The Vagina Monologues He Said/She Said

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He Said: Confusing Vaginas with Politics

Over Valentine's Day weekend my college campus was obsessed with one word. It was not "love," "lust," or the over-commercialized term "valentine." No, thanks to the run of student performances of "The Vagina Monologues" it was "vagina." That's right. The "unmentionables" were anything but, and rightly so. And while the play is meant to be a tool for social justice and promotes a number of good causes, I found the way it was marketed on my campus counter-productive at best.

Before I continue, let me admit that I consider myself a "The Vagina Monologues" connoisseur. I have now seen the play twice: once at the National Theater in Washington, DC and again last week on campus. Though I am a man, I do believe I can understand women's issues with an optimistic, open mind. But, last week's upheaval forced me to realize one undeniable fact. Every side of the political spectrum applies the same kind of rhetoric and showmanship to win over popular support -- whether they are conservative or liberal, hawk or dove, chauvinist or feminist.

I don't believe "The Vagina Monologues" is about undermining masculinity or hating men. The work is about empowering women by placing the word " vagina" into the public vocabulary as well by focusing in on women's hopes, fears, and strengths. It hopes to get rid of the taboos surrounding female sexuality, and spread a message of acceptance and understanding. "The Vagina Monologues" effectively mixes comedy and serious issues. The audience is silent one moment and filled with laughter the next. The monologues juxtapose stories of rape, abuse and cultural stigma with lighter, often embarrassing hilarity. Yet, instead of being a clichéd emotional roller coaster, the play pushes its audience to empathize with the characters through traumatic experiences but then places the audience safely on solid ground by the play's end. Though it is considered vulgar by some (and blasé by others), I found "The Vagina Monologues" an inspiring and fascinating play.
Screaming terms for female genitalia out loud will probably never solve problems like unequal pay between genders, lack of support for single mothers, or contraceptive rights.

That said, my problem is not with the play itself but with the way it was promoted on my campus. If I was to judge the play by its publicity last week, I would be frightened and outraged as a man. Anticipating an orgy of militant feminism, I was hardened by loud signs with the word "VAGINA" written in an enormous font plastered to every campus bulletin board. After spending my five dollars for an advance ticket, I was then confronted by a vendor's abrasive attitude. When I questioned the needless politicizing of the play, I was told that every day was a performance of "The Penis Monologues." These kinds of statements seemed meant to intimidate me. And it didn't stop there. When, later that week, a prominent alum requested that his family name be removed from a dormitory hall a group of counter-protesters appeared with an enormous banner proclaiming the building, "Vagina Hall."

This recent scolding, righteous posturing by feminists on my campus frankly does not win my support. Actually, it even discourages endorsement by many in its target audience: women. Last week the angriest students on campus were female, not male. An editorial against V-Day and its extreme politics in The Boston Globe was photocopied hundreds of times over and circulated across campus. The culprit? A female student.

"The Vagina Monologues" does not widen the scope of feminism -- it anchors the fight to one word. Women are certainly more than that; their issues with the modern male-dominated world are much more complex, as well. It appears that the feminists today believe combating the discomfort surrounding female sexuality will win the bigger war waged in society. And, while I agree that language is important, it should not be focused on exclusively.

Rampant fanaticism and tawdry, insolent antics only hurt the feminist cause. Young college students who negotiated fervently with the administration to let the play run on Ash Wednesday (on a Christian campus) were seen as naughty schoolgirls instead of respectable women.
When I questioned the needless politicizing of the play, I was told that every day was a performance of "The Penis Monologues."

Centering the week for women's liberation on the play is innovative and compelling. Yet, it also misrepresents the cause itself. Screaming terms for female genitalia out loud will probably never solve problems like unequal pay between genders, lack of support for single mothers, or contraceptive rights. Being a happy and proud vagina does not make an actual woman of steel and substance. While threatening to tear the gender barrier down, radical feminist politics, like those displayed by the promoters of the "The Vagina Monologues" here at Holy Cross, alienate men as well as a number of women, and usually fail to inspire realistic dialogue.

