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'The Vagina Monologues' takes a stand against violence

Thursday, February 26, 2009 | 11:42 a.m. CST; updated 9:51 p.m. CST, Thursday, February 26, 2009

Editor's note — This column contains language some readers might find offensive.

Imagine, you’re alone on a dark stage. You hear the blood pumping in your ears. The spotlight feels warm on your skin. The sound of soft shuffling and the occasional throat-clearing remind you that hundreds of people are in the audience, waiting for you to speak. You swallow, take a deep breath and say your first line.

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“Vagina.”

This is not a bad dream. This is what I’ll be doing on Saturday night.

I’m a member of a group that uses the word “vagina” more than most gynecologists. I’m a performer in the University of Missouri’s eighth annual production of "The Vagina Monologues."

It all started in the mid-'90s when a woman named Eve Ensler noticed that she and her friends, despite all being women, rarely talked about vaginas. She began to ask questions about vaginas and waited patiently through the awkward silences that followed. What she found was an intricately rich tradition of stories that were sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious, but always about vaginas.

Ensler took her discovery to the streets, interviewing hundreds of women and recording the stories that emerged. She asked simple questions — What would your vagina wear? What does your vagina smell like? — and discovered stories about sex, love, rape, sexual abuse, menstruation, masturbation, female ejaculation, tampons, domestic violence, orgasms, pelvic exams and much, much more. She wrote the stories up and began performing them in a one-woman show, "The Vagina Monologues."

Today, Ensler’s show has developed into a full-fledged movement. Thousands of productions of the monologues will show around the world this year as part of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women. In Columbia, our production of the monologues raises thousands of dollars for the Shelter and the L.E.A.D. institute, resources for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. In 10 years, the V-Day movement as a whole has raised more than $60 million, according to the V-Day Web site.  

I’d never seen "The Vagina Monologues" or heard of V-Day when I auditioned for the first time four years ago, but I knew I desperately needed to take a stand against the violence against women I saw here. I was only two weeks into my freshman year of college when a friend was raped. It was the first time I’d been confronted with the overwhelming idea that men in my city wanted to hurt my friends and me simply because we were women.

And it didn’t stop. Throughout that semester, more women I knew were raped, beaten or assaulted by a partner, friend or stranger. I tried to comfort my friends and educate those around me, but I never felt like I could do enough to stop the violence I saw. I felt powerless and scared. When someone posted a flier in my dorm for "The Vagina Monologues" auditions, I realized I didn’t have to be alone in my fight. For four years now, I’ve been a member of a group of women who dedicate their lives to fighting for women all around the world.

As a freshman, I performed a monologue about reclaiming the word “cunt,” a beautiful word to describe the vagina that has been twisted and manipulated into an insult. The next year, I joined three other women to talk about menarche, or a girl’s first period, as a powerful, transformative experience. Last year, I told the story of a woman who hated her body and her vagina because no one had never explained to her that she was a female ejaculator. This year, I’ll take on the role of a prostitute who works exclusively with women to bring them deep, powerful orgasms.

Every year, during the show’s final monologue, all the women in the cast stand on stage and hold hands behind the performers. For our audience, our stance represents the unification of all women — all people — dedicating their lives to ending gendered violence. For us cast members, it’s our last chance to make a stand together before dispersing into the waiting arms of friends and family who came to see us.

As for me, I’ll cherish that final stand more than any other — my last act as a "Vagina Monologuer." And years from now, when I feel overwhelmed and alone, when I’m scared there’s nothing I can do to make an impact in the lives of women, I’ll think back to this final show, to standing hand-in-hand, connected, with the powerful, brilliant and passionate women of Mizzou.

They will be my reason to keep fighting.

Lindsay Toler is a four-year cast member for the Vagina Monologues and a volunteer for the Shelter, where she works in hospitals with survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. She is a former reporter and copy editor for the Missourian.


