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Worrying about Vaginas: Feminism and Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues

Women’s Studies Research Center
Brandeis University

By now The Vagina Monologues is a worldwide phenomenon. Much more than a dramatic script, the play is a mass culture event, performed hundreds of times each year. It is also the motor behind V‐Day, an antiviolence organization with the declared mission of ending violence against women and girls, once and for all, everywhere. V‐Day’s College Campaign has brought many young women into the fold, and its international efforts have expanded continually since the Worldwide Initiative began in 2001. V‐Day operates on a small scale, with performances of Eve Ensler’s play benefiting local antiviolence groups in communities throughout the world, and also internationally; it sponsored the Brussels summit for Afghan women in 2002 and has created safe houses for those escaping abuse in Africa, among other endeavors. As the V‐Day edition of Ensler’s script explains, “V‐Day’s plan is to go global with a message that entertains and at the same time creates a visceral shift in consciousness. No one who sees the play can remain neutral to the appalling cost of ignoring the global theme of violence against women, its relationship to how we hold human rights, or to the personal cost of such violence” (Ensler 2001, 176). This essay examines the relationship between the mission of The Vagina Monologues and its aesthetic form. As a performance, the play varies with its context. But, despite its variations, because it is imbued with such purpose, the play sheds light on a particularly consumable form of feminism and activism.

The Vagina Monologues is a series of first‐person narratives in which women speak about their vaginas, typically in relation to sexual experiences. Some monologues are taken nearly verbatim from interviews Ensler conducted, some are composites of many interviews, and others are playful riffs on ideas gleaned during the process of Ensler’s research. Audiences encounter a wide range of voices, distinguished by age, race or ethnicity, region, economic status, and sexual orientation. Interspersed with these voices are catalogs of answers to such pithy questions as “If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?” (Ensler 2001, 15) and “vagina facts” taken from print media.1 Although stagings of this material vary, the aim remains ostensibly the same: to foster a space in which women can, in Gloria Steinem’s words, “[say] the unsayable” (Steinem 2001, xvi).2 An extension of this space, V‐Day is “based on women’s ability to speak their truth about violence in a way that liberates rather than condemns, and frees both the spirit and political will” (Ensler 2001, 176). The form of The Vagina Monologues reinforces its political message and feminist ethos: we must hear each other’s stories to understand each other, that understanding thus fueling anger, compassion, and a sense of shared mission to foster change for the better in our lives and the world. In its first six years (1998–2004), through benefit performances of the play and other activities, V‐Day raised over $20 million, 85 percent of which was distributed to grassroots organizations fighting violence against women in their local communities.3

So what’s there to worry about? More than it appears.

Because the monologues share much with consciousness‐raising practices familiar to many strands of feminism that emerged during the second wave of the 1960s, critique has been slow in coming. Women coming to voice about their vaginas has the appeal of transgressing norms that have previously silenced them while offering a seeming transparency: audiences gain what appears to be direct access to voices now freed, vaginal experiences no longer shamefully hidden or denied. But monologue is a literary device with a long history in drama and poetry. Read through literary or theater history, monologues are stylized verbalizations, emphasizing “the subjective and personal element in speech” (Preminger and Brogan 1993, 799). In longer works, the single voice—mono‐logue, from the Greek by way of Middle French, for “sole speaker”—often represents a unitary point of view, whether to a frank, heartfelt, or ironic effect (or some combination thereof).4 Heard by an intended auditor or overheard voyeuristically by one unintended, monologues create “a complex semantic interplay between character and audience” (Preminger and Brogan 1993, 799). The literary quality of the personal “I” in The Vagina Monologues tends to be lost on or overlooked by viewers, even as its aesthetic appeal—the entertaining message—is what holds the promise of shifted mindsets and future feminist activity. However true to the original interviews that Ensler conducted, the monologues convert conversations—questions and answers between two women—into the personal, at times confessional, speech of a solitary female subject who sees herself through, if not as, her vagina.5

My worries start here. The monologue form, as it takes shape in this play and as it, in turn, shapes how audiences experience women’s perceptions of their vaginas, has grave consequences for the feminist politics that the show popularizes. The “truth about violence” unleashed by V‐Day productions is far more circumscribed than it at first appears, as is the feminist praxis it calls for. To elucidate my concerns, I first consider the reified link between the vagina and female identity by comparing The Vagina Monologues to other earlier forms of popular feminism. In readings of key monologues, I then explore the political and textual effects of this reified link: an epistemological violence inscribed in the play in its representation of difference. I argue that, in both their form and their content, the monologues reduce their speakers to versions of the same, whatever the patina of diversity adorning their surface. I turn ultimately to the conditions—aesthetic and cultural—that make The Vagina Monologues possible. Each year V‐Day produces and distributes a new script to the groups participating in its College or Worldwide Campaigns. Permission to stage a V‐Day performance is contingent on following this script in its entirety, with no additions, alterations, or reordering of the monologues, even if such changes might arise from published versions of Ensler’s play or previous V‐Day seasons.6 The V‐Day edition of The Vagina Monologues includes a sketch worthy of attention precisely because it is not generally staged and cannot easily be described as a monologue. The piece is telling because it demonstrates how critique is silenced, dialogue disabled, by the play’s mono‐logic. I conclude with the implications of such a logic for a new or reviving feminist movement.7

My encounter with The Vagina Monologues phenomenon has been many layered, each layer complicating that which came before. I first experienced the monologues at a professional performance in Northampton, MA, in 2001. Although Northampton is central to a flourishing five‐college community and has a reputation for progressive, feminist‐friendly politics, the show was neither associated with the College Campaign nor overtly a V‐Day production. Indeed, to my surprise, it had a rather apolitical character. By contrast, Ensler’s special performance, aired in the United States on HBO as part of the 2002 V‐Day season and widely distributed thereafter by the network’s home video division, counterbalanced my initial experience due to its overtly political antiviolence advocacy. Observations by those who have attended or participated in other productions have provided further frames through which to understand the show and the work it performs.8 The context of performances profoundly affects audience response: there is the thrill of undergraduate shows, the camaraderie of a large cast working together toward a successful opening or run, the slick professionalism of celebrity benefits, and the sheer skill of a performer like Ensler. I do not want to disregard the appeal of the play or any viewer’s shift in consciousness because of it, nor do I wish to comment on the individual experiences that fed into the monologues the playwright produced.

Instead, what interests and concerns me is that The Vagina Monologues phenomenon emerged when it did: at a juncture in the history of feminism when the media was rife with exposés about the death of feminism and when there was much hand‐wringing in feminist circles about the so‐called postfeminism of younger generations of women.9 Ensler’s play and V‐Day have offered a media spectacle of gender politics fit to answer such alarms—a liberal, humanist feminism fashionably dressed, easy on the eyes and mind, and one that ruffles just enough but not too many feathers. My critique is, to echo Alexandra Chasin, aimed at “ideas—the ones I think harmful—and the practices that militate toward their institutionalization” (Chasin 2000, xix). The aesthetic appeal of The Vagina Monologues makes a worrisome logic palatable as feminism and jeopardizes the very changes V‐Day seeks to achieve. How we do our work as feminists has, I venture, everything to do with what that work ultimately is and means.

1The V‐Day edition of the play includes five “vagina facts”; see Ensler (2001, 31, 51, 65, 67, and 91).

2There are three general formats: Ensler’s one‐woman show, which premiered in 1996; professional productions, such as the late‐1990s Broadway show and those that traversed the United States during 2001, where three actresses propped on stools on an otherwise bare set took turns reading the monologues; and the now standard format of College Campaign performances and celebrity benefits, where a different actress performs each monologue. The larger casts in franchised V‐Day productions have less impact on the play’s message than it would seem.

3These figures are from 2004. For statistics about V‐Day, see the organization’s Web site at http://www.vday.org.

4Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “monologue.”

5Shelly Scott (2003) places Ensler’s play in the context of feminist theater history but does not explicitly address the monologue form. For other recent critiques that intersect with my own, see Friedenfels (2002) and Hall (2005).

6See V‐Day’s guidelines for joining at http://www.vday.org/contents/vcampaigns/college/guidelines. Jo Reger and Lacey Story list an earlier set of guidelines (2005, 158).

