Home of the Moan

'The Vagina Monologues' Seizes the Means of Production

As President Clinton's recent troubles have demonstrated, it's not the economy, it's the body, stupid. And like his alleged fondness for blowjobs, vaginas are going public.

On V-Day (formerly Valentine's Day), a host of big muthas will perform Eve Ensler's Obie-Award-winning The Vagina Monologues at the Hammerstein Ballroom Theater. The usual suspects—Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin, Susan Sarandon, and Gloria Steinem—will join less obvious candidates like Barbara Walters, Glenn Close, and Winona Ryder in the most outrageous and important feminist event since the bra burnings at the Miss America pageant in 1968.

While Clinton has encountered the karma of "don't ask, don't tell," women have learned the importance of speaking out. Homosexuals know that criminalization of consensual acts leads to fear, lying, guilt, shame, and ruin; women know that secrecy buttresses violence against us.

The brilliance of The Vagina Monologues lies in its ability to bring every woman to a common identity, like an international AA meeting for vaginas. Ensler, who is intense, likable, and very smart, interviewed more than 200 women about their genitals. Her questions were startling: If your vagina could talk, what would it say? If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear? The results were, by turns, moving, hilarious, hideous. Vaginas, it turns out, have voices; cunts might even have brains.

Part of Ensler's originality is that she knew to ask these questions. The notion of a body-centered female intelligence has been viewed as gooey pablum about the value of intuition and emotion, but if such a specific intelligence involves the ability to integrate feeling and thought, there may be supporting evidence. In 1995 The New York Times published a piece about "the hidden brain in the gut" containing as many neural cells as the skull's brain and manifesting, along with other bewildering capacities, the ability to produce generic Xanax and Valium. This gut brain is so tenuously connected to the analytical one—by the aptly named vagus nerve—that even Socrates, a genius of argument, explained his decision to drink the hemlock with blurry words about his inner voice. The Times, not surprisingly, suggests that this gut brain is a crude evolutionary holdover from when we were all lichen clinging to rocks, but mystics, artists, and most women know it is this brain that matters.

Here are some things vaginas would wear: leather jackets, mink, silk, pearls, emeralds, bows, leopard hats, high heels, sequins, sweatpants, and electric shock devices to keep unwanted strangers away. And they would say: Slow down. Is that you? Start again. No, over there. Stay home. More please. Remember me? Come inside. Enter at your own risk. Too hard. Where's Brian? That's better. Yes, there. There.

"Women secretly love to talk about their vaginas," Ensler says, "because no one's ever asked them before." The monologuists include an elderly virgin, a six-year-old girl, a lesbian sex worker, a Bosnian rape victim, a woman whose husband demanded she shave her pubic hair, and Ensler's own account of the birth of her adopted son's daughter.

Ensler calls her work "theatrical anthropology," but it might more accurately be described as a successful synthesis of art and organizing. Unlike Anna Deveare Smith, who constructs collage performances from verbatim interviews and relies for artistry upon her acting and dramaturgy, Ensler steals from her subjects with the freedom of a poet. Smith's political goals are far from modest—she wants racial conflict aired and healed—but Ensler is an avowed activist: her goal is to stop all brutality against women, quick. "If every woman in the world stood up and joined hands, saying violence against us must end now, it would end."

This kind of idealism is heartbreaking, galvanizing, and, in Ensler's case, relentless. A well-known playwright and director in downtown theater, she developed the Monologues as a performance piece, sitting onstage and reading from cards. After a successful run at New York's HERE theater, she took the Monologues on the road, mentally constructing a "vagina-friendly" map. Often she led audience discussions after performances, allowing anecdotes and new contacts to continue shaping the work. Meanwhile, she fought off Hyperion, who wanted her to take the word vagina out of the title in order to publish the Monologues as a book. They let her keep the advance to get rid of the project, and Ensler's manuscript ended up with Villard Books, who will release 30,000 copies in time for V-Day.

Taking The Vagina Monologues mainstream has required street smarts, public relations dexterity, and the calm ego that Ensler attributes to years of Buddhist chanting—the same kind of chanting, she reports happily, that Tina Turner does. The V-Day Committee—"I just called all my friends"— is a fluid, efficient group whose ages range from 20 to 50. They handle everything from advertising to phone calls for tickets to policy decisions about where proceeds will be distributed (causes such as Sanctuary, Equality Now, feminist.com, and The Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women).

The choice to go with star power on V-Day is deliberate, not only because the event is a fundraiser, but also because the material of the Monologues is so humbly personal. Barbara Walters reading "vagina facts"; Winona Ryder and Calista Flockhart (of Ally McBeal) giving their voices to survivors of the Bosnian rape policy in "My Vagina Was My Village"; Lily Tomlin speaking as a woman discovering her clitoris for the first time during a Betty Dodson–led masturbation workshop; Hazelle Goodman playing a homeless woman who has reclaimed her life in "The Little Coochi Snorcher That Could"; Rosie Perez chorusing her first menstruation experiences; Whoopi Goldberg dramatizing her own interview, "My Vagina Is Angry"—these are not alliances that make famous women "the other." They are, instead, liberating fusions.

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