Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.
‘I feel,’ I said to my friend Katie, ‘as if I’m on a cheap hen night somewhere’.
I interrupt an afternoon of cripplingly obscure psychoanalytical theory to tell you that I didn’t like The Vagina Monologues very much. I like reviewing it even less. Pardon the phrase, but as feminist theatre’s most visible and mainstream act of self-expression, The Vagina Monologues has become a sacred cow. You’re not meant to criticise it, you’re meant to get your girls together and shout ‘cunt’ from the stalls and generally collude in the belief that a twelve-year-old collection of monologues, peppered with twelve-year-old statistics, written by a white New Yorker, is going to change a world that needs changing because, apparently, having a vagina is dreadful.
Indeed, sometimes having a vagina is dreadful. Menstruation; menstruation that hurts, that starts, that stops, that won’t, is too early, too late, is smelly, and happens at weddings, at interviews, in holiday resorts, in hotel beds and machineless toilets, and (inevitably, and at least twice) in proximity to the nice white sofa of someone you need to impress. Wombs that won’t, or which point the wrong way, recalcitrant ovaries, tangled tubes; the propensity of reproductive organs to gum up, bung up, or quietly kill you in an almost undetectable manner. Too much wetness. Too much dryness. External wonkiness. The fact that you shit when you give birth.* All this relates to having a vagina, and all of it sucks.
But – apart from that? I’m not sure that having a vagina is actually that dreadful. So much of the show is to do with abused vaginas, unloved vaginas; women who have never had orgasms, women who hate their bodies, women who are angry at themselves and at their world. Voicing these women is essential, of course, but it’s not the end of the story. I think there are positive stories to be told, stories that can depict body-happiness in new ways, take account of new issues in sexual and social culture, and – maybe, just maybe – depict desire between women outside the contexts of abuse or sex work. To speak as a young, happy gay woman who doesn’t need the VM to mediate between her and her body is to speak from a position of huge privilege. Nevertheless, I think the VM could do more, and what they do do could be done better. There’s an almost medieval insistence on a dated, bawdy dynamic between lusty wenches and useless and/or cuckolded men; an all-girls-together, cackling club feel that assumes common experience of womanhood based not on shared genitalia (which, for me, is in itself a problem – more on this later) but the shared language of useless men, body shame and the love of a dirty joke. I think the VM are too crude in their representation of women as ‘types’, too dated, too narrow, too negative and too complacent.
First off, why is it okay to keep staging the same words, the same statistics and the same jokes in the same incredibly boring way? This is not an evening of white wine and harmonies. The cast does not need to sit up straight and face the front on identical barstools, or don identical red boas for the (sloppily-executed) curtain call. Why, if the actors can vary race, accents and ages (but apparently not sexualities – I wouldn’t have called any of the women on that stage visibly queer. Of course, one might have been invisibly queer. But that has no political or theatrical use), can we not vary the material or the way of presenting it? Only once did an actor leave her seat; I appreciate that a short rehearsal time and the vileness that is the New Theatre (former cinema, now a touring theatre; a hole backstage and freezing out front) might have made this staging even more rote, but god, if you’re not going to learn your lines, at least get on your feet. Times change, issues change; now that the Monologues have been everywhere at least fifteen times, why not voice more stories, different ones?
I’m not sure if it’s complacency (we’re so good and noble and feminist, we don’t have to try) or just lack of imagination. There is, of course, a problem with theatricalising material that’s playing at being harrowing, pseudo-verbatim theatre. Because I am an occasional director, and because I have no soul, I found myself watching the lighting plot during the monologue on Bosnian rape. I wonder, I said to myself, who decided that this bit of the girl’s story about how soldiers raped her for seven days, was the right time to move from the big pink LCD lights to the tiny red ones. The lack of design decisions makes the few obvious choices stand out – as unthinking, and as inappropriate. In a venue or production limited by budget, such an aesthetic might make sense, but VM has plenty of money; another rationale or defence, therefore, might be that ‘the material speaks for itself’.
Well, er, it doesn’t. Here’s another secret about The Vagina Monologues: the writing’s not that great. I was uneasy about adding this one, because I wasn’t sure whether or not I was dealing with genuine verbatim theatre. Genuine first-hand accounts don’t make great literature, a lot of the time; the playwright is of course responsible for shaping and adapting, and can do so brilliant – cf David Hare – but it’s hard to condemn a genuine Bosnian woman’s genuine account of her rape as badly-written and plodding. Apparently, though, that and every other monologue was written by Eve Ensler, so badly-written and plodding it is. Hurrah! Even if the monologues were entirely factual, however, verbatim theatre has been and can be very successfully theatricalised – the best example I’ve seen was Hare’s The Permanent Way. VM is not in the same league. What material there is is sequenced poorly; the transition from slow-fade statistics on female genital mutilation to a caricatured, comic ‘my vagina is angry’ monologue was wincingly fast. Some aspects of the material are much more positive; ‘my body, my vagina’ is a frequent rallying cry, a gesture of ownership that would be great if it weren’t for the particular attitude of the piece as a whole – less ‘my vagina’ than ‘my vagina is me’.
