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.

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.

The tours de force of the Monologues are an extended riff on the word cunt—Glenn Close will brave this one—and an inventory of orgasmic moans, which Ensler will perform herself: the clit moan, the vaginal moan, the elegant moan, the WASP moan, the baby moan, the doggy moan, the uninhibited militant bisexual moan, the machine-gun moan, the triple-orgasm moan.

Camille Paglia's notorious notion that if women ran the world, we'd all be living in grass huts (which ignores the fact that a large percentage of the world live thus and aren't ruled by women) postulates female power as clthonic, the raw maw for crude reproduction. To reduce Paglia's logorrhea to its essence, men have minds, women have bodies. Ensler's work is an artistic and organizational attempt to bring female sexual power to left-brain articulation.

Like most radical feminists, radical right-wingers know that the body is the economy, stupid. That's why folks whose long-term goals might involve a master race aren't contradicting themselves when they oppose abortion. The female body (except on The X-Files) is the primary means of production, and seizing control remains a fundamental historic issue, whether in terms of abortion, clitoridectomy, or pleasure.

When Yeats wrote, "But love has pitched his mansion in/the place of excrement," he was speaking for men. For women, love pitches her mansion at the factory door. Pregnancy, a metaphorical experience for men, the magical result of fucking, is for women literal and vulnerable. There is no male equivalent of the vagina, so desire can be unambivalent, an augmentation of self. For women, desire can be perilous, and fraught with knowledge that feels born-in-the-bone. The Vagina Monologues explores the dangers that arise when the locus of pleasure and risk is the same.

A few weeks ago, in Baltimore, I watched Ensler rehearsing the last solo performance before V-Day. The Center Stage Theater was lit red. Ensler, a slight, relaxed figure, was dressed simply in black pants, a black tank top. "Actually, Jane," she called to the lighting director, "I think that's the orgasm light. Let's check the opening one." To the stage manager sitting about halfway back she said, "How were my moans last night? Were they too low? Were you with me?" "I was with you," a woman's laughing voice replied from the dark theater. "Well, I was almost with you."

Later, over dinner, Ensler said, "I don't do jokes. I'm not a comedian. But, you know, it's laugh or die. The Bosnian women were the funniest women I ever met." Then, as easily as she'd laughed, she wept. "How can people know what's happening and not help? We knew what was happening in Bosnia. And why are women still being raped and battered right here?"

The Vagina Monologues ends with birth. "Things come out of you that are horrible to look at," she said, recounting the impact of seeing her granddaughter's birth. "But I see shit differently now, I see my period differently. We come out in a mess. It's sexy, it's hot, it's alive, it's undeniable." Then from her gut brain, where metaphor is not analogy but an actual passageway, she offered this extraordinary thought: "The vagina is the heart."

On Saturday, formerly Valentine's Day, the performers will wear red velvet. Bright pink boas will line the half-moon stage, the same boas slitting the pale pink backdrop, and, as the stars step through this slit, V-day will be born. The event is sold out, but already plans are underway for a V-Day 2000, possibly at Madison Square Garden. The vagina, Ensler believes, is where men and women can come together, and it's expansive enough to include us all.

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