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Despite concerns, Vagina Monologues positive experience for many

Photo illustration by Charlene Pan

By Chloe Wilson and Mackenzie Kubik     1/15/19 10:04pm

For many years, the Rice Women’s Resource Center (RWRC) has sponsored and staged an annual production of Eve Ensler’s 1996 episodic play, The Vagina Monologues. While past participants, like Lovett College senior Ishani Desai, find the show to be both empowering and illuminating, in recent years the production has provoked criticism from intersectional feminists. As the directors of the RWRC, we believe that it is our responsibility to address the critiques of the show, discuss our decision to continue Rice’s production and detail how we hope to address the many important issues being raised. 

The Vagina Monologues is a based on a series of roughly 200 interviews that Eve Ensler conducted with women about both their individual and collective experiences. Traditionally performed during the month of February, shows around the world are produced in conjunction with V-Day, a global non-profit movement that has raised over $100 million for groups working to end gender-based violence. Ensler maintains that the purpose of the piece is to spark dialogue and encourage activism against gender-based violence, empower women through performance and de-stigmatize conversations about the female experience.

However, as expressed in an op-ed by Brooke English and J Peterson last year, that empowerment may leave many members of the feminist community feeling marginalized by the idea that womanhood and having a vagina are equivalent, and that the show defines and constricts the conception of womanhood. Because of the rather homogenous identities of Ensler’s original interviewees and the lack of stories representing diverse groups of women — such as trans women, women of color, non-binary and LGBTQ+ individuals  — the Monologues have a tendency to portray a typecast version of these experiences and consequently of exclusionary and compartmentalized feminism. 

In addition to concerns about the lack of inclusivity and intersectionality in the play, certain monologues can breed high levels of discomfort, garnering perspectives on their content as problematic, politically incorrect perpetrators of stereotypes — even by our own coordinating team.  We believe, however, that this discomfort can be harnessed productively. In the monologue “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy,” for example, the discomfort is intended to spark a conversation about reclaiming sex for the pleasure of a woman. With other monologues, however, the benefit of the induced discomfort is sometimes less clear. Monologues such as those that detail the rape of a woman in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, a positive portrayal of statutory rape and a transgender woman who only feels validated in her gender after reassignment surgery are inherently troublesome.

The fact of the matter remains, however, that these are not creations of Ensler’s imagination but the real and lived experiences of the women interviewed for this play. Human life can be a problematic, politically incorrect and stereotype-confirming experience. The purpose of sharing these experiences is not to hold them up as perfect renderings of all women’s experiences, but rather to use a few true experiences to spark real conversations about the complexity of lived womanhood.

As the directors of the RWRC, we recognize that The Vagina Monologues is not a play about diversity. Whether it should be or shouldn’t be is a different question, and it’s something we’re excited to continue exploring with STRENGTH and other events that we host to promote awareness and celebration of diversity in womanhood. While we are aware of and acknowledge the critiques of The Vagina Monologues, we reject the notion that the answer is to stop producing the show. We still believe that the positive outcomes of the production are worth celebrating and that through active discussion and collaboration we can turn the show’s problems into an opportunity to better ourselves as a center and community. 

This year, Rice’s production of The Vagina Monologues will be embedded within a week of events celebrating the diverse experiences of womanhood, examining issues of inclusion within the show and beyond and advocating for awareness of intersectional challenges in gender-based violence. We encourage anyone and everyone to attend the show and the preceding events, discuss these difficult issues and reach out to us if you have any concerns or questions about the production. 

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