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A Look Back at The ‘Vagina Monologues’ and Notre Dame

Sara Felsenstein | Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Notre Dame has a unique but rather difficult mission in comparison to universities that are not religiously affiliated. How can Notre Dame remain distinctively Catholic while maintaining its academic integrity? Such questions have been brought to light in the recent Obama controversy that has polarized the campus, leaving those who uphold the idea of academic freedom on one end and those who uphold Catholic teaching on the other. However, such controversy is far from new on this campus. A similar controversy has regularly graced the inside pages of The Observer since 2002 – the debate over the showing of “The Vagina Monologues.””The Vagina Monologues” were first performed at Notre Dame in 2002 as part of the V-Day campaign to end violence against women. Actors from the student body performed the “Monologues” on seven occasions from 2002-08. In April of 2006, after 10 weeks of intense discussion regarding the play, University President Fr. John Jenkins issued a “Closing Statement on Academic Freedom and Catholic Character,” which ultimately allowed the play to continue on campus. However, its performance was restricted to a classroom setting. In 2007 the play was moved off-campus, but returned to campus in 2008 sponsored by the anthropology and sociology departments.The “Mono-logues” will not be performed this year at Notre Dame.”The Mono-logues” were written by Eve Ensler in 1996 and are composed of a variety of monologues that explore female sexuality. They are based on interviews with over 200 different women. Some are poignant, some are shocking, but all relate back, in one way or another, to the vagina as a crucial part of the female identity.Often, violations against women’s sexuality are hushed and repressed, going unnoticed. In fact, fewer than half of all rapes and sexual assaults in America are reported to police. According to Ensler, the empowerment of women is greatly connected to their vaginas. “The Vagina Monologues” is a celebration of the vagina, a word that – by most standards – is considered taboo in casual language today. The title is part of a shock factor that acts to break down the discomfort surrounding the word, and diminish the numerous – and often offensive – slang terms used in place of it.Of course, much of the controversy over the “Monologues” does not arise from the word “vagina” in the title nor Ensler’s pursuit to end sexual violence against women. The “Monologues” include scenes with masturbation, lesbian relationships and extramarital relationships that have caused opposition by Catholic groups across America.In 2003, 32 Catholic universities performed “The Vagina Monologues,” according to the Cardinal Newman Society, a group that ran a campaign to stop their performance on Catholic campuses. That number has dropped to just 15 in 2009, according to the Society. As a leading Catholic institution, Notre Dame is not immune to the pressure that these groups are putting on universities around the country to stop the”Mono-logues.”The Catholic University of America, Marquette University, Providence College, Santa Clara University and others have all stopped showing “The Vagina Monologues” in recent years.Loyola University of Chicago, Georgetown University, Boston College, Fordham University and the College of the Holy Cross are some Catholic colleges that continue to show the “Monologues.”Perhaps the various opinions the “Monologues” that have appeared in the pages of the Viewpoint section show the controversy best: the title of a Letter to the Editor from March of last year read “University’s mission is to educate, not indoctrinate,” while another read “University scandalized by ‘Monologues.'”While the “Monologues” will not be performed on or off campus this year, the debate over the University’s mission rages on, as Notre Dame continues to examine its Catholic identity in a secular world.