(The text that follows contains adult language and themes and is intended for mature audiences only. Reader discretion is advised).
Several years ago, a radical feminist philosopher visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she gave a lecture attacking what she called “male science.” This theorist confidently explained that science was part of a discredited oppressive, patriarchal, white-male, bourgeois legacy. It was tainted to the core by sexism, classicism, and racism. Women, she concluded, must “reinvent knowledge.”
A well-respected British philosopher of science attended her lecture. Later, I asked him what he thought of it. He just shook his head and looked pained. I asked him whether he had raised any objections in the question and answer period. “No," he said, "I am just hoping it will all go away."
That’s exactly how I felt when I saw the award-winning off-Broadway play The Vagina Monologues in New York City four years ago. I did not want to argue with anyone. I did not want to raise objections. I just wanted it to go away. But whereas my British colleague has had his wish granted (for the most part anyway – the feminist attack on science has faded away), my wish certainly has not been granted. Far from going away, The Monologues (written by Eve Ensler) has become a worldwide phenomenon, and is enjoying unprecedented and growing success on college campuses. In 2004, the play was performed on more than 500 campuses across the county. It is now the centerpiece of a zealous campaign to replace Valentine’s Day —-a day whose gentle theme is romantic love between men and women -- with V-day or Violence Against Women Day, --a day that raises awareness about all the horrible things males do to females. The campaign has been a huge success.
I’ve brought with me a recording of The Monologues. What you are about to hear is Ensler herself introducing the play and talking about its impact. This segment lasts for less than a minute – but it gives you a good sense of Ensler’s mindset and sensibility. Here she is presenting a list of what she considers to be remarkable and wonderful results of her play –- she calls them “vagina occurrences.”
(Tape was played)
“Glenn Close gets 2,500 people to stand and chant the word cunt.”
“A woman rabbi sends me a hamantasch (a food) and describes
its vaginal meanings.”
“There is now a Cunt Workshop at Wesleyan University.”
“A young man makes and serves me a vagina salad for dinner with his
parents in Atlanta, Georgia. Bean sprouts are pubic hair.”
I’ll stop the tape with the vagina salad. I don’t even want to know what the dressing was supposed to be.
OK. Now before I explain why I find the play to be so bad, and why the angry V-Day crusade it has inspired is dangerous and depressing, I want to acknowledge that The Vagina Monologues has made one valuable contribution to society. Ensler has used it to raise vast sums of money toward the cause of fighting violence against women, both in the United States and throughout the world. Nothing I say here today should be taken as criticism of her humanitarian work, which is vitally needed and admirable.
But I am not here to talk about the good works of the play’s author. I am here to talk about the play itself – about its intrinsic merit and its effect on college women who take it seriously. Just because V-Day raises funds for good causes does not exempt it from critical evaluation. Louis Farrakhan, leader of the separatist and anti-Semitic Nation of Islam, has raised large amounts of money for some worthy ends. But that does not place him or his crusade of hatred beyond criticism. The same is true of Enlser and her play and her army of followers.
The play itself consists of several monologues, which are distilled from more than 200 interviews Ensler conducted with women on the topic of their vaginas. At the Off-Broadway production I attended, the theater concession stand sold lollipops and cookies in the shape of a women’s — well, take a wild guess. The young man who ushered me to my seat wore a nametag that read, “Hi, I am Vagina Larry.” The theater was packed with women who laughed riotously at each mention of the v-word -- which was more than 100 times.
I have so many objections to the play it is hard to know where to start. I’ll limit myself to three. 1) It is atrociously written. 2) It is viciously anti-male; and 3) and, most importantly, it claims to empower women, when in fact it makes us seem desperate and pathetic.
First, a few words about the writing. Ensler begins each monologue with a description of the themes she wishes to develop. Here she is, for example, introducing a montage of voices on the theme of -- that time of the month.
