The Magazine

Hurricane Eve Hits New Orleans

Celebrating a decade of those revolting monologues.

May 5, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 32 • By MATT LABASH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

New Orleans

Each of us had his own reason for coming to the Superdome on April 11-12. Renamed "Super Love," the stadium that became a national symbol for violence and neglect during Katrina was now hosting the 10-year anniversary extravaganza of V-Day, the annual vagina-themed observance to end abuse against women, the capstone of which features Eve Ensler's ubiquitous play, The Vagina Monologues.

Some of us probably came after we heard the ruckus that resulted when Monologues regular Jane Fonda dropped the c-bomb while publicizing the event on the Today Show. -Others might have been drawn by Mayor Ray Nagin, ever game to embarrass his city, who welcomed Ensler and company by christening himself a "vagina-friendly mayor. I am in!" Still others just wanted to see Oprah, even if Oprah ended up bagging the event, leaving attendees settling for Oprah's best friend, Gayle.

But if there's one reason we all came, it was to celebrate our vaginas. Not me, necessarily. I don't have one, strictly speaking. But I know a lot of people who do. And I came to celebrate theirs.

While The Vagina Monologues and all its attendant hoopla is nominally about eradicating violence against women (a worthy cause, even if there's not a lot of pushback from interest groups espousing violence against women), its stated macropurpose is to reclaim the word "vagina." From whom is anyone's guess. The cult of The Vagina Monologues congratulates itself for erasing taboos, though anybody who's watched television in the last 15 years might fairly assume that there weren't any left. And it endeavors to transform a body part into a badge, not just something you possess, but a political proclamation.

Since the play debuted a little over a decade ago, having now been translated into 24 languages and performed in thousands of colleges and cities the world over, it has become a near article of faith among its enthusiasts that the more brusquely, frequently, and inappropriately you say "vagina," the more pro-woman you are. This weekend in New Orleans would prove no exception.

Entering the Super Love through a tunnel, you were greeted by a giant vagina. At least that's what the welcome-wagon Vagina Honor Guard--a group of lovely young ladies adorned with flowers and cowries and looking like the stars of a hippie Massengill commercial--told me that the pink backlit hulk of plastic suspended from the ceiling over the entrance was supposed to resemble. I puzzled over it a long time. Not to brag, but I've seen my fair share of vaginas. Some of them in person, even. And this didn't look familiar. I hauled out an anatomy chart from my reporter's bag. Knowing in advance that the Superdome would be transformed into a vagina, I'd brought it along in case I needed to find my way to the snack bar: Stay straight till you get past the mons pubis, then take a left at the labia majora. But the installation didn't have any of my favorite landmarks. It looked like something from a botched operation.

A Superdome employee, an older black gentleman, and I put our heads together, commencing a penis dialogue of sorts. I told him what we were supposed to be looking at. He cocked his head, flipping through his own mental Rolodex. "What in the hell?" he said. A member of the Vagina Honor Guard named Deborah Justice helped us out. The entire facility was supposed to be the womb, she said. And I was on the inside looking out. "Kind of like when you were born," she said. "You probably just don't remember."

There was no time to revert back to childbirth, however, as Ensler took the stage with a slew of celebrities to declare that they had "Vagina-ized the Superdome." Wearing her Linda Ronstadt pageboy, a black lacy getup, and an armor-like silver necklace that made her look like she was anticipating a battle-axe duel in a Parisian bordello, Ensler screamed this to the point of sounding as though she were about to cry. In fact, she screams/cries most things, in keeping with the shrillness of her prose style. It comes as little surprise that she once told People that she allows herself "grieving days," in which she can spend up to five hours sobbing in bed.

Initially, the floor was packed with African-American women, some of them toting kids, who'd been bused home for the event from places like Houston and Memphis, where much of the New Orleanian diaspora resides. Ensler welcomed them warmly, and related to them all the donated services from massages to juice bars to beauty makeovers to yoga instruction that were available to them in upper-level lounges. God knows the women needed it. Most of them had been to hell and back on crowded Greyhounds. One of these women told me she and her three children have lived in eight places in three states since being wiped out in the storm two and a half years ago.