7On The Vagina Monologues’ revival of the feminist movement, see especially Ivins (2001) and Dominus (2002). In 2001, Karen Obel, director of the V‐Day College Initiative (as the College Campaign was then known), described the project as bringing “a new generation to a new kind of feminism” (Ensler 2001, 142).

8The HBO production is different from a stage show in that interviews are interspersed with Ensler’s performance of the monologues, creating a more complex piece because it lets select subjects “speak their truth” more directly. For descriptions of other shows, see the College Campaign testimonials (Ensler 2001, 133–71); see also Scott (2003), Reger and Story (2005), and the myriad reviews available in print media.

9See the infamous Newsweek (Ebeling 1990) and Time (Bellafante 1998) articles, the latter of which discusses a celebrity benefit of The Vagina Monologues, as well as Baumgardner and Richards (2000, chap. 3). Many third‐wave feminists, such as Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, have felt it necessary to explicate their ties to earlier movements, describing their struggles to move feminism in new directions without betraying a past that has empowered them. See also Walker (1995); Labaton and Martin (2004).

My vagina, my self

Ensler opens the monologues with a teasing, double‐edged remark: “I bet you’re worried” (Ensler 2001, 3). For audiences, the assertion plays as much on the anxiety aroused by attending the show as on the concern about vaginas Ensler wishes to instill. When the piece premiered, the title alone raised eyebrows, but by now, given its nearly mainstream status, attendees know, if nothing else, that “cunt” will be yelled fervently during the evening, with audience participation expected. Viewers of the HBO production audibly snickered at Ensler’s opening line, and she built on the expected response to draw them in further. “I was worried,” the monologue continues, “that’s why I began this piece. … I was worried about what we think about vaginas, and even more worried that we don’t think about them. I was worried about my own vagina. It needed a context of other vaginas—a community, a culture of vaginas” (Ensler 2001, 3).10 For the duration of a show, the audience becomes that community. Its worry about being there turns into a reason for being there, which matches Ensler’s motivations for creating the work in the first place. This community, the product of ticket purchases, augments the one already present within the monologues. The more than two hundred women Ensler interviewed, a spectrum of whom became the basis for the play’s speaking subjects, constitute a culture that does think and talk unabashedly about so‐called private parts. Although this culture is idealized because it has been aestheticized by the playwright, it nevertheless offers the audience a collectivity of sorts to join.11 The voices of the many are there within the scripted movements of the ones on stage. There is, the monologues assure us, safety in numbers.

My worries as I awaited that first curtain’s rise were less about vaginas per se than about the ellipses effected by the idea of this body part made eloquent. For Ensler, the vagina monologues are “both concrete images and metaphors for life and change” (Gibson 2002, 17). She thinks that “taking ‘the V‐word’ out of the closet” might release people “to deal with other secrets—like violence and rape, fear, and death” (17). The subjectivized vagina is such a powerful—indeed, seductive—trope, however, that it risks collapsing the metaphor. Two distinct, equally important, and problematic elisions occur in the show: the vagina stands primarily as a sign of sexuality, and sexuality is made the very core of women’s identities. Rather than a metaphor, which reveals difference as much as resemblance between two ideas, the vagina becomes a metonym—a part of the body and a particular subset of experience standing in for the whole of female consciousness.12 Through metaphor, as Ensler names it, or metonym, as I do, the trope of the vagina is so easily naturalized (or accepted as natural) that it, ironically, loses its figurative status, cultivating a literal equivalence in the play. One’s vagina is necessarily one's female self.13 A woman who attended a “vagina workshop” (Ensler 2001, 43) hoping to find her clitoris speaks of not having “to find it” but having to “be it” (49): “It was me, the essence of me” (49). In a later monologue the playwright expresses the need for women “to be present in our vaginas, to speak of them out loud, to speak of their hunger and pain and loneliness and humor, to make them visible so they cannot be ravaged in the dark without great consequence” (Ensler 2001, 118). Like the “culture of vaginas” (3) desired at the beginning of the show, women—as the agents of their experience and the lexical subjects of Ensler’s sentences—are replaced by, or subsumed within, their fully emotive body parts. At the opening, Ensler’s worry about her vagina turned to its need for a community, just as here our need to be present in our vaginas turns to their hunger and pain. Women become conduits for their vaginas’ truth and sanctity. “Our center, our point, our motor, our dream” (Ensler 2001, 118), vaginas serve as the crux of women’s lives, their purpose or motivation (“our point” seems especially ambiguous), their now as well as their future.

For me, this went down rather uneasily, however heartily I may have laughed at moments during the performance. As a student of early modern feminism, the precursors of the modern first wave, I cannot see a celebratory liberation of vaginas—the word or the women for whom they stand—without reservations. Watching the show, I did not feel my “deep essential sel[f]” (Nakao 2004, E1) release within me; instead, I worried about the ideas of an essential self that Ensler wanted to “go into the bodies” of her audience (E1).

Binding subjectivity to the body, especially via sexuality, has been decidedly double edged for women, fostering ontological definitions of female nature used against them in various historical moments and cultural contexts, as well as oppositional reclamations of such nature used on their behalf by certain schools of feminism. To an extent, we know this story. Women were known as “the sex” for centuries in the West, delimited by, and thus reduced to, their bodies, which provided justification for their subordination in society.14 The notion persists today, though it may go by different names or simmer nameless beneath the surface, the doxa of everyday experience.15 The Vagina Monologues’ collapsing of self and vagina, however energizing and entertaining the gesture, carries the ideological baggage of this essentialist history. Reversing a binary, privileging what was previously denigrated, does not free us from its epistemological underpinnings.16 The play’s limited view of the history of feminism, moreover, precludes a critical perspective that could retool its more dangerous associations.

While Ensler recognizes feminist precursors occasionally in the play, her perspective is short‐ranged. In the “Acknowledgements” section of the V‐Day edition, she thanks Gloria Steinem “for being there before” her (Ensler 2001, 180), and in the opening remarks to “The Flood,” a monologue representing the sixty‐five‐to‐seventy‐five‐year‐old women she interviewed, Ensler expresses how “terribly lucky [she felt] to have grown up in the feminist era” (23), for these women, unlike herself, had “very little conscious relationship” to their bodies (23). The playwright’s “feminist era” is unequivocally second wave. Empowerment through the flesh, particularly sexuality’s status as a unique indicator of women’s autonomy, places The Vagina Monologues in line with a certain outgrowth of this diverse (and sometimes fractious) era. Reformist and cultural, this brand of feminism moved, in the early 1970s, away from social transformation—economic and racial as well as antipatriarchal—to embrace “a cult of the individual ‘liberated woman’” (Willis 1984, 93). Privileging the oppression of women as women above all else, it focused on changing their lived experience, but it used liberal strategies of “individual and collective self‐improvement” (Willis 1984, 108) that proved exclusionary and problematic for many feminists active in the movement before then and that continue to plague many invested in gender politics.17 Ensler’s eloquent vaginas are consistent with this liberal feminism’s speaking out about issues once considered taboo, such as orgasm or abortion; its claiming of women’s power to do with their persons as they wish; and, most important, its particular slant on the politics of private experience, where “self‐discovery and personal transformation” constitute “revolutionary activity” in their own right (Fuss 1989, 101).18 Reclaiming the vagina, one’s own or the idea, does not erase or empty of meaning the historical conditions that have made corporeality a liability for women. For that, we must look elsewhere—farther afield.

Because of my training, my instinct is to go directly to the eighteenth century and Mary Wollstonecraft. But first I turn briefly to Simone de Beauvoir, a mid‐twentieth‐century feminist with a philosophical disposition akin to Wollstonecraft’s. Although many had questioned how natural societal definitions of female nature were before she did, Beauvoir’s renowned Le Deuxième Sexe made it axiomatic that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (Beauvoir [1949] 1970, 249). Beauvoir wrote from the viewpoint of academic existentialism, and her book sought more “to explain than to reform” women’s situation (Parshley 1970, v). Her explanation nevertheless made clear for many in the West how societal expectations, gendered practices of education, and the force of tradition created ideas of woman’s nature—that is, her essential otherness to masculine normativity. Contending with assumptions about female sexuality and maternal instinct, Beauvoir rejected predominant views of “the sex” as biologically determined.19 Her book was hailed as the “first manifesto of the liberated woman.”20 Placing responsibility on acculturation rather than bodily nature, she validated the efforts of those who sought to alter processes of socialization and facilitate the advancement of women. By either account, womanhood would remain a construction, a product of the situations in which actual women lived. The body was itself but a situation for Beauvoir ([1949] 1970, 30), a physicality understood and thus experienced through a conceptual framework particular to the culture within which it appeared. There was no “eternal feminine,” no necessary or intrinsic quality, no “mysterious essence” (672) to women’s being. Beauvoir left indeterminate what the “free woman” would become: independent (socially, economically, morally) and “permitted to take her chances in her own interest and in the interest of all,” to be sure, but whether qualified in any way by gender difference, “this would be to hazard bold predictions” she refused to make (Beauvoir [1949] 1970, 673).

