Some Colleges Are Moving Past Eve Ensler’s “Cisnormative” ‘Vagina Monologues’ — And That’s OK

Approach anyone who matriculated at an American college in the last two decades or so, and they’ve probably attended, participated in, or critiqued a production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. The Monologues, along with the related V-Day organization which combats violence against women, has created a staple alternative Valentine’s Day celebration. They’ve also become a part of the cultural vocabulary of late Gen-Xers and millennials, particularly anyone of the feminist or theatrical persuasions. “My vagina’s angry!” we cry, quoting one of the funnier monologues, in a mix of irony and nostalgia.

What I recall from my college’s annual production was that V-Day occupied an odd place between the countercultural fringe and the mainstream. At the time, it was a multiracial, queer-friendly production, yet with enough wholesome, sex-positive appeal for liberal dudebro types who showed up on a date, or to applaud their girlfriends. To me, V-Day has always carried a waft of the incense-and-goddess branch of feminism, the kind that replaces analytical rigor with moon-cycle vibes, which is fine so long as it’s not seen as the only branch on the tree.

There’s a reason The Vagina Monologues, which collects stories and performance pieces related to sex, vaginas, menstruation, rape, and more, has been successful on a wide scale — performed by celebrities, accepted on campuses. It challenges ingrained assumptions and taboos about the female anatomy while being emotionally accessible, uplifting, and if not family-friendly, then at least student-friendly fare.

To give the show its due, The Vagina Monologues has also been quietly yet greatly influential. Without question, the word “vagina” has become more common — the stuff of sitcoms and Facebook posts — in some part thanks to the play’s proliferation. Furthermore, the work has changed the conversation around Valentine’s Day and created a secondary meaning for the day that’s the pinnacle of capitalist, gender-normative excess.

The tension between V-Day’s mainstream and subversive sides has played out in the reaction it elicits. While some conservative institutions, including American governmental bodies, still ban the word “vagina” and fume against the monologues themselves, younger feminists may now be turning away from them, finding them dated.

They claim Ensler’s work smacks of colonialism, cis-normativity, and so on. This year, at several women’s colleges, where transgender admissions is a hot topic, students are mounting trans and queer responses to the play. At Mount Holyoke, this choice was announced alongside a statement that’s the play’s gender perspective is “narrow,” even with the addition of a trans*-specific monologue by Ensler. Ensler responded to Mount Holyoke’s choice to abandon the monologues in Time magazine, and the debate is being framed as feminist infighting, with a paragraph likely to make anyone outside “the movement’s” head spin:

The Vagina Monologues never intended to be a play about what it means to be a woman. It is and always has been a play about what it means to have a vagina. In the play, I never defined a woman as a person with a vagina.

Ensler rightly notes that pieces of art that refer primarily to female anatomy should never be automatically be shunned or censured. Art is inherently subjective, and should only be asked to be inclusive within reason. Yet I also think it’s appropriate and healthy for young people to run with V-Day’s legacy, towards new frontiers of inclusion and understanding. For many, that frontier is greater trans-inclusiveness.

I talked to Isa Johnson, co-director of Barnard and Columbia’s alternative V-Day play, called Beyond Cis-terhood. This production is a collection of “student-written pieces about queer gender and sexuality,” she says, which are being mounted to show support for inclusive transgender admissions at Barnard.

“Is The Vagina Monologues important for genderqueer individuals? Maybe not,” says Johnson, who directed a production of The Vagina Monologues with a cast consisting solely of actors of color last year. She signed up to be involved with The Vagina Monologues initially because she wanted to meet feminists, she says. After meeting and working with them, their collective position on the play and its relevance to their university’s gender politics moved them towards mounting an entirely new piece of work. “The people I’ve spoken to from last year’s cast and production team who are not involved in Beyond Cis-terhood this year have all been really supportive,” she says.

Ensler’s two-decades-old work has opened up space for an annual celebration of theatrical art that channels diverse experience on gender and sexuality. As is the case with any piece of art that opens up previously shut space (ahem, Girls), that doesn’t render it perfect or above critique. But it doesn’t render it invalid or useless, either.

The Vagina Monologues should continue to be mounted, whenever possible, in spaces where the discussion of women’s bodies is taboo, forbidden, fraught — anywhere it will ruffle conservative feathers and help people with vaginas connect with their own bodies. Yet just like the pay-for-play Valentine’s Day rituals of yore shouldn’t have a hegemonic hold on February 14th, Ensler’s work should by no means have a stranglehold on feminist responses to Valentine’s Day.

At all-women’s colleges, where feminism and vagina-talk may already be givens for most students, why on earth would students not want to go deeper and use the platform V-Day has created to showcase different people’s experiences? “It would be very cool for V-Day to represent evolving standards of feminisms,” says Johnson. “‘Feminisms,’ meaning there are many types and no single definition.”