Why "The Vagina Monologues" Matters

The monologues mainstream important feminist concepts.
Rebecca Traister has a great article about the 10th anniversary of "The Vagina Monologues" in New Orleans, and ends up having the same reaction that a lot of what you might call advanced patriarchy-blamers have when seeing this play: a reluctant appreciation for how fun it is to see it, after a period of intense irritation at the hoopla around it. I'm definitely in the rationalist category of feminism, as it were, and have little to no patience with the Earth Mother feminism that tries to make a big deal out of the feminine essence. It's true that we are awash in a culture where anxious men have a submissive relationship to The Phallus, but seriously, the way to correct that is not to make a great emblem out of vulvic energy or whatever you want to call it. There are some men who have a healthy relationship with the penis---they like it, but see it as a tool that belongs to them. I think that route out of shame over having ladyparts is to take that pathway. But, as Traister notes, Ensler surrounds the play itself with this Earth Mother goddess stuff that makes me squirmy.
In Ensler's megalomaniacal V-universe, everything from voter registration to the Iraq war is seen through the speculum, er, spectrum, of the vagina, and moist metaphor and love for Eve (and beav) rule the day. It often seems, in fact, that Ensler has taken her laudable grass-roots success and turned it into a celebrity-centric, glitzy franchise -- one that has, in its unrelenting and patronizing focus on women-as-cootches, often felt as reductive and objectifying as the language Ensler originally set out to fight.
All that is true, but at the end of the day, the "Monologues" continue to draw huge audiences because the play itself is so good. You don't have to love Ensler's approach to love the play, because what makes the play awesome is that the monologues are all built from the direct words of a bunch of ordinary women. The factors that were in play 10 years ago when the play made its debut---shame about sexuality, the belief that women are inferior and that control of the ladyparts belongs to men, because women can't be trusted with it---are only more pronounced now than they were then, and have been enshrined into the law. I think women flock to the play, because it's refreshing to hear other women talk about their vaginas.....much in the way that men with healthy masculine identities see their penises. It's mine, but it does not own me. Ensler may skirt the edge of "women as cootches", but the play itself sends home the all-too-uncommon message that women own their cootches. And because of its emphasis on personal narrative, it does this without being preachy or driven by ideology, and it's really funny and entertaining.
Amanda Marcotte co-writes the popular blog Pandagon. She is the author of It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments.
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