Any political act ? whether it is through speech, film, music, or other media ? must recognize the audience to which it is trying to communicate. It must have that self-awareness of purpose, of focus, that can communicate its cause effectively. As ?The Vagina Monologues?, put on quite ably and effectively by the RatPAC here at UTD, filled the Jonsson Performance Hall with tales of vagina workshops, WASP orgasms, and as many synonyms for the female genitalia as the mind can handle, I was left wondering exactly who the play was speaking to. Is a university audience the type of people this play needs to speak to? More importantly, can this play in our modern age make a statement?
The production on campus had no problems attracting an audience; the Friday and Saturday night performances were filled to the brim with only a few seats left unoccupied. After intermission, the crowd remained intact. If you?ve ever attended a performance of ?The Vagina Monologues,? you know one thing: if the name was giving you second thoughts about attending due to content, by the time ?My Angry Vagina? rolls around, you?re either converted or converting your seat into an empty one. While the crowd contained more women than men, there were numerous representatives of the male gender around, all of whom took the ample jabs at our gender with relative ease. All in all, the audience seemed comfortable, receptive, and willing to accept whatever was thrown their way.
Those aren?t the audience attributes this play should create. This play should hit much harder, cause uncomfortable looks and shuffling of bags. It is designed to be a fierce examination of female sexuality. Instead, it created the atmosphere of a bawdy sitcom on television.
That?s the problem now. What once was a near-revolutionary call-to-arms is now not much more than a slightly more lewd episode of Oprah, or even a kinda boring ?Real Life? special on MTV. The make-up of the audience was primarily students from here at UTD or middle-aged couples whose sexual revolution produced most of us college students. Two hours prior to the performance, I?d had coffee with some fellow female college students who talked openly and easily about the prospect of having sex, teased about men wanting nothing more than circle jerks, and sent male friends texts like ?I like cock.? Seeing someone on stage talk about their vagina wasn?t eye-opening; it was more ham-fisted than anything. The usual play criticism that ?no one talks like this in real life? can be mollified if the issues being discussed usually don?t come up at all. Sex is discussed, in far more fluid, unselfconscious, and honest terms than the monologues give their female characters. It?s telling that the most effective moments in the play are not those talking about open sexuality, but of repressed and crushed women whose rights have been stolen from them. Descriptions of their plight, one that remains of true urgency and need to this day, are written far more eloquently and powerfully than the comedic elements in the play. It is from these women that the play gathers its strength, and the jarring shift from true pathos to hyperdriven sex talk was quite evident.
And in all honesty, the sexual openness that has permeated our culture renders a lot of the descriptions and characters in the play as more stereotypical than eye-opening. The wild, moaning ?sex worker? who believes that any woman should be some sort of unleashed tiger in bed when done ?the right way? is almost offensive in its portrayal of female sexuality. If anything, it?s a resemblance of the pop culture porn star actresses that so many women find degrading. Why include a section on how women should really ?unleash? in bed when the whole point of the play is discovering one?s sexuality on your own terms? The shy women in attendance have either opened up or left by the time that monologue begins. The fact that it?s delivered from a woman?s point-of-view on how to pleasure women doesn?t really shock anyone either. ?Oh, look, it?s a woman who was let down by men?s inability to take her as a freaky sex animal and decided to pleasure women who really knew how to unleash their inner drive. Cool.? It comes off, quite ironically, more as a male sex fantasy despite the attempted jabs at them not being able to handle her.
The problem is that women are so objectified by their vaginas in the play that it is the only type of identification or personality allowed to them. One is Repressed Vagina; another is Awakened Vagina; another is Fiery Vagina. What else is allowed the players? Admittedly, this play is based on a goal of awakening female sexuality. But really the exciting part about sexuality is that it?s one part of a whole person. Our sexuality is informed by our beliefs, our heritage, and our culture. The play only offers one way to be ?properly? sexual ? full-out and blatant. Subtlety can be rather sexy too.
