It's scary saying the word. "Vagina." At first it feels like you're crashing through an invisible wall. "Vagina." You feel guilty and wrong, as if someone's going to strike you down. Then, after you say the word the hundredth time or the thousandth time, it occurs to you that it's your word, your body, your most essential place. You suddenly realize that all the shame and embarrassment you've previously, felt saying the word has been a form of silencing your desire, eroding your ambition.
That quote is from the introduction to the printed version of Eve Ensler's theatre piece, The Vagina Monologues (published in 1998 by Random House). You can buy the book and read it for yourself. But if it's possible, dear readers, I would advise you to put aside the printed text until you've actually gone to the show. Good theatre is always better enjoyed on the stage than on the page, but the particular power of The Vagina Monologues is especially hard to appreciate in the privacy of your own reading experience (wonderful as Ensler's words may be).
So I would send you to the theatre. A few months ago in New York City, you'd have seen Ensler performing her own creation (beautifully directed by Joe Mantello and designed by, Loy Arcenas). Now, in New York City or on tour, you'll see a troupe of actresses (the New York production currently features three new performers every two weeks), who present, among others, an elderly Jewish woman from Queens whose initial vaginal "flooding" caused her to shut down the whole "cellar" and mark it "closed"; an African American teenager from the South recalling the gorgeous 24-year-old woman whose love for her "coochi-snorcher" saved her; a British-accented woman discovering her first orgasm in a workshop on vaginas; a Bosnian refugee recalling her rape; and a lesbian sex worker who demonstrates a wide array of female moans of pleasure--the "uninhibited militant bisexual moan," the "tortured Zen moan," "the diva moan." All are based on the hundreds of interviews that Ensler conducted with women about their vaginas.
Of course, you can always read their stories in the printed text (though there are some significant differences between book and show, which continues to evolve as Ensler adds new material). But you really should go out and buy a ticket,. because otherwise you'll never know what it's like to sit in a packed theatre, listening to women say the word vagina.
Not just once. Several times. Not just a passing reference. An extended discussion. Not in a whisper, not with a blush, not as the audience squirms in embarrassment. Loudly, proudly, joyously, as the audience cheers.
"My vagina is angry!" says Marsha Mason, one of the three actresses in the production I saw. (This is one of the monologues not included in the printed text). Mason goes on to inveigh triumphantly against uncomfortable tampons--"those wads of dry fucking cotton"--and against "those cold duck lips" used in invasive gynecological exams. The audience laughs, outraged, delighted, as do Lynn Whitfield and Mo Gaffney, the other actresses who share the stage. None of us is used to heating these things discussed in public. We might talk about vaginas in our bedrooms, our living rooms, on the phone--although even in private, most of us tend to go in for euphemisms. "In Great Neck, they call it a pussycat," Gaffney explains. Whitfield and Mason take up the litany: "powderbox, derriere, poochi, poopi, peepe, poopelu, poonani, pal, piche, toadie, dee dee, nishi, dignity, monkey box, coochi snorcher..." But whatever we do or don't say in private, this play takes place in public. Through The Vagina Monologues, Ensler make s vaginas public.
I see Mo Gaffney coming out of her dressing room after the performance. "Great show!" I call out. Mo grins: "I just like getting to say the word vagina."
I'm a writer, and a woman, and I've tried, in various fictional and theatrical projects, to write about the experience of being a woman having sex. And one of the first things I noticed, as a young woman in my early twenties in the wake of the sexual revolution, was that there weren't any words. There were the clinical words--clitoris, vulva, labia majora. But, as Ensler points out, these aren't very sexy: "If you use [the word vagina] during sex, trying to be politically correct--'Darling, could you stroke my vagina?'--you kill the act right there." There were the obscenities--pussy, cunt, snatch--but the whole point of those words was to talk about something ugly, something undesirable. ("I say [vagina] because we haven't come up with a word that's more inclusive, that really. describes the entire area and all its parts," Ensler writes in her introduction. "'Pussy' is probably a better word, but it has so much baggage connected with it. And besides, I don't think most of us have a clear idea of what we're talking about when we say 'pussy."') For a man, I could write cock, shaft, tip, balls--friendly, usable words. Even penis sounded less clinical than vagina, while such male-centered euphemisms as equipment and package seemed affectionate, even admiring. How could I write about sex from a woman's point of view if I didn't have any words?
In her introduction, Ensler points out that for women, even the clinical words are considered obscene. The very title of her piece, she writes, has been censored: "in ads in major newspapers, on tickets sold in department stores, on banners that hang in front of theatres, on box-office phone machines where the voice says only 'Monologues' or 'V. Monologues."' Vagina, she tells the censors, is not a pornographic word, but a medical one, "a term for a body part, like 'elbow,' 'hand,' or 'rib."' No matter, they reply. They don't want their daughters to hear it. Ensler suggests telling the daughters that they have vaginas. No, say the censors. "[W]e don't call their vaginas 'vagina."' Okay, says Ensler. Maybe that helps explain why "bad things are happening to women's vaginas everywhere: 500,000 women are raped every year in the United States; 100 million women have been genitally mutilated worldwide; and the list goes on and on." So, she writes, "I say 'vagina' because I want these bad things to stop. I know the y will not stop until we acknowledge that they're going on, and the only way to make that possible is to enable women to talk without fear of punishment or retribution."
