The cast of the Vagina Monologues file out of Theatre Intime on Valentine’s Day and are quickly folded into hugs. Aside from the shrieks and the “oh my god you were so greats” I can also notice that everyone is saying the word vagina.
As if it’s suddenly been taken off a permanent hold I notice women especially saying it with abandon, name-checking monologue names like the My Angry Vagina performance and The Woman Who Made Vaginas Happy, but also finding ways to fold it into conversation. I am not alone in my observation.
“Vagina this, vagina that,” says the woman running the Womanspace donation table. “Everyone all of a sudden loves to talk about their vaginas. And then it goes away and starts all up again next year.”
I can’t blame them. In Azza Cohen and Olivia Robbins’ production of The Vagina Monologues, the word vagina is said 121 times and it’s somehow not gratuitous. In the 1994 play written by Eve Ensler, stories of all aspects of the vaginator / twinkle cave / va-jay-jay are performed with restraint and raucous abandon. Stories of first periods and triple orgasms combine with those of a sex worker, a survivor of a Bosnian rape camp, a twelve year old, a septuagenarian, a feminist who found a dude who just really “liked to look at it” and, recently (but not in Princeton’s production), the perspectives of many trans women speaking together as a Greek Chorus in the monolog They Beat the Boy Out of Me.
The Vagina Monologues didn’t start as an antiviolence crusade, but as a conversation Ensler had with a friend of hers in 1994. “I realized I didn’t know what women really thought about their vaginas – or what I thought about my own, for that matter,” she wrote in a Guardian piece. So she started asking. The Monologues are the result of a distillation of these vaginal, emotional narratives.
Many of the monologues themselves deal with themes of violence, both emotional and otherwise, done to vaginas. The monologue My Vagina Was My Village is from the perspective of a survivor of a Bosnian rape camp. The Flood tells a story of an elderly woman whose vagina “stopped being a thing that talked a long time ago,” since a man ridiculed her vagina in her youth. In Hair, a woman details how her husband convinces her to shave her vagina (and at one point shaves it himself) until it is raw.
To add weight and immediacy to these performed narratives, Cohen and Robbins’
production added statistics from the 2015 We Speak Survey of the campus sexual climate into the script, serving as transitions between the monologues. Faculty members such as Sarah Chihaya, Dean Alison Boden, and Khristina Gonzalez performed these quotes, rendering them monologues unto themselves.
In the performance I saw, Emma Latham ‘18 was tasked with reciting one of the more powerful quotes from the survey. “During the 2014-2015 school year,” she recited, “the rate of having experienced inappropriate sexual behavior was highest among undergraduate women: 1 in 3. Look to your left. Look to your right. 1 in 3.”
The rows of Theatre Intime were silent. It was rare to consider my space in relation to someone else’s at Princeton, and the effect was jarring. The theatre felt closer, stranger. The facts left the computer screen, hung suspended in the silence.
Out in the small audience space of Intime, I greet the people I know, while writing down as many of my reactions into my phone as I can. I consider many of the actors friends. These women as well as those whom I did not know before the show are excellent; while some seem more trained than others all of these women approach their roles with an honesty and commitment that never goes over the top. Later I will meet some more of the cast as I come upon them sitting on the floor of the Dod elevator, passing around chocolate covered almonds as the elevator languidly lifts them up and down, like an invisible bicep curl.
I wonder how much of this performance is different for someone who does not know a single woman in the show. But we all know these women. Look to your left. Look to your right.
I recognize a few of my male friends in the audience and am happy about this. I also notice that the bathrooms at Theatre Intime don’t have working tampon dispensers. Vaginas are here but also not here. I watch Broad City with friends later this week; we laugh but don’t talk about our bodies. If we talk about our vaginas it is almost always to joke. During the show I crossed my legs.
This is not to say the play is completely serious. I laugh a lot during the Monologues and wonder what this says about me, if my laughter is uncomfortable to the male friend sitting next to me, if he is wondering if I am uncomfortable or if this means that I secretly love vaginas, my vagina, am in love with other vaginas, if he thinks I am a militant feminist or what if I already think I am one (I do) but then I remember that I am probably laughing because I am in possession of a vagina.
I cannot stop thinking about the play and I cannot stop saying the word “vagina.” I text someone this and he asks: is that a weird thing for women to talk about: the dicks conversation is not a thing with guys in my experience
To which I reply: I feel like it kind of is
It’s not comfortable I feel weird even saying the word out loud
and it’s weird to admit that
Why is it still weird for us to talk about vaginas? Why, even when it seems like it shouldn’t be relevant, saying “vagina” still feels like a protest?
To learn more about this show and honestly to give me an excuse to write about vaginas, I cajole the directors into talking to me. They sit three to a couch (Cohen, Robbins, and Cohen’s younger sister Daniella Cohen) in Cohen’s split-level room in Dod. Fairy lights weave through the staircase, art prints decorate the walls. Cohen’s mother sits across from us, and her Bubbe snoozes in a room next door. It’s the perfect room to talk about vaginas.
Cozy with three generations of women and a bowl of M&M on her table, I wonder if it’s what a vagina would look like if it could choose. I don’t recall ever having this thought before seeing the show.
