“I bet you’re worried. I was worried. I was worried about vaginas. I was worried about what we think about vaginas, and even more worried that we don’t think about them.” ~ Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues
Title: The Vagina Monologues – The V-Day Edition (Women’s Studies/Drama)
Author: Eve Ensler (with foreword by Gloria Steinem)
Publisher: Villard Books (I bought this book from a used book shop on the Khao San Road, Bangkok, so I have the North American edition.)
Date of Publication: 2001
Number of Pages: 184
I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting when I picked up this book, but what I got certainly wasn’t it.
The Vagina Monologues is actually all about vaginas. Just vaginas. And yet so much more than vaginas.
I’d never given my vagina any particular thought before.
I mean, I’d thought about sex, and periods, and rape, and childbirth, but I’d always thought about them in the whole. It seemed strange to be reading something that focussed specifically on the vagina.
And as I’m white, middle-class, university-educated, financially independent, and argumentative, despite having been attacked and abused, I’ve never thought to think of myself as a victim of systemic misogyny.
Partly because I don’t think any of those events were particularly due to the fact that I was a woman. Partly because they were just that, events. Things that happened to me. No-one can enforce them as the only possible way for me to experience life, unlike women in some other parts of the world. Like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. Or South Korea, Italy, or Australia. Or South London. Or any UK household with a subscription to the Daily Sport.
But while reading this book I was very conscious of my gender in a way that is unusual for me. And it made me feel somewhat guilty for thus far having been a feminist in name only.
Every year when I was at university, on 14th February – V Day, as they called it – the women’s society would put on a production of The Vagina Monologues. And I never went to see it because I thought the women’s society was for women who hated men, and who wanted to fight battles that were either irrelevant to my life, or that had already been won.
(In my defence, a lot of their literature did explicitly state that they were anti-men.)
It’s only now that I see that, the play at least, was for all women who loved other women, and who loved being women. Or needed a helping hand to embrace their womanhood to feel at peace with themselves as women.
The piece is simultaneously a celebration of femininity and a protest against violence towards, and oppression of women everywhere.
It paints a clear picture of violence towards vaginas, or embarrassment about vaginas, or just plain ignorance or neglect of vaginas, being as a result of the failure or any culture to properly honour it’s women.
The stark figure is presented that while the world was busy being outraged as somewhere between twenty and seventy thousand women were raped as a weapon of war in the Balkans, a further five hundred thousand women were raped, in that same year, in the US.
The Vagina Monologues began as a series of interviews that the writer, Eve Ensler, conducted with over two hundred women, from all different cultural, social, and economic backgrounds. She then turned these into the twenty-eight sections of this book, that went on to become this play. These sections are monologues of stories that women have told, or things that they have said about their vaginas. Interspersed with ‘Vagina Facts’, such as how a married man in 1593, on discovering his wife’s clitoris for the first time, successfully had her tried and convicted as a witch. Those who saw it all being in agreement that it must be something strange and indecent.
The monologues range from humorous tales of happy vaginas, to instructional stories of how different women came to understand their own vaginas. From down right harrowing accounts of vaginas abused, to snap shots that are just insufferably sad, and made me feel for the older women who were trapped by their gender in a way that women of my generation can no longer imagine.
This book is not for those who are easily offended by discussion of the functions of their body, nor for those who find such discussion distasteful.
In parts it also requires a strong stomach due its graphic depiction of violence against vaginas. Half way through the monologue about the woman who, at aged nine, was being raped by her father’s friend, when her father walked in, discovered them, and shot the friend, I needed a little sit down with a cup of tea. Even though her story ends on a positive note with another woman teaching her to reclaim and enjoy her vagina.
In a way I’m still not entirely sure what I think of this book, only that I’m glad I read it.
If you haven’t read it yet but would like to, it might be best to get hold of a copy of the original version. Half of the V – Day edition is taken up with emails that have been to sent to Ensler by women who have put on productions of V Day productions of The Vagina Monologues in support of local women’s shelters, thanking her and explaining what a positive and powerful experience it had been.
While it was nice to see the effect that the play has had, and some of the emails were quite heart warming, after at least thirty pages or so this half of the book began to seem a little too celebratory. But I’m possibly being ungenerous, this book has clearly made a substantial impact on a great many people, and Ensler deserves to feel pride in that accomplishment.
Have you read this book, or seen the play? What did you think?
Your Voice In My Head – Emma Forrest