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Monologues’ return to campus amid controversy

Joe McMahon | Thursday, March 27, 2008

“The Vagina Monologues,” Eve Ensler’s controversial play exploring female sexuality, returned to campus last night in DeBartolo 101 despite cries of protest from students, alumni and local bishop John D’Arcy. The performance was followed by a panel discussion featuring three University professors, a representative of D’Arcy’s office and a surprise appearance by president of the Alumni Association Richard Nussbaum.

The play, which was performed by Notre Dame students and sponsored by the University’s departments of anthropology, political science and sociology, protests violence against women and argues that a woman’s vagina is not dirty but rather an inherent part of her identity.

“We were worried about vaginas,” producer Lisa Rauh said in her introduction. “Violence against women is a common day occurrence.”

Several Notre Dame students, however, saw the play as an affront to the Church’s teachings on sexuality, which they believe has no place at a Catholic University.

After the first monologue, “Hair,” ended, 20 to 30 students rose from their seats and exited the room, creating a slight disturbance. In their empty seats they left letters explaining their decision.

“We have chosen to attend, and immediately depart from, this performance of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ in order to protest its performance on campus for seventh out of the past eight years (sic),” the letter explained. “Upon leaving the play, we are headed as a group to the Grotto, where we will pray for the students, faculty, and administration of the University of Notre Dame, and particularly that our institutional participation in such a demeaning cultural fad will come to an end. As loyal sons and daughters of Our Lady, we are confident that she will hear our prayer.”

Nussbaum said he disagreed with many elements of the play and the protesters were not wrong for walking out, but still made him uncomfortable.

The organizers of the monologues did not protest this departure, and instead welcomed audience members in the back to fill the empty seats up front.

The play included several new additions, including monologues about women in Iraq, Pakistan, Mexico and New Orleans.

“New Orleans is the vagina of America, and if you want to know how some people feel about vaginas, just look at New Orleans after the storm,” performer Naomi Mlynski said.

The play also poked fun at Notre Dame’s discomfort. Producer Jordy Brooks held a sign reading “V*gina” when explaining how many at Notre Dame feel about that part of the female anatomy.

Performer Maureen Mullen, who played a lesbian dominatrix in the segment, entitled “The Woman Who Makes Vaginas Happy,” also added the “Notre Dame moan” and the “Notre Dame moan (after parietals)” to her skit.

Following the play, theology professors Ann Astell and Mary Rose D’Angelo, peace studies professor Susan StVille, and co-director for the Offices of Family Life in the diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend Lisa Everett offered their opinions on “The Vagina Monologues” and fielded questions from the audience.

Astell began by relating the story of author Virginia Woolf’s sexual abuse and argued that the sexual nature of the play drowns its message of stopping violence against women.

“The overall, too simple message seems to be this: the physical violence that women suffer at the hands of men can be remedied through women’s enjoyment of their own and each other’s bodies, pleasure healing pain,” she said, referring to a part of the play entitled “The Little Coochie Snorcher That Could” where a girl is raped by a man as a 10-year-old and then indulges in lesbian sex as a 16-year-old with a 24-year-old woman.

Instead, Astell said shame is an important part of sexuality, “which calls us all to responsibility for ourselves and others.”

Astell was followed by D’Angelo, who said “The Vagina Monologues” are rooted in 1970’s feminism and are not intended as an attack on Roman Catholic sexual doctrine.

According to D’Angelo, the play explores the different ways women consent to sex and how that consent is used in society.

“‘The Monologues’ offer an exercise in listening,” she said.

D’Angelo criticized the timing of the play, however, arguing that it should be held during V-Day in April so that the University could protest violence against women with the entire world.

“I really find it disturbing that the University permits ‘The Monologues’ but at the cost of disassociating them with V-Day,” she said.

Everett, who did not attend Wednesday’s performance but was present for Tuesday’s dress rehearsal, adopted a much more conservative stance, saying the play was in complete violation of Catholic sexual and moral teachings and had no place on the University’s campus.

“A Catholic university should not stand for anything that desecrates the dignity of women and promotes the culture of shamelessness,” she said. “Even Ensler’s play has made a significant contribution to the culture of shamelessness.”

Everett said “The Vagina Monologues” portrayal women indulging in sexual escapades was more shameful that its portrayal of raped women.

“The desecration that we freely choose violates our dignity much more than the desecration that is forced upon us,” she said. “When we desecrate ourselves, that damages the soul much more deeply.”

StVille provided the perspective of someone who has counseled a number of sexual abuse victims over the years.

“It is not a perfect play, but it is an important vehicle,” she said. “A woman who is violated sexually experiences herself being radically silenced.”

StVille was critical of the style of the play, and said Ensler, who was herself a sexual abuse victim, lost some important elements of the feminine experience when she took over 200 interviews and rewrote them as monologues.

“[The monologue style] gives them the ability to evoke empathy,” she said. “But something is lost when you encapsulate an interview in monologue form.”

Moreover, StVille said sexual abuse victims are often more successful in healing their wounds when they make it a religious experience.

“Catholicism and other churches have incredible resources,” she said. “If survivors can put their healing in a divine plan, they are much more likely to be healed.”

At the end of the panel discussion, Nussbaum praised University president Fr. John Jenkins for his judgment, but said he was worried about the divide between the diocese and the University and that “The Vagina Monologues” prevented the play from accomplishing its goal of raising awareness of violence against women.

“I thought some of the things were totally inappropriate if the end goal is stopping violence against women,” he said.

Nussbaum, however, recognized that sexual abuse is a huge problem and related his experiences as a prosecutor specializing in sexual abuse cases.

“It’s a huge problem, and if people don’t think it’s a problem, then they have their head in the sand,” he said.

Nussbaum asked the panel what he should tell the members of the Alumni Association.

StVille, who is herself a University alumnus, said simply removing the play from the campus would not help create any awareness about sexual violence.

“The issue of whether or not to have this at a Catholic University has taken attention away from sexual violence,” she said. “I would disagree that the way to reach them is to stop doing the play, because all that will do is give students the message that we are not going to talk about this here. And no matter what else would substitute, you’re not going to get over that affront to the women who have been raped.”