In considering Ensler's achievements, therefore, I begin with the fact that she finds words for the unmentionable. We hear the word "vagina," followed by as many euphemisms as Ensler could find. We hear from a woman who wants to reclaim the word cunt. Imagine these words spoken sensuously by a woman onstage: "C C, Ca Ca. Cavern, cackle, cit. cute, come--closed c--closed inside,' inside ca--then u--then cu--then curvy, inviting sharkskin u..." We hear what women think their vaginas would' wear: "A leather jacket." "Silk stockings." "'Mink." "A pink boa," and what they might say: "Slow down." "Is that you?" "Feed me." "Enter at your own risk." We even hear what they smell like: "Earth." "Wet garbage." "God." "Sweet ginger." We hear about women menstruating (in Ensler's performance and in the printed text; not in the multiple-actress version of the play that I saw); we hear about them masturbating, coming and making other women come. We hear about women being raped, and abused, and shamed. We hear women talking about their vaginas.
You cannot love a vagina unless
you love hair. Many people do not
love halt My first and only hus-
band hated hair.... He made me
shave my vagina. It looked puffy
and exposed and like a little girl.
This excited him. (p. 9)
Down there? I haven't been down
there since 1953.... No, no, its a
cellar down there. It's very damp,
clammy. You don't want to go
down there. Trust me. You'd get
sick. Suffocating. Very nauseating.
The smell of the clamminess and
the mildew and everything. Whew!
Smells unbearable. Gets in your
clothes. (p. 25)
My vagina is a shell, a round pink
tender shell, opening and closing,
closing and opening. My vagina is
a flower, an eccentric tulip, the
center acute and deep, the scent
delicate, the petals gentle but
sturdy. (p. 43)
The women don't only talk about their vaginas, they tell stories about them. And to hear these stories is to realize how much experience gets left out--omitted from our public discourse, our literature, even our thoughts--because we haven't had the words, or the space, to talk about it:
I did not think of my vagina in
practical or biological terms. I did
not, for example, see it as a part of
my body, something between my
legs, attached to me.... [A]lthough I
had had orgasms... I had never
though it was a mystical magical
tried to make one happen. I
thing. I didn't want to interfere....
The woman who ran the work-
shop asked us to take out our
hand mirrors again and to see if
we could locate our clitoris.... and I
don't know why, but I started cry-
ing. Maybe it was sheer embarrass-
ment. Maybe it was knowing that I
had to give up the fantasy, the
enormous life-consuming fantasy,
that someone or something was
going to do this for me--the fan-
tasy that someone was coming to
lead my life, to choose direction,
to give me orgasms. I was used to
living off the record... (pp. 47-48)
That story, like the other monologues in the piece, is based on an interview--but it's not an interview. Unlike the work of Anna Deavere Smith, which depends on her verbatim transcription and brilliant personal rendering of her interview subjects, Ensler's work is written. Although Ensler has performed her own work--beautifully--her actual body need not be present for us to appreciate the piece. We don't need the guarantee of documentary accuracy, nor the assurance that Ensler herself has witnessed this testimony. By creating her own words, rather than working through the words of others, and by creating work that any actress (or actor?) might perform, she goes beyond offering particular experiences to presenting a universal perspective that she calls on all of us to adopt.
Female or male, American or Bosnian, African American or Jewish, lesbian or straight, it doesn't matter--we can all include vaginas and what happens to them as an essential feature of our world view, rather than keeping them marginalized and out of sight. Thus Ensler moves from stories about frigidity to statistics on rape, from anecdotes about sexual pleasure to information about genital mutilation. Thus, too, she has helped to found V-Day, an international movement to end violence toward women that began with the two hugely successful celebrity performances of The Vagina Monologues in New York and London, and that continues to be supported by the New York and other productions.
Perhaps appropriately for a piece about vaginas, Ensler's work both satisfied me and left me wanting more. Many women before Ensler have offered testimony about the vagina, have even created poetry about the experience of having one, touching one, loving one. But Ensler is one of the first to create narratives for the vagina. Poetry represents experience, but a narrative can demonstrate precisely how this experience operates in the world.
Still, as I left the theatre, I couldn't help wondering what a drama about vaginas might be like. Not only women telling their vagina stories--the brave, ground-breaking step that Ensler has taken. But a vagina story that happens right there in front of us, driven by the demands and experiences of vaginas the way, say, A Streetcar Named Desire is driven by the demands and experiences of penises. Imagine Streetcar without Stanley's penis--it's (no pun intended) inconceivable. Stella's desire for that penis, Stanley's identification with it, Blanche's teasing of it, Mitch's supposed inferiority to it, put Stanley's penis at the very center of the play. Can we even imagine what a play would look like with one or more vaginas at the center--not being talked about, but acting? I doubt the question could even have been put into words without the work that Ensler has done. I look forward to the answer.
RACHEL KRANZ is the artistic director of Theatre of Necessity, a New York-based "political and poetic" theatre company. She is the author of Leaps of Faith, a novel published this spring by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.