Copyright 2002, 2009 Carolyn Gage Originally published in Rain and Thunder: A Radical Feminist Journal of Discussion and
Activism, Summer, Northampton, MA, 2002. A Lesbian Looks at The Vagina Monologues Many lesbians have been deeply offended by The Vagina Monologues’ representation of lesbians, and I am one of them . . . There is a vignette about an adult lesbian perpetrator who “initiates” a child into lesbian sex. Even more confusing, the monologue is delivered by the victim, who tells us she is a survivor of incest by male perpetrators, but that her experience of this seductive lesbian perpetration was empowering. This is really offensive to those of us who are students of lesbian history, and who remember that it was lesbian energy, lesbian initiative that fueled the movement against violence against women. We remember the lesbians who founded the rape crisis lines, who set up the first battered women’s shelters, who broke and continue to break the silence about incest and child sexual abuse. We remember the lesbians in more recent decades who stood up courageously to our “liberal” gay brothers, demanding that they take a position on pedophilia and insisting our queer coalitions had no place for the notorious North American Man-Boy Love [sic] Association. We remember how often it was us who were excluded. That Ensler felt it was appropriate to select a story that is so atypical of lesbian behavior, so potentially damaging to survivors and our credibility, and so insensitive to the stereotypes that fuel homophobia is inexcusable. I understand that Ensler changed the age of the child from the original fourteen to sixteen, but that’s still statutory rape. Also, the term used for the vulva indicates that the child and perpetrator are African American. I wonder if she would be so enthusiastic about a white middle-class incest survivor being perpetrated on by a white middle-class adult? Playwright Eve Ensler also has a vignette that valorizes lesbian prostitution and sado-masochism. This is especially offensive, because she is not lesbian and does not know first-hand how much the issue of sadomasochism/bondage-and-discipline have torn apart our community. This is a complicated conversation that requires deep and respectful listening on
both sides, as well as trauma literacy. Ensler’s monologue offers a onesided presentation, humorously focused on the delights of making women “moan.” The playwright does not make any mention at all of the actual “services” the dominitrix renders: the violent and misogynist epithets, the slapping, biting, whipping, hitting, burning, cutting, the scenarios involving racism, anti-Semitism, violence against women, incest . . . the fisting, the bondage, etc. etc. That would be to introduce the complexity at the expense of audience titillation. Ensler used to have one lesbian vignette in which the character actually talked about a woman just loving another woman’s genitals. This was tacked on at the end, and Ensler added a preface in her own voice as playwright, stating that a lesbian friend had insisted she add it and apologizing if it offended anyone! No such preface was needed for her characterizing of lesbian perpetration, prostitution, and sado-masochism. I understand that this vignette about healthy lesbian love has now been removed entirely from recent productions. Many of us were offended by Ensler’s constant inaccurate use of the word “vagina” when she meant “vulva,” an ignorant and misleading misnomer that smacks of heterosexism. The vagina is of primary importance to heterosexual men in their sex act, which involves penetration. Hard to believe that a woman in the 1990’s could still have been confusing vulvas with vaginas. The focus on the vagina, with its relative lack of nerve endings, as a passage for penises and babies, erases the clitoris as the primary sex organ for women. The myth of the vaginal orgasm has been a result of defining women’s genitalia based on what pleases men, and this myth, which has caused so many women to deny our own needs and view ourselves as sexually inadequate, has been tough enough to counter, even with three decades of feminist research. The last thing women need is a so-called feminist play reinstating the vagina as the primary organ defining our sexuality. Lesbians note that the title of the play, The Vagina Monologues, is emblematic of the kind of mind-body split that has caused Ensler to confuse the vulva with the vagina. The title suggests a disembodied vagina talking, and the publicity campaigns make the most of this, depicting a microphone on an empty stage underneath the words “vagina” and “monologue”—as if a giant vagina is going to step out on the stage and
start talking. Some producers have made a pornographic play on the word “vagina,” by using the slogan “Spread the word” under the title. Finally, many lesbians were offended by the vignette where a man who coerces a woman sexually is depicted as healing her. He pressures the woman to allow him to stare at her vulva for ten minutes with the lights on, even though she is very articulate about her discomfort with this request. He persists in pressuring her, and she gives in. The playwright would have us believe the man loves her body more than she does, and this is what heals her. What a frightening role model for women—suggesting that we should not trust our own boundaries or honor our comfort levels in sex! If we do, we might be missing an opportunity for healing ourselves of our uptightness (frigidity?). In fact, many women in situations where sexual pressure is involved, have learned to dissociate from their own discomfort, pain, or humiliation and identify with pleasing their partners. This is not healing, but syndrome. Ensler’s monologue sends a very wrong message: “No shouldn’t mean no.” This vignette not only disrespects a woman’s knowledge of her needs and her right to her process, but it also valorizes a male behavior that objectifies and fetishizes the vulva. As one lesbian audience member noted, “I’ll bet he does love vulvas… probably keeps jars of them at home.” The intersex monologue, which I understand has been removed from recent versions of the play, raised international protests in its defense of female genital mutilation, which, in the monologue is unapologetically, explicitly for the purpose of making the girl acceptable to a male partner at some future time. The heterosexism, the male protectionism, the pervasive euphemizing of pornographic and perpetrating acts, and the attack on intersex people—all of these are present in The Vagina Monologues. Lesbians have been celebrating the vulva, and especially the clit, for three decades. Lesbian homes are filled with Tee Corinne’s photos, with Georgia O’Keefe’s flowers, with Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich’s poems about vulvas, celebrating and reclaiming our bodies and our sexuality. The Vagina Monologues is a poor imitation, a heterosexist appropriation, of lesbian culture as it relates to women’s genitals. Ensler’s intentional distortion and misrepresentation of lesbian relationships is inexcusably commercial, pandering to a
heterosexist culture’s salacious fantasies about women who love each other. I understand that The Vagina Monologues is raising all kinds of money all over the world for wonderful feminist projects. I understand that it is drawing in mainstream audiences who would never set foot in feminist or lesbian theatres. I understand that for many women it represents a tremendous breaking of taboos and shattering of silence about their bodies. And I also understand that many lesbians have supported and also even performed in it. My own understanding of lesbian history—and my own experience—tell me that lesbian erasure and marginalization are often presented by mainstream, heterosexist feminists as expedient for the greater good. We are told to table our agendas, to ride in on the coattails of more socially acceptable, less controversial movements. My understanding of lesbian history and my own experience also tell me that this does not serve lesbians well at all. I believe that we should continue to challenge work like The Vagina Monologues and also continue to seek out and nurture our own artists, our own plays, and our own cultures.
Carolyn Gage is a lesbian playwright and performer. The author of more than fifty-five plays, she has also authored eight books on lesbian theatre. In 2009, she won the top LGBT book award in theatre, the Lambda Literary Award. She tours internationally in her work, lecturing and offering workshops on lesbian culture and history.