Recalling last week, the only two hours I was not either angry or disappointed was when I was enjoying the performance of "The Vagina Monologues." Eve Ensler's play manages to entertain while educating. As a work of art, the monologues, themselves exceed expectations. But with the way its political statement is being used, it is not nearly as powerful. Insulting men and women alike with brash promotion and rhetoric does not win friends or allies. Feminism today should embrace all genders. Drawing a metaphorical line in the sand only separates the movement and manufactures enemies.


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She Said: A Feminist Perspective on the Vagina Monologues

If your vagina could talk, what would it say? If it were to wear clothes, what would it wear?

These and other questions were pondered onstage and on-campus at Holy Cross College last week in the highly controversial "The Vagina Monologues."

The play caused a whirlwind of controversy at Holy Cross, a socially conservative Catholic institution, but not without some positive results. In essence, "The Vagina Monologues" is an invitation to discuss those things dividing American society that no one is willing to talk about. Although the play's feminist perspective did tend towards sensationalism at points, I thought that the most notable points in the play had more to do with the issues it raised than the words used to describe them.

Using in-your-face themes and "vulgarity" will always alienate part of your audience. But some shock tactics are useful, in that they promote frank and open debate about profanity, sexism, and, most importantly, rape and violence against women.

The Vagina Monologues deals with many supposedly "taboo" topics besides simply the word "vagina." The play uses the word in an effort to get the American public to evaluate cultural attitudes about what constitutes profanity. It also helps to de-stigmatize women's issues buried under years of shame.

Shock itself is nothing new in the postmodern world of marketing, entertainment and art. The controversy over the "Monologues" touches on all three. Entertainment is constantly pushing the envelope -- just look at "Temptation Island", the highly suggestive reality TV show that subverts the idea of modern monogamy. Or Andres Serrano 's "Piss Christ", the modern art piece displaying a crucifix in a jar of urine.
Where male sexuality in our society is primarily defined by pride, female sexuality has long been defined by shame. The play draws a connection between this shame and cultural silence about rape and sexual abuse.

For years artists and performers have been raising questions about what indeed constitutes art. The artistic use of shock to garner attention is often exploited to promote a cause or a message, especially in an age where even the most comprehensive message must be packaged in shock or sensation to reach a desensitized public. Some may find the personification of the vagina in "The Vagina Monologues" offensive. But I would argue that humor is a useful way to defuse tension around taboo topics. In this particular play, the humor helps neutralize vivid descriptions of rape and violence in a way that is useful and important.

The repeated use of the word "vagina" is not intended solely to sell tickets. Instead, it raises valid issues about gender differences in society, and points to the difference in the ways men and women express their sexuality. Where male sexuality in our society is primarily defined by pride, female sexuality has long been defined by shame. The play draws a connection between this shame and cultural silence about rape and sexual abuse. As "The Vagina Monologues" points out, it is silence that allows rapists and abusers to go unpunished, and more importantly, it is silence that allows many women to go through life believing that they are to blame.
"The Vagina Monologues" was written to raise female sexuality to the same level of acceptance and openness that male sexuality has enjoyed for centuries.

"The Vagina Monologues" was written to raise female sexuality to the same level of acceptance and openness that male sexuality has enjoyed for centuries. And what better example of this than the contrast between "vagina" -- seen as a dirty word even though it is actually a medical term -- and the plethora of pet names for the penis that can be spoken aloud in nearly any company without being considered vulgar? What might make people angry is the fact that the this play doesn't just suggest this difference, it screams it.

"The Vagina Monologues" provides a valuable look at attitudes and beliefs about sexuality in our culture. I think that these attitudes need to be confronted in order for our society to grow and change in a progressive way -- even if the word "vagina" has to be used in a sensational way to do that.

Kevin Bogardus and Laren Holland are both students at the College of the Holy Cross

Check out this other story on The Vagina Monologues:
Down there - The Vagina Monologues use cunning linguistics to free the flow of taboo discourse by Melissa Giannini
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