Saturday night, my wife and I drove out to Cal State Northridge to see a production of the “Vagina Monologues”. Eve Ensler’s play has become a campus standard, traditionally performed near Valentine’s Day (or “V” day, in which the V can stand for Valentine, Vagina, Vision, Victory and an end to Violence against women.) This was the third time I’d seen the play performed. I saw a professional production in Los Angeles in 1999 or 2000, done as a dramatic reading, and saw a very amateur (and technically, unpermitted) performance by some students here at PCC in 2002.
My sister-in-law, Devereau, is a senior theater major at CSUN. To our delight, Dev had what I remember as the most entertaining and powerful of the many monologues: The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy. That particular piece features an explanation of how women from a variety of different backgrounds moan in pleasure, and my wife was very brave as she listened to her baby sister offer a magnificent litany of orgasmic cries, groans, and bellows.
I was looking forward to seeing Dev perform, of course. But I was also eager to see how the audience reacted. When I saw the Monologues performed at a theater in Los Angeles many years ago, it was clear that the crowd had come to see the show itself, not necessarily the B-list actresses who were doing the dramatic readings. At CSUN, it seemed that the majority of audience members were friends and family of cast members. I saw a lot of parents and grandparents, as well as a surprising number of much-younger siblings. Though the program had suggested that the Monologues were inappropriate for those under 13, that limitation was clearly only advisory. I counted at least a dozen children under that age.
I imagine it can’t have been easy for some of the parents and grandparents to watch the show. As anyone who knows the Monologues is aware, there’s plenty of very frank talk about masturbation, female genital mutilation, rape, menstruation, and women’s right to pleasure. Perhaps some family members stayed away, and perhaps some of the actresses didn’t invite all of their loved ones. But I can say with great certainty that there was no sense of discomfort or squeamishness on the part of the multi-ethnic audience Saturday night. (The vast majority of the large cast was non-white.) Young and old alike laughed raucously at the funny bits, were somberly attentive at the painful parts, and raptly engaged throughout. At one point, the house lights came on and the audience was encouraged to reclaim the “c-word”; it was genuinely touching — and only mildly discombobulating — to see little boys and sixty-something grandmothers sitting together, chanting, “Cunt! Cunt! Cunt!”
Attacking Eve Ensler’s play has become a February ritual. Each year, without fail, social conservatives get riled up when the local college puts on its production, occasionally forcing it off campus. (This is particularly true when the college in question is historically Roman Catholic). Each year, some progressives also take issue with the Monologues, suggesting that the play promotes a victim mentality, or that it promotes hostility towards traditional culture. Each year, clever folks complain that the term vagina is misused, and that a play that seeks to teach women and men to be more informed about the female body ought to use anatomical terms more correctly. And each year, the number of people who see this riveting, vital, moving series of meditations on what was once unmentionable increases.
As the audiences grow for Vagina Monologues, the shock value of the play seems to wane. We all know that what was once thought titillating and obscene can quickly become tired and passe. But on Saturday night, there was no sense that this play (now well over a decade old), had lost any of its punch. That’s a testament to the power of the original work, and to the enduring need we have to talk honestly about the body and its meaning. I’m not the keenest observer of cultural developments, but having taught gender studies at a community college for nigh-on fifteen years, I do notice a clear increase in the openness my students have in talking about sexuality and their bodies. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have the same anxieties as an earlier generation; it does mean that they have a more complete public vocabulary with which to talk about those fears. The Vagina Monologues, in its glorious ubiquity, has played no small part in contributing to this welcome cultural shift towards greater openness.
As a Christian, I believe God intended our bodies for a purpose. We are called, I think, to use our bodies to celebrate the gift of creation, and to do so in a way that is congruent with our deepest calling as human beings. The chuch universal has for far too long been both suspicious of pleasure and tolerant of the abuse of women; poor theology has combined with patriarchy to create a religion in which the body is all too often a source of shame. But the Apostle tells us that all parts of the body are deserving of honor. God made our hands and faces — and He (all praise be to Him) made the clitoris as well. He placed them “just as He wanted them to be“. (Note that He put the clitoris outside the vagina, where it would be stimulated easily by a woman’s hand and less easily by a man’s penis.) We honor our bodies best when we enjoy them without shame, and use them to bring delight to ourselves and to others. We honor God best when we humbly respect the sovereignty that each creature has over its own flesh; we turn our backs on God when we claim the right to use another being’s body for our own purposes. (Which is why, of course, some feminist vegans see a parallel between meat-eating and rape, which is a topic for another day.)
As a Christian feminist, I want a world in which every child grows up with a sense of awe about her or his own body. I want a world in which pleasure is seen as a right, and the shaming of pleasure is seen as a form of abuse. That’s not just recycled Sixties dogma, it’s a simple and vitally important position consistent with both the Gospel and with essential feminist principles. I’m pleased that this one show, the Vagina Monologues, continues to do so much to make the case for pleasure and against shame, for autonomy and against abuse. And I’m immensely proud of our littlest sister and her colleagues for their courage and their creativity.