Vagina Monologues is a series of feminist monologues written by feminist playwright Eve Ensler in the late 1990s to raise awareness about and fight against gender violence around the world. The play has become an international movement known as V-day which is often celebrated on Valentine's Day and International Women's Day. The production has also garnered fierce criticism for its exclusionary feminism and lack of positive narratives for women of colour, transgendered feminists, and those with disabilities.
Ensler originally got the idea for the play after chatting with one of her friends about menopause. What started as casual conversations about vaginas soon evolved into structured interviews. Ensler wrote the monologues in 1994 after conducting more than 200 interviews with different women about their experiences with sex, violence and their bodies.
She first performed her pieces as a one woman show in 1997 for the off-Broadway Westside Theatre. In only a year the show had transformed into a celebrity performed fund raiser for various organizations working to end gender violence. On Valentine's Day in 1998, Ensler created V-Day as a charitable organization. Each year, Ensler adds another monologue to the play based on issues that women have faced in the past year.
Supported by the money from performances of the Vagina Monologues, V-Day goes beyond the play. The organization hosts large-scale benefits, innovative gatherings and campaigns to end gender violence. It works with local grassroots efforts to change social and political opinions. However, there are deeply rooted issues of discrimination within the production. In 2003 the yearly update was a piece called "Under the Burqa" about women in Afghanistan. This highlights a very problematic aspect of the Vagina Monologues - its generalization and harmful depictions (or lack thereof) of particular groups of women.
The monologues cover a wide range of topics, from sexual abuse to menarche. Some of the pieces are funny while others are serious. "The Little Couchie Snorcher That Could" has been the most criticized monologue. It describes a young girl's experiences having sex with an older woman which has been likened to glorified molestation.
Critics argue that by depicting a sexual experience between a female minor and an adult woman as a positive that the play is sending a mixed message about childhood sexual assault. The play has also been criticized with being man-hating, anti-heterosexual and colonial.
While the intention behind the Vagina Monologues' fight for gender equality is crucial, the execution falls short. As with many mainstream feminist projects, the result is a stream of white, privileged, heterosexual feminism. Critics point out that monologues featuring women of colour, same sex encounters and other such topics are prefaced or punctuated with violence, pain and anguish. Meanwhile, the light and pleasing sexual experiences are reserved for women more in line with mainstream, traditional ideas of a second-wave, white feminist.
Another example of a distorted narrative in the Vagina Monologues surrounds women in the developing world. Additional monologues like "Under the Burqa" and a later piece on raped Congolese women entitled "My Congo Stigmata," work to confirm the stereotype and generalization of women in African and the Middle East as victims, living in poverty and without the means to escape their horrid life situations. It paints the developing world, in particular, as an area that needs "saving" by sympathetic white feminists. Ensler's monologue on the Congo is particularly disturbing. She equates her uterine cancer and subsequent physical injuries to those of Congolese rape survivors. For the many women in the Congo who do experience traumatizing rape and abuse, Ensler trivializes their experiences and once again brings the focus back to the "suffering" of white, second-wave feminists with innumerable privileges in the West.
V-Day also created a storm with their One Billion Rising campaign, an attempt to overtake the movement to end violence against Indigenous women while ignoring the work done by countless grassroots campaigns across the country. This is yet another problematic example of the V-Day exclusivity and ability to overlook important, authentic, activist organizations already doing great work.
Campuses, communities and organizations put on performances of the Vagina Monologues throughout February, March and April with 10 percent of the proceeds going to V-Day and the 90 percent going to local organizations. The monologues have been translated into 48 languages and performed in 140 countries, everywhere from the European Parliament to local youth groups.
It is important to consider the activist work that can be done to expose the underbelly of the Vagina Monologues, to inform ignorant feminists that there is much work to be done and many other works deserving of their praise. It is essential that the feminist movement focuses on inclusivity and on the real experiences of women around the world, so as to move forward in solidarity and without compromising the dignity and agency of other feminists.
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