April 12, 2005

The Vagina Monologues objectify the people they hope to protect

When I first heard about The Vagina Monologues several years ago, I had little desire to see it. I've never been particularly interested in vaginas or monologues. Recently, however, I witnessed its debut at Oxford.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised. The play was certainly interesting and often genuinely heartrending—like the monologue of a woman raped in the Balkans or one telling of a Pakistani woman attacked with acid by her husband. It explores sexual abuse movingly too; the author, Eve Ensler, was herself the victim of abuse as a child.

But my recognition of what the play does well only fuels my frustration with what it does badly. What first burned my biscuit, so to speak, was a monologue featuring a tirade against America for its invasion of Iraq, a portion of the script obviously added recently. The argument asserts the following: Things for women were actually better under the previous regime. This argument was reiterated in an item in the program.


I was stupefied. That claim seemed, at best, selectively amnesiac about Iraq under Saddam. Then I got confused. Was it referring, for example, to the extensive "talent identification program" the Husseins instituted to recognize promising young Iraqi women and ensure the realization of their potential? This illustrious institution saw the cultivation of thousands of girls under Uday Hussein, with his famed, hands-on approach, who personally selected which of the girls kidnapped off the street he would rape and discard. And, of course, this particular "better" condition opened up many prospects to young women, including immediate death due to their "shame," possibly preceded by a brief stint in prostitution.

Let's see: institutionalized misogyny? Check. Blaming the victim? Check. No recourse to justice? Check. But, you see, all of these unconscionable sins against women didn't warrant a mention, only America's supposed misdeeds. Perhaps Eve Ensler believed such crimes were more than made up for by a few seats held by women in the Iraqi National Assembly which, I'm sure, exercised much sway in the government because Saddam Hussein wasn't, you know, an arbitrary, totalitarian dictator or anything. Celebration of such a horrifically anti-woman regime seems inconsistent with the production's mission, to say the least.

Shame, then, on the women behind this production who saw pictures of courageous Iraqi women going to the polls and triumphantly displaying their inked index fingers, yet chose to ignore those images in favor of blind ideology. Other victories for women resulting from the U.S. invasion (yeah, you heard me), such as Saudi Arabia's recent announcement that women will be allowed to vote in its coming elections, were ignored by these women in favor of what? A tired, now archaic, political agenda? Do they really find more power in victimhood than in victory?

I was surprisingly unsurprised to learn later that the argument in the play bore a striking resemblance to an article, "Women of Iraq Victims of Sanctions," on Al-Jazeera's website.

Ideology has no place in a piece that touts itself as belonging to all women. I was told repeatedly by cast members that The Vagina Monologues is "required viewing" for women, "the most important play you'll ever see."

Maybe. But afterward, I became convinced that the specific ideological issue only underscored a bigger problem, that of exclusivity. Wives and mothers are conspicuously absent in the play. The only marriage described ends unhappily because of the wife's refusal to shave her pubic hair. And the only mention of children comes when a woman tells of her daughter-in-law (not even her own child, mind you) giving birth in the most graphic, unpleasant language possible. The baby makes a brief cameo as an ugly, blue sort of thing. Moreover, in juxtaposing powerful monologues about violence and oppression with ones about short skirts and tampons, the piece unwittingly portrays how absolutely unworthy of their good fortune Western woman are. It aptly illustrates that it's only in the U.S. and the leisured rest of the West that women have time to complain about Tampax as opposed to (I don't know) being stoned to death or mutilated.

Philosophically, the play suggests that our discomfort with the word "vagina" has more to do with our oppression by a patriarchal society than the fact that genitalia really shouldn't be discussed at the dinner table. Gee, I don't know. I'm equally discomfited by the word "penis," yet I don't cry foul at an oppressive matriarchy. Although maybe I should. The Vagina Monologues sometimes seems the product of just such a matriarchy, one that tells me that because I don't agree with its tenets, I'm expelled from the sisterhood. Please.

Such an approach restricts the ways in which a woman can legitimately view herself as such. It buys into the narrow, albeit popular, interpretation of woman as victim and therefore requires that any ‘other' be viewed as antagonistic. The claims of a child or husband, for instance, constitute attacks on her person—which is inviolate and self-sufficient (or would be, if she would only embrace her vagina and own the c-word).

This assumes that a woman can exist "as woman" outside of her relationships with others. Nonsense. Man is a relational being in many ways. We cannot survive outside of society, for one, but we are also largely developed and determined by a complex web of interpersonal relationships. A full understanding of ourselves comes only through these relationships and the societal roles we assume.

Thus, my going on about my vagina has meaning only insofar as I understand the vagina in its relationship to the penis, to menstruation, to babies, etc. Without these relationships, the vagina is just a thing, an object. And perhaps this constitutes my biggest objection to The Vagina Monologues—the objectification of women. In the end, the show simply perpetuates the same sin against women it purports to protest.