The only really controversial thing in the play is the encounter between a 16-year-old girl and a 24-year-old woman who more or less commits statutory rape. As the actress described the feeling of being sexually unlocked by this older woman (along with approving nods and exclamations from the audience and other players), I couldn?t help but think, ?Am I the only one here who finds the fact this girl was quite literally picked up in a car, seduced, and used by an older woman without the knowledge of her mother the least bit creepy or morally wrong?? Yes, it?s prefaced by the fact that it?s a ?un-PC? description of her salvation, but to me, claiming ?Puritanism? or ?conservatism? as the reason why someone would take this section of the play as offensive is glossing over the facts. This isn?t a message of sexual liberation. If this was to be changed to a 24-year-old man teaching a 16-year-old girl how to enjoy her body, there would be absolutely no hesitation to condemn the act as wrong. As it is, the aspect of a lesbian encounter acts as a sort of ?if you call this wrong, you?re calling lesbianism wrong? buffer that somehow lifts it out of criticism. Like it or not, the act was wrong, no matter what sexual orientation you come from.
I am a man writing this article. I entered into writing it aware of that fact, and was hesitant to bring up topics that I know I only see as an outsider, or at most, as a partner in a relationship. Being able to communicate sexually is of utmost importance to anyone in this life; I wouldn?t begrudge anyone the chance to understand and explore their own sexuality. It?s part of what makes us uniquely human. If this play opens someone to a greater understanding of themselves as a sexual person, I cannot fault that result. The play has done its job. The problem I keep encountering as I go through it is this: the play wants to appeal to repressed women, but the olive branch it offers to those slowly opening up as sexual people is a tricky one. Many women are described as originally at odds with their sexuality, but once they open up, there?s only one speed of sexuality offered here. The type of women who need to see themselves in an open sexual manner will not be converted by people on stage asking what they would dress their vaginas up as. They won?t open up to a group shouting what they consider an obscenity at them, claiming they are ?reclaiming? the word. The irony of the play is that these monologues were designed as intimate, individual interviews, where the reviewed woman spoke in confidence to a single interviewer. That security and privacy was precisely what let them open up about their innermost fears; displayed on the stage as almost primal therapy, those same repressed women would have a completely different reaction. It?s trying to treat a fragile, sensitive wound with a sledgehammer. In addition, I know plenty of sexual women who do not find it necessary to lengthily espouse the glories of their vaginas because they know it for themselves. Where has Eve Ensler put them? And even more so, why would they need or want to see this play?
An audience that shouts ?CUNT! CUNT! CUNT!? along with an actress on stage is not one that needs to be watching this play. A moment that was once galvanizing and ? most importantly ? polarizing is now no more than old foot. We were laughing along with an almost 9-minute female orgasm best-of, ranging from the Jewish climax to the Irish Catholic little death. We?ve seen Meg Ryan thrashing about on the big screen; the mock-up of female pleasure noises isn?t any more taboo now than a mildly crude joke. It wasn?t shocking to hear women firing off ?off-color? terms for everything from their vaginas to their tampons; by the end, it was more tedious than anything. It was the men who were the most stunned at the end, mostly by the sheer shock of hearing the word ?vagina? more in two hours than in the whole of their prior existence. And during the performance the guys were more likely to chuckle knowingly than to gasp appalled at the description of the women.
The play is performed each year as part of ?V-Day?, a day calling for the equal treatment of women across the world. The proceeds from UTD?s production went to a local charity. Both are extremely worthy causes. But can this play expand the number of people who would see the importance of these issues? Is it more just a reminder to the faithful? The closest parallel I can give ?The Vagina Monologues? now is that of a religious revival meeting. It?s written to fire up the believers, and for the others, attempt to ?shock and awe? them into conversion. The believers were out in force at these performances, and for them, the play is almost a warm sweater, a known comfort. For the curious few others, the problem is that the play can?t offer much more than the world already does. It is that regular world, getting closer and closer to what the play would portray as taboo, that responds, ?Yawn. I?ve heard that before.?