Ever since the 1996 Off-Broadway premiere of The Vagina Monologues, written by Eve Ensler to “celebrate the vagina” and women’s empowerment, the play has been performed annually at hundreds of colleges across the country, embraced for years by gender studies departments as the Holy Grail of feminism.
But this year, Mount Holyoke College, an all-women’s university in Massachusetts, is permanently breaking from tradition over concerns that the play—long championed for its political correctness—is not politically correct enough.
Mount Holyoke’s Project Theatre Board representative Erin Murphy provides a discursive explanation in a campus-wide email:
“At its core, the show offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman… Gender is a wide and varied experience, one that cannot simply be reduced to biological or anatomical distinctions, and many of us who have participated in the show have grown increasingly uncomfortable presenting material that is inherently reductionist and exclusive.”
Well, here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: as a woman with a vagina, why shouldn’t I be able to watch this play? If the complaint is that The Vagina Monologues excludes certain women without vaginas and therefore must be struck from the stage, then my complaint is that you’re excluding me from watching something I want to see because my gender remains defined by my biological parts. Isn’t it “reductionist” to deny me the right to see something? When did censorship become a good look for the modern feminist?
It’s great that Mount Holyoke is not discriminating against prospective female students who may or may not have vaginas (the school recently changed its admissions policy to welcome male-to female transgender students). I’m all for the school setting a socially progressive example for other women’s colleges to welcome trans students.
But I cannot get behind the idea that a celebratory play—one that Ensler and other women’s groups have used to raise money towards fighting violence against women—must now be construed as an oppressive one. Or, as one student wrote on an anonymous online message board, that “female-validating talk about vaginas is now forbidden…under the guise of ‘progress.’”
I’m not a fan of the anti-male narrative in The Vagina Monologues, nor do I agree with the play’s implication that a woman’s mere utterance of the words “vagina” and “cunt” empowers her. For these reasons, the show is indeed reductionist. It’s also outdated, primarily because it was written 20 years ago, though Camille Paglia denounced Ensler back in 2000 for embodying a “painfully outmoded branch of feminism.”
Had Ensler penned The Vagina Monologues today, she may well have expanded her feminist manifesto to be more representative of women who don’t have vaginas.
But I am baffled by the argument that the play is “blatantly transphobic and treats race and homosexuality questionably,” as one student put it, and should thus be censored on campus in its original form. (Mount Holyoke is reworking the show to be more trans-inclusive, and to address its various “problems” with “other identities.”)
That the play doesn’t incorporate transgendered voices or feminists without vaginas does not make it “transphobic.” It remains a classic feminist play, one that was conceived a generation ago and distilled from interviews with 200 women about their vaginas.
If we follow Mount Holyoke’s logic, colleges should not stage any plays that are exclusive or derogatory in their representation of gender, race, homosexuality, or any other minority group—which would eliminate Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and yes, female writers like Jane Austen, where female characters may prevail, but only after enduring pain and indignity.
Even Alice Walker’s The Color Purple features a woman being brutalized before becoming winningly independent. Should this feminist classic be banned because of its images of female subjugation?
We should applaud Mount Holyoke for wanting to stage a feminist show that is more trans-inclusive. But all texts are difficult, all are open to interpretation, and those published in the past were written in different times. Censoring them, or banning them, should not be the response of any sensible, thoughtful feminist. Not one play can be representative of everything. Write something as boundary-breaking as it once was yourself—but let The Vagina Monologues live on.