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Controversy swirls as Monologues begin at ND

Katie Wagner | Thursday, February 17, 2005

A panel discussion featuring Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler sparked a heated exchange between the audience and the playwright Wednesday.

Approximately 200 people gathered at the Leighton Concert Hall in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center to hear Ensler, author of the controversial play and creator of “V-Day,” the global movement to combat violence against women.

Although this is the fourth student performance of the Vagina Monologues at Notre Dame, this is the first time Ensler has made a personal appearance.

The four panelists – panel moderator and assistant professor of Film, Television and Theater Jessica Chalmers, associate professor of English Glenn Hendler, associate pro

fessor of history Gail Bederman and Ensler – offered varying opinions on the play; for her part, Ensler addressed the healing power of the Monologues.

Following the panel, Ensler opened the floor for questions of students, faculty and local residents.

One pro-life activist said that abortion was the most widespread act of women’s violence and complained about Ensler’s failure to include a monologue about this topic. Ensler responded that she believes being forced to carry a child that resulted from a rape is an act of violence.

“I don’t think that there is any woman on this planet that has had an abortion and felt good about it,” she said. “I’m here to talk about violence against women. It’s not that I don’t honor [the pro-life] perspective – I just don’t share it.”

According to Ensler, a lot of the terrible acts that happen to women result from a lack of knowledge about their bodies. Most of the female rape victims she has interviewed, she said, had never before spoken about their incidents, due to the constraints their Judeo-Christian traditions place on them.

“We have a choice now to keep ourselves blind … or to live in the dangerous, messy, uncomfortable world of the truth,” said Ensler. “I would argue that the way violence happens is because people don’t talk about things.”

Morrissey rector Father J. Steele was disappointed with the decision by the Film, Television and Theatre department – which, along with the English department and the gender studies program, is sponsoring the Monologues and Ensler’s visit – to incorporate a female’s cathartic prayer experience in the play’s on-campus performance.

“I wonder if there’s not some way in which the FTT department would explore that, at least including some type of Catholic example,” Steele said.

One audience member claimed that the women in the Monologues did not have personalities, but were only described in terms of their sexuality. Others accused Ensler of objectifying women in the text, which Ensler said she “take[s] real issue with.”

“The vagina is the focal point to which this story is told,” she said. “It isn’t just about vaginas.”

According to Ensler, observing a performance of the Vagina Monologues “can make you feel more connected to a woman than you ever will be in your life.”

The other panelists addressed the Monologues’ relationship to academics, spirituality and politics.

Chalmers hesitated a bit before sharing her thoughts on the Monologues, finally describing them as “consciousness-raising style performances.”

“Performance is usually done by amateurs, so are the Vagina Monologues, so the focus is on the context, not on the actors’ abilities,” she said.

Hendler, who formerly served as chairman of the gender relations department, discussed the Vagina Monologues as literary works, comparing them to the controversial texts that he has the “academic freedom” to assign to his students.

“The University trusts us as faculty members … trust has to be extended to the students,” Hendler said.

Bederman provided insight into the Catholic views on sexuality and how she feels these views conflict with the Monologues.

The dialogue Ensler generated at Notre Dame gave her a new idea to interview Catholic girls about their vaginas, she said in a press conference following the discussion,.

Panel moderator Chalmers endorsed the discussion that the performance of the Monologues on campus inspired.

“If something is controversial, it’s better to bring it up and talk about it,” Chalmers said. “We don’t hope for resolution. We hope for dialogue.”

Although Notre Dame is one of only six schools that strongly oppose the Monologues, according to Ensler, she said that she appreciates “just the fact that this discussion is happening [at Notre Dame].”

“I really respect everyone who [asked questions] today,” she said.