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Changes, controversy mark ‘Monologues’

Amanda Michaels | Monday, February 13, 2006

As the controversial play “The Vagina Monologues” makes the move from DeBartolo stage to DeBartolo classroom this week, the event will take on a distinctly more academic tone – and not just because of its new location.

For the first time in the Eve Ensler play’s five-year history at Notre Dame, each performance will be directly followed by a panel discussion on “Female Sexuality and Violence Against Women: Secular and Theological Perspectives,” with a different selection of speakers tonight, Tuesday and Wednesday.

“The Vagina Monologues” was a primary point of concern in University president Father John Jenkins’ January speeches on Catholic character and academic freedom, as Jenkins questioned the play’s continued presence – performed annually each February – on campus. The president did not issue a firm policy in favor of or against the “Monologues” and other events, but said he hoped to make a decision before the semester’s close.

“In [the] discussion of female sexuality, and in the community and culture it strives to create, there is no hint of central elements of Catholic sexual morality,” Jenkins said, stressing he supports the play’s goals of affirming female sexuality and reducing violence against women, but disapproves of its approach.

“I fail to see, however, how the annual performance of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ is the appropriate means to these ends,” he said.

While the panel discussions, already in the works in late December, were not direct results of Jenkins’ speech, the variety of viewpoints they offer will potentially satisfy some of the criticisms leveled at “The Vagina Monologues,” said Gail Bederman, history professor and organizer of the panels.

“My impression is that a lot of the people who object to ‘The Vagina Monologues’ … say that students are not getting authentic Catholic teachings when they see the play, so, I thought, ‘Let’s have a discussion right in the theatre after the performance,'” she said. “[In the panels] there will be orthodox Catholic takes, feminist takes, anthropological takes, sociological takes … This way the audience gets clear doctrine alongside an understanding of the ways that the Church wrestles with the difficulty of living in modern society.”

Tonight’s panel discussion features theology and law professor M. Cathleen Kaveny, theology professor Robin Darling Young and sociology professor Jackie Smith; Tuesday’s includes theology professors Mary Doak and Reverend Paulinus Odozor and anthropology professor Carolyn Nordstrom; and Wednesday’s includes theology professor Mary Rose D’Angelo and Jean Porter, as well as a second appearance by Nordstrom.

One of the theologians participating each night will present the orthodox Catholic doctrine on sexuality, while the other will “discuss how theologians are dialoguing with current experience,” Bederman said.

The panels will begin at 9:15 p.m. in the same venue as each night’s 7 p.m. “Monologues” performance – 101 DeBartolo Hall tonight and Tuesday, and 102 DeBartolo on Wednesday. Bederman said she hopes even those who may shy away from seeing “The Vagina Monologues” will engage in the subsequent discussions.

The student organizers of “The Vagina Monologues” responded positively to the addition of the panels.

“We welcome the academic discussion and the panels, because one of the main points of “The Vagina Monologues” is to raise awareness and promote discussion of female sexuality and ending violence against women,” said organizer Emily Weisbecker. “It is likely that some members of the community will be at least somewhat more comfortable with the presence of this show on campus knowing that the theological perspective will be clearly presented in conjunction with each performance.”

They are, however, more ambivalent when it comes to the change in setting from last year’s DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts. Even though organizers said they appreciate the dialogue generated by this year’s show, they face the difficulties of staging a play in a classroom and not a theatre and regret the lack of fundraising opportunities in the new academic environment, Weisenbecker said.

But the change in fundraising policy has lifted a degree of stigma from the event. This year, Notre Dame/Saint Mary’s Right to Life will not be protesting the performance, as the group has in the past.

“[Right to Life’s] problems with the event were always in the fact that money from [“The Vagina Monologues”] was going toward the YWCA and the SOS, which are groups that on the national level have an anti-life sentiment,” said club secretary Ian McDole.

Bederman said while the current situation may not please everyone or drastically lessen the controversy surrounding the play, it takes a step toward preserving academic freedom on campus.

“One of the things that should happen at Notre Dame is dialogue between people that have conflicting opinions,” she said. “With the panel discussions, we are confronting speech that is perhaps problematic not with censorship, but with more speech.”