November 21, 2002

Daze Spreads

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By yiewei wang

red letter daze staff writer

This Tuesday, when most of Cornell was engaged in prelims or some sort of test-related activity, I spent the evening with my friend and her semi-reluctant boyfriend listening to a series of monologues recounting the tales and experiences of several vaginas. That’s right, VAGINAS. At this point, I would like to advise you readers to stop reading this article immediately if the word vagina or any slang version of it causes you any discomfort.

Some probably feel that a show centered on a topic as taboo as the female sex organ is disgusting, even outright unethical, but thoughts like those are exactly the ones that The Vagina Monologues wishes to annihilate. After all, why should the verbalization of the most important organs of our species be so forbidden in popular culture?

Eve Ensler created The Vagina Monologues in 1996 based on interviews she conducted with over 200 women of all races, ages, and creeds. Her play has grown from a small Off-Broadway production into an international phenomenon that is currently being performed in over 40 different countries. Currently the show is embarking on its first North American tour, visiting over 140 cities in the U.S. and Canada while attracting such guest stars as Oprah, Jane Fonda, Gillian Anderson, and more.

The Vagina Monologues has recently arrived at Ithaca’s State Theatre, where a full crowd gathered to witness the Tuesday night premier. Women dominated the audience, as expected, but a surprising number of them were accompanied by at least one male. However, although most men probably enjoyed the performance, I’m not sure how many of them walked away from the show having experienced any profound epiphanies.

I confess, I was a little nervous at first that the performance would never live up to all the hype created by the press packet I read earlier. The beginning of the show was a little shaky, when a few jokes were cracked that caused most of the audience to laugh, but made me panic. “Oh my god,” I thought, “If jokes about how a vagina sounds like a disease is all Ensler can come up with, I’m not going to like this too much.” Thankfully, once the monologues began, my fear was put to rest.

Almost all of the monologues were well written, provocative, as well as entertaining. Delivered by well-known actresses, Rhonda Ross (Another World) and Glynis Bell (Broadway performer), and local actress and activist Sue Robinson, the monologues were each performed superbly and passionately.

Ensler commented that while most women are at first reluctant to speak about their vaginas, once they overcome their inhibition, many have amazing stories to tell. She incorporates these tales either individually or cooperatively into her monologues to weave a spectrum of tales based on the viewpoints of many different vaginas.

The first monologue is performed by Bell, who pulls off an excellent job portraying a woman in her seventies who has never had an orgasm and is so embarrassed by her previous sexual experiences, that she is unable to refer to her vagina by name and instead calls it “down there.” On the other end of the spectrum is a later monologue read by Ross, where she sends the audience roaring with laughter while playing a sex worker who is impersonating the many types of moans she hears from her clients.

While most of the monologues are humorous, Ensler also introduces several serious issues into her play such as sexual abuse and rape. Through interviews of several Bosnian women who were brutally raped by soldiers during the war, she wrote a poignant account of one vagina’s sorrow after being savagely abused. Another story demonstrated the ability of vaginas to heal by telling of a ten-year-old child who was molested by her father’s best friend, but later found solace after falling in love.

During the interview, Ensler asked each woman several short answer questions about their vaginas, including: “If your vagina could talk, what two words would it say?”, “What clothes would it wear?”, “What does it smell like?” Between each act, the actresses shared the answers Ensler received from the women she interviewed. Most responded figuratively, but some women took the questions very literally, which allowed for a few hilarious moments.

The script also allowed for “trivia moments,” where the audience learned some interesting facts and some very tragic truths about vaginas. Apparently, the clitoris is the most sensitive part of the human body, twice as sensitive as the penis, gloated Ross. Other issues discussed were female genital mutilation and other forms of sexual abuse.

In fact, some of the proceeds from ticket sales of The Vagina Monologues go on to sponsor the V-Day fund. By the end of 2002, those donations will have exceed ten million dollars, all of which are directed to programs that help women and girls around the world. V-Day, coincidentally celebrated on or around Valentine’s Day, is a global movement to stop violence against women and girls. During the events that week, many theatrical and artistic events are held around the world in order to raise money and consciousness.

Through The Vagina Monologues, Ensler hopes to introduce vaginas into popular culture while at the same time increasing world awareness of their sacredness and to point out their mistreatment. Ensler’s target audience is women, not only because of their connection with the topic, but also because women are the ones who are most guilty of ignorance and denial.

Some of the women in the monologues are so ashamed of their sexuality that they keep it locked away. Others barely acknowledge the existence of their vagina, and have never bothered to look at it. As those truths were spoken, I could almost hear gasps from audience members as they realize that Ensler had hit upon something deeply personal.

The Vagina Monologues is as politically charged as it is sexually. Ensler does not hesitate to criticize the state of women internationally, in Afghanistan, Bosina, and other third world nations. But while she is decrying the misogynist politics found around the world, Ensler does not forget to also ridicule our domestic laws. Apparently, buying a vibrator is illegal in four states, including Texas. “Texas?” screams Ross incredulously after that factoid, mirroring the astonishment of the audience. Imagine what those states would think of our recent Gannett debate.

Being from California, not to mention an hour’s drive from Berkeley, it is hard for me to admit that I was shocked by the provocative nature and language of the show. I don’t even get embarrassed when I trip in front of an entire lecture hall, but there I was, blushing like a schoolgirl because the women up on stage never veered from the incessant topics of sex and vaginas. Asking me to describe my experience Tuesday night is like asking a child to describe his or her first experience with fireworks. It was colorful, it was explosive, and it was eye opening, but to understand you would have to see it for yourself.

Archived article by Yiwei Wang