Beauvoir’s arguments echo a critique offered by Wollstonecraft nearly a century and a half earlier. That it was necessary to highlight yet again the culturally determined rather than innate bases of women’s subordination tells us much about the resiliency of assumptions about “the sex”—and they are with us still. Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, took a masculinist culture to task for miseducating women, for treating them as the “weaker vessel” and then blaming them for that weakness (Wollstonecraft [1792] 1993, 78). For Wollstonecraft, woman’s nature was as yet unknown because it had not been tested free of society’s corruptions; prejudice and custom precluded detection of whether “the sex” had indeed “less mind than man” (92). Unlike Beauvoir, Wollstonecraft was invested in reform. Writing at a time when democracy and citizenship were hotly debated, she speculated what women might be and accomplish should their life training proceed differently. It is largely through this vision that she has come down to us as the founder or “foremother” of Western feminism (Yeo 1997, 1).

To put women’s rights (and, of course, her own) on the table for consideration, Wollstonecraft regarded women as “human creatures” rather than “females,” attempting thereby to circumvent the problem of femininity (Wollstonecraft [1792] 1993, 75). Sexuality rather than motherhood was her sticking point, since eighteenth‐century female subjectivity was defined largely in terms of a sensibility and lasciviousness that threatened to escape control.21 According to Jean‐Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, an enormously influential book on education that Wollstonecraft countered, “the life of a good woman is a perpetual struggle against self” (Rousseau [1762] 1974, 332). This self is, for Wollstonecraft, an ideological weapon of patriarchy. Women are not frivolous, tending toward debauchery, or unfaithful but reasoning beings shaped by an environment that compels them to act in debasing ways. Society renders them objects of desire and subjects—individual selves—only to the degree that they participate in their own objectification. Wollstonecraft offered an alternative education that would exercise women’s minds as well as their bodies and an idea of equal rights contingent upon rejecting the cultural apparatus of eroticized womanhood. In practice, this approach meant abnegation of women’s passions. Yet woman, traditionally feminized or not, remains something one becomes rather than something one is in the Vindication, as is the case in Beauvoir’s Second Sex. The process of socialization Wollstonecraft offered was counterhegemonic, but it was no mere return to nature, for she knew from Rousseau’s failings that arguing difference from nature was ultimately reactionary (Kaplan 1986, 54). If her formula for women’s independent subjectivity proved unlivable (as it did), it was not because “an immanent and irrepressible sexuality broke through levels of female self‐denial” but rather because her “anti‐erotic ethic … foregrounded and constructed a sexualized subject” (Kaplan 1986, 50). “The sex” remained trapped by ideas of sex despite Wollstonecraft’s desire for liberation.22

To the extent that feminism continues to argue its case through an immanent and irrepressible sexuality, a sexuality that society imprisons or disparages but that feminism seeks to free—as Ensler’s play does—women’s identities remain bound to the bodies with which they are born. Although those bodies may look different and may experience desire and satisfaction differently, a totalizing view of sexuality underpins the argument for their liberation as versions of an essential same. Who counts as a woman may seem broadened in The Vagina Monologues, but what makes one a woman remains fixed: the vagina, which carries metaphysical significations. As a result, Ensler’s new or reviving feminism can mistake itself as a bearer of truth, a female subjectivity that stands outside history and beyond the social, when it is but another means through which women become who they are or want to be. Feminism, like womanhood, desire, or even agency, is a social construct: it “cannot be understood apart from the very particular contexts within which it occurs and does not exist outside those contexts” (Scott 1990, 851). Adopting Cora Kaplan’s words, the “feminist revolution” Ensler and V‐Day promise is but “a new social relation, with”—we must concede—“new contradictions and constraints” (Kaplan 1986, 55).

Ensler’s essentialism dissuades consideration of contradictions and constraints—in the play, its monologic vagina‐selves, or its antiviolence mission. Just as the playwright was “possessed” (Ensler 2001, xxiv) by The Vagina Monologues, women appear to be freed simply by speaking of their vaginas or listening to the performance of such speech.23 Feminism acts here as a force of nature, enabling these events while shrouding them nonetheless in mystique. At the close of the vagina workshop monologue, the speaker calls her vagina “a destiny” (Ensler 2001, 50). She says, “I am arriving as I am beginning to leave,” and she remains suspended in the equation of “my vagina, my vagina, me” (50). In the sketch that is not generally staged, one that poses criticism of Ensler’s project, the playwright interjects a question about whether “talking about vaginas ruin[s] the[ir] mystery”; “or is that,” she continues, “just another myth that keeps vaginas in the dark, keeps them unknowing and unsatisfied?” (117). The play is deeply invested in that darkness and mystery, affirming it and dispelling it by turns, but naturalizing it all the while.

In its devotion to women reclaiming their genuine a priori vagina‐selves, The Vagina Monologues phenomenon ironically relinquishes its power “to expand the cultural field bodily through subversive performances of various kinds” (Butler 1990, 282). “Gender is not,” as Judith Butler argues, “passively scripted on the body, and neither is it determined by nature, language, the symbolic, or the overwhelming history of patriarchy. Gender is what is put on, invariably, under constraint, daily and incessantly, with anxiety and pleasure, but if this continuous act is mistaken for a natural or linguistic given” (Butler 1990, 282)—as it is in Ensler’s play—the possibility of change itself is compromised, and new versions of old norms instituted. Collapsing vagina and self, the monologues reify a universal ontology of womanhood, a newly normative, potentially disciplinary version of “the sex.”24 They enact subversion that, in the end, subverts little because the play sees itself as an access point to unique versions of a larger, unquestionable real. To the extent that it co‐opts the credibility of feminist consciousness‐raising, it can also be mistaken by audiences as not an act in any sense at all.

10Typographical devices frequently mark emphasis in Ensler’s script. Unless otherwise noted, all emphases are original.

11The gendered nature of this collectivity raises questions about the vaginaless in the audience. Kim Q. Hall (2005) addresses how problematic the play is for intersexed individuals, and Scott (2003) speaks of a performance in which men were referred to as the “vagina curious” (408) and accepted into the community. The epistemological foundations of the monologues accommodate men much more easily than the intersexed, as Hall elucidates, and I will further.

12See Preminger and Brogan (1993, s.v.v. “metaphor” and “metonymy”). The 1980s saw much debate in feminist theory about the gendering of figurative language. Metaphor was deemed phallogocentric because it appropriated the other in its quest for similitude between two terms. Metonym, especially via the work of Luce Irigaray, was considered feminine and fluid, a strategic essentialism built on women’s “two lips” that deconstructed the unitary phallic worldview. For a summary of these debates, see Fuss (1989); for a cautionary view of their limitations, see Johnson (1984). Productive as they were in their time, I find them unhelpful in considering Ensler’s play.

13See also Hall (2005). Thanks to Bridgette Sheridan for helping me sharpen this observation.

14In Western thought, since ancient times, women have been marked by their sex, while men have been deemed the norm. From Hippocrates through Rousseau and on, “the sex” denoted the category of women.

15See Bourdieu (1994, 155–66). Doxa is the misrecognition of arbitrary social relations as natural and necessary: “what is essential goes without saying because it comes without saying” (Bourdieu 1994, 163). It enters language when its self‐evidence is threatened by an alternative understanding of those relations; it thus becomes orthodoxy, a defense of tradition that attempts, but never quite succeeds, “at restoring the primal state of [doxa’s] innocence” (165). That feminism of any stripe would unselfconsciously take up an orthodox position for heterodox purposes is to me highly ironic.

16See, e.g., Jardine (1985); Poovey (1992).

