The student actors of the play The Vagina Monologues unknowingly took their final bows last winter. The past sponsor of the popular show, the Women’s Resource Center, has announced that due to recent changes in its mission statement — the group was rebranded the Gender Justice Advocacy Coalition this year — it will no longer support the play.
The show is a collection of interviews-turned-narratives from people of all ages and backgrounds about their relationships and experiences with their vaginas.
“The limitations of the script, namely that it equates having a vagina with female identity, and the requirement by Eve Ensler that it remain unchanged, leaves us with an incomplete play that doesn’t honor the experiences of trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people. It is thus hurtful, harmful and exclusionary to folks with these identities,” said Shura Gat, interim director of the Women’s Resource Center and advisor to GJAC.
Co-director of the 2019 production Nikita Lakhani ’19 was first notified of GJAC’s decision on October 9. Gat told her via email that GJAC had “decided to step away from funding a TVM production,” citing inclusivity concerns. The Coalition expanded on these concerns in a statement sent to The Sun.
“Exclusion of gender-marginalized people is counter-productive to gender justice on our campus and after much deliberation GJAC has decided that we cannot continue to support this production.”
Auditions for the production are customarily held this time of year, and are open to any undergraduate or graduate students. All those who audition are assigned a role in at least one monologue; no auditionees are turned away. The show is also directed by students, with help from advisors. For many years, the show has also concluded with an additional monologue authored by cast members to reflect Cornell student experiences.
The episodic play has been performed annually for the past 21 years by a large student cast in Bailey Hall. In past years, the monologues were witness to roughly one thousand audience members, which generated ticket revenues between $10,000 and $12,000, The Sun previously reported. The majority of ticket sales — 90% — is donated to the Tompkins County Advocacy Center, the local shelter and resource center for victims of domestic and relationship violence.
According to Gat, the WRC, GJAC, and the Advocacy Center are currently collaborating to find “some new, more inclusive ways to engage people with these issues and raise funds for the Advocacy Center.”
The Tompkins County Advocacy Center did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
Callie Aboaf ’21 performed in the 2018 and 2019 productions, and even donned a pink feather-clad vagina costume for a monologue last year. According to Aboaf, past TVM cast members were excluded from the deliberation process, and therefore “generally seem disappointed,” she said. “[We] don’t fully understand the decision.”
Most notably, in its statement, the GJAC Executive Board says that the play “equates having a vagina with female identity.” However, Aboaf notes that one of the monologues, “They Beat the Girl Out of My Boy…Or So They Tried,” addresses issues of trans violence. “They assigned me a sex / The day I was born. / It’s as random as being adopted / or being assigned a hotel room on the 30th floor.”
Aboaf talked further about the impact that the monologues have on the Cornell community.
“There are lots of people on this campus who are uncomfortable with their vaginas, gender identity aside. It’s still beneficial to people,“ she said.
She suggested that GJAC create more events, in addition to supporting The Vagina Monologues.
Lakhani also noted that in her forward for last February’s play, “we specifically mentioned that this play is inclusive of people who have vaginas, who don’t have vaginas, of people of all sexualities and genders.”
“My entire message was about inclusivity. If you don’t have a vagina, you’re still a part of this play,” said Lakhani.
Inclusivity concerns regarding The Vagina Monologues are not new to college campuses. Whitman College, Mount Holyoke, American University, Southwestern University and Washington University in St. Louis have all either rebranded or banned the play outright since 2015. For instance, Washington University has rebranded it as The [Blank] Monologues to be inclusive of all genitals, while the three other schools completely canceled it.
Ensler, the playwright, told TIME Magazine in 2015 that “The Vagina Monologues never intended to be a play about what it means to be a woman. It is and always has been a play about what it means to have a vagina. In the play, I never defined a woman as a person with a vagina.”
Former cast director, member and current GJAC e-board member Elle Espinoza ’20 said that she is glad that the three organizations are moving forward with brainstorming new programming ideas. “When TVM was first produced it was revolutionary and has continued to ignite many productive conversations,” said Espinoza. “However, as feminism continues to evolve it’s time for new more inclusive media.”
Amanda H. Cronin ’21 contributed reporting.