Beyond Vagina-dome

A giant clitoris! Healing circles! Celebrities! It's the 10th anniversary of "The Vagina Monologues," but the real star is New Orleans.

Published April 17, 2008 10:50AM (EDT)

"Jane is preaching!" shouted an African-American woman in front of me, as Jane Fonda held forth on a stage on the floor of the Louisiana Superdome about how "the opposite of patriarchy is democracy." Above Fonda's head sparkled a gigantic fuchsia logo designed to look like lady parts; before her, a crazy assemblage of women of every color, size, age and sexual orientation whooped at her "sermon" on the intersection of art and activism. The audience was sitting in the middle of an even odder intersection: a football stadium that, less than three years ago, was the site of fear and violence, and was now decked out to resemble a very large cooter.

Fonda was delivering remarks to close out the "Superlove" portion of "V to the Tenth," Ensler's two-day birthday party for her vagina-loving organization, V-Day, and for the play that started it all, "The Vagina Monologues." Fonda -- who had drummed up publicity for this event back in February by uttering the word "cunt" on morning television -- began her speech with some copious crying. "I am so proud to be a woman!" she'd said, sniffing mightily as she took the stage. It ended with some Eckhart Tolle-influenced wavy-gravy about how we're all fields of energy. "This is not just new-age hogwash," she said, "It is actually how reality works." (Um, no, not really. But she's Jane Fonda, so that's OK!)

In between, Fonda had given a kick-ass homily about art and activism in movies like "9 to 5," "Coming Home" and "The China Syndrome"; about how Katrina was "not a natural disaster, it was a man-made disaster"; and about how women should help men cultivate a "feminist masculinity." Fonda said of the two-day roster of speakers and performers who had preceded her on the labial stage -- including Suze Orman and Naomi Klein -- "I have been rocked to my core. And I am so grateful to Eve Ensler and V-Day ... who made it possible for us to hear the women of New Orleans."

Eve Ensler is a troubling figure in the feminist universe, a woman whose famous piece of theater has indeed changed the way many of us talk. It is now, somewhat miraculously, OK to say "vagina." To many women raised to feel shame or confusion about their bodies and their sexuality, Ensler has handed over a vocabulary of good humor, honesty and self-confidence.

But she's taken that gift and built on it in ways that have not been nearly as useful for anything except raising her own profile, and in many cases have been discomfiting. In Ensler's megalomaniacal V-universe, everything from voter registration to the Iraq war is seen through the speculum, er, spectrum, of the vagina, and moist metaphor and love for Eve (and beav) rule the day. It often seems, in fact, that Ensler has taken her laudable grass-roots success and turned it into a celebrity-centric, glitzy franchise -- one that has, in its unrelenting and patronizing focus on women-as-cootches, often felt as reductive and objectifying as the language Ensler originally set out to fight.

I wrote a piece in which I leveled these criticisms at Ensler four years ago, and as a result was denied press credentials to the V to the Tenth weekend -- an odd decision from an organization that relies on the press to fluff its reputation, and one that confirmed my suspicion that, while Ensler claims to love all vaginas, only the ones that worship at her personal altar are truly welcome in her world. V-Day organizers were not wrong that I had been suspicious of their New Orleans event. V-Day's Web site promised a starry performance of the monologues (tickets ranging from $25 to $5,000!) with Oprah Winfrey at the helm, as well as yoga lounges, makeovers, healing circles, storytelling tents and altars in honor of Katrina victims. Advance press for the event had included slightly vomitous comparisons between New Orleans -- one of America's truly great cities, left to drown two and a half years ago -- and a vagina. In short, I feared that the event might represent the wacky worst of what Ensler's project has to offer: the mining of serious tragedy for a nonsensical vulvic celebration that serves only to portray women as victims and Ensler and her brand as their healers.

I was quite wrong. At moments -- especially the moments that did not involve Ensler -- V to the Tenth embodied the very best of the V-Day mission. It's true that there was more "ecstatic dance" and misty-eyed metaphor about drowning in rivers of pain than was really necessary. But there were also women -- thousands of women! -- who showed up. This celebration was a lot less high-wattage than expected, or than Ensler may have wanted. But perhaps in its slapdash, unrehearsed feel, and its welcoming of local women who had barely heard of V-Day before, it found its salvation.

