Culture | Not the same old V-Day

Critical approach behind McGill’s 2009 production enhances its relevance

Putting on The Vagina Monologues at McGill is hardly a novel idea – in fact, it’s done every year. Since The Monologues’ conception in 1996, it has inched its way from being a contested and controversial curiosity to an accepted, if not entirely established, slice of student life. So why would a McGill student such as yourself check out this year’s production?

First of all, director Kara Fletcher’s production of monologues celebrating this year’s V-day is refreshing and provocative, transcending the piece’s original intent. And while The Vagina Monologues has been produced by thousands of universities around the world for years, the issues it raises are as relevant as ever.

Eve Ensler, a celebrated women’s rights activist, wrote the piece to “celebrate the vagina,” but The Vagina Monologues has since developed into a movement that goes far beyond vagina-adulation. It stands at the forefront of the V-Day organization, which has now raised over $60-million and has been named one of the world’s “100 best charities.” The piece’s updated goal is to “stop violence against women and girls.” To highlight this, Ensler adds a new monologue every year; topics range from women in the Congo to suppressed women under Taliban rule.

Before seeing The Monologues, I was skeptical. I was worried that I would be uncomfortable, and, like most people who hear about the play, I had presuppositions that weren’t all too kosher. I hoped that The Vagina Monologues wasn’t just a continuous chatter about female genitals, and I was worried that my masculinity would be compromised. My concerns proved unfounded. While it is a continuous stream of vagina-related monologues, this year’s production is about much more than its title might suggest.

Kara Fletcher’s approach is a critical one. She did not stage The Vagina Monologues in blind admiration, nor did she adhere to its stereotypes. Throughout the play, she seemed to be saying, “bring it on” to potential criticism; the production sparks anew the debate and conversation that The Vagina Monologues was intended for.

The cast was a true ensemble. While presenting each character with care and respect, the actors never failed to surprise and delight the audience. Each individual performer remained part of the whole; they all worked together as each monologue was performed. As Fletcher explained afterward, she wanted to “bring people out of their comfort zone.” I think that the actors did that and more; they constantly challenged the spectator, simultaneously working hard to ease away all presuppositions. I was brought out of my comfort zone, but I felt no resistance.

The play, as it was originally written, is mildly funny. But the decision to keep all of the actors involved during each monologue made me feel like a part of it all, so that a feeble joke was transformed into an uproarious knee-slapper. I appreciated the play so much more because it was clear how much the actors were enjoying it.

The play, as rambunctious as it is, should not be over-estimated. Fletcher reminded me that Ensler did not write an objective report on the state of women around the world; it is still “one woman’s experience.” She added that at some points, it seems as though Ensler is “taking agency of these women’s choices” – she may have a sympathetic eye, but she still is a white woman appropriating experiences that aren’t hers.

I agree, and I think Fletcher did a good job of making clear that The Vagina Monologues is not the be-all end-all of feminism; it is an honest attempt at raising issues that should be thought about. Personally, I thought that the play perpetuates certain stereotypes, and that it does not serve to abolish the dichotomies that remain at the forefront of the gender debate.

What the play does address successfully is the relationship between peace and sexuality. Whereas in the past, first-world powers attempted to solve conflicts by appeasing both of the parties at war, Ensler has worked hard to bring the plight of the subjugated women under the public eye. In one of the monologues of this year’s production, a woman discusses the horrors that Congolese soldiers inflicted on her; the part calls attention to the abuse women faced in both civil wars. Ensler’s work greatly changes the way “peace” is thought of; instead of concentrating on the male powers in the conflict, the UN now recognizes that the safety of women and children is the first order of importance. Ensler stresses the fact that we need to think of antagonisms between warring factions not just as a clash between multiple powers, but also as an issue of gender-conflict.

The problems The Vagina Monologues addresses are far from solved, and the gender and sexuality debate is far from concluded. Students should do more than attend the play this weekend; they should think about their very own presuppositions that they carry around daily. The play challenges some of those presuppositions, but it still leaves questions unanswered.

The Vagina Monologues is running this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 8:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. in the Leacock Building, Room 132.