Most of the New Orleans-homecoming crowd, though, seemed to disappear after the opening ceremonies, understandably preferring a day at the spa to sitting through panel discussions on "connections and parallels between our treatment of the earth and our treatment of women's bodies," or lectures by feminist legal theoreticians with enticing titles like "On Intersectionality."

The crowd that replaced them was of a more traditional cast. There were the sassy college girls, with subtle T-shirt messages such as "I love boobs," all full of vim and feeling naughty after having performed Ensler's racier monologues, like "Reclaiming C--," back home in front of God and Daddy and the Boise State student union. Then there were the lesbians, lots and lots of lesbians, with their hair long in back and short and spikey upfront, making them look like Billy Ray Cyrus's butch sister or perhaps a keytar player from an '80s New Wave band.

There was even a smattering of men. You'd see them walking mousily, trying to look unthreatening and inconspicuous. They reminded me of the guys I'd see in college who'd wear Riot Grrrl T-shirts to Take Back the Night rallies, hoping to get lucky with some emotionally souped-up coed who'd just finished bullhorning the quad that all men are rapists. (Ensler, for her part, doesn't maintain that all men are rapists, merely that "too many men are rapists.")

Making my way around the dome, I visited all the Super Love substations. There was the Intentions Yurt, an orange tent which smelled yurt-ish, for lack of a better word. Inside was a box in which women scribbled their intentions. My intention was to get a stiff drink to help me get through all their intentions, such as "I intend to laugh more" or "I intend to work everyday to remove my carbon footprint." The front flap of the yurt was an embroidered copy of Ensler's new, New Orleans-themed monologue which posits that "New Orleans is the vagina of America": "We use her to entertain us and excite us, then jealous of her power and embarrassed by our awe, we make her a whore." No word yet if Ray Nagin, America's most "vagina-friendly mayor," has recommended this to his tourism bureau.

Then it was off to Donna Karan's Urban Zen lounge, where a fleet of volunteer masseuses, aromatherapists, and yoga instructors kneaded and pulled and pressed the Vagina Warriors, as attendees were called. In one particularly intense session, I witnessed a young woman lying on her back, crying, while one of the aromatherapists lay on top of her, whispering in her ear while touching her softly.

Assuming there was some tragic story of sexual or physical abuse behind the tears, I later asked the aromatherapist what I'd just seen. Linda Zuver, who's with Young Living Essential Oils, told me that in fact it wasn't abuse, it was "ummm, an abortion." The young woman had recently had one, and the guilt from it was making her experience neck pain. But some supportive words, a sympathetic touch, and some cooling peppermint oil, and voilà: "Now her neck feels great!"

Next, I was off to the Red Tent, a storytelling enclosure which sat to the right of the main stage. It was elaborately decorated with overstuffed pillows and crystals and Hindu and Buddhist statuary all intended to evoke the comforting "sacred space" of a womb so that women could "tell their stories." Storytelling took about 80 minutes per session, since as one volunteer told me "women have a lot to say." I wasn't permitted into most of these sessions, since, I was told, "your testosterone would change the energy of the room."

But I was admitted to the LesBiGayTrans session headed by the actress Jennifer Beals and her castmates from the lipstick-lesbian Showtime series The L Word. As I attempted to enter, I was stopped and asked if I was, in fact, a lesbian. "No," I said. "But I have a few Sarah McLachlan records."

"That's good enough," said the volunteer.

I was the only man in the tent, though I can't be certain a few of the participants, after finishing their hormonal regimens, won't be joining me. Otherwise, it was a pleasant enough way to kill 80 minutes. For years, I nursed a serious crush on Beals, after she played a Pittsburgh welder/stripper in 1983's Flashdance. She looked resplendent this afternoon, sitting barefoot on a stool, wearing a peasant skirt and white shirt knotted at the belly.

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.