On a cool October evening in 2000, I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania who had, for reasons obscured by time, made the almost surely regrettable decision to swing by the performing arts center for an acquaintance’s experimental student theater production.
Only, while I was in line at the box office, a woman who looked to be about my mother’s age and of similar suburban provenance offered to sell me one of her extra tickets instead. It was for a show in the main theater: The Vagina Monologues. I offered her all the money I had in my wallet, $18, about a third of face value. She sighed.
And that’s how, wedged uncomfortably next to a proxy for my own mother — a woman who, to this very day, has neglected to sit me down for the humiliating-but-frank sex talk that’s supposed to be a teenage rite of passage — I found myself watching what felt, at the time, like one of the most liberating and transgressive acts I’d ever seen.
The 1994 Eve Ensler play, based on more than 200 interviews with women, took a word that had been embarrassing, almost unspeakable, and reclaimed it. The stories the actresses embodied, of self-discovery and violation and passion, presaged many other ideas, like the body-positive and sex-positive movements, that also were unfamiliar to me back then. For someone like me who grew up in the repressed ’80s and early ’90s, heck yeah, it felt empowering.
Since then, a lot has changed. The play became a movement, performed at colleges all over the country each February as fund-raisers for V-Day, a global campaign Ensler founded to combat violence against women. Haverford College and Thomas Jefferson University will host stagings this weekend.
But recently some colleges have reversed course, scrapping their productions.
The latest, last week, was Temple University. According to the Temple News, the play had been a 15-year tradition there, but administrators now felt that it was “heterocentric and cisgender.”
Alison McKee, who made the call as director of Temple’s Wellness Resource Center, explained that it was replaced with a different student performance, “in response to student feedback regarding a desire for an event that reflected the realities of Temple student life.”
It felt like one more acknowledgment of an end of an era. The work that had felt so cutting edge back then? Now, at a time when the word pussyhat needs no explanation, it seems a little passe. Yup, we still have vaginas — or many of us do. But there’s a lot more to us than that.
Mount Holyoke, a women’s college in Massachusetts, made national news when it was one of the first to cancel its production in 2015, arguing that the Monologues did not reflect intersectional feminist values. After all, anatomy doesn’t define gender anymore (not that it ever did). Furthermore, critics felt the play was not inclusive. Their gripe was that its depictions mostly excluded transgender women and women of color, or else tied them to contexts of victimization and violence.
Ensler wrote a response in Time magazine, arguing that her work is as relevant as ever — and will be as long as violence against women persists.
Then, she added, “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.”
OK, sure — and some of those conversations were overdue when the play first reached national audiences.
Covering the 2000 run I attended, the Inquirer’s (male) theater critic estimated the audience at eight women to every one man; the Daily News (male) columnist put the ratio at 6-1, adding: “Um, guys. … No singles bar in town will give you better odds. The trick is you have to fake empathy.”
When the Monologues came back to Philadelphia in 2002, for a run at the Forrest Theater, things hadn’t improved much.
The producers bought some radio sponsorships to promote the show. Only, the Daily News reported, KYW 1060 anchors “told management that they were uncomfortable saying the V-word.” They had to hire a voice-over actor to record the introduction — and the trouble didn’t stop there, the report noted. “A station source says listeners have been e-mailing to complain about the commercial.”
Even as recently as 2007, three 16-year-old high school students from New York’s suburban Westchester County were thrust into the spotlight when they were suspended for uttering the word vagina during a reading from the play, part of a school open-mic night.
One of the three, Megan Harding, is now 27 and a resident of Brooklyn. She had just discovered the play, and it was eye-opening.
“That really was one of the pivotal defining moments of not just my feminism, but of my life,” she said. “The entire situation created a different lens through which I could see not only what was happening in my own life — my parents were divorcing, there was a lot of violence in our household — but also a different lens through which to see the world. What was happening in a micro level at this high school, it was happening all over the world with much larger implications.”
Later, when she went on to Connecticut College, Harding became a V-Day organizer and even directed the play her senior year.
“A few years ago, I learned they were also canceling The Vagina Monologues indefinitely — and I was so, so angry,” she said.
“Now, I think the reason it was canceled, and that it’s been canceled in colleges all over the country, is that it doesn’t go far enough.”
From the vantage point of 2018, The Vagina Monologues feels to her and many others like a second-wave feminist throwback that privileges white voices.
It’s a pattern many have noted in the #MeToo movement — which was, after all, started by an African American Philly activist but only drew widespread attention when Alyssa Milano tweeted it. Recently, an #UsToo hashtag was created to bring race back into the conversation.
The same idea came to light in a rather on-the-nose way with complaints about those pink knit Women’s March hats, which some said marginalized transgender women, and women of color. “Not everyone who identifies as a woman has a pussy,” sex educator Ericka Hart said in a speech at last year’s Philadelphia march, “nor does being a woman have anything to do with pussy.”
That doesn’t change the fact that the monologues, and for that matter, the pussyhat, still resonate deeply with many young women.
But even Harding, once a poster child for the show, is moving on.
“I’m not about white feminism,” she said. “It has to place the experiences of trans women and women of color at the center. The Vagina Monologues can continue, but it can’t be the end-all be-all of what feminism is.”