The Vagina Monologues has been in production since 2001, the same year that I transferred my college career to the University of Louisville. I never got around to actually seeing UofL’s annual production of the play until this year. Last Friday in fact, and with my husband. Nevermind that I was a bit nervous about telling him I wanted to go see a show with the word “vagina” in the title. I was open to going by myself if he was not interested, but in the end (and after looking up a few reviews online) he decided to come with me.
I was not sure what to expect, even though I had the book. I’d first purchased the book about the same time the play came out, and when I took my single Women’s Studies class at UofL to help fill a requirement in my general education. Women in American Culture. Many ideas that were discussed in the class were very new to me at the time. Things like the way women are sexualized and infantilized in a lot of ads (often at the same time). It was my first exposure to feminist ideas, and it was such a departure from my accustomed mode of thinking that it made my head spin. I remember commenting on a story about how a college-age woman was raped at a college party that maybe she should have been more careful and not gotten drunk. And got jumped on for it, rightly, though I didn’t quite understand the problem at the time. Blaming the victim? Novel idea to me. That I ever made a comment like that amazes me.
I read the class materials with fascination. Stories of fat women, skinny, blacks, whites, Latinos, lesbians, transsexuals… Especially the latter two. I’d been indoctrinated with stories about how it was bad and a perversion of God’s plan to be gay or otherwise live outside the “normal” sexual binary system. I don’t think I’d thought about gays as real people until I read the stories. It’s hard, at least for me, to judge someone as alien and other once they have let you into their story. This interest is what lead me to purchase the book for The Vagina Monologues and read it.
It has been several years since I read the book, though as I watched the play I remembered a few bits and pieces from my reading. It had been so long since I’d read it that I went into the play not really still not knowing what to expect. And reading a transcript and seeing a performance are quite different things, as this experience reminded me. With a book you can skim or skip bits that make you uncomfortable, but when you are watching a play it’s more of a commitment to see the whole thing.
With my scant memory of the book I didn’t know if this was going to be, as one reviewer put it, an embarrassing “moan fest” or if there would be man-bashing (especially with my husband there). I didn’t want to be made to feel scared, like a victim, like the world is in conspiracy against my personal fulfillment. Those old stereotypes of feminism still haunt me. The play had none of those things, and rather than being angry many of the monologues were actually raucously hilarious. The discussions covered some intense topics like genital mutilation and the use of rape as a weapon of war in the Congo, which were horrifying as they should be and at time made me want to sink down in my seat, but still I listened and let the descriptions wash over me. And even they were not angry, but intensely personal. Then there was the monologue about different types of moans which was the most hilarious of all even though I had worried it would be awkward and embarrassing. The women on stage recounted the responses the interviewees had given to questions like what their vagina’s would wear (which stretches my artistic imagination to the limit) and what it would say and what do they call it?
The most wonderful part to me is that I identified with a lot of the stories myself. Face it, the vagina is not something that gets a lot of press. I recall parts of my childhood and teen years when “down there” was a total enigma to me…I was told that a guy can get you pregnant if he puts his penis there but other than that I was not told much else. I first was exposed to the ideas of “clitoris” and “orgasm” though a sneakily read issue of Cosmo. I know I am not the only girl who has dealt with this guilty silence about her own sexuality. Why such taboo and secrecy about something we all share? Presentations like The Vagina Monologue help.
I’m glad I went to see it. Maybe I will go again next year.