The Vagina Monologues

This week marks the tenth anniversary of V-Day, Eve Ensler’s international movement to end violence against girls and women. In its lifetime, V-Day has raised $50 million, and the organization gives away more money than any other group to fight violence against women (still, what they give annually amounts to what’s spent on about ten minutes of the war in Iraq).

It all started with a play: the now ubiquitous Vagina Monologues, which Ensler wrote and performed off-Broadway beginning in 1994. V-Day was founded 2 years later, on Valentine’s Day, when a star-studded benefit performance brought in plenty of dollars and attention. Since then, the play has been translated into 45 languages and performed in 120 countries. “The most radical play I ever wrote was the one that was accepted into the mainstream,” Ensler told an audience at the New School last week.

To me, that’s the most inspiring part. My mom and I first saw Ensler perform the Monologues at a tiny New York City theater in 1999 or 2000. Afterward, I went home and taped Ensler’s headshot up on my wall, and wrote my college admissions essay that same year based on the premise of the play. I’ll confess to having become somewhat disillusioned with V-Day in recent years, probably due mostly to having overdosed on its particular style of hot pink enthusiasm back in college. I’m also uncomfortable with the idea that to keep women from being violated, we have to treat our vaginas like the eighth wonder of the world instead of, you know, a body part. But that doesn’t mean I don’t admire what Ensler has done, and is doing. Listening to her triumphant pep talk last week (part of a speaking tour aimed at rallying the troops for the tenth anniversary, and encouraging everyone to come to New Orleans in April for a super-deluxe V-Day event that will “reclaim the Superdome“), I was struck by the way The Vagina Monologues has managed to become a mainstream sensation without sacrificing its edginess (though the degree of it has certainly changed, and not only because its content has become more accepted).

It’s easy to forget that there are lots of places where “vagina” is still a dirty word. Luckily, every once in awhile someone comes along to remind us that some of those places are major U.S. cities! This year it was the Seattle Times, which refused to run an ad for the Monologues because the vulva-centric artwork was not “appropriate” for its audience.

The best part? The ad — which seems pretty tame to me — was created by the National Council of Jewish Women’s Seattle office, which is co-sponsoring performances of the play. And the poster version had already been hanging in several area synagogues without protest.

A tenth anniversary edition of the Monologues is out now from Villard. Unlike the slim, deckled edge volume I once bought in a theater lobby, this substantial paperback reads like a primer on the V-Day ethos, with a new introduction from Ensler, sections outlining the history of the movement, testimonials from those involved in it, and a timeline of victories. There are also five new “spotlight monologues,” composed in response to particular kinds of violence against women in specific places and situations: transwomen, the Comfort Women of Japan, women in Islamabad who have had acid thrown in their faces. It sometimes feels like Ensler is writing the same monologue over and over again, and the tone of them — pain and despair, tinged with hope — becomes a little predictable.

Stories of abuse may not always translate well to the page (they probably fare better onstage), and I realize that’s not the point. In her talk last week, I was mostly encouraged to hear that Ensler has chosen a new word to impress upon the public: femicide. “Femicide” acknowledges that violence against women is not random; it is systematic, a pattern. “Naming femicide allows us to treat the issue fundamentally rather than remedially,” she said. The word may be even
more controversial than vagina. One high-level UN official already told Ensler it made him “uncomfortable.”

— Eryn Loeb

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