A Letter to Eve Ensler and V-Day,
As an activist, it is my deepest responsibility to accept constructive criticism and to be open to the idea that my work can be problematic – especially when coming from a place of racial, economic and cisgender privilege. I want to thank my peers, mentors, staff and faculty who have been open and honest with me throughout this process. I want to thank my co-producer, Ari Holden and everyone who expressed concern with this movement on our campus in a productive and thoughtful way. I want to thank everyone who has supported this movement in our community and will continue to support it as it reaches this pivotal point of transformation.
I must begin this letter by thanking V-Day. When I first saw The Vagina Monologues my freshman year at Connecticut College, the show changed my life. I felt empowered, liberated, and more motivated than ever to get involved in the show and with issues regarding gender-based violence on this campus. The next year I was in the show and being a part of the community was even more incredible than I could have ever imagined. I had never experienced being a part of such an outrageously supportive, loving, powerful community of women. My sophomore year I worked the front of house and junior year I was the co-chair of fundraising. When the co-producers, who were also incredible mentors and friends, asked me to take over my senior year, I immediately accepted, hoping to transform the show, just a little bit.
The experience of The Vagina Monologues at my school had never, for me at least, been solely about the content of the monologues themselves. It was about the community that we built, the conversations that we had, the time we would take before the show to dedicate our performances to ourselves, our loved ones, our oppressors, or anyone or anything we saw fit. I met some of my best friends throughout the experience; but it was never through the monologues themselves. It was not really until this fall that I became frustrated with the show itself, and even more so with the monologues. I very quickly became discouraged with the lack of gender-inclusivity in the movement as a whole. This prompted me to create the 100 Men Rise Campaign, which, regardless of its own problems, sparked incredible dialogues and productive critiques in our community about the V-Day movement and how we can move forward with the fight for gender equity on our campus.
After this video went viral, I spent weeks meeting with faculty, staff, students and members of The Vagina Monologues discussing what the show adds to our community and how it harms our community. After years of blindly accepting the show, I finally began to conceptualize the true problems with The Vagina Monologues.
Even so, I carried on, as the show had already established a strong group of women, who were working tirelessly on producing this show. My co-producer agreed with the concerns, but it was ultimately impossible to scrap the show this year. It was not until the spring, when as a producer, director and organizer, I began to feel frustrated with the lack of autonomy I had in production. I could not alter the script, I could not add or take away monologues (even the monologues which were considered offensive, which I elaborate on below), I could not film the production, I had to include Eve Ensler’s bio in the program, I had to put the V-Day logo on everything we printed, and everything had to be recorded on V-Spot (the organizers webpage). Something felt wrong every time a cast member asked me if we could add a monologue or somehow express our own voices and I had to say no. Something felt even worse when a number of cast members approached me to explain how deeply disturbed they were by some of the monologues.
The monologues that I felt embarrassed to present to my community were:
Coochie Snorcher, which is essentially the glorification of rape between two women, one being a fourteen-year-old girl; The Woman Who Loved To Make Vaginas Happy, which, was my favorite monologue as a first year student and always seemed to forget that the lines “The black woman moan”, “the Jewish moan”, and “the uninhibited bisexual moan”, are written in this monologue. These lines are then followed by “stereotypically sounding moans” which changes the tone of the monologue to a racist, anti-Semitic, sexist and queer-phobic one; This year’s spotlight monologue—Jumping—discusses Eve Ensler’s experiences with sexual abuse with her father. Actually calling Eve by name in the monologue and so vividly and personally recalling her specific experience felt disempowering and uncomfortable to many cast members. Women in the cast found it highly inappropriate that we know who Eve is and reciting her personal story, as opposed to our own felt wrong; My Vagina Is A Village which graphically describes sexual assault as a war crime during the Bosnia-Kosovo war, yet the only other monologue about gender-based violence that happens in our own country is Eve’s personal story. Thus, both portrayals of gender based violence in TVM are either “othered” through war crime or so personal that is becomes uncomfortable; Bob which tells the story of a man begging a woman to look deep into her vagina, despite her being uncomfortable with that; And They Beat The Girl which shares the story of a transgender woman being beaten and her boyfriend being murdered for her gender—this is the only representation of a trans woman in the entire show and it is also the only monologue that is optional to perform. Finally, there is not one monologue in the show that shares the voice of any experience of any college-aged woman. For a show that is so widely performed on college campuses, I could not fathom why there was not a single monologue that stems from the story of a college-aged woman. There were many other moments in the monologues that made me cringe with concern and others made me feel downright torn about the whole undertaking. But I carried on hoping to make the experience for the cast as positive as possible.
