Triple orgasms and ordinary men named Steve. Patronizing German marriage counselors and burgeoning queer identities. Colorful illustrations, workshops, abuse, childbirth, miniskirts, flooding, gynecologists, and tampons.
This weekend, student directors Sarah Varghese ‘19 and Evie Elson ‘19 brought Eve Ensler’s 1996 play “The Vagina Monologues,” a series of fifteen monologues, to life at Princeton University. Ensler distilled the monologues from over two hundred interviews that she conducted with women in the 1990s, hoping to destigmatize open discussion of vaginas and experiences surrounding them.
At the University’s Theater Intime, audience members were discouraged from accepting the performance at face value. Beginning with an originally written and performed prologue, the directors did not refrain from criticizing aspects of the show, namely its equation of vaginas with female identity. The directors acknowledged the production’s inherently trans-exclusionary bent. “Our definition of what it means to be a woman, and to have a vagina is not the same thing,” said Varghese, “It never was.”
Varghese and Elson asked the audience to appreciate the importance of the stories being told — a cast member later remarked that the show has “empowered women for decades.” But in the same breath, the directors also denounced its limitations and hoped that the audience would recognize its flaws. They described “The Vagina Monologues” as a relic from the nineties, clearly marked throughout the production by denim and scrunchies, and stated that aspects of it were markedly outdated.
“These monologues are not representative of the experiences of all women, or all individuals with vaginas,” the directors affirmed. “Instead, they are representative of the 200+ women that Eve Ensler interviewed twenty years ago.”
The directors gave the show a modified title: “The Vagina* Monologues.” The event description came with the caveat that “*people of all genders have vaginas and these monologues represent a small segment of that population.”
To highlight the show’s contemporary relevance, the performance was interspersed with recent statistics from the 2017 WeSpeak Survey on attitudes of sexual misconduct at Princeton University and the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Between harrowing tales of sexual assault rendered by Michelle Yeh ’19, innocent reflections portrayed by Vayne Ong ’20, and thong woes voiced by Currie Engel ’19, were facts.
The 2017 survey showed that “1 in 5 undergraduate students, and 1 in 11 graduate students, experienced sexual misconduct, including sexual harassment, sexual assault, dating violence, or stalking.” The 2015 survey revealed that “nearly half of respondents were sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime and one in ten were sexually assaulted in the past year. In communities of color, these numbers are higher.”
After the final monologue, a moving description of birth told by Maddie Pollack ’19, the cast—a community of women bonded by their common experiences—and a mediating SHARE peer, who had been an available resource to audience members throughout the show, engaged the audience in a Q&A session. Notable in the discussion was the participation of a female audience member in her fifties who thanked the cast for putting on the show, explaining her identification with the generations of those who were silent and ashamed of their own vaginas. A number of cast members confessed similar feelings of liberation upon seeing and participating in the performance.
Despite engaging with various groups around campus, such as the LGBT Center, and holding workshops in efforts to make the show as inclusive as possible, the cast is transparent about the fact that their rendition is not—indeed, cannot—be perfect. Yet, flaws notwithstanding, cast member Kadence Mitchell ’20 acknowledged that, more than seeing the show itself, what is important is having these conversations after it ends.
“The Vagina Monologues*” can be seen on Saturday Feb. 16 at 8 p.m. in Theater Intime.