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COLUMN

“Monologues” A Celebration

Guest Column Julia Sero

The theater has a long, subversive, revolutionary history of making people uncomfortable to effect changes in society. Examples include works by Brecht, Moliere, Sartre, Shakespeare ... the list goes on and on. People have been imprisoned because they addressed radical topics in the theater. Very often the subject causes a fuss because it issues a challenge to the powerful, or to the structures which uphold the status quo.

Of course, no one is going to be arrested in Cambridge for saying “vagina,” but we are not as far removed from that time as we’d like to think. Those days are far too close for comfort and remain the present for too many people around the globe.

Because theater is such an engaging, dynamic form of art it has the power to advance ideas by telling a story to a large number of people. The Vagina Monologues are just that -- storytelling. Telling the stories that do not get told because we have been socialized to be ashamed of our bodies. These stories are all the more powerful because the monologues make it clear that these are real stories gathered from real women. This realization, that women right now in this very place and time are being raped and suppressed, should be distressing! But there are also moments of humor and joy in the show, reflecting the experiences of women who find communion with their bodies. The show is meant to teach through humor rather than to preach. In the guidelines for the college productions, Ensler writes that “this is a play that primarily strives to amuse and entertain while gently provoking deeper awareness.”

That fear and contempt for women and women’s bodies is indoctrinated in our culture is made obvious by the discomfort with which Maral Shamloo [“Inappropriate Use of the V-word,” Feb. 26] responds to an unapologetic discussion of the female body; and, by extension, the female experience. Shamloo gave it a chance; she came to see the show. I respect her opinion if she didn’t like it, but I worry that she and others, men and women, let themselves be ruled by squeamishness.

The things we do not discuss in public, like domestic violence, rape, and self-loathing, are the secret killers of polite society. What we do not know can hurt us! If women (or men) have no vocabulary with which to describe their experience they are powerless to communicate and defend themselves. They have no way to seek help. They have no way to define or name what is happening to them. Rape and domestic violence are closeted crimes; if they are not publicly addressed people can keep on getting away with committing them. A vagina shrouded in mystery has power but not positive, life-affirming power. The power of secrecy is power that can be corrupted, blackmailed, subverted. Women, and men, who are ignorant of their bodies and of the bodies of others have no defense against lies and misinformation. This ignorance leaves us vulnerable to disease, rape, misogyny, abuse, and betrayal.

The Vagina Monologues attempt to bring into the open a set of experiences that are central to the lives of half, or most, of the population but which are considered socially unacceptable. The Vagina Monologues are about the power of discourse, the power of words to change the world.

But why do we need to think about vaginas? Some might argue that they don’t go around all day thinking about their vaginas, like they don’t go around thinking about their kneecaps or elbows or hair. I would respond that many people do, in fact, spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about their hair, or other body parts, the state of which can affect them in ways that have nothing to do with the function of that particular piece of anatomy. (Try: “I can’t go out, I’m having a bad vagina day!”) I would further point out that sore knees and good hair are perfectly acceptable things to talk about, which is why we’re not squeamish about admitting to having them or reflecting on their affects on our lives. The fact that vaginas are not considered acceptable, even though more than half of the people in the world possess them and they do a lot more interesting things than elbows, points to a defect in the way we think about our bodies and about women.

If our culture teaches that something intrinsic to them is shameful, gross, unfit for company, do you honestly think that this won’t have a negative impact? What is the distinction between saying, “Your vagina is not okay” and “Your skin color is not okay?” I dare an opinion writer to convince me that racism is not socially degrading, and then perhaps he or she can persuade me that sexism is not a pervasive social ill. The power of theater is in communication, as I said, and also in identification. The actor is not the only one who steps into character; the audience, too, is invited to get inside the heads of the players. Stories are how we, as humans, learn to understand the lives of others. Maybe we identify with Hamlet and we empathize with his unhappiness, even though we are not Danish princes.

I think that a potential rapist seeing The Vagina Monologues might be moved to think twice about committing rape after he has spent an hour and half living the experiences of women, of rape survivors, of vaginas. The V-Day edition of Eve Ensler’s book quotes men and women who told her how much they learned from hearing the women’s stories. How moved they were to respect of women and of vaginas. We had a wonderful e-mail from one such man who saw our show and took the time to share his appreciation with the whole cast. Of course, not everyone is going to have this response. But the power of the theater to change the way people think can act through one person at a time, until a man who would be a rapist might reconsider acting on such a dreadful impulse.

When The Vagina Monologues does not cause discomfort, when it is not subversive or radical, then I will be happy. It will mean that we, as a society, so accept and love women and women’s bodies that no one can imagine being shocked by a frank and joyful discussion of vaginas.

Julia Sero is a technical assistant at the Center for Cancer Research and a Vagina Monologues cast member.