For the most part, these oppressions and insulting undertones did not take away from the show being constructive for the cast. We became close, and it was generally an extremely positive experience. But I also could not shake my doubts, especially when a few cast members approached me specifically to express their pain and hurt that was caused by some of these monologues. With all of the criticism surrounding the show, and personal doubt I experienced organizing the production, I wanted to gauge if the performance still impacted the cast the way it was intended to. Therefore, I surveyed the cast of 102 women to better understand what they want from this kind of movement within the context of our community; because in any feminist movement, the voices and wants of the people in the movement should always be heard.
Not surprisingly, the cast expressed very similar concerns to mine. Beyond the criticisms noted above regarding some of the monologues, the cast also noted that there is a severe lack of story- telling from the lesbian, trans, queer, college-aged and women of color perspective. The most common criticism from the cast was that there was not a single monologue that came directly from us.
Of the 80 women who responded to the question “what would you change about the show?”, 62 of the women commented that they would like the freedom to change, rewrite, remove parts of the original monologues or add monologues that we had written. When they were asked, “do you feel your personal experiences were represented in the monologues?”, only 48% of the cast said “yes”. And when asked the open-ended question, “What was your favorite part about being in the show?”, not one person responded with “performing the monologues” or anything along those lines. Instead, the responses varied mostly between; “meeting new women”, “building a strong community of women”, “sisterhood”, “the connections and friendships I found” and by far the most popular answer was, “the dedications” which I explained earlier.
All of this forced me to ask myself: When the actual performance is neither fully representative nor empowering for the women themselves, what is the purpose of performing it? If even some of us are uncomfortable with the words we are speaking, why continue speaking them?
At the end of the production a number of young men came up to me and said, “Wow, I can’t believe I never knew all of these things that women think and feel. I learned so much…” While I was thrilled that they left the production feeling moved, I could not shake the guilt that we had just done this community a massive disservice. These are not our voices, and these are certainly not our opinions. In fact, almost none of the monologues represent our experiences, our lives, our sexualities or our realities. I felt as though I had been complicit in harming and lying to our community.
There was absolutely a time and place for The Vagina Monologues. They created an undeniable platform that has changed hundreds of thousands of women’s lives. But when a production that has been performed year after year in our community, has resulted in the boredom of the audience, the falsification of our generation’s voices, the silencing of some students and triggering of emotions, it is time for the re-production of this show on our campus to end; the Connecticut College community has moved on. We are ready to speak our own voices and share our own stories. We will create an inclusive platform for women to be creative, to have autonomy over our voices, to enable the intersectionalities of identities to be heard, to acknowledge that our bodies and our statements are political. We will keep the community of women activists alive while challenging each other to write, learn, perform and think more critically about what we are presenting to our community and to ourselves.
Every movement transforms, and with the evolution of this movement on our campus, we will allow this production to grow, and break free from the constraints that V-Day demands for their productions. We have an obligation to the generations of women to come to let them share their stories, and have full autonomy over their voices. With the support of the former Connecticut College Vagina Monologues, we will begin a new revolution at Connecticut College: a performance where women will write, direct, produce and perform various monologues that come directly from our community; a revolution that will create a safer, even more open, and more critical space for us to share, debate, engage and educate. We will now be telling our stories and while we are moving away from the V-Day movement, we will continue to stand in solidarity with it and appreciate the space it has created for progress.
It is my hope that this movement will leave behind a stronger, even more supportive group of women who will continue to build on this production, act as mentors for each other, and maintain a space of creativity, passion, advocacy, and critical engagement.