August 2003

Veronica Bond

21st Century Fox

My Vagina has a First Name

I must admit, I'm torn. By which I mean I'm like a person mired in indecision, not like a vagina after the arduous pain of childbirth, a comparison Eve Ensler might make in The Vagina Monologues. On the one hand, I feel that anything that encourages women to embrace their feminine experiences and asserts that these experiences are of equal import as masculine ones can only be good. On the other hand, there's only so much introspection a person can do before becoming entirely laughable and about as noxious as hand cream. No matter how you put it, once you've gone so far as to name your genitalia you really can't expect to be taken that seriously.

The short pieces that make up The Vagina Monologues is a motley band of memories taken from Ensler's interviews with numerous women. Each is directly related to the experience of having a vagina, from first menstrual cycle to first orgasm, told in narrative voice. A few of the pieces are snippets of interviews strung together, but most are from individual women retold through Ensler. One women explains the differences between having sex with men and having sex with women, detailing all the sorts of orgasmic moans she's heard, while another reveals that she'd always disliked her body until she met a man who loved to stare at her vagina. The pieces are all completely frank and Ensler is immensely respectful to the differing tales, so much so that I can't help wondering if any of them would notice when they'd left the city limits of sensitivity and passed right into senselessness.

Naming their vaginas is only one of the several ridiculous requests Ensler put upon the women she interviewed for the project. Other witless questions, such as "If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?", "If your vagina could talk, what would in say, in two words?", and "What does a vagina smell like?" were included in the interviews and Ensler provides the answers in neat lists, writing that she has never heard an answer she didn't love. I understand that Ensler's point is to get women to acknowledge their bodies, to convince them that the vagina is not a bad thing and is not inferior to the penis, and to get them thinking about their relationships with the sexual desires, but there's got to be a better of doing that than saying the vagina smells like "yummy candy." Having never seen the show, I'll allow that this may come across better when performed, but when written, instead of lending a sort of "sisterhood" credence to Ensler's ambition, these questions underhandedly mock it.

That derision is unfortunate, too, because beneath this fluffy outer layer, Ensler vividly illustrates the more unpleasant aspects of being female. Some women were slapped or told they were dirty when they began menstruating; one woman told how she could not even say "vagina" and instead referred to "down there." The practice of female genital mutilation is mentioned, as well as the fact that in the US, "the last recorded clitoridectomy for curing masturbation was performed in 1948 - on a five-year-old girl." Ensler's point would have been stronger had she spent more time on these anthropological aspects and on exposing the shame and the fear that often accompanies femininity rather than trying to convince her audience that the vagina is a beautiful present from God, or whatever other fleecy metaphor she might make.

Thus, I remain torn. I certainly applaud Ensler in her efforts to make the general public more aware of the tribulations of women - additionally, she advocated V-Day, a movement whose mission is to end violence against women - but I just can't get fully behind a woman who thinks chanting the word "cunt" is a worthwhile endeavor. I suppose the bottom line is that if it works for you, go with it. I'll refrain from damning what makes me feel moronic if it truly helps other women to feel better about themselves and hurts no one in the process. Just don't ever come up to me and tell me that your vagina is named Cynthia and that she wears pink satin, smells like nectarines, and says, "Love me." Some things I just don't care to know.

The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler
Villard Books
ISBN: 0375756981
185 pages