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Comments

Amber Hanneken February 26, 2009 | 12:46 p.m.

I and many other women find the Vagina Monologues to be anything but empowering. It trivializes women and objectifies them even more than our society is already doing. Some of the stories are simply vulgar and downright idiotic.
Do you really think chanting c**t (Missourian censored) in a cult-like fashion is stopping violence against women? Do you think the men who rape and behave violently (a small portion of the men in our population, Eve Ensler would have you believe otherwise) care? Sure it raises money but at what cost? Making fools of ourselves? Why doesn't the play address real issues about violence like laws against sex offenders not being strong enough, women not reporting rape, or that many women are unfamiliar with self-defense techniques or how to utilize our conceal-carry laws.
The play glorifies sexual deviancy, perversion and downright condemns men at times. Asking what your vagina would wear or say or smell like is definitely not taking the issue of violence seriously.
A tax attorney who leaves her successful job to become a lesbian dominatrix? In what world is this empowering?
I guess I just see myself as more than my sexual organs. I am not nor ever have been embarrassed to say vagina or talk about it. But I would like to think that I have quite a bit more to talk about.

(Report Comment)
Danielle Koonce February 28, 2009 | 4:59 p.m.

I'm so excited for the Monologues!

I was in a production two years ago, and it was an incredible experience.

Amber, do you consider that you may have the privilege of seeing things differently than other women... women with different experiences than you?

(Report Comment)
Tracy Barnes March 2, 2009 | 6:53 p.m.

What is empowering to one person, may not be to another. Amber, I hope you can understand this is very meaningful to some women, if only because it at least gives them a forum and place to feel connected and belong. Even if you don't agree with it, you could be happy, as a woman, that many women are benefiting from the funds.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin March 2, 2009 | 10:03 p.m.

Every young woman should read the advice Cary Tennis, at Salon.com, gives in this column, which is about as provocatively titled as the Vagina Monologues:

I want to be spanked but remain a virgin
http://www.salon.com/mwt/col/tenn/2009/0...

It's an odd irony of performance art like VM that, while it purports to be an edgy sojourn into the secret lives of women, it's really not that edgy at all, and in the end, far, far too safe.

Fighting violence -- and in a woman's case, the male urge toward it -- is only partly about belonging and feeling connected with other, in this case, victims and potential victims. It's only tangentially about understanding one's own sexuality.

Mostly, it's about leaving one's protective shell and fighting back. Fighting the system, fighting the courts, fighting the scumbags who commit violent crimes by making sure they disappear for good (legally, of course).

You harm someone -- anyone, woman, child, whomever -- these days, and too often, little or nothing happens. You might get home detention, let out on bail, early parole, whatever.

No matter how well you understand yourself, or your own vagina, if you don't understand that a violent creep for whom there are no consequences will continue to take what he (or she) wants, you'll never be safe.

The majority of men who commit the crimes against women V Monologues is dedicated to eradicating have been there before. In and out of the courthouse and the slam so many times they -- and the system -- have lost count.

Yet how many, especially young women, do we ever see raising hell about all this? Writing their lawmakers? Protesting lenient judges and deal hungry prosecutors?

Marching against violence and taking back the night means a whole lot more than just connecting and sharing. It means taking back a screwed up system, and understanding yourself and the people around you in the truly "edgy" way Cary Tennis suggests in that column up there.

The Vagina Monologues is an intriguing start, but in the end, doesn't get off the ground. It's safe art, only playing it dangerous.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr March 3, 2009 | 4:15 a.m.

When I first read the title I about fell out of my chair with laughter thinking to myself "OMG what in the hell"?

After reading all of the story and the comments I still feel like laughing out loud.

Yes violence to women is wrong this is true but at least the people putting on this play are trying to make some aware and some laugh in their attempt to bring this issue into the light.

I applaud their courage to put on such a performance. I will bet you will never see guys wanting to put on such a play about their own male parts will you now.

(Report Comment)

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