When it comes to the play with the V-word in its title, maybe we should all just lighten up. Conservatives and liberals talk at and past one another about The Vagina Monologues, treating it as momentous stuff. We shouldn't talk about such matters, we are told; on the other hand, talking about such things could bring social change. One side asserts that sex is a private matter, that flaunting one's sexuality merely demeans it. The other side responds that sex should be not only publicly acknowledged but celebrated. Right-wingers, it is claimed, just have sexual hang-ups; lefties are just shameless emotional (sometimes literal) exhibitionists.
Spokane has already weathered such blasts and counterblasts. Back in February, productions by the women's studies group at EWU and by the anti-sexual violence activist group Stop the Clock both created some local buzz. A third production caused a dust-up at Gonzaga University when the administration relegated its women's studies production of the Monologues to an unsponsored site just off the Jesuit campus.
The local controversy continues. While TicketsWest has registered only one complaint about local billboards plastering "VAGINA" all over town, KISC-FM 98.1 has already canceled ads for the production because of about a dozen complaints the station received. Seems some folks don't want those three syllables, "vuh-JIE-nuh," intruding on drive time (or any other time).
Of course, given the controversy over Eve Ensler's play, which she first performed Off-Broadway in 1996, and which, since February 1998, has spearheaded the V-Day movement (activism working to end violence against women), it's only natural to ask: Just what are these notorious monologues about? Some are merely long lists: "If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?" "If your vagina could talk, what would it say?" Women's pet names for their vaginas. Varieties of orgasmic moans. Accounts, both funny and sad, of women discovering sexual pleasure for the first time, and of their first menstruations. Truly disturbing accounts of child abuse, systematic rape and female genital mutilation. Poetic evocations of passionate lovemaking and the wonder of childbirth.
Margot Kidder (Lois Lane in Superman and all its sequels) will headline the three-woman cast coming in to perform the Monologues on July 23-28 at the Opera House, and I caught up with her by cell phone while she was parked outside the Big K in Sheridan, Wyo. While cognizant of the swirling debate over Ensler's script, Kidder emphasizes how funny the play is in performance.
As headliner, she's given about four hours of rehearsal time and an opportunity to choose which monologues she'd like to read. "In Spokane -- you'll love this -- my daughter is coming to see the show," she says, "because, you know, Spokane is practically right next door to Livingston, Mont. [Kidder's home], at least by Western standards, with all our wide-open spaces. So I called my daughter, and I asked her, 'Would you rather hear me faking 10 kinds of orgasms or would you rather hear me reading a graphic description of a granddaughter giving birth?' Because in the script, Eve says how as a grandmother, she was present during the birth of her granddaughter, just as I was when Maggie gave birth to my own granddaughter. And [Maggie] said, 'Mom, I'd rather die than hear you impersonating 10 different kinds of orgasms [in the monologue called "The Woman Who Liked to Make Vaginas Happy"]. So do the birth passage.' So that's what I'm gonna do. Now, if she doesn't come to the show, I may switch back to the moaning passage, in which case she'll just have to be mortified."
The daughter's squeamish; the mother's assertive. How did sexual attitudes in Kidder's own upbringing play into the difference?
"I was raised by a terribly Canadian mother and an American father with Victorian values. It was hard for my parents to talk about such things, so we didn't," she recalls. We didn't acknowledge that we had private parts. They just weren't there." I remind her that Gloria Steinem's introduction to the published script focuses on the "down-there" generation and its rage for euphemisms. As for her family, says Kidder, "we didn't even get that far."
Her co-stars in Spokane will be Starla Benford and Kristen Lee Kelly; Kidder and Benford have teamed up before. "We did the show together a year ago in Scottsdale, Arizona. I've done it about 10 weeks altogether," Kidder says, and she has some road-trip stories of her own to relate: "I just did [the show] in Tennessee, and the fundamentalist churches there said that Satan was in our midst." Her response is sarcastic: "We all know that Christians don't have vaginas. I mean, it's only about the most sacred part of the human body. Half the planet has a vagina, and all of the [people on the] planet came out of one -- including Jesus. So, no, this is a celebration, not [something] pornographic."
Kidder insists that the Monologues are much funnier on the stage than on the page: "I gotta emphasize, it's not the same when you see it. Initially, when it was offered to me, I turned it down, because I thought, 'This is just the stuff we were doing in the '60s and '70s. But someone convinced me to do it in a small show we had at our battered women's shelter in Livingston, and the response was extraordinary, amazing. It's a lot funnier in performance than you would think from reading it, if not funnier. The section called "My Angry Vagina" is hilarious, and the part about the sex worker, with all the moaning -- you end up, both audience and us the performers, feeling invigorated."
When the "Angry" speaker rails against tampons and those cold metal stirrups at the gynecologist's office, Kidder recounts, "You get gasps of recognition from women in audience. And then they just guffaw."
Yet if the humor of self-recognition works for the women in the audience, what about the men? Indeed, are there any men out there in the dark?
Starla Benford is actually on her second national tour with the Monologues. When asked about audiences' gender mix, she says that "50-50 is rare. I'd say one-sixth to one-eighth, typically," of the audience are men. "Yes, they probably are afraid of male-bashing, and I don't blame them. But if they read the play beforehand or discussed it, they'd know that's not true."
Kidder agrees: "It's not male-bashing, it really isn't -- particularly in how we act it." She reports that her brother-in-law had an interesting reaction, noting that "we're all so used to going to theater or sports events where the theme or focus is male, and men are also in a majority in the audience. But with this, the theme is female and men find themselves in a minority. So, yeah, they're uncomfortable for a bit. But it's a good self-consciousness. [The show] is just hilariously funny and uplifting, and it truly is a laugh riot."
Benford agrees that performances can be joyous. She issues an invitation to playgoers: "Come with your husbands and wives, your girlfriends and guy friends. Oh, we get mothers, grandmothers and daughters -- that's one of the most beautiful things to see."
But Benford also emphasizes the show's serious potential for belief-shaping. After gathering experiences through months of touring, she says, "This is one of my favorites: We were in Minneapolis for three weeks. After one show, we got these flowers and cards, but there was nobody to go with them. We all read our cards from a 22-year-old man in college. He'd written different cards for each of us, and he gave us each a half-dozen roses -- he couldn't afford a full dozen for each of us, it was so sweet -- and he said he will never, ever in his life, ever again, look at a woman as a piece of meat any more, or as a sexual object. He said that he had changed and was moved in such a way, in just those two hours, that nothing in school could ever teach him that... And I knew right then that we had done our job. I knew that this was absolutely one of the worthiest causes I could ever work for."
Despite Kidder's reassurances about how such a political play can also be quite funny, the Minneapolis vignette isn't merely humorous. It's a happy moment: Someone changed for the better.
Ensler's script isn't trying to anger people. It's trying to awaken them -- to compel a realization that what's "down there" ought to be up here, and fully discussed.