Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Has the Vagina Monologues Become a Mere Institution?

Nick, a really interesting and thoughtful student, stopped me after class today to discuss the devolution of college campus productions of the Vagina Monlogues. Nick's question was:
Do the Vagina Monologues actually serve the purpose Ensler designed it for, viz. to create awareness about violence against women and thereby to stop it? I think it is a really good question, and frankly, it is time for college campuses like my own to reevaluate whether or not V-day has become a mere institution. What I mean by this is, that the real passion, the political force, the grass-rootsy element of V-day is gone. It has become a commonplace event, no different from the yearly Snowball Dance (on our campus) or Fall Convocation.

I performed in the Vagina Monologues the very first year it was brought to Gettysburg Campus. It was an incredible and frightening experience. The climate on my campus is very repressed when it comes to sexuality and politically conservative. I wasn't even sure how administrators would react to my presence in the production (I am pretty sure that I was the only faculty member, and untenured at that). We spent weeks rehearshing, which involved more than practicing our parts. We spent time "consciousness raising": getting comfortable talking about our vaginas, thinking about what each monologue meant, and spinning into conversations about how hard it was for so many of us to perform this piece. The cast was really bonded by the end of the show. In fact, I formed a kind of support group with some of the women in the cast after the production was over so we could keep discussing issues facing us professionally on campus.

But, in the years since our first production, the production of the show has changed dramatically. Now, the parts are doled out over email. There are only two or three rehearsals and very little discussions among the participants of what they are going through, why they are doing this, what this means for all women vicitims of sexual violence. It is perfunctory. Many of the students seem to take more pleasure in the provocative nature of this production: they enjoy participating out of a kind of sexual exhibitionism rather than a commitment to raising awareness about how sexual violence begins with the repression and widespread disgust with women's sexuality. Each monologue is really worthy of thoughtful discussion: rapes in Bosnia, the wonder of childbirth, hate crimes against transgendered people, incest, etc.

I worry that the rush to get this production on and the sense that it is an institution to continue has disconnected the participants from the content. I wonder how much the women who perform the Vagina Monologues, particularly the students, have really engaged in difficult and scary conversations about sexuality and the ways in which they learn to hate their bodies, be ashamed of their bodies, and thereby put themselves at risk in sexual activity.

I have always felt conflicted about the exhibitionist way in which young women have taken up their parts: e.g. dressing in very sexually charged clothing while reclaiming their cunts. The spectacle is so culturally complex: it is a product of feminism that these women feel so empowered to wear their sexuality and to celebrate their vaginas, and yet, I wonder sometimes if these young women are wholly in possession of their sexuality? To what extent are they performing precisely to be alluring to the male gaze. I pointed out to Nick that on some level I see the Vagina Monologues as akin to Mr. Fraternity. In both cases the performance is to raise money for a social cause, and yet, what is really the impetus for the show? Is the political message and desire to raise money for Domestic Violence shelters the real reason for the show, or is it merely a convenient, and thereby above reproach, justification?

If it is the case that V-day is nothing more than an institution, perhaps like Black History Month, then isn't it time we reevaluate why we do it? I am not saying we should get rid of it, but rather we should inspire some life back into this perhaps lifeless institution.