Take the bra ball. It was a large ball. Of bras. It was part of an art exhibit that greeted visitors when they walked onto the floor of the Superdome. On Friday morning, soon after the Superlove kickoff, 76-year-old Marie Varnado and her friend Joyce Murray, 75, were poking at the rolled-up support garments gingerly, choking on their own laughter.

"What is this? We are inquisitive!" Varnado asked a male security guard, who raised his eyebrows warily and shrugged. Varnado and Murray were both born and raised in New Orleans, and until Katrina they had lived at St. John Berchman's Manor for older adults. Varnado fled with her family to Houston, then Baton Rouge, and now Atlanta. Murray, who also relocated to Atlanta, told me of her escape in a Times-Picayune paper delivery truck.

The women had returned home for the weekend, part of a group that had been bused in to take advantages of the services -- massage, medical testing, beauty treatments, yoga, theater and therapy -- being offered free to all women from the Gulf South. In the first hour, Varnado had already bumped into people she knew and had not seen since the storm. Murray said, "The saddest part about the storm is missing the people. In New Orleans, the families are real close-knit. Now it's all scattered."

"That's the thing about New Orleans," Varnado added. "It's not like anyplace else." Both women want to come home for good. But for now, a weekend beyond Vagina-dome was the best they could do. And while neither of them had ever heard of Ensler or V-Day before, they were pretty amused by the whole thing.

"It's something new at my age!" said Murray. "In our time, we never said that word. When I was a girl, you'd have to be more hush-hush! You'd come in a room and your parents would start speaking Creole." Varnado grabbed her arm. "That's right! But lord, this is too funny. There was a man who came in here, and a lady said to him, 'I think you're in the wrong place. This is a vagina, not a penis!'" She doubled over with laughter.

A few feet away, a pair of younger women were looking at a display of "Monologue" memorabilia, including T-shirts that said "Viva La Vulva." Jen Stokes-Holtrop and Molly Malone, 25 and 29, respectively, are teachers who had driven from Titusville, Fla. "I just saw all the services for the hurricane survivors upstairs," said Stokes-Holtrop, "and it just pulls on my heart that someone has made a space for these women." Driving into New Orleans, she said, had been very emotional. "Our friends had told us that you'd never know there had been a storm," said Stokes-Holtrop. "But we were passing these neighborhoods that were devastated, and it was like, 'This is not OK. It looks like it happened a month ago!'" Malone guessed that the people who said the city was back to normal "were drunk when they got here and drunk when they left. How else could they not see what happened?"

Nearby stood another pair of girlfriends, 15-year-old Ashanti Rollins and 16-year-old Tanya Verdin, both from Houma, La. They had come with their mothers on a bus carrying about 40 women from Cornerstone Baptist Church. "Honestly, I am here because I was told that it would be a nice outing to come to V-Day," said Rollins, very, very politely. The girls were clearly tentative, but also looked sort of pleased to be hanging out next to T-shirts bearing vagina logos on them.

"'The Vagina Monologues' are such an eye-opener for women and men," said 20-year-old Rebecca Gatlin from Valdosta, Ga., who was most excited to be meeting like-minded peers. "In my high school, I was pretty much the only feminist," she said. "So just being around other people like me feels incredible."

All these women seemed to be enjoying the language of sex and bodies -- either gawking at it or giggling at it or reveling in it. It reminded me of everything that is fun and healthy about V-Day.

There were gushier aspects to the setup, like the "Red Tent" storytelling yurt encrusted with pink rugs and labeled "a sacred place to reflect, rest, commune, meditate and rejuvenate." But any doubt I had about the healing circles, massage and yoga available on the second floor of the stadium was put to rest when I peeked in (the services were only available to local women, and without a press pass I could not enter) and saw rooms packed with Katrina survivors taking advantage of well-deserved indulgences, as well as medical testing, yoga with famed teachers Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman, and group therapy. And it was undeniably moving that all this was happening in the Superdome, a building so imposing and creepy that the bathrooms still terrified me, even when packed with ladies wearing "My other car is a vagina" T-shirts.

When Ensler took the stage to make the official welcome on Friday morning, she opened with her favorite irritating phrase, "Are there any vaginas in the house?" but was otherwise light on the pussy power. As Ensler spoke, an audience member bellowed, "We love you, Eve!" "I love you," Ensler replied, sounding as used to this as Barack Obama, the vagina-free candidate whom she is supporting, and whose name she dropped in her address.

