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The Vagina Monologues

at the Apollo Theater

By Kelly Kleiman

Eve Ensler has figured out that if you want to talk about women, you'd better start by talking dirty. In The Vagina Monologues this writer-performer uses the audience's discomfort with and titillation at the word "vagina" as an entree to a series of essays on the condition of women and our estrangement from ourselves. (Originally I wrote "themselves"--which would be the point, wouldn't it?) This extraordinary evening offers a longer visit than most of us have ever had with the body part that dare not speak its name.

Ensler repeats "vagina" as often as possible--with deliberate, even excessive emphasis. "I was worried about vaginas," she says, opening her mouth unreasonably wide around the vowels. "I was worried about what we think about vaginas, and even more worried that we don't think about them....So I decided to talk to women about their vaginas, to do vagina interviews, which became vagina monologues," and so on. And every time she says "vagina," the audience obligingly titters. She acknowledges our discomfort: "Listen to it. Vagina. Vagina. No matter how often you say it, it doesn't sound like a word you want to be saying." It's almost as if she were insisting, let's get this out of the way right up front (so to speak). Go ahead, look up "vagina" in the dictionary and shriek with laughter the way you did in fifth grade; then we can talk.

Ensler looks quite elegant, sitting on a stool in a simple black gown, occasionally taking a sip of water or referring to note cards and reciting a list of synonyms and euphemisms, of which the most memorable was "cootchie-snorcher." (An opportunity to use that term cannot come soon enough.) Somehow her jubilant recitation of all these words ladies must never utter made me realize the obvious: It's fine to say one. It's fine to have one. Vaginas are not a defect.

But the more important meaning, and consequence, of her repetition is to make us aware of how not saying "vagina" is part and parcel of making women invisible. "Penis" gets said on prime-time television; Tom Cruise repeated it about a dozen times in a single speech in Born on the Fourth of July, and was rewarded for his efforts with an Oscar nomination. Meanwhile, according to Crain's, WXRT wouldn't accept advertising for The Vagina Monologues during drive time because it didn't want listeners' children to be subjected to "that kind of language." Who's hiding what from whom, and for what reason? That is precisely Ensler's question.

By asking it, she recognizes "vagina" for the shibboleth it is, a way of conjuring up women who can't be ignored. In one of the monologues, she uses "cunt" as an incantation, reciting all the vaginal attributes that begin with the letter c, with u, and so on and finally crying out "cunt!" in a triumphant way. Though not persuaded by her effort to reclaim the epithet, I was moved by her understanding that saying words out loud is part of living out loud--of recognizing our own existence and right to exist.

Lenny Bruce claimed that it was suppression of the word "nigger" that gave it its power to wound and argued that everyone should use it all the time to bleed away the poison. Ensler seems to have discovered something similar: that suppression of the word "vagina" is part of the suppression of women, and that we should keep saying it for just that reason. ("Say it loud--I'm cunt and I'm proud!" or words to that effect.) Keep saying it, and eliminate the idea that vaginas and the people who have them are awful, injurious, disgusting, dirty, not to be spoken of, not to be considered--to be seen and not heard.

As Ensler explored the experiences women have of our vaginas, from searching for the clitoris to being obliged to shave our pubic hair to enduring sexual violence to giving birth, the repetition of the word had an odd effect. I became light-headed, the way I do when I give blood and make the mistake of looking over at the tube connecting my arm to the bag. The sight of part of myself on the outside makes me feel disembodied. Similarly, under Ensler's microscopic examination of her subject, my vagina began to seem scarily separate and apart. The experience left me queasy, yet it seemed the necessary first step toward putting myself back together whole.

All this serious feeling came in response to an evening that was frequently very funny. Ensler's interviews always included two questions: "If your vagina could talk, what would it say?" and "If your vagina were getting dressed to go out, what would it wear?" ("A beret." Did she mean "a barrette"?) The answers delighted the largely female audience, but it must be strange to be one of the few men when Ensler answers the first question with "Slow down!" and the room erupts in cheers.

Her interviewees range from a woman in her 70s recalling her sexual initiation and fantasies to a woman raped in Bosnia who describes her home before its destruction and her vagina after its rape, finally and unmistakably equating the two violations. Ensler also offers "vagina facts" and poignant observations, such as that of the woman whose vagina seemed to her merely "a site for mishaps."

There are a few weak moments--the complaint about pelvic exams is pretty well-worn, though describing a speculum as "mean, cold duck lips" is right on. More troubling is the fact that no women of color seemed to be represented in the monologues opening night, though Ensler says she talked to women of all kinds. Perhaps she felt uncertain about her ability to portray women of color; perhaps she felt delicate about appropriating their stories. But if what unites women is truly greater than what divides us, we need to work harder to include all of us.

I suspect many men will think having a show about a body part is much ado about nothing. But that's Ensler's whole point: though this body part may be hidden or ignored, it's anything but nothing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joan Marcus.

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