17Ellen Willis, looking back fifteen years, called this feminism “Ms.‐ism” (Willis 1984, 108). Regardless of its name, we know this story, too. It is the affluent, predominantly white, heterosexual women’s movement embraced by the mainstream media as the face of gender politics, about and against which many at the time (womanists, socialist and radical feminists) and many since (poststructuralists, transnationalists, queer theorists, certain third wavers), as well as conservatives, have written or railed.

18In her discussion of identity politics, Diana Fuss challenges feminists not to see a “simple equation” between the personal and the political but rather a “complex co‐implication” (Fuss 1989, 102) of them. Steinem, I should add, recognizes the similarities between second‐wave feminism (as she experienced it) and The Vagina Monologues in her foreword to the script (Steinem 2001, xv).

19Beauvoir glosses this old term in her introduction: “she [woman] is simply what man decrees; thus she is called ‘the sex,’ by which is meant that she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being. For him she is sex—absolute sex, no less” (Beauvoir [1949] 1970, xvi).

20This pronouncement appears on the cover of the 1970 edition, the thirteenth printing of the cheaper Bantam text, which cost $1.75 and sold over 750,000 copies in the United States alone.

21Motherhood was deemed the proper business of women’s state and thus provided the primary reason for policing women’s desires in the first place. Although Wollstonecraft focused much of the Vindication on women’s roles as mothers, she also imagined them as physicians, farmers, shopkeepers, and government representatives (Wollstonecraft [1792] 1993, 239–40). My reading of Wollstonecraft owes much to Cora Kaplan’s “Wild Nights: Pleasure/Sexuality/Feminism” (1986).

22Beauvoir and Wollstonecraft are but two examples from the long line of feminist thought that make strange the vagina‐self equivalence; others, stretching back to at least the fifteenth century, could have served as well.

23Ensler claims not to remember writing the play, just trying “to stay out of the way” of her muses, the “Vagina Queens” (Ensler 2001, xxiv–xxv). See also Scott (2003).

24See Foucault (1990).

Epistemological violence: Ranking oppressions

I turn now to the monologues to address the worrisome effects of the vagina‐self myth. Particularly important is the dramatic form that shapes its expression. Ensler’s characters speak, paradoxically, as individuals (of their experience and to free themselves) and also, at the same time, for all women. The difference the vagina makes for women—that which allows them to create the longed‐for community Ensler begins with—surpasses in significance all other forms of difference in the show; it flattens out, if not denies, diversity of experience within populations of women and across them, too. As Roxanne Friedenfels (2002) asserts, “where one woman’s story can be taken to represent a group of people,” The Vagina Monologues “becomes problematic” (Friedenfels 2002, 45). Together the form and substance of the monologues contradict the play’s—and, ultimately, V‐Day’s—inclusive gestures. Women become visible, stageable as sole speakers, through satisfaction of certain preconditions.

With its emphasis on sexuality, the play threatens, for instance, to overdetermine what counts as violence against women. That the monologues tend to capture pleasure and its inverse only if they are sexual is a holdover, perhaps, from the show’s initial goals. The Vagina Monologues spoke originally to the specific issue of sexual abuse. In the introduction to the 1998 script, Ensler discussed her disconnection from her body as a result of being raped as a child. “Although I’d grown up,” she wrote, “and done all the adult things one does with one’s vagina, I had never really reentered that part of my body after I’d been violated” (Ensler 1998, xxi). Saying “vagina” helped her recognize her fragmentation, her mind’s separation from her body, and it became a means to reintegrate her self. Ensler tied this personal experience to women’s collective experience of violence. She said “vagina” not just for herself but “because [she had] read the statistics, and bad things [were] happening to women’s vaginas everywhere” (Ensler 1998, xxii). Stopping these bad things required recognition of their occurrence, “and the only way to make that possible [was] to enable women to talk without fear of punishment or retribution” (Ensler 1998, xxiii). V‐Day’s aim to let women “speak their truth about violence” (Ensler 2001, 176) is a clear outgrowth of Ensler’s original intents for the play; the organization also expands their scope by not reducing violence to any one manifestation.25 The play’s monologues, however, inscribe their own constraints and coexist uneasily with the broad sweep of V‐Day’s current mission. Privileging one form of abuse, just as they privilege one form of female subjectivity, they perform their own subtle violence in the show. The risk is that viewers (or participants) will leave the theater unable to imagine the abuse women endure if it, too, is not sexual or sexualized.

Viewers and reviewers of Ensler’s show have celebrated its bringing sex back into the antiviolence movement.26 I am glad of this reconfiguration and its effects for audience members who are survivors of such abuse, but my concerns here are not individual responses so much as the idea of sexual violence standing in performances for all forms of violence against women. It coincides with the universalized vagina‐self of the monologues in troubling ways. The monologues can injure and silence through the shape of their sheer volubility.

In the HBO production, Ensler introduces “Because He Liked to Look at It” as her answer to audience complaints that there were not enough sketches “about vagina‐loving heterosexual men” (The Vagina Monologues 2002). Absent from the 1998 script, the monologue illustrates how the playwright has adapted the show to suit community needs: vagina‐curious male viewers now have a place in the play, although they are spoken of rather than speak themselves.27 The V‐Day edition of the text and the first show I saw provided no such context for the monologue; it stood alone, and its message was to me far from clear. The speaker describes the “embarrassing, because … not politically correct” (Ensler 2001, 53) way she came to love her vagina. A woman filled with self‐loathing about her too heavy thighs and ugly vagina, she had “survive[d]” by “pretending there was something else between [her] legs” (54): furniture or table settings, beautiful tactile things like silk scarves, calm landscapes. She knew she should have loved her “woman self” (53) against a backdrop of Enya and a warm bath: “I know the story. Vaginas are beautiful. Our self‐hatred is only the internalized repression and hatred of a patriarchal culture. It isn’t real. … I know all of it” (53). It is Bob, an ordinary fellow she meets in a deli, who cures her of her ills. When they first have sex, he says repeatedly that he needs to look at “her,” but she, as the sole speaker, gives us access to his voice and ideas. She recounts their interaction:

“I’m right here,” I said.

“No, you, … I have to see you. …”

“Right here.” I waved. “I'm right here. …”

“I need to see what you look like,” he said. … “It’s who you are. I need to look.” (Ensler 2001, 55–56)

While “who you are” is no longer the totally objectifying “what you are” of the past, it is still reductive. Bob articulates the vagina‐self equivalence that underpins Ensler’s show and much of patriarchal history. Initially, it jarred with the speaker’s self‐conception. She describes herself “want[ing] to throw up and die”; she “held her breath,” waiting for him to stop (Ensler 2001, 56). The tension of the moment and her resistance to his actions (if not his desire) are subsumed, however, in the “miracle” (55) of her conversion: “He stayed looking for almost an hour, as if he were … staring into my eyes, but it was my vagina. In the light, I watched him looking at me. … I began to see myself the way he saw me. I began to feel beautiful and delicious—like a great painting or a waterfall” (57). Alienation from the female body is resolved here by a seductively coercive identification with the male gaze. Seeing herself through Bob’s eyes becomes enabling, even therapeutic, as Ensler represents it, because its outcome—the speaker’s love of her vagina‐self—is one the play endorses. The monologue challenges women’s internalization of negative societal views, but this one, because it serves the politics of the text, appears fine. (Her anxiety about her thighs, it is worth noting, is left unresolved.) Ultimately, the speaker expresses pleasurable appreciation of self, but it is no less implicated in an external (male‐directed) viewpoint than was her earlier disgust with her body.

That this monologue announces its lack of political correctness shows an awareness (however mocked and thus potentially dismissed) that something is askew, but what, exactly, it does not say. Spoken from the woman’s vagina‐loving present, it accents the fact of her awakening more than its means—that awakening, after all, guides her present and authorizes her words in a way Bob himself does not. He seems long gone, but he and the unequal relations of power between the lovers remain implicit to her revelation. The strangeness of the encounter is one thing; the monologue’s putting forth these ideas as the truth of an individual’s experience is another. Its form accentuates the speaker’s autonomy, distracting the audience from any context or conditions that shaped her coming to voice, including, importantly, audience requests for such a monologue.28 Standing alone on stage, the speaker tells a story that belies the very notion of autonomous, liberated female sexuality. Her love of her vagina‐self is relational—not simply there within her awaiting its release but a product of her interaction with Bob, with all that that entails.