Women are not their vaginas, women are not their clitorises (clitorii?); women are not, in fact, any single part of their body or the sum total of those parts. I don’t think there’s more selfhood in a vagina than in breasts (I hope to god nobody would suggest selfhood = boobs), and certainly far less self in the breasts than in the brain. As a feminist, as a transpositive feminist, I have ideological objections to the nature of the monologues that don’t even touch on my theatrical concerns. The show’s website begins with a definition of ‘woman’ (a satirical one) right underneath the word ‘Vagina’. I don’t think being the first is dependent on having the second, or on having ovaries, a uterus, a cervix, breasts, or the correct number of chromosomes. I appreciate that there will always be a need for spaces in which to discuss experiences and feelings specific to the biologically female experience, and that some of those spaces will be exclusive, and that life isn’t fair. But this play does not have to be that space; with its huge following and cultural cache, this play – in a new form – could really challenge the mainstream, to the good of LGBTQ equality. I am not really interested in art on the subject of simply having a vagina (and I don’t actually think that my genitals are somehow myself); I am incredibly interested (and always have been, and always will be) in art of the subject of being a woman. Womanhood means something different now; something more. Our bodies are not the most interesting things about us, but even if we only want to talk about our bodies, even if we only want to talk about our genitalia, why not vary the stories a bit? Where are the stories about designer vaginas, about the relationship between transwomen and their vaginas, about the politics of pegging and of stitches, and dildos, and hysterectomies – actually, let’s talk about hysterectomies. Hysterectomies were mentioned once, in an early monologue discussing a woman’s lifelong fear of her own body and failure to have a sexual relationship. The hysterectomy, it was strongly implied, was the inevitable conclusion to, and outward manifestation of, her life without sex. It confirmed that she was never ever going to be a sexual being. Wow, great, thanks VM, there’s definitely no sex life after hysterectomy, is there? The post-hysterectomy body is always a signifier of sexlessness and self-loathing. That’s just great. Some of the stories in the new VM would probably seem extreme to the current, comfortable audience (hymenoplasty, anyone? Clitoral piercing – aie aie aie), but VM 1 has a skewed sense of the shock factor that needs to be addressed. The two stories featuring desire between women were the lesbian dominatrix who specialised in moaning, and the child rape victim who was seduced by a woman at 16 – we learn that in adulthood, this woman became a homeless sex worker. Both valid, but both intensely sensational cases focussing on themes of power and abuse. Apparently tales of lesbianism are still too weird to be mainstream; it’s much better to shock and titillate an audience than expect them to identify with women who love women. I wish that, like ‘Because He Liked To Look’ (story of woman who stops worrying and learns to love her vagina after meeting a male appreciator of same), a gay story could have started somewhere as mundane and universal as Gregg’s (although I distinctly heard a posh woman in front of me ask her companion ‘What’s Gregg’s?’ so maybe not..).
Perhaps I was never going to like the VM. I love women, I love all-female spaces (last night, the New Theatre was more or less such a space) and – thanks to a wonderful mum with a close circle of interesting & open women friends – I count the experiences and examples of older women as the single greatest factor in shaping my own feminist beliefs. But the hoots of the women around me left me feeling somewhat excluded. I think it was partly my sexuality, partly my age, partly a sense of privacy that means descriptions of NY workshops where everyone waves hand-mirrors about make me blush. But mostly – I think we’re at a time in the world where, apart from campaigning against female genital mutilation (which – always and everywhere), the most shocking, the most interesting and the most life-affirming stories about women don’t revolve around our vaginas. For example, if I could see a play on any single issue affecting women and their sexuality, it would be on the Purity Movement in America.** There are different stories to tell right now, but – if the world needs stories for a VM 2.0 (and I think it probably does), there are still plenty very much worth telling. Just tell more, and tell better. And for god’s sake, let me direct it, or anyone who’ll burn the barstools and take away the boas. I’d give every scrap of funding VM receives straight to shows like Motherland, and the world would be much better.
* I can’t get past this. I just can’t get past this. The only other time you’re biologically guaranteed to do this is when you die.
** In my commitment to Watching Quality Programming, I made my temporary housemates watch a lurid C4 documentary over the summer. I also read a lot of dreadful blogs. Go me!