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V isn’t Just for Vagina: The Vagina Monologues and Feminism

Recently, the all-woman’s college Mount Holyoke in South Hadley Massachusetts decided to cancel the play production The Vagina Monologues. This, in turn stopped a tradition of having the play performed on Valentine’s day to raise awareness of violence against women. They cited the play as, among other things, transphobic and having an overly narrow and reductionist view of what it means to be a woman.

A representative of the Theatre Board had this to say:

At its core, the show offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman… Gender is a wide and varied experience, one that cannot simply be reduced to biological or anatomical distinctions, and many of us who have participated in the show have grown increasingly uncomfortable presenting material that is inherently reductionist and exclusive…

In response, sites like Reason, The Daily Beat and The Guardian have all commented on the story, largely negatively.

One of the main misconceptions I see repeatedly in articles about this story is the accusation that the playwright group is “censoring” or “being censored” and that they’re “banning” discussion of women talking about their vaginas. I think it should be made absolutely clear that the playwright team are the ones who decided to cancel the production of The Vagina Monologues. There was no outside “PC” group of feminists, women or anyone else who told them to do it. As far as I can tell from the new stories I’ve read, the group came to a collective agreement on the matter and decided not to perform it.

The response to this action seems to be mostly based in the idea that this is some sort of censorship, Reason Staff Member Elizabeth Brown says this for instance:

Yet I am a woman with a vagina, and this becomes an area of my concern when people start saying that I shouldn’t reference or acknowledge that—that it’s in fact bad and intolerant so 20th century to even speak about it. … And now, in the name of feminism, “female-validating talk about vaginas is now forbidden,” as one anonymous writer on a Mount Holyoke messageboard put it. “That’s so misogynistic under the guise of ‘progress.'”

Unlike Brown it isn’t clear to me that the playwrights are saying that no one can do this play at other colleges or that they shouldn’t. They simply feel like they shouldn’t and have decided not to do it.

Would people with Brown’s opinion rather they do the show simply because most self-identified women have vaginas? It seems to me like it’s the best choice for the production team to produce what they want rather than simply conform to tradition and keep going with things that they find objectionable.

It also doesn’t seem like the production team has banned “female-validating talk about vaginas…” given that, according to the Campus Reform article on it:

Replacing the play will be Mount Holyoke’s own version that will be trans-inclusive and fix the “problems” supposedly perpetuated by Ensler.

The new production, comprised of students’ monologues, will be performed in a fashion reminiscent of the feminist classic.

If the women involved in the play were trying to somehow ban or even minimize female validation then why would they make a new play? Wouldn’t they just do no play at all? And does Brown and others of a similar mind set seriously think that a play that takes trans-inclusivity seriously isn’t going to also reasonably include some things about female empowerment?

Brown does make one solid point though, I don’t know that simply not having trans perspectives makes something trans-phobic. I agree that those perspectives are pertinent and worth having in a play that’s centered around gender and what it means to be a certain gender. I especially agree if the play in question trying to be radical or change how we see the gender dynamic. But I don’t know that having certain focuses is it self a sign of phobia. I may be taking the term too literally though and perhaps the fear is simply that it silences marginalized voices and we should instead be aiming to raise them.

If so, then I agree with this position and applaud the production team for their efforts.

Lizzie Crocker of The Daily Beast has some complaints of her own:

Well, here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: as a woman with a vagina, why shouldn’t I be able to watch this play? If the complaint is that The Vagina Monologues excludes certain women without vaginas and therefore must be struck from the stage, then my complaint is that you’re excluding me from watching something I want to see because my gender remains defined by my biological parts. Isn’t it “reductionist” to deny me the right to see something? When did censorship become a good look for the modern feminist?

One reason I’d offer is that the production team doesn’t want to produce it.

Why, exactly does Crocker feel (dare I say) entitled to see this play? Is she simply supposed to see this play because she has a vagina? Are men with penises suddenly supposed to see a Arnold Schwarzenegger movie every time they feel impotent? Is that their natural move-going right? If so, sign me up!

