Progressivism and Feminism: Works in Progress

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The Vagina Monologues—especially for women, hopefully for men and anyone else along the spectrum—is an introspective, awe-inspiring, intense theatrical production, and one that is famous for an important reason. To start with, the show makes the performers say vagina (a lot). But it also offers some deep insights. After seeing a recent performance on campus, the monologues helped me realize that many thoughts I have about myself, my gender, and my place in society aren’t unique, even though the play was written 20 years ago. But, importantly, the monologues don’t tell all of the story—to many they aren’t inclusive enough.


Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues is based on her interviews with 200 women. The monologues are individual stories whose only uniting theme is that they concern women’s experiences with and relations to their vaginas. Ensler’s play is “both a celebration of women’s sexuality and a condemnation of its violation.”


At Princeton, The Vagina Monologues showed in Theatre Intime, where a small theater made for an intimate experience. The performance included several of Ensler’s monologues—typically performed solo, sometimes involving two or three actresses at a time—including “My Angry Vagina,” “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy,” “I Was There in the Room,” “Because He Liked to Look At It,” and “My Vagina Was My Village.” All ticket sale proceeds went to Womanspace, a New Jersey nonprofit dedicated to protecting women from domestic and sexual violence.


As a middle-class white woman attending Princeton, my privilege extends beyond that of the typical American woman and beyond that of most women all over the world. I wanted to attend the show with exactly this mindset. It’s a relevant performance, but one that reflects the specific notions of progressivism and feminism of its time and its author. It makes a concerted effort to be all-inclusive, and it succeeds, but only to a degree. Twenty years after the play was first written, we know that it’s missing something. Critics today question its inclusivity, as the monologues show their age in failing to sufficiently give voice to women of color and transgender women.


Last October, Mount Holyoke College canceled a performance of The Vagina Monologues for this very reason. Holyoke students criticized the show for its narrow, biologically-based definition of gender. Columbia University offered its own take on Monologues when it staged a show with a cast composed solely of women of color. Such efforts to keep the show tied to current all-inclusive progressivism are critical, even if the show in its original form is often considered progressive, forward-thinking, and even radical. These recent controversies regarding the show demonstrate the vital need for continuous evolution of both feminism and progressivism.


When Monologues was first performed 20 years ago, Bill Clinton was president. 1996 was the year the Defense of Marriage Act was enacted, and Clinton would later sign the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy into law. America at the time was struggling to openly discuss gender and sexuality and it still is. Yet, the timid discourse around gender and sex that Ensler challenged when the play was first published is not the discourse that exists today.


After attending the performance, I can say that the most important aspect of The Vagina Monologues is its championing of women, female sexuality, and womanhood. Simply seeing it gets us to respect women more, a mission that Ensler continues to fight for. But while people who identify as women share many of their stories and experiences with each other, they don’t share all of them.


When we hear each other’s stories, we are more likely to see similarities and to strengthen a sisterhood around our differences; but this can have pernicious consequences. It’s not enough to have poor women of the world represented by a monologue about a Bosnian woman’s rape, as is the case in most showings of The Vagina Monologues. That perspective is important and completely necessary, but simply presenting it also not enough. And that’s exactly why it’s important to watch the play now and locate it in the context of a constantly evolving feminist movement. By adding a monologue each year, Ensler recognizes the importance of working toward greater inclusivity. As observers, we too must work for greater inclusivity and equality—we must continue to attend the show.


Today’s mainstream feminist organizations strive to include groups that have historically been marginalized in the movement. The Vagina Monologues shows us our progress and our failures—it also shows us how far we have to go. The show isn’t as inclusive as we might want it to be today, but to boycott it because it doesn’t meet today’s standards is to disregard the work of women who came before us. The work of those women is what allows to even engage in this discourse today.


It’s critical that we assess Monologues in exactly this way—we should always read between the lines. Understanding that Monologues  doesn’t include everyone is necessary. Feminism is about equality, just like progressivism, and Monologues should fiercely reflect this. While I learned a lot from this play about feminism, and a lot about myself, I didn’t learn enough about women unlike me. The current generation must change that. If that means adding our own monologues, performing The Vagina Monologues with a cast of all women of color, including the transgender experience, or a combination of all of these, then we should do that. We should both appreciate The Vagina Monologues as a testament to feminism’s triumphs and critically evaluate the show. As Ensler said, it shouldn’t be an “either/or” question.


One Comment

  1. i didn’t need the spark notes version, I read it all and loved it!!! Wow! Way to Marcia! Way to go women!

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