Ensler announced that "everyone in this dome, and everyone in V-world, is connected." She asked the crowd to "take a moment and hold this space for the people who were hurt in the Superdome, the people who were disrespected in the Superdome, the people who weren't cared for in the Superdome."

Ensler also described, rather unfortunately, how over 10 years, "grass-roots women spread [V-Day] like a vagina virus around the world."

It somehow helped that, whereas I had been prepared for a Superdome draped in labial shades of pink, visible from the air, what I actually found was a stadium that had been "transformed" into a vagina by what could reasonably be described as a prom committee. There were no high production values here, only a lot of pink glitter, thousands of folding chairs, and what appeared to be a large papier-mâché clitoris, bathed in pink light over the entrance to the Superdome floor.

More problematic was that you often couldn't tell who was speaking, even with a program in your hand. In the opening ceremony, which promised to cleanse the Superdome, I'm fairly sure that it was Buddhist leader Roshi Joan Halifax who said that New Orleans is "rising up like a lotus from the mud of human abuse, neglect and suffering," but I don't know who performed a version of "No Woman, No Cry" that included lyrics like, "I remember, when we used to sing/ In the lower Ninth Ward." I'm quite certain that all of this stuff lent the weekend an air of intimacy and warmth, in spite of the hugeness of the project, and the spirit of goddess devotion that Ensler has cultivated. It just felt like a bunch of people, a lot of them women, snickering slightly and poking each other in the ribs as they absorbed language and tales that they might not otherwise have been exposed to. For the women of the South who had come for the free post-Katrina services, maybe it was feminism that they encountered. For the feminists and Eve acolytes, maybe it was the story of Katrina.

Friday night included a performance of "Swimming Upstream," monologues about New Orleans women and their experiences during and after the storm. The cast included a few celebrities, like Kerry Washington, Shirley Knight and Anna Deavere Smith, who helped to popularize the kind of journo-theater from which "The Vagina Monologues" also drew. But the most powerful readings came from the local performers.

There was an angry monologue, performed by the Rev. Lois De Jean, about being "shot" by cameras anxious to capture stills of quaint New Orleans black life -- jazz funerals and little boys playing in the streets. Another woman described exclaiming, after being told to find a new home, "New Orleans is my home. I speak New Orleans; I cook New Orleans; I dance New Orleans." The most devastating, perhaps, was performed by the extremely talented Asali DeVan, about her fury at being told by City Hall that it will cost her $4,000 to get a permit for a funeral procession for her husband.

It was terrific theater, made possible in large part by Ensler's support and funding. It's too bad that when she took the stage after the performance she felt compelled to yell, "Vagina power!"

On Saturday, at the "HerDesire" marketplace just outside the dome, sisters Marissa and Marsha-Gail Davis, Swarthmore undergraduates who hail from Jamaica via Atlanta, were manning a booth for their organization, NOLArize!, which organizes students to rebuild New Orleans. Their work had never intersected with Ensler's before, they said, but the melding of projects was working well. "Everything this weekend has complemented everything else," said Marissa. "It's been great how the V-Day organization had their work to do, but you really felt like they understood where they were."

One of the only places where geography and activism failed to intersect was when it came to food. All that was available in the Superdome was concession stand fries and chicken fingers and burgers -- a criminal situation in these painfully delicious Louisiana environs. Vendors set up stands down the street selling rice and beans and jerk chicken to hungry Super-lovers. That's where I met Meg Gunderson, 39-year-old women's studies professor at Eastern Kentucky University, and two of the 24 feminist students she'd brought with her to the event. This group told me how they'd raised enough money to get here, and how, in the days before their trip, there had been rumbling that some of the travelers might not have enough money to eat. Eastern Kentucky University draws on Appalachia, Gunderson explained: "These are poor folks, who've never had an experience like this before." Faculty and staff quickly raised a thousand bucks to ensure that everyone would eat.

