The Vagina Monologues

Sara Kelly reviews 'The Vagina Monologues' by Eve Ensler.

Published February 4, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

For some of us, a little vagina goes a long way. Most of us, however, are not Eve Ensler, the woman behind "The Vagina Monologues." For Ensler, not even the limits of the human constitution can keep a determined vagina down. And that, in essence, is the point of this literary adaptation of her Obie-winning one-woman show. Assembled in seemingly random fashion from interviews with "a diverse group of over two hundred women about their vaginas," the monologues, their author contends, are for our own good. The intent is purely missionary -- to reclaim the much-maligned "vagina" for women the same way the gay community has reclaimed the term "queer."

It is with great pride and purpose that Ensler invokes the "V" word. Like a precocious child, she repeats those telltale three syllables guaranteed to get a rise out of the grown-ups. "I say 'vagina,'" she explains, "because I want people to respond." And they respond, she says, because they know they shouldn't. Since learning the word's liberating power for herself as an adult, Ensler has hardly tired of its cryptic joys. "I say it in my sleep," she boasts. "I say it because I'm not supposed to say it. I say it because it's an invisible word -- a word that stirs up anxiety, awkwardness, contempt and disgust."

"The Vagina Monologues" is comprised of roughly 15 thematically linked pieces (the number varies depending on whether you count the "vagina facts," dedications, explanations and musings that punctuate the interviews). A foreword by Gloria Steinem attempts to connect the vagina with the core beliefs of world religions (i.e., Tantra's central tenet is man's inability to reach spiritual fulfillment except through sexual and emotional union with woman's superior sexual energy). Doubtless, "Monologues" suffers in translation from performance piece to text. But to help ease the transition, Ensler has appended a few paragraphs of context to most selections.

Two, "Jewish Queens accent" and "English accent," are introduced with a semblance of stage directions. Others launch directly into diary entries or unbroken lists of interviewees' responses to Ensler's questions. "If your vagina could talk, what would it say?" asks the author. "If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?" "What does a vagina smell like?" The responses range from pithy to banal. "Yum, yum," "Oh, yeah" and "Is that you?" say interviewees who mentally dress their "sexy"- and "wet garbage"-smelling vaginas in everything from "a pinafore" to "a slicker."

"The Vagina Monologues" is by turns confessional and voyeuristic. It's hard to know, for instance, just how to respond to the tragic tale of a Bosnian rape camp survivor ("... they took turns for seven days ... smelling like feces and smoked meat, they left their dirty sperm inside me ...") when juxtaposed with a vignette about a woman who experienced her first orgasm in a hands-on tutorial called "The Vagina Workshop" ("I felt connection, calling connection as I lay there thrashing about on my little blue mat ..."). Ensler is, at the very least, egalitarian in achieving her mission. She treats such subjects as lesbian sex, birth, rape and child abuse with equal candor and respect. Whether her evenhanded treatment of such conflicting subjects shortchanges both is a matter best left to sex researchers and therapists.

By Sara Kelly

Sara Kelly is executive editor of the Philadelphia Weekly.

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