This past weekend, I was lucky enough to attend a performance of The Vagina Monologues. Eve Ensler, the brain-power and passion behind the show became a phenomenon when she published this collection of women’s stories and experiences in 1998. Hoping to empower women by enabling them to speak about their vaginas and the rich cultural, religious, historical, political and societal influence on this organ, Ensler interviewed over 200 women of various backgrounds and ages. She allowed people to tell never-before-heard stories about previously taboo subject matter, spotlighting issues that include but are certainly not limited to: masturbation, tampons, birth, sex, discharge, pubic hair, violence, rape, sexual orientation, sex trafficking, transgender and intersex individuals, and the word "cunt".
For more than a decade now, Ensler’s compilation has spoken to women--inspiring, surprising, teaching and entertaining populations about vaginas. Since it was first published, Ensler has added several monologues that mirror some of the more contemporary issues facing women. There are new tributes to Congolese refugees and Haitian earthquake survivors. There is a performance that tells the story of an individual who underwent transition, finally feeling at home in her own body. From the first debut of this empowering production, the narratives have pushed buttons and bubbles, straddling the line between politically incorrect and political statement.
Yet somehow, while I sat in the audience of a fantastic Washington D.C. rendition of the play, I did not feel surprised or inspired by the rhetoric. While discussing the show later, a couple of female friends and I came to the conclusion that though the acting and stories were powerful, they no longer held shock value. However, we could not agree whether this was because the monologues are no longer progressive enough to bring new information to women, or because we have been sensitized to the sort of vagina stories in the show.
Daily newspapers, in concise, matter-of-fact language, relate similar stories and statistics about violence against women. Magazines and blogs (mine included!) unabashedly provide tips for women about how to find pleasure and explore their sexuality. Popular and mainstream television shows celebrate relationships between homosexual couples. Don’t get me wrong – I believe these are all tremendous, incredible steps towards a more equal, more open, more healthy society.
On the other hand, we are currently experiencing one of the most terrifying assaults on women’s health in recent history. Conservative politicians are threatening to set us 60 years backwards in the movement for women’s rights and equality. Even if the information about domestic violence has become ubiquitous, we are standing idly by and allowing our sisters, mothers, children and friends to become statistics. Even if we are used to advice or blatant references to sex in the mainstream media, we are standing idly by as programs that provide us with science-based sex education, disease testing and prevention mechanisms and affordable health care and contraception options to all women are slashed. Women deserve to be heard. We deserve an opportunity to protect and control our own destiny. Our lives are not political appendages to be bargained with or budgeted!
Even if The Vagina Monologues are losing their shock appeal, I will stand by the assertion that they are not losing their importance or significance. It may be getting easier to talk about vaginas in public, but contemporary society is not making it any easier to have one.