Monday, April 25, 2005

silence of the vaginas (oops)

Quite belatedly, I read "Vagina Monologues" by Eve Ensler. I wasn't too impressed, though--at least not as much as I thought I would be, according to the limited yet enthusiastic hail when it was translated and published in Japan.

(If you have read the book, you can skip this section. Hooray!) Ensler starts the book (thus her monologue performance) from the beginning of her interest in the word "vagina". She says that the word is burdened with so much attribution, from which "penis" is free. Most of us feel uncomfortable with the word. Yet, there is no appropriate alternative. So, she tries to free herself and the vagina from all the social and cultural attachment by simply saying the word out loud, repeatedly, obstinately. She interviews hundreds of women of all the stripes, morphs it into a monologue, and performs it in the mixture of anger and fervent welcome. There are two pieces made of one interview for each, a composite piece of several interviews, and several pieces of list of answers to a particular question she asked to many interviewees.

In general, the composite pieces are less effective than the non-composite ones. The lists of questions and answers do not seem to have any function beyond providing comic relief. (I mean, how am I supposed to answer such questions as "what would your vagina say if it could talk?" and "what would you dress your vagina with?") The two non-composite interview pieces, however, have a genuine power, less distorted by the interpretation by the author/performer. The first piece, about an elderly woman's 60-year-long sexual alienation ever since her accidental "flooding" in a brand-new Chevrolet of her date, vividly converys the image of the lady, letting us intimately connect with her sexual experience (or sexual non-experience) beyond the wall of individual experience. The second piece, a testimony of a young Bosnian woman who was brutally (very, very brutally) raped during the conflict, is striking in a different way. It lets us almost feel the physical existence of the rapist/rapists on/in our bodies, along with the visceral fear and disgust it invokes, possibly in a very similar way in which many rape victims suffers flashbacks of the victimization. The authenticity glows in these two pieces, and it trully enables us to connect with other women's sexual (vaginal, as the author might want to put it) experiences.

The pieces created by blending the accounts of the interviewees, which, according to the author, had enough in common to be simmered down to one generalized account, fade in the light of the non-composite ones. The resonance created by the voices of women is surely interesting. Nevertheless, by reducing their stories into a few lines that she found interesting or in harmony with other excerpts, the author stripped away the depth, complication, and authenticity from the sexual identity of the women interviewed. Taken out of context of each woman's life and mingled together with those of other women's to form what the author thinks is a collective voice of women, their stories became a vehicle to express the author's opinion on the matter, not the individual woman's.

The violence of generalizaition is most evident in a piece in which several women (again as one) speak of their liberating experiences in a vagina workshop. Their exhilaration at the liberation, joy of self-discovery, and the unlimited gratitude to the woman who leads the workshop are probably legitimate. Yet, the excited ferver is alienating to anyone who does not already share the almost cultish praise of the vagina as the ultimate "source of the self, spirituarity, and inspiration," which the author seems to agree to. Attaching new (and rather heated) meaning to the female sexual organs only replaces their negative connotations, and therefore doesn't grant them the freedom from any meanings, which most of the other parts of our body enjoy. (Hey, it's only an organ. Did you remember that?) Moreover, zealous march toward a single good to everyone is obsolete in principle and ineffective in practice in a society where diversity is embraced.

I probably should have seen her perform the monologue, rather than just read the script/book, to do her work justice. However, the trumpetting of the spirituality of the vagina as something universal definitely turned me off. For all its good intentions, "Vagina Monologues" functions as yet another cultural device to incarcerate the vagina in an entangled prison of meanings. Even though it is probably a valuable attempt as a compiled testimonies to counter the neglect and denial of the vaginas, its gesture of quasi-religious collectiveness of women through their vaginas (!) subjects it to suspicion and alianation.


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