I have hesitated to write about my long-standing distaste for Eve Ensler's massive Vagina Monologues hoopla because I don't want to give fodder to my anti-feminist readers to go off on tirades in my comments section about how the existence of Eve Ensler proves that feminism in general is a silly, crude, vulgar, frivolous idea. Today, however, I am inspired to say my piece, having come across Rebecca Traister's pithy summing up, which happens to perfectly capture my feelings on the matter:
Ensler and her anatomically enthusiastic project are not my favorite elements of current feminism, but as usual, it's hard to fault the cause.
I should admit up front that I have neither seen nor read the play. I actually think the idea of the play is potentially interesting -- a collection of monologues based on real statements by real women about their attitude towards and experiences with the most intimate part of their anatomy. I am also, of course, all in favor of fundraising for rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, and other organizations designed to support victims of sexual or family violence or to prevent such violence in the first place-- and I must give Ensler all the credit that is due to her for her success in this area.
What makes me go "Yik" is all the hoopla, the kind of thing that Traister described in her 2004 piece about Ensler's co-sponsorship of a get-out-the-vote event called "Vaginas Vote, Chicks Rock." At this particular event, Ensler instructed the crowd to "Step into your vaginas and get the vagina vote out" and cheered "Vulva! Vulva! Vulva! Vote!" I have the impression that there is a lot of similar yelling and sloganeering at the annual V-day events, at which The Vagina Monologues are performed to raise money for rape crisis centers and such.
I am turned off by it not because I dislike the word "vagina" or because I am squeamish about sex talk (trust me, I'm not). I certainly think that placing cultural value on women's sexual pleasure and sexual agency, and increasing women's comfort with and understanding of our bodies is a noble feminist goal. (For example, I am a big fan of the classic women's health resource guide Our Bodies, Ourselves put out by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective.) What I really find off-putting about the V-day events is that they seem hokey. It's hokey because saying "vagina" isn't cutting edge -- especially if you make a big deal about the fact that you are saying "vagina." I also think, while it's great to be comfortable with one's anatomy, I certainly don't want to imply that my essence resides in my reproductive and sexual capacities. Obviously, I possess a vagina but, more importantly, I possess a heart and a brain.
But you know what? Just because V-day isn't my thing or Rebecca Traister's thing doesn't mean you can't go ahead and enjoy it if it happens to be your thing. (See my post on tolerance!) If V-day speaks to young women on college campuses and causes young women to think more seriously about feminism, grrreeeeaaaattt! But don't fall into the trap of thinking that it is the be-all and end-all of current feminism. Eve Ensler doesn't represent me but I am indeed a feminist. We feminists are a diverse lot who diverge on a lot of things. The commonality we have -- whether we are hokey or sophisticated, whether we agree on everything or not -- is that we view women's equality, dignity, and freedom as crucial. Eve Ensler certainly qualifies on that count, and so do I, even if I never attend a V-day event.
A couple other critiques of the Vagina Monologues from a feminist perspective:
It's bad enough that men go around thinking of women primarily as vaginas to be conquered. Do we really also need to encourage women to think of themselves as vaginas in need of defense?
-- commenter in Salon's Broadshet
Also see the critique by the famous Dr. Betty Dodson, inventor of masturbation workshops for women, who worries that the Vagina Monologues may reinforce sexist views of female sexual pleasure:
One of the great sexual tragedies in history occurred when Dr. Sigmund Freud formulated his theory that the clitoris was an infantile source of pleasure and that as a woman matures, her sexual sensations are transferred to the vagina.