Home of the Moan

'The Vagina Monologues' Seizes the Means of Production

Ensler was a college student during the '70s while feminists were still killing each other over ideology, but she's managed for more than 20 years to keep her energy and clarity intact. As a radical feminist committed to the peace movement, she took part in demonstrations and actions all through the '80s, when "it was pathetic to be an activist." As part of Anonymous Women for Peace she tied herself to D'Amato's elevator, dressed as a bomb on the steps of the Public Library and as the Statue of Liberty at Koch's voting booth, and helped organize a "Brunch at the Plaza" for the homeless. She was arrested "somewhere between seven and nine times."

Her work with homeless women—"we call them homeless so we can categorize them and forget them"—led to the political goal of V-Day. "I have evolved a theory that for most of these women, 'home' is a very scary place, a place they have fled. I have met few who were not subjected to incest as young girls or raped as young women." Ensler herself was raped, and manages to joke that when she saw the movie Sybil, "I thought it was about me." Through happy coincidence, Joanne Woodward, who played Sybil's psychiatrist, became Ensler's mentor, directing her first play in 1987. When Ensler showed Woodward a somber draft of what became The Depot, Woodward's response was, "Listen, I'm not Jane Fonda, I'm not Vanessa Redgrave, I like it funny." "I was 24 years old," Ensler said. "So I asked, how do you make nuclear war funny? And that was the beginning of my real life as a writer."

If the personal is not political, why, she asks, is it permissible to say the word penis on primetime television, but not the word vagina? And why did The New York Times find it necessary to perform a clitoridectomy on the V-Day logo in the paid advertisement for the performance, at first even resisting inclusion of the v-word? When Ensler made her case to the Times, their spokesman argued that the event was not about vaginas but about violence against women, and "when people do muggings we don't write about skulls." "Listen, I wrote The Vagina Monologues," Ensler replied, "and, trust me, it's about vaginas."

The logo for The Vagina Monologues is a V with the word Day written inside an oval that suggests female genitals. The Times excised this part, leaving only the V, which might represent a woman with her legs open, or might just stand for victory, like Nixon's fingers. This peculiar censorship by the Times is actually suggestive of "My Vagina Was My Village": "a piece of my vagina came off in my hand, a part of the lip, now one side of the lip is completely gone. . . . "

In a culture that tries to obliterate female genitals, from the Times to Barbie to Playboy to the theory that the clitoris is a vestigial penis, the vagina is posited not as a place but as a hole, an entryway. The beaver shots pioneered by Hustler were revolutionary and threatening because vaginas were shown to be hairy, red, purple, layered, complex; nevertheless they remained an invitation, a place to stick something into. A beaver shot with something coming out, like menstrual blood or a baby's head or an afterbirth, is not erotic, or we'd see those images in skin magazines. Emissions of the vagina are problematic because they signal the transformation of the sexual object into the mother. That's why motherfucker is such a charged word.

But genital erasure is not solely the responsibility of men. Acknowledgment, for women, can touch shame, as "The Flood" demonstrates. "I haven't been down there since 1953. No, it had nothing to do with Eisenhower." This virgin crone narrator is not a victim of violence or abuse but of her own desire. Kissing a boy in high school she experienced a sudden, overwhelming lubrication, and

It was like this force of passion, this river of life just flooded out of me, right through my panties, right onto the car seat of his new white Chevy BelAir. It wasn't pee and it was smelly—well, frankly, I didn't really smell anything at all, but he said Andy said . . . I was "a stinky weird girl." . . . When I got out and closed his car door, I closed the whole store. Locked it. Never opened for business again.

If her vagina could speak it would say, Closed Due to Flooding.

The idea that women should feel humiliated by the odor of their genitals—the foundation, of course, for "feminine deodorants"—is redeemed with Ensler's list of answers to "What does a vagina smell like?" Answers range from wet garbage to sweet ginger to the ocean to cheese to "somewhere between fish and lilacs."

Women seem lengthily interested in discussing whether the word vagina is comfortable. Clitoris, some think, has been more or less rehabilitated; although it still can't be said on network television, Seinfeld can rhyme "Delores" with it. Cunt has some currency, as does pussy. But vagina, Ensler says in the opening of the Monologues, "sounds like an infection at best, maybe a medical instrument. 'Hurry, Nurse, bring me the vagina.' " One of the funniest segments is her catalog of words women were taught: pussycat, twat, powderbox, toadie, poopie, peepee, cooter, nappy dugout, dignity, split knish, and coochi snorcher.

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