A further example brings this point home. The contextualizing details of its speaker’s coming to voice go far beyond the interpersonal troubles of the Bob piece, however. “The Little Coochi Snorcher That Could” moves incrementally through a woman’s memories of sexual abuse, a history that makes her see her vagina as “a very bad place” (Ensler 2001, 79), “a bad‐luck zone” (79), to a moment she calls her “salvation” (82). This monologue, too, announces its political incorrectness. The speaker explains that, at the age of sixteen, she had an amazing sexual encounter with a slightly older, independent woman from her neighborhood. This woman, she says, “transformed my sorry‐ass coochi snorcher and raised it up into a kind of heaven” (Ensler 2001, 82). As in the Bob sketch, a questionable encounter takes on nearly sacred overtones (“salvation,” “heaven”) because of the end it reaches. The young woman, a minor, has drinks and sex with a twenty‐four‐year‐old, who teaches her “all the different ways to give [herself] pleasure” so she’d “never need to rely on a man” (82), but then after that night they never meet again. The monologue captures the speaker’s concern and disappointment at the time: “In the morning I am worried that I’ve become a butch because I’m so in love with her. She laughs, but I never see her again” (82). The speaker’s salvation is realized only “later” (82). Emphasis falls on her changed thinking about her vagina‐self. Like all the monologues, hers validates a particular kind of experience and definition of female being.

But much more is at stake in what stands behind this voice. Ensler introduces the piece by speaking of her work in shelters with women who have no homes. She castigates society for calling such women “homeless people” (“so we can categorize and forget them” [Ensler 2001, 75]) and offers a compelling view of what home signifies for them: “a very scary place … they have fled,” which stands in stark contrast to shelters, “the first places many of them ever find safety … or comfort” (76). The woman whose history grounds the coochi snorcher monologue was years beyond her youthful transformation, homeless and poor, and healing, as best she could, without the resources of her so‐called betters. Yet the speaker of the monologue is none of these things, and the monologue never touches on these issues. No evidence of the woman’s circumstances (mental, physical, or economic) at the time of Ensler’s interview appears within it. Such details emerge only in the playwright’s preliminary remarks, and without them—that is, if they are not staged—the woman’s reality, her full experience, is erased by the parts of her history the monologue portrays.29 For the play’s audience, the speaker gives voice only to her vagina‐self, a private history of self‐loathing turned to self‐love that averts any reflection on the societal problems that may have aggravated or even enabled the abuse she suffered. Manifesting many types of violence women endure and their painful interconnections, her story confines their “appalling cost” (Ensler 2001, 176) to one particular form, the correction of which reifies her vagina‐self. Moreover, while Ensler’s introduction draws attention to these “women we do not see, who hurt and need us” (76), the monologue that follows indicates that we—the playwright and audience, who presumably are not invisible or suffering from want—must do nothing but listen. The speaker’s hurt is in the past, repaired by a transformation that has taken place without us.

The monologues’ focus on sexual experience—erotic or violent—shapes the kinds of stories that emerge through them and, thus, the kinds of consciousness‐raising and activism that are necessary. They impinge on the project of empowerment through speech, for in staged shows only certain kinds of articulations can be made and thus be heard by audiences. Certain experiences are authorized without reservation—authored and legitimated by the playwright, serialized and legitimated by performance. Their social dimensions and other mitigating or aggravating conditions appear to matter not. As Dorothy Allison argues, “reductionist politics are the most prone to compromise, to saying we’re addressing the essential issue and all that other stuff can slide. It is, in reality, people who slide” (1994, 116).

Ensler writes at one point about the stories women tell after seeing her show, how they underscore for her women’s remarkable lives and pain. Women become oppressed, she explains, by their isolation. She sees “how few people they have ever told of their suffering and confusion. How much shame there is surrounding all this,” and she accents “how crucial it is for women to tell their stories, … how our survival as women depends on this dialogue” (Ensler 2001, 98). That a catalog of answers to “What does a vagina smell like?” (93–95) comes just before, and the “Reclaiming Cunt” monologue (101–2) comes just after, gives “all this” particular connotations. But like V‐Day’s antiviolence campaign, Ensler’s compassionate words need not be bound to one aspect of women’s experience. There are many shames besides the sexual that are unspeakable and debilitating for women. While Ensler hoped that “taking ‘the V‐word’ out of the closet” (Gibson 2002, 17) would release people to talk about other secrets, it can do the opposite: “all this” can hinder consideration of that beyond its bounds, or, as in the coochi snorcher case, even present but eclipsed within it. Veena Cabreros‐Sud challenges us to move beyond the “popular illusion” that violence “is limited only to the physical,” to think about “the daily devastation of poverty, the lack of child care, the shortage of clean air,” and one’s own participation in institutions of mass‐approved violence, such as racism and first‐world nationalism (1995, 45). The Vagina Monologues disregards its participation in such institutions and dissuades its viewers from considering theirs, either individually or collectively. With its monologic vagina‐selves, it precludes such concerns, and, as important, it remains blind to how it confines feminist dialogue to personalized revelations, where some speak and those privileged enough to hear are empowered by the exchange.

25V‐Day’s beneficiaries do not fight sexual violence exclusively either: the V‐Day edition of the play lists Break the Cycle, Human Rights Watch, Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, Southall Black Sisters (in the United Kingdom), and Women Living under Muslim Laws (in France and Algeria), as well as rape crisis centers and other organizations (Ensler 2001, 175–76). See also http://www.vday.org.

26See, especially, Friedenfels (2002) and Scott (2003). Ensler’s play would seem to indicate that the conflict between pro‐ and antisex feminists is, indeed, over.

27In 2003, V‐Day mandated that men should be included in College Campaign productions; they wrote and performed ensemble pieces—not monologues—about violence against women from the male perspective (Charney 2003; Scott 2003). Interestingly, Ensler confessed in the introduction to the V‐Day edition of her play that she could not write transgender or menopause monologues to suit those audience requests; she could not “serve a politically correct agenda” (Ensler 2001, xxvi–xxvii). Reger and Story note that Ensler did add a transgender‐themed monologue to the 2005 V‐Day script (Reger and Story 2005, 159). Her “community of vaginas” has its limits, and it encompasses heterosexual male experience more easily than the experience of menopausal or transgendered women or the intersexed.

28As I mentioned in my introduction, I do not wish to comment on individual experiences that may have inspired the monologues; I am interested in the ideas they convey through a consciousness‐raising–like “real.” In this case, especially, because we do not know the monologue’s origin, we cannot presume it references an interviewee’s experience.

29I thank Mara Amster for bringing this to my attention. She saw a production in which the monologue stood alone without Ensler’s introductory comments, and thus she did not realize it was connected to homelessness.

Epistemological violence: Disempowering difference

The power dynamic of the monologue form becomes most problematic in the play’s register of difference. Intentionally or not, the monologues transform their sole speakers into representatives. Diversity emerges only in the aggregate, via the show’s disparate voices taken all together. To indicate ethnicity and region, Ensler’s script describes the accents with which certain pieces should be read: the coochi snorcher voice, for instance, is that of a “Southern woman of color” (Ensler 2001, 77), and the older woman in the “The Flood” requires a “Jewish, Queens accent” (25). The text neither classifies all the voices nor explains how these social identifications came to be assigned to particular pieces. Thus it encodes a seemingly arbitrary array of differences, marking these voices as other to the presumed normative voice of American whiteness.30 The play simultaneously deploys the vagina‐self trope that essentializes female experience and fosters an epistemological equivalence between women. Caught between these two tendencies, difference fails to emerge as a meaningful site of critique in the play. Instead, it serves a missionary feminism, where the (white, affluent, Western) feminist is positioned to aid, if not save, her others by witnessing their pain.31

Ensler’s monologues for women of color and subjects outside the United States share much with international feminism in its current hegemonic form. Tani Barlow describes this feminism as an “ideological package—a well‐financed, resurgent, neoliberal, United States–focused effort to establish common ground” (2000, 1099) for gender politics throughout the world. As in Ensler’s play, that common ground is the woman’s body and the violence committed against it, which “leaves unexamined the old saw that women’s interests run counter to their national interest” (Barlow 2000, 1102). With the category of woman transcending national borders and cultural differences, this feminism implicates the privileged who give and set the model of liberation as well as those who receive and are objectified by it. The other country is, as Barlow demonstrates, “the necessary medium through which ‘international U.S. feminism’ takes shape” (2000, 1100), but its visibility to the metropole rests on a carefully calibrated invocation of similarity that simultaneously reveals—and requires—fundamental difference. Ensler’s monologue for the survivors of rape camps in war‐torn Bosnia is a profoundly disturbing instance of this feminist stance. Often touted for its powerful effect on audiences, “My Vagina Was My Village” deserves careful attention because it shows how tempting this brand of international feminism can be.

