Saturday, 30 April 2016

Banging Book Club | The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler

I don't want to start this review with the most privileged-sounding sentence I've probably ever said or written down, so I'll make it the second sentence. It is hard for me to appreciate the importance of this book in terms of its sexual politics since I consider myself a male feminist. Or if I'm being honest, a repenting sexist but let's not get bogged down in that. Or maybe we should. See, I can't help feeling that these monologues are preaching to the choir, speaking from my own perspective; I know the horrifying things done to women are reprehensible and it is unbelievable that they still go on. As I'm not a woman or someone who owns a vagina, it's hard for me to identify with the monologues on a emotional level leaving me feeling trapped with an intellectual perspective from my white male tower made of mansplaining frogs and snails and puppy-dog tails that always sounds condescending, patronising and not really providing any insight.

But Hannah directly asked in the Banging Books Club video what people who don't have vaginas think about it so I guess I'll give it a go. Especially because the thing that I think everyone will take from the book (and I imagine any performance of it) is that we need to be far more open in our discussions about sex, hence why Eve Ensler uses the vagina as a figure for this perspective. With this example, the focus becomes on the female experience of sex which seem pretty unrepresented in general in comparison to the male experience of sex (which I know explains a lot of my insecurities. Ooph this is going to be an honest blog, isn't it?) From my distanced perspective, it feels too easy to say 'It's all society's fault! Damn that patriarchy!' but just looking at the wording of the monologues and how the women speak is an effective demonstration of how much censorship there is around the word vagina and all things associated with it.

One woman explains how, after an embarrassing situation which she refers to as 'the flood,' she 'closed the whole store. Locked it. Never opened for business again.' Her reclusive tendencies is made explicit at the end of the monologue:
You happy? You made me talk - you got it out of me. You got an old lady to talk about her down-there. You feel better now? [Turns away; turns back]
You know, actually, you're the first person I ever talked to about this, and I feel a little better.
Now while Ensler used the words of real women for the monologues, the text itself is still a work of fictional drama; no matter how real it feels, you cannot ignore the artificial process. Hence, when these powerful moments occur, and there are plenty, they are clearly designed to do so. Now, I don't feel this detracts from the monologues - I fully believe that drama can have a powerful effect on people that can cause real change. And reading a woman describing herself as a 'store' and feeling both uncomfortable and liberated in being able to open herself up again was an emotional experience.

Now, is it something I've read before? Not exactly, but pretty similar things. But this is to be performed remember, so have I seen a woman talk in this way before? Yes, in both a dramatic context and in conversations with a friend who likes to talk about these issues ('These issues.' How dismissive of me. I apologise). Is that a problem? No. It just doesn't chime with my experience - how dare a piece of art be created which I cannot totally relate to! That's not what the Monologues are there for - their playful and humorous qualities (which there are plenty of, effectively balancing the dark, real and important issues) make it accessible to a wide audience, which it has demonstrably found and which continues to grow exponentially it seems. Ultimately, the monologues provide a starting point for discussions that we need to be having.

However, a problem has been raised in recent discussions I have seen about the book: how useful it is beyond that? I was amazed, much like Hannah was, that this was published in 1998 - I was 4 years old! This book has only just turned eighteen, and while in some ways the world still hasn't matured into grown-up discussions about vaginas yet never mind sex in general, it's made a hell of a lot of progress. Is it dated then? A reason for this strange sense of datedness is suggested in Elaine Aston's 2007 essay 'a good night out, for the girls' in Cool Britannia? British Political Drama in the 1990s:
What Esner does is to take a 1970s style of radical feminism and gives it a 1990s makeover: it takes consciousness-raising and radical feminism as a basis for a more up-to-date style of self-sexual-empowerment politics. In the process of this makeover, a 1970s emphasis on the collective [...] is rejected in favour of the solo (p. 119)
(N.B. the essay, and indeed the whole book is fascinating - Aston goes on to look at the work of Jenny Eclair and Catherine Johnston, the woman who created Mamma Mia! Yes, this is an academic essay analysing the ABBA musical)

Aston's argument has meant that what I initially found an honest and enlightening explanation by Ensler now hints at deep problems such as when she explains 'my favourite part of traveling with the work. I get to hear the truly amazing stories.' Interestingly though Ensler makes herself a character in one of the monologues reacting to a lesbian woman telling her story. The frankness of it all prompts many thoughts from Esner including the following:
I don't know that I wanted to talk about sex. But then again, how can I talk about vaginas without talking about them in action? I am worried about the titillation factor, worried about the piece becoming exploitative. Am I talking about vaginas to arouse people? Is that a bad thing?

