Those are the words of Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, spoken in the wake of the controversy that has arisen over the decision by the campus theatre group at Mount Holyoke College to abandon its annual production of The Vagina Monologues in favor of a newly written student work that is, in their judgment, more inclusive of a wider range of women’s experiences than Ensler’s influential work from 1996.
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.
As the story broke wide, many seized upon the school’s recent decision to begin accepting students who identify as women as being at the root of the decision by the theatre group. Some commenters to the spate of articles, all derived from the Campus Reform story, spoke of censorship. Mount Holyoke, in a statement, responded, saying in part:
A story/post in the online publication Campus Reform included inaccurate and incomplete information regarding the student-led decision to cancel a student-run production of the “Vagina Monologues” at Mount Holyoke College. The story also incorrectly connects the play’s cancellation with the College’s transgender admission policy.
The Mount Holyoke College student organization Project: Theatre notified the student body on Jan. 14 of its decision to cancel the play “Vagina Monologues” after evaluating input from peers about the production.
The students’ decision to cancel the play was made independently of the College’s transgender admission policy.
As a women’s college with a long tradition of educating women leaders, Mount Holyoke College supports and encourages students to take the lead in establishing and governing their own organizations.
In the initial rush of stories, no one spoke with Ensler about her work and the decision by the Mount Holyoke drama group. A story published last night by The Guardian was the first to reach Ensler, and also included a bit more from Murphy, although she did not agree to release to full text of her original e-mail to them. Because I have known Ensler casually for several years, I wanted to hear more from her, and we spoke this morning. I also tried to reach Erin Murphy at Mount Holyoke (using the student activity contact form on the college’s website as well as LinkedIn), but without success. Some articles have reported on various tweets coming from other students on the campus who oppose the decision to no longer produce the play, but I have opted to not cull from Twitter searching.
Playing off the title of her newest play, I asked Ensler whether the decision by the Mount Holyoke students was a case of O.P.C. – Obsessive Political Correctness.
“I think there’s so many issues running through all this,” said Ensler. “I don’t want to label it as such because there are genuine concerns that people are having that I want to be very thoughtful about.
“This is my perspective on it: The Vagina Monologues is a play. It’s one play. It was never meant to speak for all women and it was never a play about what it means to be a woman. It was a play about what it means to have a vagina. It was very specific. I don’t think I ever said that the definition of a woman – that a woman is defined by having a vagina. I think we have to be able to live in a world where talking about our vaginas is legitimate, due to the fact that three and half billion women have them.
“I wish the play was irrelevant. I wish we had reached a state where women are liberated and safe and not under this kind of ongoing oppression of violence and degradation and inequality. But that hasn’t happened yet. I don’t think we’re close.
“I think that it’s also really important that trans and transgender people have voice and have access to voice and have plays and ways of articulating their concerns and their issues. Ten years ago there was an all trans production of The Vagina Monologues and I spent quite a bit of time with trans women and we actually went away for a weekend and we shared stories and experiences and as a result they asked me to write a piece for them called ‘They Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy’ which I did and which has been an optional monologue. It was included in the V-Day performances of The Vagina Monologues for the last 10 years and trans women and trans men have been performing The Vagina Monologues for 10 years. So I feel like there has been inclusion.”
My own reaction when I read about the situation at Mount Holyoke was that the students had every right to make any decision they wished about what to produce, but that perhaps they hadn’t needed to be so negative about Ensler’s work, instead simply moving on to the new work they plan to create. Ensler’s response to how it was handled?
“I believe it’s Ken Wilber, in this wonderful book called Up From Eden, who says this really, really brilliant thing. He says that every time we evolve in our brain, our human consciousness, to the next level, we make a terrible error of not integrating the stage before, so that our evolution, our brains do not become wholly integrated.
“My feeling is that there have been many places in the world who have been doing The Vagina Monologues for years who then felt there are other voices we want to give voice to. There are other stories we want to give voice to and they took the momentum of The Vagina Monologues and the experience of that and that spurred them to create their own pieces. But they didn’t feel the need to annihilate The Vagina Monologues in the process.
“I think I have to say that we have to live in a climate and in a world where women with vaginas feel safe and free and open about articulating the stories about their vaginas. That has to remain a possibility and something that we cherish and celebrate in the same way that I would honor transgender people giving voice to their own realities. I think there’s something about the ‘either or-ness’ about it that I find problematic.”
Later in our conversation, Ensler observed, “I think we have to be careful as we’re evolving and exploding more and more voices that we don’t silence other voices. That’s the thing we always have to be very concerned about and having our attention paid to. It isn’t one thing or the other. We’ve come to the point where we want to now integrate and want other voices. That is fantastic. Go and write a play that does that. Celebrate that. I encourage that. I’ve been celebrating artists my whole life who are giving voice to new strains and pushing the edge and challenging the givens and the status quo.”
