The Vagina Monologues

This review of a 2014 McGill production of the seminal play sought to explore the failings of the original piece by highlighting its problematic rooting in exclusionary white feminism, and its lack of an intersectional approach in depicting femininity.

Originally published in Leacock's on March 21, 2014

When I first watched The Vagina Monologues, I was maybe 12-years-old and in dire need of an alternative way to spend my Friday night. I longed for anything that didn’t involve whiling away in front of the television or inside a shopping mall. Though I was going to support a friend and cast-member, there was something about going to see a play whose title had the word “vagina” in it that made me feel oh so mature – I daresay, bad-ass. I mean, can you blame me? I was but a precocious tween seeking to affirm his maturity by watching, without even laughing, a bunch of women talk about their vaginas.

We’ve all been there, right? 

Now, fast-forward seven years and you’ve got yourself a 19-year-old who still believes maturity is epitomized by the ability to discuss genitalia with a straight face. Thankfully, however, I now recognize that maturity also implies understanding and appreciating the fact that The Vagina Monologues is far more than said bunch of women talking about their nether regions. I mean, yes, it does involve many an explicit discussion on the female genitalia and sexuality, but there is so much more to it than just vagina-talk.

Rather, The Vagina Monologues is a candid exploration of feminism and the stigma that patriarchal society attributes to the vagina – and female sexuality, by extension. Through a series of monologues based on the lived experiences of 200 different women interviewed by the author, Eve Ensler, this complex piece attempts to provide all women with a safe space to openly discuss their vaginas and the realities of womanhood.

Thus, for the 13th year running, McGill Students for V-Day, a campus organization that devoted to combating gender-based violence, presented yet another splendid production of this the iconic play. Under the direction of Grace Jackson, the show left me amazed by the brilliance of the entire cast’s performance, as well as their evident appreciation of the innate intricacies of womanhood.

The first time I viewed this piece, I remember how eager I was to buy one of the commemorative vagina-shaped chocolate lollipops sold at the show’s end Obviously, my zeal for proving to my friends that I had actually attended a play all about vaginas transcended any critical reflection this play was supposed to prompt. However, fast-forward seven years later and there I was leaving Leacock 132, thoroughly impressed by the quality of the production, but also enthusiastic about the prospect of letting the seed of critical discussion surrounding the status of female genitalia flourish in my mind.

With that said, The Vagina Monologues is flawed.

As demonstrated by the stellar performances last Friday, one of this piece’s pivotal strengths is the brutal honesty with which it seeks to expose the realities of being a woman. Sometimes harrowing, often laugh-out-loud hilarious, yet always truthful, The Vagina Monologues excels in depicting and breaking down myths surrounding the vagina and its place in femininity.

However, it is precisely in its attempt to define the basic concept of womanhood that The Vagina Monologues fails at manifesting the aspiration for complete inclusivity that characterizes modern-day feminism. Seemingly straight out of the rhetoric of second-wave feminism, the play has been criticized time and time again as portraying an exclusionary story of female sexuality that is – more or less – solely written through the perspective of the white, occidental, middle-class, woman – a.k.a. the play’s author, Eve Ensler.

As a testament to the strength of the McGill Students for V-Day’s production, this point of contention was the basis of the warning message expressed by the director at the beginning of the presentation. Essentially, the notice directly addressed the fact that The Vagina Monologues fails to depict the realities of women whose statuses differ from Ensler’s in a manner free from her privilege and socioeconomic bias.

Although The Vagina Monologues attempts to champion the eternally relevant concept of female sexual liberation through the destigmatization of the vagina, it fails to do so in a way that pays tribute to the innate breadth and complexity of womanhood. When the monologues do recount the lived experiences of women traditionally marginalized by second-wave feminism, they simply relate a story that is woefully limited by the reductive stereotypes it employs.

Yet, it is exactly because The Vagina Monologues is lacking the authentic perspectives of many different female voices that it will forever remain timeless and relevant. It is through this omission of various definitions of womanhood – perhaps an accurate portrayal of prevalent feminist discourses in 1996 – that the play is most effective at fostering critical reflection. It enables the audience to call out the numerous perspectives that are ignored, or simply mentioned under the reductive light of traditional, second-wave white feminism. Therefore, these clear oversights engender a debate over the apparent exclusivity emanating from the piece’s feminist voice.

Though the monologues must always be used in their original form, the cast’s decision to nevertheless address the failings of The Vagina Monologues is one of this production’s greatest strengths. It attests to their ability to discern and appreciate the inherent complexities of feminism and womanhood.

By presenting this play in its natural, unfinished form, the absence of those perspectives precipitates a dialogue on how far feminism has come since 1996, and how far it still has to go to be as inclusive as it can possibly be.