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Reclaiming the debate

Peter Wicks | Wednesday, January 26, 2005

It’s almost February, month of that venerable Notre Dame tradition, the annual debate over The Vagina Monologues. For the benefit of the freshmen here’s how it works: On Feb. 14 if most of the letters published on the Viewpoint page denounce the Monologues then there will be six more weeks of winter, whereas if the majority of letters defend the play then there will still be six more weeks of winter because, well, that’s just how things are in Northern Indiana.

According to protocol, the first barrage of letters will alternate between splenetic cries that the play is offensive to men, demeaning to women, and a direct attack on Notre Dame’s Catholic heritage on the one hand, and a series of high-minded claims that it is a celebration of women’s voices on the other. The latter are often accompanied by the unmistakable suggestion that anyone who doubts this is probably repressed, with hang-ups about women’s bodies, and possibly women’s suffrage.

Next someone will write in to point out that Mary had a vagina. At this point the reader should drink a shot.

Finally the case for the defense will settle into two lines of argument; the Experience Alibi and the Dialogue Gambit.

The Experience Alibi is the suggestion that since the play is based upon interviews with real women, criticism of the play is tantamount to an attack on those women. As a previous director of the play wrote in these pages, “To condemn this collection of stories is to condemn these women and the truth of their lives.”

Let’s bring the rhetoric back down to Earth. Eve Ensler’s play is based on interviews with real women, but it hardly follows that the audience is getting direct access to their experience. Firstly, people have a way of picking up signals about what their interviewer wants to hear – or are we to believe that before Ensler began her project there was a woman walking around just desperate to tell someone, anyone, that if her vagina got dressed it would wear a pink boa?

Secondly, Ensler is a playwright and not a stenographer, and she has allowed herself far more freedom with the interview material than the “real women’s stories” argument allows. In the published version of the script there are author’s notes sandwiched between each of the monologues. In one such note Ensler writes “After I finished this piece I read it to the woman on whose interview I’d based it. She didn’t really feel it had anything to do with her.”

Finally, there is the obvious fact that Ensler has been selective in which of her hundreds of interviews she developed into monologues. Anyone with an ear for spoken English can tell that these are not verbatim records of stories told to her, but even if they were that would not preclude the presence of an ideological agenda imposed through editorial choices.

None of these points are meant as criticisms. It is Ensler’s play and there is no reason why she shouldn’t have taken artistic license with her source material or chosen stories which suit her message. But by the same token, it is Ensler’s play, and to try to deflect criticisms of the play by treating them as personal attacks on her anonymous interviewees is either dishonest or illiterate.

The other argument which recurs with liturgical regularity is the Dialogue Gambit. Each year, after the first few volleys have been fired, the director of the play will write to The Observer and courteously thank by name the authors of some of the angry letters for (as Lindsey Horvath put it two years ago) “continuing a dialogue that increases awareness in order to stop the violence.” By euphemistically calling a series of barbed exchanges a “dialogue”, the V-Day organizers can claim even the most hostile criticism as a sign of victory.

Perhaps it’s my cynical nature, but I always feel that the self-styled “vagina warriors” want dialogue in the way that an evangelist wants dialogue – they want to hear what doubters have to say only in so far as it might reveal whatever psychological obstacles are preventing them from seeing the light.

The reaction of women to the play has, unsurprisingly, been varied. Some report that they found its sexual frankness funny, touching, and liberating, while others have found the play vulgar, its central conceit silly, and its view of women demeaning. What this shows is that women’s experience is varied and at times contradictory, but there is no hint in the play, the published script, or any of the voluminous outpourings from the V-Day movement that any women could find the project anything other than empowering.

If Ensler was a better artist she would have had the honesty to admit that the fact that many women would prefer to keep their private parts private cannot just be written off as a sign of sexual repression. If she was a better artist she would have chosen a format for her play that allowed her to acknowledge dissenting voices. If Ensler was really interested in promoting dialogue, she could have started by putting some in her play.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the Philosophy Department. Peter can be contacted at pwicks@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.