“We were worried about vaginas.”
That is one of the opening lines in Eve Ensler’s groundbreaking play The Vagina Monologues. The play has been performed in countless colleges across the country for years since its 1996 Off-Broadway premiere. It has been praised as a tremendous accomplishment and celebration of feminism, receiving multiple awards. Nearly twenty years later, however, people are still worried about vaginas—or rather, a lack thereof.
The board members of Project: Theatre at Mount Holyoke College, an all-female Massachusetts university, have decided to remove the play from their spring schedule on the grounds that it is discriminatory towards the transgender community. According to a campus-wide email sent out by the Project: Theatre board, “At its core, the show offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman…Gender is a wide and varied experience, one that cannot simply be reduced to biological or anatomical distinctions, and many of us who have participated in the show have grown increasingly uncomfortable presenting material that is inherently reductionist and exclusive.”
Being so heavily involved with The Vagina Monologues here at BC (I have been in the cast for the past two years, and am assistant directing this year), I find this analysis of the play extremely troubling and misguided.
Project: Theatre’s primary argument is that The Vagina Monologues excludes trans women (a person who was born male but identifies as female) because they do not anatomically possess a vagina, therefore they cannot be considered “women” within the context of the play. Nowhere in the script does Ensler ever specify that strictly people who possess vaginas can be considered female, and all others do not fit the definition of a woman. All of the standard monologues in the show do feature discussion on vaginas, as that was Ensler’s primary focus when it was first created in 1996.
This being said, spotlight monologues have been subsequently added to the production over the years as new issues surrounding women’s rights and femininity gain attention. The spotlight monologue in this year’s script—called “They Beat the Girl Out of My Boy…Or So They Tried”—is performed by a group of actors on the subject of transgender issues. I can only assume that Project: Theatre did not receive a copy of the script before making the decision to pull the show, since trans women are in fact highlighted in their own monologue.
In an op-ed for Time, playwright Eve Ensler explains, “Offering the monologue to our activists around the world was a deliberate decision on my part to encourage communities to address the needs and realities of the transgender community. Trans women and trans men have been welcome to perform in The Vagina Monologues throughout its history.”
Also, just because something may not be mentioned explicitly does not mean that the subject is being discriminated against. The Vagina Monologues began as a celebration of arguably the most taboo part of the female anatomy. It was technically a show about what it means to have a vagina—not a show about what it means to be a woman. If you are making the argument that whatever is not mentioned is discriminated against, it could be said that the show represses and discriminates against males, which is completely untrue. The play uses relationships, whether familial, friendly, or romantic, with all genders to explain how the subjects of each monologue are shaped and affected in their growth as individuals.
Despite the cancellation by Project: Theatre, a group of students at Mt. Holyoke have decided that The Vagina Monologues is such an essential part of student life at their university, that they will host a more informal staged reading of the play. In a statement emailed to me by student director Emma Walters and producer Chelsea Carrier, they explain the situation:
“We decided to put on a production of the Vagina Monologues because we maintain that this show remains not only relevant but desperately needed. Women with vaginas (among others) continue to face violence, discrimination, and shame at their own bodies - something we are attempting to counter. The Vagina Monologues never claimed to define womanhood, but instead it aims to celebrate and share specific stories. Despite Project: Theatre's decision to retire the show, we felt that we must keep the Vagina Monologues on the student radar to increase access to a wide variety of activist art. Especially in a student context, the Vagina Monologues allows for an insight into how we think and talk about vaginas in a way that, for many, is new, different, and sometimes uncomfortable. It is in that productive discomfort - and eventually love - that we grow as a community of women, men, trans*, and activists.”
There is no denying that The Vagina Monologues is controversial and raises a few eyebrows with every production performed. However, I have seen first-hand what an incredible impact it has on actors and audiences alike. This show is able to do something unique, spreading awareness about important issues such as sexual assault, violence, and insecurity, all while providing laughter and a sense—whether large or small—that all genders can somehow relate to the sentiments expressed in the monologues. Whether an official production or a student-run reading, The Vagina Monologues is a meaningful and educational experience that is imperative to a college community.