Gunderson told me that Paul Rusesabagina, on whom the film "Hotel Rwanda" was based, had recently visited her Lexington campus and spoken to students about the massacres in Congo. This was resonating for the kids this weekend, as Ensler was announcing that next year's V-Day focus would be Congo. Two of Gunderson's undergraduates had befriended a Congolese activist at the Superdome and, discovering she had no hotel room for the night, made a space for her in their room. Next year, Gunderson said, the Congolese woman would be invited to speak at Eastern Kentucky. "There's a synthesis here. All our paths are supposed to be crossing," she said. "Here is Appalachia reaching out to Congo because of V to the Tenth."

And fine, I'll admit that even I experienced some serendipity. Amid all the presentations by activists, artists and entrepreneurs, I was most anxious to hear the slam poet Alix Olsen. Not because I am a slam fan, but because Olsen, who is a big name on the folk poetry circuit, was my first friend.

We had sleepovers and went to Sesame Place together; I mostly remember her from photographs, from which she grins wildly in Osh-Kosh overalls and blond curls. I hadn't laid eyes on her since we were perhaps 6, but she was giving the closing poem and I was determined to catch her act.

By the time the Kentucky crew and I headed back from our chicken repast, Alix was launching into her final poem. "My mom is the straightest woman on the planet," she told the audience, "but she was super feminist, and she named me Alix because it was gender neutral, and she dressed me in blue overalls so no one could tell if I was a boy or a girl." What were the chances that the first time I saw this young woman who was my first friend, 30 years ago, she would be talking about her blue overalls that are all I remember of her? What were the chances that two little girls whose early feminism extended mostly to our appreciation of Wonder Woman Underoos, would a quarter of a century later find our work bringing us to the vaginally decorated Louisiana Superdome?

So maybe I even got something warm and womanly out of V-Day. Though I can assure you that, despite the fact that Alix dedicated her poem "Womyn Before" to "all the vaginas, and all the vagina-lovers in the room," my take-away had little to do with anyone's nether regions.

That night was the culminating event of the weekend, a performance of the "Monologues," whose star-larded cast was once scheduled to include Jessica Alba, Glenn Close, Sally Field, Julia Stiles, Marisa Tomei, Common and Eve. By the time the weekend rolled around, the big names had been trimmed to Fonda, Jennifer Hudson, Christine Lahti, Salma Hayek and the biggest draw of all -- , who was to perform a brand-new monologue about a New Orleans woman.

The lights went down in the New Orleans arena. "Vagina!!!" yelled one exuberant audience member. Soon the lights came up on La Ensler, lying on her back in the middle of the vagi-logo. "Welcome to the Wetlands" read the screen above her, as she rose to read a new poem, "New Orleans Is the Vagina of America." "We long to get inside her, but disown her later when she has needs," Ensler, who was over-miked, yelled into the crowd, "We love her fishy taste. We love to eat her, love her spices. But when she's hurting and waving from the rooftops, we ignore her. New Orleans is the vagina of America. Tonight we cherish her, praise her, heal her and change her story and the story of women."

The crowd went nuts. The "Vagina Monologues" has taken on an almost Rocky Horror quality at this point, with people primed and ready to hoot and holler for "My Vagina Is Angry," "Bob" (about a man who loves vaginas) and "Reclaiming Cunt." The roars were loudest for Jennifer Beals' monologue about moaning.

As befit the rest of the weekend, some of the biggest cheers came for some of the least well-known performers. And that was a lucky thing, since Salma Hayek did not show, and by the end of the night, when the talented Liz Mikel performed a second monologue, one that no one had heard before, called "Hey, Miss Pat," it became abundantly clear that Oprah -- whom Ensler would later say was "very very very" ill -- was not going to make it either.

That was surely a pain in the ass for people who paid money to come and see her. But in other ways, Oprah's absence was its own blessing, leaving everyone with the opportunity to appreciate the fact that this event succeeded without the celebrity power on which Ensler often relies. In the end, the highlight of the V to the Tenth show had nothing to do with Winfrey or Ensler, or either of their vajayjays. It came from New Orleans singer Charmaine Neville, who told the crowd, "I want you to understand what [New Orleans] was, and what it will be," and said that when she returned to her city, "there was no music, no sound, no dogs, no cats. My house was gone. My neighbor's house was gone. Where were my people?"

Then Neville sang, "Do you Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?," ending the song with these lyrics: "There's one thing more ... I miss the folks I search for ... more than I miss New Orleans."

By Rebecca Traister

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