The piece raises crucial questions about the relationship of woman to nation and feminism to globalization, questions just barely contained by the homogenizing trope of the vagina‐self. Its title is a case in point. While it prepares us for another example of a woman’s body bearing her truth, it also denies its speaker’s sameness to Ensler’s other personae. The Bosnian woman’s vagina is not a self—in the sense of an individual identity—but her village, a collectivity. Although this sketch, like the others, depicts one woman’s experience, its title refuses her the privatized individuality of an autobiographical subject. Ensler’s move typifies a colonizing Western perspective; the Bosnian woman disappears under the sign of the anonymous, opaque village, while unique selfhood is left to the West alone (Watson and Smith 1992, xvii). Moreover, the woman’s vagina‐village is no more. The title announces that it “was,” and in the course of the monologue we learn the horrible details of the speaker’s mutilation. She does not know any longer what is between her legs. “I do not touch,” she says; “Not since the soldiers put a long thick rifle inside me. … Not since I heard the skin tear … , not since a piece of my vagina came off in my hand” (Ensler 2001, 61–62). The Bosnian woman speaks not from a vagina‐loving, transformed present but from a position of permanent loss and absence, of irredeemable trauma. At the piece’s end, with her vagina‐village gone, she abjectly admits that she “live[s] someplace else” and does not even “know where that is” (63). While many of the Bosnian women Ensler interviewed were refugees (in Croatia and Pakistan), their experience of displacement by (un)civil war is conflated with sexual violence, both situations reduced to the image of the disfigured body. The monologue removes the speaker—spatially and temporally—from the scene of repeated rape but suspends her nonetheless in its tragedy, a survivor irrecoverably lost.

The vagina‐as‐village trope runs parallel to that of the vagina‐self, fostering an illusion of sameness while accenting the Bosnian speaker’s difference. Ensler’s portrayal of this subject without hope and without agency distinguishes the piece from the rest of the play, and its form reinforces its message. It is the most overtly artificial of the monologues usually performed because it juxtaposes two different moments of the woman’s vagina‐village, revealing her brokenness through this staged duality. Readers see typographically that the speaker lacks a unified voice and self: “My vagina was green, water soft pink fields, cow mooing sun resting. … There is something between my legs. I do not know what it is” (Ensler 2001, 61). Roman type indicates the woman’s memories of the irretrievable past, before the war and her violation, and italics, her recollections of the rape camp and its impact on her present. In the HBO production, Ensler enacted these internal divisions; she looked directly at the audience while voicing the speaker’s distant memories, but turned away, looking down and to the side as if with shame, when speaking from the haunted, postrape present. By the monologue’s end, these perspectives merge, underscoring how the violation has breached and destroyed the woman’s concept of self. Just as plain print now represents the speaker’s present, Ensler looked back at the audience to voice her defeat:

My vagina a live wet water village.
They invaded it. Butchered it and burned it down.
I do not touch now.
Do not visit. … (Ensler 2001, 63)

Despite its sole speaker, this monologue performs the Bosnian woman’s fractured subjectivity. She enters the playwright’s community of vaginas by displaying her lack in its most vital part.

Artful and meant to produce emotional effects, the monologue relies on an orientalist aesthetic. Ensler explains in her prefatory remarks that the piece “is based on one woman’s story” but written “for the women of Bosnia” (60). Here, the speaker is intentionally representative, and Ensler unselfconsciously pastoralizes her memories of the vagina‐village. The fertile greenness, “cow mooing sun resting” (61) of the opening lines, and later descriptions of “spilling water over sun‐baked stones” in the “wet water village” (62) create a fantasy of premodern life for her prerape existence. There is an evocative nostalgia for goat bells and autumn field songs, for rarefied “home songs” (62) untouched by the modern. The other’s femininity and a dream of bucolic innocence coalesce, setting off all the more dramatically the brutality of war and systematized rape, which enter the scene to destroy both. Distinctions between West and East, modern and primitive, underwrite the work of empire and of military, economic, and political forms of domination (Said 1978). In this monologue, they underwrite Ensler’s colonization of the Bosnian woman’s voice. The stream‐of‐consciousness format of the speaker’s thoughts may give the impression of an unmediated access to her truth about violence, but the playwright’s idealizations consistently intervene. Idylls of the intact vagina‐village alternate with graphic depictions of violence that may or may not have been the experience of one of Ensler’s interviewees. Gender essentialism—the mystified vagina‐selfhood of the play—transmutes to cultural essentialism (Narayan 1998): the mysterious essence of the Muslim Other. The woman does not speak herself so much as Ensler’s monologue ventriloquizes what the missionary feminist needs to know to act on her behalf.32

While the coochi snorcher’s transformation requires nothing of the audience but its sympathetic ear, the rape‐camp survivor’s violation is so complete that little can be done (for her, at least) but to shed a tear. Her story may inspire the audience to combat such atrocities in the future, to donate time or funds or raise awareness, as Ensler herself has done through this monologue and other creative work. But it is troubling that such actions require this representation of helplessness and devastation; observing the degradation of the other serves as proof of the audience’s—and, indeed, the playwright’s—own enlightened feminism (Barlow 2000). Her vulnerability effectively denies the agency and achievements of feminists local to the region as well, for they are subsumed by this icon of the other nation’s womanhood (Narayan 1998). Ensler’s introduction to the monologue displays this dynamic, too. She describes walking past a newsstand in 1993 and seeing a photograph of six young women recently returned from a rape camp: “Their faces revealed shock and despair, but more disturbing was a sense that something sweet, something pure, had been forever destroyed in each of their lives” (Ensler 2001, 59). She felt a calling and had to meet the women. Like the monologue form, which individualizes the experience of many Bosnian women, Ensler’s remarks individualize intervention. No mention is made of the political or historical context in which the rape camps occurred, belated U.S. military intervention in the Balkans, or the implications of an American “angel[’s]” (60) patronage, which allowed Ensler to go to these women to help them. The cosmopolitan, liberal feminism the playwright models cannot acknowledge the conditions of its own production because it appears instinctual, revelatory—a flattering and seductive stance for U.S.‐ or first‐world‐identified audiences. Willfully disregarded are the social stratifications, at home and abroad, that lend this feminism the authority to determine who merits saving and who does not.

Missionary feminism dictates that we—Ensler’s audience—must sympathize with and act on behalf of the other because she is a version of ourselves, someone who may (somehow, someday) be the same as us (Barlow 2000). The monologue tells how the Bosnian woman has been violated, and an uneasy sensation of “like us” imbues its words. The feeling is fostered by a perverse play on the line between similarity and difference in Ensler’s introductory comments. After her first encounter with the Bosnian refugees, she says she returned to New York furious: “Outraged that 20,000 to 70,000 women were being raped in the middle of Europe … as a systematic tactic of war, and no one was doing anything to stop it” (Ensler 2001, 60). Using rape as a military strategy deserves condemnation. Yet Ensler’s erasure of the specificity of this war, an ethnic conflict with Christian Serbs targeting Muslim Bosnians, encourages a universalistic, potentially homogenizing, view of women’s sexual violation. A friend’s attempt to set Ensler straight underscores this view; the woman asked her why she was surprised, for “over 500,000 women were raped every year in this country, and in theory we were not at war” (60). Justified anger over the Balkans becomes a vehicle of comparison, and a shocking truth about the United States gets told. Women worldwide suffer the same abuse (in greater or lesser numbers), but too much is lost, I contend, in these broad brushstrokes. Afghanistan, like Bosnia, is not everywhere.33 Sexual violence takes myriad forms; it occurs under the banner of different rationalities and by different tactics in different times and contexts. To ignore the nuances within and around it for the sake of a global sisterhood is to excise layers of meaning and, thus, of understanding and potential action: it is to belittle difference as a critical imperative while appearing simultaneously to honor it.

