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Inappropriate Use of the V-word

Maral Shamloo

I was rather unsure about the state of my feelings when I walked out of Little Kresge on Wednesday night. I was neither excited nor depressed. I was not happy about what I heard and saw, but I wasn’t frustrated either. I wasn’t touched or inspired, nor did I feel any more strongly about violence against women. All I know is that I was embarrassed and maybe disappointed as well.

Let me begin by saying that none of what follows is an attempt to undermine the performance and hard work of directors, producers or actors of the show. On the contrary, I found the performances very powerful and original. What I find questionable however is the content of the show. I learned many new facts in those two hours; about my physique; about how other people think of their bodies; about how much more special a vagina can be to a woman than any other part of her body. I learned that people enjoy talking about sexual issues and how they are embarrassed to acknowledge this fact. And exactly for that reason, a show called “The Vagina Monologues” would attract far more people than “The Kidney Monologues” would, for instance.

I learned and heard things that I am not sure I wanted to know. I am not sure if I should even be allowed to know about some of the most private and personal feelings of women, feelings that reveal their most hidden and protected folds and layers. I don’t feel comfortable knowing about the most intimate details of a woman’s experiences and relationships being shared with an audience. There are feelings that I think women should be allowed to discover themselves. Feelings that are unique to each individual.

I felt embarrassed. I felt awkward. Awkward about hearing the words I had always thought of as unutterable, at least in that medium; words that I thought that I have always been told were not meant to be said in public. I felt embarrassed seeing that the male audience found some of the acts funny or interesting. I hated seeing how the inappropriate choice of words caused people to be stimulated by what was meant to be an action to stop violence against women.

But that was the whole point of the show, said a friend. To talk about issues you feel uncomfortable with. I wonder though how that could be favorable. All of us are told from very early ages, that we are not supposed to use certain words: the f-word, the s-word, there are tons of them. Nobody disputes that the use of these expressions in speech is inappropriate. Nobody would argue that these are words with certain physical meanings and we should not try to deny their existence.

But that is not the issue; we are not supposed to use certain words because we wish to respect our listeners, not because we trying to deny they exist. I hope the reader agrees that the use of words that are considered to be taboo in our daily conversations would certainly not educate people; quite the contrary, it would be considered impudent and obnoxious.

The very same reasoning applies to discussions about certain feelings and certain parts of our bodies. Why should very personal feelings that some women have about their bodies, feelings that developed based on very specific experiences they have gone through in their lives, be stereotyped, collected and presented as a beginners’ course in vagina familiarization?

In the director’s notes we read: Unfortunately, since many people can’t bear to hear or say the word “vagina,” many women with stories like these -- human stories -- have kept silent about experiences which have affected them more profoundly than the stories they can tell that don’t involve any taboo words. I have been trying very hard to think of a way that sharing these stories would benefit women. I would like to ask the director how he thinks being comfortable with saying or hearing the word “vagina” could help prevent violence against women? Do we really believe that rapists -- actual or potential -- would be affected, touched or moved hearing these stories? That they would regret their actions? Don’t they -- and the rest of audience for that matter -- already know that raping a woman will hurt her both physically and emotionally? Wouldn’t presenting women’s sufferings and their female-specific feelings just make them more exposed and vulnerable?

My biggest fear, however, throughout the show and afterwards was to think that “The Vagina Monologues” were so well-received just because people enjoy talking about certain issues in such a presumptuous and bold way; Protecting Women is a title to justify it. A thought that sends a shiver down my spine.