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Did Someone Say Vagina?

June 18, 2012

Cross posted at Ms.

When I heard the news from Michigan, the first person I thought of was Eve Ensler. I’ve directed The Vagina Monologues twice and, despite unsettling doubts that the play does not actually work as V-Day events intend it to (to end violence), I loved doing it both times. In theater speak, The Vagina Monologues works in an Aristotelian way to create catharsis out of pity and fear. In regular speak, that means that the play creates for the audience an identification with the characters that leads to an empathetic emotional experience. This in itself is pretty cool, but emotional experiences are by definition internal to individuals, whereas ending violence requires structural social change.

Nevertheless, I am here to tell you that a performance of The Vagina Monologues scheduled for Monday evening on the steps of the Michigan capitol is activist theater that can work. In fact it’s just about the best idea I’ve heard in a long time.

The local artists putting together the event have recruited six state senators (Sen. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor), Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing), Rep. Barb Byrum (D- Onondaga), Rep. Stacy Erwin Oakes (D-Saginaw), Rep. Dian Slavens (D- Canton Township), Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D- Detroit)) to read monologues and is filling out the rest with volunteer actors. As if notified by a vagina signal in the sky, Ensler herself will attend.

In case you’re one of the few people who haven’t seen it yet, every monologue in this groundbreaking show deals either directly or indirectly with a woman struggling to describe her experience of her own body, to a create meaningful narrative out of things that have happened to her. In so doing, the women in the play say vagina, and many other words that supposedly mean the same thing (in some cases they don’t and it’s unfortunate that Ensler blurs these lines) over and over and over until the audience is comfortable not only hearing them but often saying them, too: In many cases, a highlight of the show is the audience chanting CUNT aloud together.

Unfortunately, theater audiences–typically made up of aging middle- to upper-class liberals–feeling empathy for victims of violence will not end violence. If it were going to, it would have already, and Sarah McLachlan would have saved all the abandoned animals in the world. In fact V-Day events have been held in 140 countries over 11 years, and yet violence against women continues. But feeling the liberation that comes from hearing people you identify with speak openly about the feelings, colors, smells and sensations associated with the most intimate parts of their bodies will make individual audience members more interested in and aware of the ways they talk and think about vaginas.

Taking Ensler’s play outside the relatively safe walls of the theater and putting it in the mouths of politicians will directly confront people–and by people I mean people who did not pay $45 for the privilege–with the language and imagery of female anatomy until they admit it: These are not bad words. We need these words. These words are about women, and we will not allow you to erase women by erasing the words that describe them.

This is the political action aided by the individual identification at the center of The Vagina Monologue‘s structure, and I am all for it. Of the anti-vagina events in Michigan that spurred this performance, organizer Carla Milarch of Ann Arbor’s Performance Network Theatre says,

It’s just a perfect example of the ways we use language to oppress people. The more we understand that and say, I’m going to say the word vagina in any context–it’s a way is taking back the power of the word.

Milarch is still seeking volunteers to perform; for more information, contact her here. And if you’re in Michigan, show up at the capitol at 6pm Monday and say, “Vagina! Vagina! Vagina! Vagina! Vagina!”

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