And in The Vagina Monologues the idea simply doesn’t hold up. Rape is represented directly in the script only in monologues where the speakers are women of color. Unlike these others, the unmarked voices of American whiteness have their vaginas and selves intact. They may get pissed off at the gynecologist’s office, but they get the best of medical care (Ensler 2001, 69–73; see also 99–100). As she is imagined by Ensler and staged for audiences, the Bosnian survivor has no such hope and no restitution.34

30I am obliged to Sunaina Maira for this observation. Performances can reinforce the script’s marking of difference: in the Northampton show, an African American woman performed the coochi snorcher monologue, embodying for the audience the accent Ensler identified for it. Testimonials from the College Campaign frequently note the importance of having a diverse cast but not the uses to which it is put in their shows (Ensler 2001, 146, 155, 160, and 161). On the politics of marking difference, see Phalen (1993) and Walker (2001).

31Gina Dent asserts that “white feminism … gets to wear a capital ‘F’” and represent gender politics in the media (1995, 62). Ensler’s would be yet another manifestation of that Feminism.

32Scott (2003) gives Ensler the benefit of the doubt by calling her an ethnographer, one who “takes on the voices of those she studies” (413) and who offers her own, too, in the play’s birth monologue. This characterization neglects the vast literature on positionality and ethical responsibility in ethnography, however. See, e.g., Erikson (1967) and Clifford and Marcus (1986).

33“Afghanistan Is Everywhere” was 2002’s V‐Campaign for Justice, highlighting the plight of Afghan women and their challenges to it. See http://www.vday.org/contents/vcampaigns/spotlight/aghanistan [sic]. See also Ensler’s Salon.com interview regarding this campaign: http://www.vday.org/contents/vday/press/mediacoverage/saloncominterview.

34Two “vagina facts” about female genital mutilation (FGM) appear in the script just after the Bosnian monologue (Ensler 1998, 61–64; Ensler 2001, 65–68). They confirm the pattern that permanent vaginal damage is allied with the other, at least in the present. The first reveals that clitoridectomy was a nineteenth‐century practice to combat masturbation in girls, the last instance occurring in the United States in 1948; the second addresses the ongoing practice of FGM in Africa. The shift in language and temporality signify the gulf between the West and those who need saving. A third “vagina fact,” addressing a Guinean “cutter” who subverts the practice of FGM, was added to the script in 2001 (Ensler 2001, 91–92), but it was noticeably absent from the first performance I saw. Interestingly, the HBO production included none of these “facts”; the Bosnian survivor thus symbolized all women outside the United States. On the practice of surgically imposing gender on the intersexed in the United States today, a sexual violence Ensler’s play cannot recognize, much less represent, see Hall (2005).

Monologue, interrupted

There is a moment in The Vagina Monologues where its conditions of production and the consequences of its mono‐logic emerge dramatically, but the piece is not generally a part of performances. While there are reasons it may not be staged, it is significant that reading the V‐Day edition of the script permits a circumscribed but telling critique in a way public productions do not. Staging the sketch would indeed lay bare many of the illusions on which the play and its feminism rely.

For audiences who may be unfamiliar with the script, some context is needed. Every performance includes a set piece in which a lesbian sex worker explains how she enjoys making women moan. In the show’s parlance, she “loves to make vaginas happy” (Ensler 2001, 105) and sees no difference between the body parts and the women she pleasures. The monologue ends with her imitating the kinds of moans she has inspired, a full multicultural spectrum from the Grace Slick moan to the WASP moan to that of a militant bisexual, climaxing (pun intended) in the moan of all moans, the “surprise triple orgasm moan” (110–11). When performed well, the monologue is a tour de force: hilarious for the surprising turns it takes and for the possible identifications viewers can make between it and some part of themselves. It aims to represent a women‐centered pleasure, where the sex worker releases from every client her own “power moan” (110). Stage productions end here, with this warm, egalitarian utopia of fully realized and fully satisfied female desire.

In the script, however, the lesbian sex worker speaks back, challenging that monologue as mere representation. One turns the page to find the playwright explaining, “After I finished this piece I read it to the woman on whose interview I’d based it. She didn’t feel it really had anything to do with her. She loved the piece, mind you, but she didn’t see herself in it. She felt that I had somehow avoided talking about vaginas, that I was still somehow objectifying them” (Ensler 2001, 113). Although the woman shares Ensler’s belief in the power of coming to voice, of speaking one’s truth, she interrogates the truth Ensler has offered about her and lesbian sex. The fiction of the play—its aesthetic drive and effects—displace this subject and female‐centered desire, making both unrecognizable to her. A veil of artifice is torn away: the woman’s remarks remind the reader how mediated this script is. Ensler has transformed vagina interviews, in which she talked with women about their bodies, into vagina monologues, which are, by definition, single voiced and which operate through the vagina‐self metonym. Ensler, the interviewer‐writer, recedes, and women appear to speak their experience directly. Performance adds further layers of mediation to the script’s, but it accentuates even more powerfully the idea of these women—real interviewees, not fictionalized or dramatized—coming to voice. The audience easily loses itself in the spectrum of moans, the lines, or the voices expressing them, and forgets the playwright’s (and director’s) controlling hand. The lesbian sex worker’s critique draws attention to Ensler’s powers while questioning her epistemological footing.

Persuaded by her protesting subject that the first monologue missed how “lesbians saw vaginas” (Ensler 2001, 114), Ensler interviewed her again. What follows in the script is a play within the play as artful as the Bosnian survivor’s monologue. The woman describes lesbian sex explicitly to show that, for her, seeing vaginas is always also an experiencing of vaginas. The self and the vagina are not separate, but neither are they collapsed into each other, with an orgasmic moan able to signify both. She accuses Ensler of starting from a heterosexual perspective rather than a lesbian one. For her, men are not “even part of the equation” (115), but Ensler’s viewpoint, she intuits, is male identified. Because the monologues share much with patriarchal, Western humanism, men are atavistically present in their very premises. The lesbian subject challenges the playwright “to talk about entering into vaginas” (114) instead—not penetrating them as an other or an object but speaking of them, as it were, from the inside and outside equally.

Unlike the other monologues, with their sole speakers, this corrective piece is not single voiced. Interspersed with the woman’s commentary are Ensler’s reflections on how it makes her feel, and she responds not to its critique but to its eroticism:

“I’m having sex with a woman. She’s inside me. I’m inside me. Fucking myself together with her. …”

I don’t know that I wanted to talk about sex. But then again, how can I talk about vaginas without talking about them in action? I am worried about the titillation factor, … about the piece becoming exploitative. Am I talking about vaginas to arouse people? …

“As lesbians,” she said, “we know about vaginas. We touch them. We lick them. … We notice when the clitoris swells. We notice our own.” (Ensler 2001, 115–16)

Typeface again marks difference, but here it is not the divided consciousness of the other; it is the line separating the playwright from the lesbian subject. Ensler distances herself from the lesbian sex worker’s words at the same time that she narrates them. Her voice, we must note, has pride of place; it requires no quotation marks: lesbian experience is spoken or, more to the point, given voice not by the interviewee but by Ensler. Because these voices seem to occupy two different spaces, their interaction is minimal. The lesbian subject’s second statement follows from her first, not Ensler’s internal questions. If not strictly a monologue, the piece is not a dialogue either. Ensler’s thoughts interrupt her words, and these interruptions remain unspoken—communicated to us, the readers, not the woman who might answer again in turn.