"I interviewed many women about menstruation. There was a choral thing that began to occur, a kind of wild collective song. Women echoed each other. I let the voices bleed into one another. I got lost in the bleeding." (The Vagina Monologues, New York: Random House, 2001, p.33)
Not the subtlest of metaphors.
Another monologue concerns a woman who says she discovered her true self when she looked at her vagina in a mirror during a “vagina workshop.” Here are some excerpts:
"My vagina amazed me. I couldn’t speak when it came my turn in the workshop. I was speechless. I had awakened to what the woman who ran the workshop called 'vaginal wonder.'” P.46
"It was better than the Grand Canyon, ancient and full of grace...It made me laugh...It was the morning." P.46
"The woman who ran the workshop told me my clitoris was not something I could lose. It was me, the essence of me. It was both the doorbell to my house and the house itself. I didn’t have to find it. I had to be it. Be it. Be my clitoris." P.49
And my personal favorite:
"My vagina is a shell, a tulip, and a destiny. I am arriving as I am beginning to leave. My vagina, my vagina, me." P.50
Now, world literature abounds with exquisite passages describing female sexual rapture -- from the verses of the dazzling Sixth century poetess Sappho, to Molly’s Soliloquy in the final passages of James Joyce’s Ulysses. In my humble opinion, “My vagina is a shell, a tulip, and a destiny” does not qualify as one of them.
My second and more serious objection is the play’s relentless hostility to men. The Vagina Monologues features a rogues’ gallery of male brutes, sadists, child-molesters, genital mutilators, gang rapists and vile little boys. It is a poisonously anti-male play. When I wrote something to this effect in a critical op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Ensler wrote a letter in response:
"Ms. Sommers asserted that there was a definite, anti-male sub-text. In serving her vision and agenda, she listed specific examples to prove her point. What she conveniently left out was Bob, the man who has an entire monologue dedicated to him. Bob transformed one woman’s vagina and subsequently her feelings about herself." (Wall Street Journal, February 25, 2000, sec. A., p. 19.)
Ah yes, Bob. That’s absolutely right. I did neglect to mention Bob in my article. So let’s take a moment to talk about him right now. Here is how he is described in the monologue:
"Bob was the most ordinary man I ever met. He was thin and tall and nondescript and wore khaki clothes. Bob did not like spicy foods or listen to Prodigy. He had no interest in sexy lingerie. In the summer, he spent time in the shade...He wasn't very funny or articulate or mysterious...I didn’t particularly like Bob." p.55
OK, nothing very positive so far. Right? But wait:
"Turned out that Bob loved vaginas. He was a connoisseur. He loved the way they felt, the way they tasted, the way they smelled, but most importantly he loved the way they looked...He stayed looking for almost an hour as if he were studying a map, observing the moon, staring into my eyes, but it was my vagina. . . I began to swell, began to feel proud." pp.56-57
This is the man Ensler accuses me of “conveniently” leaving out, the one that proves that she is not male-phobic. Bob. Rarest of heroes, redeemer of his gender. So I guess Ensler's message is this: It's only MOST men who are brutal, cruel, insensitive, aggressive and stupid – but, every so often, if you’re really really lucky, you may come across a boring, humorless, unattractive man who likes to stare at vaginas for hours on end.
Unless you count Ensler’s creepy segment about Bob, the only romantic scene in the play takes place between a 24-year-old woman and a young girl (who in the original version was 13-years-old, but in more recent versions has become 16.) The woman invites the young girl into her car, takes her to her house, plies her with vodka, and seduces her. What might seem to be a scene from a public service kidnapping prevention video shown to schoolchildren becomes, in Ensler’s play, a love story.
Which brings me to another point. Ensler does not shy away from including very young children in her obsession. She says, on page 103, “I asked a six-year-old girl: What does your vagina smell like?” And “What’s special about your vagina?” To the second question, the little girl replied: “Somewhere deep inside it I know it has a really smart brain.” Ensler’s reported interviews are suspect. One finds it hard to believe that a first grader is talking about things that are “somewhere deep inside.” One finds it harder to believe that the girl’s parents would allow their six-year-old daughter to be interrogated about her vagina. Imagine a male counterpart to this story, a middle-aged man asking 6-year-old boys what was special about their penises. He would likely find himself on the local sex-offender registry.
