One of my biggest transitions from high school to my first college experience at Boston University was the change from a small, conservative Midwestern town to a large, liberal East Coast city. No longer limited by small-town resources or conventions, I felt free to embrace progressive ideas and discover ways to express them. As a high school theater kid, my expression often came through performances that were unfortunately limited to ensemble roles in family-friendly musicals. But in college, I had the opportunity to tell stories far outside the conventional realm — for example, my chance to share the importance of perseverance against all odds while playing a talking chicken from Brooklyn. But throughout my time onstage, I never took on what I then considered to be the pièce de résistance of unconventional theater — The Vagina Monologues.
Written in 1996 by feminist Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues (TVM) is an episodic play based on interviews with hundreds of women about — you guessed it — vaginas. The play has since become a household name, and performing it is an unofficial right-of-passage for many college feminists. Fittingly, there are many opportunities to complete this ritual. The play is performed by organizations around the world during the annual V-Season, which is sponsored by a global non-profit called V-Day — founded by Ensler to end violence against women and girls. The University of Michigan group Students for Choice performed TVM annually up until 2018. U-M Dearborn staged a performance in 2019 and both Michigan State University and Ohio State University’s College of Medicine are participating in the current V-Season. Our neighbors in Ypsilanti, however, will not be taking part anytime soon.
The Women’s Resource Center at Eastern Michigan University announced in 2018 it will no longer host productions of TVM, citing the exclusive nature of the play’s version of feminism: “Not all women have vaginas.” Mount Holyoke, an all-women’s college in Massachusetts, made a similar decision in 2015. After seeing the play for the first time in 2019 — at Boston University, my former institution — I was equally disappointed by the exclusive nature of the play, along with a litany of other issues. EMU and Mount Holyoke have set examples other college and community organizations should consider following. While TVM was a monumental step forward in its time, its content is now outdated, no longer matching the messages or goals of modern feminism that embraces inclusion and intersectionality. In many ways, TVM is actually working against the modern progressive movement. We should focus on telling new stories that empower all women and reflect the ways class, race, national origin, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability and many other identities intersect with womanhood. (It’s important to note that Students for Choice later preformed a spin-off of TVM in the Rackham Auditorium called Patchwork, a version that improved the representation of TVM’s outdated and narrow definition of womanhood.)
The issues with the script are apparent. First, consider the title of the play. The centering of womanhood on vaginas is reductionist and minimizes women down to their reproductive organs. Vagina-essentialism is a major issue as well — the centrality of vaginas is exclusionary to women without vaginas and inconsiderate of non-women with vaginas. Within the monologues, there are problems as well. The play’s response to the sexual repression of the era tries to overcompensate by portraying women as perpetually hypersexualized. And for a play supposedly about vaginas, female desire within the script is often phallocentric. Moreover, with V-Day claiming to fight against sexual violence, it is absolutely hypocritical that the play continues to include a scene titled “The Little Coochi Snorcher That Could” which glorifies the grooming and rape of a 16-year-old girl by a 24-year-old woman. This is even more reprehensible when considering one of the only mentions of a same-sex relationship between women in the entire play is predatory and non-consensual. Finally, while the play is lacking in representation of race and ethnicity, any scenes that do come from international perspectives often pander to racist American stereotypes. The play and the organization, V-Day, have been criticized for colonialism, and the script’s correlation of international perspectives with violence — compared to the U.S. perspective with pleasure — supports this criticism.
The play might be more of a fit for modern feminism if this content could be revised or cut entirely at the discretion of the performers. However, staging a performance of TVM means adhering to all of V-Day’s rules and guidelines — one of which is that no edits can be made to either the monologues or their introductions, “AT ALL.” This rule, along with the fact that the script has scarcely changed since 1996, reflects a stubbornness on the part of Ensler and the organization. While another guideline states the importance of striving for diversity, it’s impossible to praise this effort when the organization refuses to redress issues within the play itself. If V-Day were truly committed to diversity and representation, they would alter the script to reduce exclusivity, colonialism and vagina-essentialism. Better yet, they would sponsor the performance of new plays from new perspectives every year. They have already taken a step in the right direction by offering other event options — unfortunately, TVM continues to be the primary production.
Although Ensler acknowledges the play’s original message does not reflect modern feminism, she defends the continued performance of the play, claiming, “one play can’t be everything.” Ensler is right: It’s impossible to expect any one piece of media to encompass the whole of the human experience. But if one play can’t be everything, then one play shouldn’t be allowed to take up so much space. We need to make room for a greater variety of perspectives, ensuring no one perspective overpowers the others — especially not an exclusive one.
TVM is a relic of a former era. It debuted at a time when it was nearly impossible to talk about vaginas publicly, and for that, it deserves its due credit. But today, its prevalence occupies space that could be better served sharing stories of those who have long been underrepresented. We can still be inspired by TVM to create and perform artwork that flies in the face of convention and allows for genuine self-expression. But V-Day should use its platform to give a voice to the voiceless, rather than telling the same outdated story again and again. It’s time to nix the monologues — womanhood is a story worth being told in stereo.
Mary Rolfes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.