Frankly, it’s hard to take Ensler at her word. A campy player who regularly tells reporters of exhaustion at having had so many orgasms in public (Dominus 2002), she clearly wants to talk about sex. We can hear of a man gazing euphorically, hungrily, into a vagina for an hour (Ensler 2001, 57); a woman’s frisson at finding her clitoris, “which urged [her] to stay” until “quivering became a quake” (50); but we cannot hear of fingers, mouths, wetness “going all at once” (116–17)? The kind of sex appears at issue. It is remarkable that the play’s most explicit description of sex would be that of two women, thus the other to its predominant heteronormativity. That Ensler raises the possibility of titillation here but not elsewhere, and that it appears inextricably bound to exploitation, gives pause. Voicing her discomfort to the reader, not the interviewee, she doubles the voyeurism even as she hints at its pornographic potential. “Saying [this woman’s] words feels naughty, dangerous, too direct, … wrong, intense, in charge,” the playwright admits (Ensler 2001, 117). We listen vicariously through Ensler to the lesbian subject’s vagina‐self in action, the transmission othering her and simultaneously sanitizing the words. The play‐within‐the‐play allows Ensler to have her titillation and deny it too. Everything is speakable—erotic acts, lesbian desire, the risk of her selling sex—because everything leads, ultimately, to the playwright herself: “I learn so much from what she is telling me. About her, about me” (117). While we might commend Ensler for including this corrective piece at all, her interjections and primacy undercut the poignancy of its critical view. The exchange is unidirectional, for the authorizing feminist and, via her, for the script’s readers. Allegedly speaking back, amending an artistic misrepresentation, the lesbian sex worker ends up a character in Ensler’s confessional monologue, not a subject in her own right or for her own sake.35

The dramatized second interview effectively silences critique by silencing the lesbian subject. Its unstageability is twofold. If saying “vagina” causes a stir, imagine open talk about oral sex: “My tongue is on her clitoris. My tongue replaces her fingers. My mouth enters her vagina” (Ensler 2001, 117). The show’s mainstream palatability would be seriously imperiled. But the sketch also betrays the play’s mono‐logic. Performance would require two actresses: one, embodying the lesbian interview subject, would look and speak to the other, her interviewer; but the second actress, playing the playwright more than the interviewer, would address the audience instead of her interlocutor. Seeing these women together, but hearing the dissonance between their parts, would underscore their distance and difference. And the playwright proves the more powerful figure. Closure emerges through her alone. After her transformation from embarrassed excitement to self‐revelation and acceptance, she narrates their final exchange: “‘You have to talk about entering vaginas,’ she said. ‘Come on,’ I say, ‘come in’” (Ensler 2001, 118). The lesbian’s challenge appears finally in the plain print of Ensler’s discourse. On stage, the interviewee would have to drift into the wings, or disappear into the darkness as the spotlight shifted to the playwright figure alone. The invitation in is purely performative, for she is the only speaking subject left, hers the only voice the viewers would hear.

This piece is not an exception so much as an extreme manifestation of what happens throughout The Vagina Monologues. Ensler recorded what her interview subjects said, but audiences encounter these women only through her retrospective dramatization of their stories. The playwright speaks not simply for, but as, the women characters who come to voice in her play: their truth is the truth she projects on their behalf, though they appear there—fully embodied on stage—before the viewers’ eyes. Casting (large or small, diverse or homogenous) makes little difference, for the players are subject to the script’s singular, monological vision and form despite traces of any referential reality that it may retain. Like all of its vagina‐selves, the twice‐interviewed lesbian sex worker and Ensler herself are but voices in the frame of a script—illusory, dramatic, and consumable to that degree.

35Ensler does not divulge whether she ran this corrective sketch by the interviewee. It contrasts starkly with “The Flood,” where the playwright allows an older speaker, who is also critical, to talk uninterruptedly. She frequently throws the interview questions back at Ensler (“What would it wear? What kind of question is that?” [Ensler 2001, 29]), but Ensler doesn’t obviously overrun her monologue.

If your feminism got dressed, what would it wear?

Just as the two voices in the corrective sketch remain adjacent without interacting in the script, the monologues remain adjacent without interacting on stage. Dialogue is impossible between the lesbian interviewee and the playwright, and the same pattern structures performances as a whole. Only single voices, seemingly autonomous individuals, appear before the audience. The community promised at the play’s beginning, like its representation of difference, occurs only in the aggregate. Thoroughly atomized, the sole speakers do not intermingle—with one another or the viewers, who listen from the comfortable distance of their seats. There is no Brechtian or radical feminist theater in Ensler’s dramatics (Boesing 1996; Scott 2003), where audiences are implicated by the performance, involved materially in the action on stage. Besides contributing ticket prices to a cause, collective action comes only after the curtain falls, if it comes at all. Given the model of liberation that the show presents, postperformance dialogue and activism risk merely replicating vagina‐self talk: coming to voice as an end in itself and not as a means to feminist politics.

Were The Vagina Monologues simply about consciousness‐raising, such an end might be acceptable, but its aims are supposed to be much more than consciousness‐raising. Its stated mission is to entertain while creating a shift in awareness so that viewers cannot remain neutral to the cost of violence against women, in the United States and worldwide. Feminist scholar Gina Dent warns that when coming to voice occurs in isolation and is ritualized, it scripts behavior; forbidding questions and precluding dialogue across differences, it serves feminism as an institution and ideology because it “is less about changing conditions than converting souls” (1995, 75).36 To the extent that performances confine Ensler’s show to consciousness‐raising, they too are about building membership, adding to the “vagina choir”—V‐Day’s Web site charts its growth. Student participants in the College Campaign speak of their conversion to feminism via the play; many call themselves “Vagina warriors” (see Ensler 2001, 151, 156, 161), and one reports that “Eve’s book should be a woman’s bible” (160). Selected by V‐Day to represent the program, the testimonials disclose a politics that is primarily a semantic crusade, an activism confined to staging a production, which passes the moment of revelation onto others but does not oblige personal or collective action. While the participants show enthusiasm and feelings of empowerment to “save the world” (169), it is unclear how, or whether, they connect to the grassroots activists sponsored by their endeavors or even their local communities. They raise funds to support the antiviolence mission, but the stage functions as “the world” for them, that which requires contemplation and politicization. In the process, there is little consideration of the play’s regulatory potential, its impact on how casts and audiences understand the subjects of feminism: the essential issues for which it struggles, the shapes they take, and the women (agents and nonagents alike) who fall within its purview.37

The Vagina Monologues phenomenon does not change the world as it intended. Fostering psychological responses rather than “politicized understanding and organized resistance” (Poovey 1992, 51), its emphasis on autonomous individualism keeps feminism from getting anywhere new. The play packages a certain form of female identity and political epistemology, branding them authentic or natural at the cost of other ways of being and thinking. Consuming a production, as a performer or a viewer, seems to be enough to make one feminist: by identification with its liberation of vaginas and/or contributing to its chosen cause. Marketplace activism is not neutral in itself, but at this point in late capitalism, this is what we do. We commodify politics and difference, and we consume them (Chasin 2000). V‐Day becomes a niche market for the feminist‐inclined. Feminism is “no longer a free‐form nexus of ideas and strategies but a way of living in the world” (Dent 1995, 71), which hides uneven distributions of power at the same time it exerts them. The movement silently replicates the missionary mono‐logic of Ensler’s play: some give, while others receive.38

Do I want to paralyze such activism with worries about an entertaining play? No. But neither do I want the entertainment to outweigh reflection on its politics, routinizing liberation as a feel‐good feminist catharsis that prevents discussion of the issues at hand. We need to think about them, to share our discomforts, to allow for dialogue. The monologues, as currently instituted, threaten to take on their form’s more ordinary meaning: speech that drowns out other voices, that monopolizes and bars debate. To remain intellectually valid and politically viable, feminism must remain substantively dialectical. Writing this essay has made me profoundly conscious of this need. My critique is not (and cannot be) mere monologue either. It is the confluence of numerous exchanges that have already occurred—my encounters with the play; with the long tradition of feminism; with colleagues, editors, and reviewers—and it will, ideally, spur more. I could not speak without Beauvoir, Wollstonecraft, or the many writers in my citations, and I would be blind to many assumptions and obfuscations without critical readers. This essay requires active readers, not an audience, for only as an interim point in a larger dialogue can it contribute to the change feminism seeks—change that will serve us all, not an elect, privileged few.

36On the political limits of consciousness‐raising, see also Fuss (1989) and Allison (1994). See also D’Emilio (1983), which addresses how an overemphasis on coming out hindered gay liberation politics.

37Scott (2003) questions how empowering it can be for college‐age women to be bound to V‐Day’s script and restrictions. I must add that the testimonials rarely address V‐Day’s antiviolence mission; they focus instead on a future where the play will not be necessary because vaginas “will be talked about and respected” (Ensler 2001, 154).

38While funding grassroots activists is necessary and vital to the antiviolence struggle, it is significant that there is no record in the V‐Day edition or on the organization’s Web site of activists’ responses to the show or movement. They appear solely as “award recipients,” with no descriptions of their projects or contact information. Even under the informational banner of V‐Day, the “real people,” as Ensler calls them (Dominus 2002, 33), get little space or attention.

References