Hurricane Eve Hits New Orleans
Celebrating a decade of those revolting monologues.
May 5, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 32 • By MATT LABASH
As we all took pillows on the floor of the tent, after being commanded to shed our shoes in the "shoe circle," The L Word cast led the assemblage in storytelling time, which covered many issues, from drag kings to television stereotypes, but which mainly seemed to involve hot-and-bothered lesbians describing their first Sapphic experiences. I'd stopped paying attention to the ins and outs of feminism some years ago, around the time I no longer needed to pad my college GPA with gender studies classes in which I'd be forced to write essays that made use of words like "heteronormative" and "patriarchal hegemony" without irony. But whether this was third-wave or fourth-wave feminism--I've lost track which wave we're on--all this talk of steamy girl-on-girl action made me ready to reenlist.
Back on the main stage there were, to be sure, plenty of harrowing tales of violence against women. An array of international activists told stomach-turning anecdotes, such as those of the systematic gang rape and genital mutilation of women in the Congo. And Ensler, to her credit, regularly visits these countries and highlights the very real abuses of women around the world.
But apparently, there's a lighter side of violence against women as well, as evidenced by Sara Blakely, the spunky blonde founder of Spanx, "a hosiery line designed to promote women's comfort and confidence." She related to the crowd her own bloodcurdling tales about how she was forced to fight patriarchal hosiery manufacturers because "I didn't like the way my own butt looked in white pants." The horror.
And even Hollywood starlets have their crosses to bear. During their panel, entitled "Coming Into Your Body, Your Voice, Your Power," actresses Kerry Washington, Amber Tamblyn, Rosario Dawson, and Ali Larter encouraged young women not to buy into the beauty myths perpetuated by Hollywood films, presumably films such as Varsity Blues, in which Larter made her most indelible splash by wearing nothing more than a whipped-cream bikini.
Washington pondered how they could "get the respect that we deserve and love ourselves and act in a way [that gets others] to act respectful toward us." The actresses went on to complain about everything from having to wear tight clothes at auditions, to having journalists not correctly report what they eat, to having freckles airbrushed from their noses in photos, which one called "visual violence against women." It's not exactly clitoridectomies in Sudan, but all pain is relative to courageous Vagina Warriors.
Nowhere is this more evident than in The Vagina Monologues production itself. After two days solid of lectures and slam poets and "ecstatic dancing" stretch breaks, everyone congregated for the grand finale at the nearby New Orleans Arena, to watch stars big (Jane Fonda) and small (Didi Conn--doing some of her best work, perhaps her only work, since the '80s sitcom Benson) stand swathed in blood-red outfits on an overlit bare stage, prattling on about their vaginas six ways to Sunday.
The almost all-female crowd bellowed and howled and finished from memory some of Ensler's clunky, unfunny lines, as though they were the estrogenic equivalent of the meatheads who populate Andrew Dice Clay concerts. Reading from notecards, sometimes laughing at their own material, the actresses ripped through most of Ensler's greatest hits, from "Because He Liked to Look At It," about a man named Bob who obsessively looks at his lover's vagina, to "My Angry Vagina," in which a woman grouses about such injustices as tampons and cold speculums at the doctor's office.
While the audience hooted at any and all explicit references like a lesbian bachelorette party on their fifth round of cosmos down at the Gurlesque strip club, the script is coarse, witless, and unerotic in nearly every way, even when--and this isn't easy to write--my high-school crush Jennifer Beals, portraying a lesbian dominatrix, does a multi--minute reenactment of various types of female orgasm.
I came away from The Vagina Monologues with an unexpected surprise. The play is not really anti-man, as it is often accused of being by critics, but rather, anti-woman. It's a brand of feminism that masquerades as empowerment, when in reality it's more reductive than any patriarchic hegemony could ever dream of being. In its telling, the vagina is not merely a component of the complex and wondrous ecosystem that is a woman, it is the totality of the woman. Even the crudest cad knows better and acts accordingly, if he hopes to get anywhere near the vajayjay, as Oprah calls it. Ensler and her ilk like to think they're playing in the realm of the ontological, when in actuality, they rarely transcend the gynecological.
If anything, The Vagina Monologues reminds me of my kids' bath time. My two young sons, as is often the case with children, are frequently fascinated with their own gadgetry. The other day, when I walked in to check on how one of their baths was proceeding, my youngest stood up in the tub, grabbed the skin of his nether-region with both hands, stretched it into a square, and said, "Hey look, daddy, a flying squirrel!" I had to admit it bore an uncanny resemblance.
It was a good line--better than most of Ensler's, but on about the same par, sophistication-wise. There are two differences, however. The first is that my son is five. The second is that unlike Ensler, he will not receive an Obie Award or a Guggenheim Fellowship or be named one of "America's Best" by CNN or be called a "messiah" by the New York Times for his journey to self-discovery. Instead, he was told to dry off, get dressed, and go to bed by eight o'clock.
Matt Labash is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.