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Monologues’ content both explicit, affirming

Katie Perry | Monday, February 13, 2006

The future balance of academic freedom and Catholic character at Notre Dame is not the only mystery on campus as of late. For many students, the content and purpose of one of the debate’s most central topics, “The Vagina Monologues,” is also an enigma.

Written by American playwright and feminist activist Eve Ensler, “The Vagina Monologues” is an episodic, theatrical performance featuring a cast of women sharing experiences and views on the female reproductive organ.

Ensler starred in the original play, which debuted off-Broadway in 1996. In subsequent years, celebrities and other cultural icons replaced Ensler as the mouthpieces for women represented in the account. Contemporary productions of “The Vagina Monologues” – such as those to be performed in classrooms at Notre Dame – assign a different actress to each role.

The theme of the vagina makes the fragmented individual stories in the play coherent. Each monologue deals with a particular issue pertaining to the female sex organ, including childbirth, menstruation, gynecology, rape, dominatrix practices and sexual experiences, both traumatic and pleasurable.

University President Father John Jenkins referred to the play in a Jan. 24 address to faculty members, saying such material was not in accordance with Catholic values at the core of Notre Dame’s academic and institutional foundation.

“The concern that I and many others have is that in ‘The Vagina Monologues’ … there is no hint of central elements of Catholic sexual morality,” Jenkins said in the address. “The work contains graphic descriptions of homosexual, extra-marital heterosexual and auto-erotic experiences.”

Jenkins said he had “difficulty seeing” the candid accounts as “the appropriate means” to the ultimate goal of promoting female empowerment and eradicating violence against women.

Some of the most explicit parts of the play involve descriptions of casual sexual encounters, expletive-laden accounts of the use of tampons, douches and gynecological tools and one dominatrix’s detailed celebration of her love for women clients.

But not all the monologues are as explicit. The performance is an eclectic collection of publicly deemed controversial and uncontroversial material. That reputation has caused opponents of “The Vagina Monologues” to point to its more graphic accounts and supporters to emphasize the play’s more empowering angles.

One section of the play discusses the long-tabooed topic of menstruation – especially as it applies to young women – while another monologue weaves together the testimonies of Bosnian women who endured the trauma of rape camps.

The last monologue in the play’s 1998 edition is a personal testimony from Ensler herself, in which the author recounts the birth of her granddaughter.

The underlying theme of the play is made succinctly clear in the play’s introduction – “nothing is more important than stopping violence toward women,” Ensler wrote.

“When you rape, beat, maim, mutilate, burn, bury and terrorize women, you destroy the essential life energy on the planet,” she said. “You force what is meant to be open, trusting, nurturing, creative and alive to be bent, infertile and broken.”

“The Vagina Monologues” has garnered increased influence since its induction with the recent addition of international performances and a cable television version of the show on HBO. Each year, a new monologue is appended to the play to maintain its dynamic nature and remain current with modern issues of womanhood.