Regardless, I don’t agree with Crocker that her gender remains defined by her biological parts. I am sure that that’s how she sees them, but not everyone else sees it that way or should have to acquiesce to her view on gender. I’m also baffled by the claims of “reductionism” having much to do with denying someone the right (what right?) to see something. I can’t see what reduction has to do with that or how a production team deciding not to produce the play they have control over is somehow “censorship”.

Under Crocker’s definition, if I had decided not to write this piece because I felt it was too problematic would that now be called “censorship”?

But Crocker goes further:

If we follow Mount Holyoke’s logic, colleges should not stage any plays that are exclusive or derogatory in their representation of gender, race, homosexuality, or any other minority group — which would eliminate Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and yes, female writers like Jane Austen, where female characters may prevail, but only after enduring pain and indignity.

Crocker isn’t clear about how Holyoke’s logic leads to this for starters but even putting that aside why would it eliminate any of the authors she’s talking about? The Vagina Monologues is written specifically about gender issues and has to do with things like feminism and was specifically written to address the problems of being a woman in the late 20th century. If the playwrights don’t feel like it lives up to those specific intentions then why is it so problematic to do their own? Isn’t this just artistic creativity and competition at its finest?

Was Shakespeare and Charles Dickens reveling in gay liberation or focusing on it? Not last I checked.

One of the most interesting criticisms comes from the author of The Vagina Monologues herself, Eve Ensler.

She raises some good points and gives some food for thought:

“I think it’s important to know that I never intended to write a play about what it means to be a woman, that was not what the Vagina Monologues ever intended to be,” Ensler said. “It was a play about what it means to have a vagina. It never said, for example, the definition of a woman is someone who has a vagina … I think that’s a really important distinction.”

Ensler is surely right that we must “be very careful [with] what we say” and that means that, unfortunately, even if Ensler never intended for The Vagina Monologues to be about it, it’s culturally become much more synonymous with what it means to be a woman then what it means to have a vagina.

The cultural perception here is related to a trope called Death of the Author. Whereby the author’s intention have no real effect on the piece itself.

I don’t completely agree with this because, for example, I think it’s very relevant to keep in mind that, for instance, Taylor Swift’s fantastic song Blank Space is intended by her to be a statement of how other people see her and not about how all women are evil psychopaths trying to kill men.

But even with this, I still think Ensler overestimates how much her intention actually matter at this point. The Vagina Monologues took on a life of its own long ago and it seems naive to think that what it means to all of the audiences that have seen it would somehow interpret it how Ensler intended.

An interesting bit of information that the article gives though is that Ensler had added a new piece in 2005 called “They Beat the Girl out of my Boy” which was written entirely by a transgender person. Whether it was ever actually acted by one, it does not specify. It has remained an optional piece since and the Project Theatre group for Holyoke actually had performed it in 2010 but did not continue performing it in the following years.

Erin Murphy, the Project Theatre Chair explained that they,  “…felt that the play didn’t reflect all of the voices of the Mount Holyoke community; as such we decided to create our own…” and added that:

In our discussions among the board, we felt that the monologues in the current core that we perform offered one perspective on the experiences of people of colour, women of colour in society — we totally totally recognise the validity in that. But we felt it was maybe time to hear some other perspectives…

Ensler denies that the play has this general problem citing thousands of actresses who were people of color over the last 20 years. But Murphy may be more specifically feeling that way about the campus and just being unclear about that distinction.

If so, Ensler’s point about clarity and language remains reaffirmed.

It seems that the best position in this case is one of encouraging artists to go towards what creatively inspires them instead of getting bogged down in traditions that they don’t care to repeat anymore. And if that leads to new experimental plays about what gender consists of then I’m all for it.

More free competition, more artistic and creative passion, and way more genital organs on display than you could ever imagine all sound like the benefits of free speech to me. People having to force themselves to do a certain production because it’s “tradition” or the play in question is a “feminist classic” doesn’t sound like a benefit of free speech.

Maybe, when all is said and done, some of the opposition to this action are actually coming at this more from anti-feminist alarmism than an interest in preserving free speech.

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