs these speeches by herself, as her title implies, she now requests college groups to use a minimum of three speakers. Ensler founded V-Day, rallying against sexual violence, in February 1998; in the four years since, the Monologues have been performed on hundreds of American college campuses and all over the world. EWU and the Gonzaga Women's Studies Club will use about half a dozen; Stop the Clock, closer to two dozen. The precise numbers don't matter as much as the universalizing tendency: when a group delivers these speeches, they enact the anxieties and anger and shame and joy of millions of women.
As Krista Benson of the Gonzaga club says, "This isn't just one woman standing around
and talking about her vagina. If it was just one woman or just a few women, she or they could
just be plain crazy." With multiple speakers, the experiences -- of inculturated shame, of the
fear of being attacked, of finally taking pride in one's sexual nature -- come to seem more universal.
But will the V-Day movement -- and the local flurry of productions -- actually change any minds? The people who pay to attend a show called The Vagina Monologues, after all, have already cast off several of their inhibitions. Yet the women who have been most involved in bringing the message to Spokane cite numerous examples of the play's wide appeal. At Gonzaga, Benson reports that "my card-carrying Republican mother is really excited about seeing the Monologues for the first time." Erin King, an Integrated Women's Studies major, points to the fact that several members of the Gonzaga cast don't consider themselves feminist and are unfamiliar with the script, "so even some of the people involved in our production are not part of the choir" to whom Ensler might be ineffectually preaching. At Stop the Clock, Willow Moline, the spearhead of the group performing at the Met on Feb. 15, notes that one of the men working on their production is a "hard-core Republican." Over at Eastern's campus, Miranda Whitehead reports that "one of the women who hands out Christian flyers on the PUB steps wanted to come audition."
V-Day has become a phenomenon; maybe it will effect some social change. But isn't feminism dead? And didn't we go through the Sexual Revolution 35 years ago? Local organizers think the battle still needs to be waged. "There's a reason the term is 'wife-swapping,' and not 'husband-swapping,' " says Moline. "The Sexual Revolution was predominately for the men." Moline goes on to argue for the need for all of us, women and men alike, to take up activism: "For me, the distrust of men comes not so much from the knowledge that some men rape, harass and abuse, so much as from the knowledge that most men don't take any action to make their communities safe for women. There's this pervasive notion that if they don't personally rape, harass or abuse women, it absolves them of responsibility. The prevalence of rape in our communities is not a women's problem; it's a men's problem. Yet men are the ones doing next to nothing to solve it."
Men in need of something to do might start by attending one of these local Monologues. Each might become the man in the mirror, standing behind the woman. In a better world than this, he wouldn't be stalking her; he'd be standing in support of her.