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BookLust: The Vagina Monologues April 7, 2009

Posted by A. Robinson in BookLust.
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Okay, so I admit, this isn’t technically a book.  However, it is literature, so I’m reviewing it anyway.

Chant with me now...

Chant with me now...

For those of you who are not familiar with the play, it was first produced in the late 90s. The monologues Ensler writes are either a) transcriptions of or b) inspired by interviews Ensler conducted with “hundreds” of women.  The result?  A piece of shock theatre meant to empower anyone with a va-jay-jay.  The Vagina Monologues have been performed across the nation since its inception, and has boasted celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg, Kathy Nagimi, Gloria Steinem, and Melissa Joan Hart (i.e. Sabrina, the Teenage Witch) in its playbill.

On to the review.  First, let’s begin with what this piece does right.  Throughout the monologues, Ensler fights to reclaim language that she believes has been taken away from women.  For Ensler, “cunt,” “vagina,” “vulva,” and “clitoris” should not be dirty words.  I agree: it’s pretty undeniable that body-specific language has been labelled “improper” in society today, except in doctors’ offices.  The male counterparts–“dick,” “cock,” “penis”–are more widely accepted, Ensler’s argument continues.  I think that this part of her motivation for writing The Vagina Monologues is laudable.  Women should have a right to, and be comfortable using, language that describes their own bodies.  We shouldn’t be satisfied with cute little euphemisms; I, like Ensler, think there is a legitimate position to be had in reclaiming wholly female vocabulary from where it was shelved by patriarchal structures long ago.

Having said that, Ensler’s piece is designed to be shock theatre.  Clinically specific terms are bandied about in almost every monologue, and at one point the audience is asked to chant “cunt” with the speaker.  Fine, okay.  I’ll grant Ensler her methodology here.  Did I find it shocking?  Not really; at least, not as a reader.  Perhaps in production it has more sway.

Also, Ensler draws a very disturbing parallel between selfhood and the body.  In multiple monologues (like “The Vagina Workshop”) Ensler equates understanding oneself with understanding one’s body.  To me, this seems regressive.  In race studies, academics balk at the idea that race is innately tied to the body, that somehow because one’s skin is a certain color his/her body must be corrupt.  In other words, it grates me that she would rely on such a basic and stereotypical method to convey the self-worth of women.  Yes, okay, I should be comfortable being a woman, but I am not my clitoris, thank you.

Equally disturbing is Ensler’s double-speak on where men come into this role of self-definition.  In her opening monologue, Ensler features a woman who has been bullied by her husband to shave her vagina.  Here, Ensler makes the case that a woman’s body should never be controlled, or altered, by or for men.  However, in a later monologue, a woman is only able to come to terms with her body through a man–one who violates all of her personal boundaries in a poorly disguised rape which just happens to turn out fine in the end.  Women, whether positively or negatively, seem to be intrinsically linked to the perceptions of man.  Ensler can argue against that all she wants, but the structure of her monologues keep harkening back to this interrelation.

Contradictions like these are what makes The Vagina Monologues so scary.  The play is being canonized as a quintessential piece of feminist theatre.  There is a real danger in this is that The Vagina Monologues only represent one brand of feminism.  To use it as the flagship feminist drama of the 21st century is intensely problematic; for someone to think that reading this play automatically equates to an understanding of the feminist dialectic is not only wrong but teeters on the verge of misinformation.

Having said all of this, I can say that the play reads quickly, and is understandable.  It just didn’t live up to its hype.

3 bookmarks:  worth reading once, but not a life-changing experience as advertised.

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