Academic journal article Women's Studies in Communication

Talking about "Down There": The Politics of Publicizing the Female Body through the Vagina Monologues

Academic journal article Women's Studies in Communication

Talking about "Down There": The Politics of Publicizing the Female Body through the Vagina Monologues

Article excerpt

This critical reading of The Vagina Monologues examines the play's circulation within dominant discourses of public and private and considers the ways in which the play works to reconfigure the female body and body-related issues as properly public. However, this article also begins to explore the potentially essentialist and reductive nature of the play's construction of female identity. Keywords: critical rhetoric, feminism, public and private, body, essentialism, transgender.

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When it comes to polite conversation and proper public behavior, the vagina has been erased almost completely from the visible and speakable female body. Lingering primarily in pejorative slang and embarrassed whispers, the vagina is the epitome of "private"--kept out of view and rarely, if ever, openly named or discussed, even among and by women (Newmark, 2001; Boxer, 1998; McPhee, 1998; Warner, 2002). The vagina has been constructed as the most secret, most dangerous, most taboo aspect of the female body. The vagina has been not only disavowed, but also has been demonized by the few discourses that do include it; this hinders a full acknowledgement of and accounting for the diverse range of women's experiences. For instance, psychoanalytic discourse is replete with discussion of the vagina dentata, a toothed vagina monster linked to a male fear of castration during sex (Hobby, 2000; Grosz, 1994). The vagina also is associated with the threat of pollution that certain bodily fluids, particularly menstrual blood, pose to the "obedient, law-abiding, social body" (Grosz, 1994, p. 192).

Despite, or perhaps because of, the cultural taboo that surrounds the vagina, Eve Ensler's Obie-winning play The Vagina Monologues (the "VM" or "Monologues") has become a hot ticket around the world, as well as the centerpiece of a worldwide social movement to end violence against women and girls. The play, which consists of a series of monologues based on Ensler's interviews with over two hundred women, focuses attention on aspects of women's experiences that Ensler describes as being--like the vagina itself--largely "invisible" in today's society (McBride, 1998). From menstruation and gynecological exams, to orgasm and childbirth, Ensler explores the most private aspects of women's experiences of, and relationships to, their bodies. She also explores the cultural norms and social taboos that surround these putatively private experiences and relationships. Ensler's interest in disrupting the taboos that surround the vagina is driven, in part, by the fact that she believes that these taboos help perpetuate a culture of silence in which women are rendered more vulnerable to various forms of violence. Ensler's concern is this: if we cannot talk about the vagina openly, respectfully, and publicly, how can we ever hope to change the attitudes that underlie the violent and oppressive practices that are visited upon women? In response to this concern and fueled by the belief that silence helps perpetuate violence, Ensler's play has become the centerpiece of the V-Day social movement, a global network of activist organizations and concerned individuals who share the common goal of first ending violence against women and girls and then eliminating violence against all persons.

The Vagina Monologues opens with the cryptic line, "I'll bet you're worried" (Ensler, 2001, p. 3). With this opening, Ensler's play attempts to tap into the anxiety, the shyness, and the general sense of taboo that surrounds the play's primary subject matter: vaginas. The VM is premised upon the idea that many, if not most, of its audience members will not be used to talking so openly, so publicly, about vaginas and the myriad experiences that surround them. Ensler's monologues render taboo topics such as menstruation, masturbation, sexual abuse (of different kinds), and female sexual pleasure and orgasm both visible and speakable: visible through the staged performances that display female bodies and speakable not only through these performers, but also through the various discourses in both public texts and in private conversations that circulate around the Monologues. …

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