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For perspective on perceptions of The Vagina Monologues, I asked Jill S. Dolan, Annan Professor in English, Professor of English and Theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts, and Director, Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies at Princeton University, for her thoughts.
“First, let me say I admire the cultural work Ensler’s play did,” Dolan wrote to me. “When it was first performed, seeing this white woman, barefoot on a stool in a pool of light, wearing a long dress, sitting in front of a microphone, talking about vaginas in such an explicit way, felt very radical. Not so much because what she was saying was radical, especially not to those of us who came of age with feminism, and were accustomed to a kind of frankness about women’s bodies, but because she was telling these stories Off Broadway, in a theatre venue where these stories hadn’t been told. When the show took hold, and performances expanded to include other women, the same fascination (and, let’s be frank, titillation) continued to make it popular. It’s still performed in regional theatres all over the country (and probably, the world).
“I much admired Ensler’s industry in making the show the center of V-Day activism. She did a lot to raise awareness on campuses about violence against women, and the play became the center of an activist project that was easy for students to latch on to, because it came pre-packaged. Ensler licenses the play with very specific rules about how it’s to be performed and who its local activist collaborators should be. I think this is where the tensions began around the play and the production—Ensler’s control came to be seen as too constraining.
“But in my own critical reading, The Vagina Monologues were always only partial. Ensler’s play represents her work interviewing women around the world about their lives and their relationships to their bodies via social interdictions, but the monologues aren’t verbatim (Anna Deavere Smith-style), nor are they ethnographic to the extent that she uses the interviews in edited form. Ensler says the monologues are ‘based on’ her interviews, but she filters them through her own perspective as a white Western woman. That’s where much of the criticism lies; that the whole show is, in a way, a white Western woman’s perspective on female experience. She’s been criticized for being imperialist; for being a western feminist who presumes to ‘save’ women of other cultures and experiences; and for being tone-deaf to cultural difference and women’s agency.”
I asked Dolan whether The Vagina Monologues might be losing relevancy because it doesn’t represent enough different constituencies.
“The issue about trans inclusion is really just the latest salvo here. Because Ensler is very particular about how The Vagina Monologues are staged and produced, I know of many colleges and universities that simply bootleg the show and rewrite it as they see fit. The best thing about The Vagina Monologues phenomenon, from my perspective, is that it’s clarified the importance of telling women’s stories, or telling stories of those who aren’t part of the ‘mainstream’ on particular college campuses. That people gather annually to participate in or to hear these stories has made it an important rite of passage for many students. I know of students who were absolutely radicalized by participating in The Vagina Monologues production on campus (or by doing their own version). That’s hugely important activist theatre work.
“That said, I think students are realizing that the occasion of the show might actually give them permission to tell their own stories, or to seek out other ways of putting together activist performance work. And that’s a very good thing. Is it a period piece? Well, most plays are . . . and Ensler has tried to revitalize the show by adding new monologues every year. That said, I do think The Vagina Monologues movement might have crested, partly because the play is showing its age. It’s just not as radical anymore to stand in public and talk about vaginas . . . That’s what’s changed.”
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Ensler has written an essay for Time magazine, coming out Monday, on the decision by the Mount Holyoke students, and she raised it in our conversation as we discussed the issue of representing more constituencies.
“I’ll share with you something that I wrote in the Time piece, because I think it’s connected to this: ‘Inclusion doesn’t come from refusing to acknowledge our distinctive experiences and trying to erase them in an attempt to pretend they do not exist. Inclusion comes listening to our differences and honoring the right of everyone to talk about their reality free from oppressing, bigotry and silencing. That’s real inclusion’. I think we have to create a world, where people with vaginas and people without them who identify as women, all of us get to address our oppressions, dreams, desires, and secrets and that we keep creating a landscape where there’s room for everyone.
So, I wondered, is Ensler concerned about the play’s perception today and future popularity, as highlighted by the decision of the Mount Holyoke Project Theatre?
“First of all, I think that looking at the dialogue that’s going on, I don’t really think that’s happening. There are 715 productions of The Vagina Monologues that are about to happen right now around the world and there are every year. My feeling is if it’s time for a new play or new plays to come into being that have new voices, that should happen. I don’t feel like anybody has to do my play. It’s great if they want to do it and it’s great if they don’t. It’s been 20 years.
“But I also want to say that I do think that women talking about their vaginas and articulating what happens to and about and around their vaginas is something that’s going to remain important to women. And if that changes, it will change. I actually think that the dialogue that’s being generated around this is good. We have to keep looking at everything and examining everything. I wrote that play 20 years ago. The world was a very different world then. Now people write plays that reflect this world.
I asked Ensler whether, if invited, she would attend the new piece being created by the Mount Holyoke students.
“Of course I would,” she replied, “and I would totally celebrate the new work.”
This post was updated on January 19 to include a link to Eve Ensler’s essay for Time magazine.