I realize I am embarrassed, listening to her. There is a combination of reasons: excitement, fear, her love of vaginas and comfort with them and my distancing, terror of saying all this in front of you, the audience.

I realize I don't know what is appropriate. I don't even know what that word means. Who decides. I learn so much from what she's telling me. About her, about me.

Does talking about vaginas ruin the mystery, or is that just another myth that keeps vaginas in the dark, keeps them unknowing and unsatisfied?
For all the self-awareness though, it doesn't seem like the monologue deeps much further into these thoughts. Instead we move on to another story. Fine, that's the structure of the text, but as such it can all feel a little lacking. Perhaps nowadays we crave for deeper analysis rather than just musings. (Which explains why I wonder sometimes if writing this blog is worth it.) Interestingly, Aston comments that her student's shocked reaction to her criticism of The Vagina Monologues as a conservative text are a result of a 'I'm not a feminist but...' culture where 'feminism is assumed, is taken as a given, but is not a point of identification in terms either of politics or performance' (p. 121).

So it clearly has a different effect now then it did when it was originally performed and published. If it still has an effect at all. The frankness and honesty remains striking but with the Internet allowing similar stories to exist in their thousands, stories about vagina workshops may seem quaint or radical depending on your perspective and how many of these sort-of stories you have read.

Rather than being simplistic or reductive as some might argue, I think it might just be out of date which I think is a testament to the rapid expansion of discourse since the Monologues was launched within it. No longer are the Monologues unique in its blunt, frank and honest discussions of female sexuality - as well as Jenny Eclair, who Aston discusses alongside the monologues, there's Caitlin Moran, Jo Brand, Luisa Omielan, Cariad Lloyd, Danielle Ward, Amy Schumer and I'm sure many other female performers talking about their sexuality in a funny, accessible and intelligent manner. Moreover, these performers are talking about our current modern society which, as I mentioned above, has changed considerably since the Monologues began particularly with its concerns with non-binary genders, transexuality and asexuality. There is a fantastic video that addresses this latter point as from a non-sexual perspective, the Monologues may not be as inclusive as it appears to be with its focus on sex. As the video explains, a vagina can mean more than being a sexual organ. But I can't help the criticism is a bit harsh as this concern is addressed in the monologues (albeit briefly), see for example the opening of 'Because he liked to look at it':
This is how I came to love my vagina. It's embarrassing, because it's not politically correct. I mean, I know it should have happened in a bath with salt grains from the Dead Sea, Enya playing, me loving my woman self. I know the story. Vaginas are beautiful. Our self-hatred is only the internalized repression and hatred of the patriarchal culture. It isn't real. Pussys unite. I know all of it. Like, if we'd grown up in a culture where we were taught that fat thighs were beautiful, we'd all be pounding down milkshakes and cookies, lying on our backs , spending our days thigh-expanding. But we didn't grow up in that culture.
That quotation expresses my concern that there is a risk of over-intellectualizing this book; it is a provocative book and a thought-provoking one at that but on an emotional level.

Saying that, I agree with Leena's point in the BB video that this is a book that is difficult, if not impossible, to read objectively. This is a protest, not a statement. As Ensler herself says in her introduction, written in 2001, 'Whenever I have tried to write a monologue to serve a politically correct agenda, [...] it always fails. Note the lack of monologues about menopause or transgendered women. I tried. The Vagina Monologues is about attraction, not promotion.' It's still good for these voices to be heard than not at all and surely we can only get better as we improve on being more inclusive and open-minded in these discussions. If nothing else, this book makes you think about how you think and want to write honestly and personally about yourself. (Wait a minute...)

And that's where I want to leave this review: ultimately, what I've been trying to say is that this was something that challenged my intellectual, somewhat 'know-it-all' feminism ('Well of course women should have equal rights!')
And that's what this book club is already doing for me and the reason I've (sort-of) kickstarted this blog once again, to try and get my thoughts in order. Hopefully a better order than they were in before. I look forward to rejoining with All the Rage(really need to get round to reading it now the video is up). Who knows, there may be another review or two to tide you over between the monthly readings, we'll see...

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