But perhaps the most appalling and insulting aspect of the V-Day phenomenon is the way in which it demeans and weakens women even as it claims to empower us. Empower. That’s the buzz-word for this play. You can’t read a story or interview about The Monologues without hearing how terrifically empowering it is. Hollywood actresses seem to be exceptionally carried away with this idea. Celebrities, including Susan Sarandon, Glenn Close, Calista Flockhart, Melanie Griffith, Marisa Tormei, Kate Winslet, and Winona Ryder, have sought out roles for special performances. A nearly hysterical Glenn Close told the New York Times, “Eve has given us back our souls. You don’t just hook-up with Eve. You become part of her crusade. There’s a core of us who are Eve’s army.” After Jane Fonda performed in the play, she described it as “One of the most memorable and empowering experiences of my life.”
Many college girls also claim that for them the play was inspiring and, yes, empowering. Shouldn’t we take them at their word? Yes we should. And that should scare us to death. The publisher of The Vagina Monologues says that it has become the “Bible of a new generation of young women.” Hundreds of colleges throughout the country now host V-Day celebrations every year on or around Valentine’s Day. At Brown, (where V-Day is celebrated as if it were a religious holiday) festivities have included vulva puppet workshops and “sex for one” seminars, along with countless performances of the Monologues to sold-out ecstatic crowds. Wesleyan hosted "cunt workshops," and Penn State held a "cunt-fest."
The latest published edition of The Monologues includes letters from excited students describing V-Day. Mary from Michigan State University tells how the rehearsal room for the play was next to a history conference:
“I think they were a little shocked to hear Crista screaming ‘CUNT, CUNT!! SAY IT! SAY IT! CUNT, CUNT!! Say it! Say it!’ . . . And when I did the triple surprise orgasm moan, well, let’s just say they heard that loud and clear too!” p.154
Here is Tyler from Cornell University:
“I loved how I felt being part of a movement that empowers women...Because of the College Initiative, I said VAGINA at least a dozen times a day for two months and I was able to reclaim the word. Thank you, Eve!” p.158
Now I hope you’ll join in me in asking: what exactly is it that makes this play empowering? Is it the freedom to obsess over one’s intimate anatomy? The freedom to say the v- or c-word over and over again? This is ludicrous. Men did not become powerful in this world by gathering in stadiums shouting out vulgar four-letter words. The comedian Andrew Dice Clay may have led some fans in scatological chants back in the eighties, but he was never considered to be anything but a cut-rate comedian. You don’t hear of men gathering in little workshops taking turns looking at their private parts in mirrors. Men who did that would be ridiculed -- not valorized. But somehow when the self-described “vagina warriors” do these things they see themselves as heroines, intrepid freedom fighters combating prejudice and injustice –- modern-day Rosa Parkses. I can’t think of anything more demeaning to women than this.
The woman who “discovers” that her clitoris is her “essence” and says, “My vagina, me,” is insulting herself, and all women. One of the many laudable goals of the original women's movement was its rejection of the idea that women are reducible to their anatomy. Our bodies are not our selves. Feminist pioneers like Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth fought long and hard so women would be respected -- not for their sexual anatomy-- but for their minds. The struggle for women’s rights was a battle for political and educational equality. Feminist foremothers like Mary Wollstonecraft or Elizabeth Cady Stanton demanded that women have the opportunities to develop their intellects and to make full use of their cognitive powers.
