Call it pooki, dee dee, coochi snorcher, Mimi in Miami, or simply just a vagina. No matter how you say it, you are unearthing a very controversial, often unspoken subject. The alternative, euphemistic names used to describe female genitalia range from funny, to pejorative, to downright uncomfortable; the same can be said about the individual feminist stories which make up Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues,” presented by the Stanford Women’s Coalition, and playing tonight at 8 p.m. in Paul Brest Hall.
Despite its peculiar name, “The Vagina Monologues” is very raw, very real — and it speaks more about female empowerment than about the vaginas themselves. First performed in 1996, the show is still performed every year, at Stanford and at many universities across the country, largely because of its unique depiction of the plight of women. This episodic feminist theater piece not only creates more diverse roles for female actors on the theatrical stage, but it also initiates social and political dialogue on the global stage. Its political content is so highly regarded that in 2006, The New York Times called the play “probably the most important piece of political theater of the last decade.”
“The Vagina Monologues” features a series of monologues pieced together from interviews of real life women. While the interview questions were the same, i.e.“If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?” and “If your vagina could talk, what would it say?”, the responses were decidedly different, producing highly personal narratives about sexual embarrassment and discovering what it means to be a woman.
The Stanford Women’s Coalition’s production of “The Vagina Monologues” captures these personal narratives with a powerful sense of intimacy and unity. Their decision to perform this piece in the round allows a certain closeness with the audience, inviting them to view the characters and the stories from all sides. The all-black costume color scheme, in addition, creates a sense of uniformity and unity. Yet, because each actress wears a different clothing style, from a short black skirt to pants and a crop top, there is still a keen sense of individuality for each character. The costumes are in themselves exemplary of the female experience: while not every woman encounters the world in the same way, there is something which brings them together to form their collective identity.
However, this feminine identity is not restricted to just those who have a vagina, as the monologue, “They Beat the Girl out of My Boy…Or So They Tried,” definitively demonstrates. This speech was a new addition to the play, incorporated into the play in 2005 and written from the perspective of trans women. It is considered to be an optional addendum to the show, but The Stanford Women’s Coalition chooses to perform the piece because of its inclusive definition regarding what it means to be a woman. In the past, “The Vagina Monologues” has been criticized for its narrow definition of womanhood, but the new piece makes use of a more all-encompassing definition of female identity.
The show has also been criticized for its negative portrayal of heterosexual relationships. The men described in this show are often painted as aggressors, rapists, perpetrators, or simply enemies of women. However, this may merely be an attempt to give words to the often unspeakable, violent struggles which women face in Western patriarchal society. Additionally, it is not as if every story paints men in a negative light. “Because He Liked to Look at It,” another piece within the production, describes a positive male-female sexual encounter. In Stanford’s production, Cindy Niu gives life to this story, smiling and gazing afar as she recounts how her partner’s praise and admiration allows her to see the beauty and power that she has within herself.
While the content of these narratives has the potential to soar into the overdramatic, the cast adeptly balances the seriousness of the show with lighthearted comedic timing. In a piece called “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy,” Grace Wallis sits in a plain chair and outrageously reenacts different types of female orgasms. She extends beyond a When-Harry-Met-Sally type of performative scene, exhibiting high-pitched screams and guttural moans as she contorts her face into what looks to be a combination of both pain and pleasure.
It’s no secret that this show may provoke some unease within its audiences. Speaking the unspeakable often produces that effect. But this element of viewer discomfort proves the show’s efficacy in reaching its audiences in tangible ways. I myself have seen the show before, and yet, I am still surprised by the honest details of each narrative – the shame of a car hookup gone wrong, the excitement of a first orgasm. It is as if I, too, am experiencing the horror, the pride, the self-discovery of each character. Yes, the stories presented are real, but more than that, they feel real, and this can be attributed to the personalized delivery of each monologue, whether it be through the small steps of an older woman or the clenched fists of an indignant young girl who longs to find happiness within her body. Perhaps this personalization, this theatrical honesty, is what makes the show so powerful, so beloved by both men and women alike.
Put simply, “The Vagina Monologues” challenges our conventional viewpoints about femininity and call upon us to address and take action against the negative stereotypes and violent wrongdoings which pervade women’s lives. The unity displayed by the actresses of this show is one that can be admired and replicated in our society at large. Stanford’s performance is extremely timely given our current political climate. Women across the country proved their unity at the Women’s Marches earlier this year, and they will continue to prove their solidarity in the future. Now, more than ever, in the era of Trump, we are called upon to protect and demonstrate this unity for generations to come.
Contact Alli Cruz at allicruz ‘at’ stanford.edu.