There was a time in the United States, not all that long ago (and it remains true in many parts of the world today) when women were second-class citizens in the world of education. There were very few, if any, female scientists, philosophers, lawyers or artists. Those times are now mainly history. Today, in the United States, women students are a majority (56%) on the college campus. Women have achieved or exceeded parity with men in law school, medical school and business school. No generation of young women in history has had more opportunities to learn, develop themselves and succeed than yours. There are now role models for you to emulate everywhere you look.
I feel sorry for young women who consider themselves empowered because they have said the word “vagina” over and over again. I am sorry for girls who consider V-Day to be the high point of their college career. Some high point! College is the one period in your life when you can immerse yourself in the works of transcendent genius. It is a time to develop yourself by studying biology or astronomy or economics -- or learning Latin, or reading the history of philosophy. If you want to see genuine female empowerment, look at the work of Nobel Laureates such as Barbara McClintock and Rita Levi-Montalcini. Or, to mention my personal favorites, look at the astonishing achievements of two of the greatest field biologists of the 20th Century –- both women: Diane Fosse and Jane Goodall.
Jane Goodall provides an instructive contrast to Eve Ensler and her work. Goodall radically transformed the field of primatolology by taking a very personal (some say conventionally female) approach to the chimpanzees she studied. She was the first to give individual names to the chimpanzees -- instead of referring to them by numbers. Some of Goodall’s colleagues accused her of anthropomorphizing and ridiculed her feminine sensibility.
Yet Goodall persevered, and in the process, she revolutionized the fields of primatology and ethology (the study of animal behavior). It was Goodall who discovered that Chimpanzees use tools, hunt for meat, and engage intensely complicated emotional relationships. It was Goodall who pioneered the study of chimpanzee societies in the wild, and of the intricate hierarchies and social maneuvering that occurs.
Now that is empowerment. Becoming so passionate, so devoted to your field of study, that you overcome prejudice, orthodoxy, and dogmatism and succeed in transforming the way people approach your subject.
Empowerment is not staring at your vagina in the mirror and weeping or exulting. It’s writing a great essay, running a marathon, starting a successful business, or being a great mother. It is becoming an innovative scientist or mathematician or musician. And college is precisely the environment where this kind of genuine empowerment can take root. College is the time to read the great works of humankind: to study the culture of humanity. That will fortify you for life. It will enrich you and help you find your way in the world.
For too many students, V-day has become a serious distraction, devouring a year or more of a woman’s college career. It can be a mania, and a self-righteous obsession—I don’t think I’m overstating the harm. Just read the frenzied letters from college women that are included in the most recent edition of the Monologues. The V-Day crusade has the potential to set back the true advancement and empowerment of women for many years to come.
So what can we do? Sadly, Glenn Close is right: Ensler has an army. And, if your campus is typical, that army is gaining more recruits all the time. I urge you then to write op-eds or organize events that celebrate real heroism among women, and genuine female accomplishments.
And for heaven’s sake, do not let Eve’s Army hijack Valentine’s Day, a day that celebrates love and romance. Ensler and her minions have said, “We proclaim Valentine’s Day as V-Day, until the violence against women stops.” This is insane. Should we refrain from celebrating Thanksgiving until every hungry person around the world is fed? Should we hold back from Christmas until every child gets a present? Maybe we should transform Mothers’ Day into Mommie Dearest Day -- an occasion to raise awareness about child abuse. Recognizing that deep problems exist, and doing everything we can to alleviate them is laudable. Again, Ensler deserves praise for her efforts on that front. But bullying a nation into giving up one of its most charming and hopeful holidays does nothing to help women. It’s a divisive and alienating cause. It is sheer demagoguery, and we should do what can to stand up to it.
So. Next Valentine’s Day, buy your girlfriend or boyfriend flowers or candy and a sweet card. See a movie, go out for a romantic dinner, respect each other, and have fun. If you’re between boyfriends or girlfriends on Valentine’s Day, celebrate love anyway. Get together with some friends and watch a romantic move, like The Philadelphia Story, Casablanca, or Shakespeare in Love.
And one final word of advice: Stay away from Bob. Thank you.