Before the conversation begins, I ask if the directors are comfortable talking about vaginas. “Um,” says a roommate’s brother. “I’m eating a cupcake right now I don’t want to talk about vaginas.” (He later left).
Robbins and Cohens’ friendship is its own category; the two of them had been friends since sixth grade, when they met at a Northwestern Center for Talent Development program, where the teacher of this program was also their parents’ high school debate coach. My younger sister and Cohen’s sister met at this camp, which I also attended.
“It’s just a weird—” says Cohen,
“Very weird family moment,” finishes Robbins,
“And then we reconnected at Princeton—”
“And if she hadn’t taken a gap year we wouldn’t be in the same grade.”
“Wonderful.” Cohen laughs, parodies Robbins: “‘Coincidental, vaginal, wonderful.’”
The word “vagina” is said 121 times during the show, and is repeated with frequency throughout this interview. Robbins and Cohen also talk about how their friends reacted to their directing the show (Robbins’ friends were mostly surprised she was directing at all; Cohen noticed that her friends tended to drop the “vagina” part and would talk about her “directing a show” or “directing The Monologues”). They also told me about how the vagina-phobia doesn’t divide down the gender lines. “I’ve I met guys that were totally chill about it and girls that were weird about it,” says Robbins.
They tell me about how one actor felt weird about saying vagina and how, to get her comfortable, they gave her the Reclaiming Cunt monologue. I learn that even Cohen wasn’t comfortable using the term when she was in the play two years ago. She tells me how she would rehearse her lines out loud while walking from Forbes to her class in Aaron Burr (“That’s so you!” Robbins interjects) and how her walks would lead her through Frist or Firestone where she knew she would inevitably encounter people, and she would be shouting lines like “you have to love hair in order to love the vagina” but still felt odd saying the word out loud.
“I don’t feel totally excited, even now, to say the word vagina. I think even after directing the show, even after seeing it so many times, even after encouraging my actors to, you know, [imitates a low volume battle cry] ‘scream it! Vagina!’ I think it’s still a work in progress for me as a person.”
“Is it because it sounds like a medical tool?” I ask.
“It sounds like an infection,” says Cohen.
“Well I don’t know if it’s that bad,” says Robbins. “It has a nice ‘a’ sound at the end.” She mouths the word a few times to herself. “Vagina. Vagina. I like the ‘vagina’ part. It’s kind of nasally. I like thinking about it from a sonic perspective.” It makes sense to remember that Robbins is an English major.
“I would love to speak to a linguist,” says Cohen.
“A cunnilinguist,” Robbins smiles.
But mostly they talk about the play with a reverence, though they speak to some of its flaws.
Both directors speak about how it leaves out a section of the female population, such as those who identify as female but might not posses a vagina, or just women whose experiences aren’t written into the monologues.
While neither of them mention it, I am aware of the controversy surrounding the Monologues on campus. Last January, the Monologues made news when students at Mount Holyoke College blasted the play for being “inherently reductionist and exclusive, ” and ended their yearly production. While Ensler responded to their criticisms by explaining that she “never intended to write a play about what it means to be a woman” but instead wrote “a play about what it means to have a vagina,” some damage was done. The Mount Holyoke story gained wider recognition.
Robbins disagrees. “It would not be worthwhile, in my opinion, to censor the play just because it doesn’t do a perfect job of showing everyone’s experience,” she says. “It’s so important.”
“Talking about vaginas means talking about female sexuality, which is also something we don’t talk about,” Cohen continues. “It means talking about periods, which means talking about womanhood and responsibility. But it also means talking about violence.”
Cohen recalls feeling frustrated when she was in the show for the first time that there seemed to be a disconnect between the violence spoken about in the play and the violence that is present on Princeton’s campus. “I wanted the audience to feel more immediately responsible to change what these Vagina Monologues are talking about,” she says.
I find myself nodding. Though it’s maybe not as taboo to talk about vaginas anymore (Sex and the City ended 12 years ago, an entire Broad City episode is devoted to smuggling weed inside “nature’s pocket”, etc.), it seems insane to call this play outdated when, during the time the We Speak survey was conducted, 1 in 6 undergraduate women experienced nonconsensual sexual contact.
Yet Robbins wants to make sure I know that the play, as well as Cohen and Robbins’ use of the We Speak survey results, was never meant to conflate the stories with the sexual violence that occurs on campus. “What I want to make clear is that we were not saying that kind of rape as warfare is happening here, God forbid,” Robbins says. “It’s not. But [we wanted] to contextualize physical violence on what is happening here.”
“I believe in art as a way to keep us responsible for what’s going on around us,” says Cohen. “That’s why I want to go into film, because if a film is close enough to home, it makes you rethink what you’re doing.” The theater, for Cohen, is a way to involve the audience in greater, unavoidable truths. “Even though we think about the fact that some real woman had that experience, we don’t think about it in terms of our own close and personal experiences.”
Towards the end of the interview, Robbins is called away to a meeting. I talk for a little while longer with Cohen’s mother and sister, and am sent off with a vagina-themed cupcake and a weird hope that it will still be kosher to say the word out loud once I finish transcribing their interviews. Vagina!
For as long as women feel weird talking about their periods, The Vagina Monologues will still be relevant. I hope it won’t continue to be. For as long as there is violence against women, the Vagina Monologues will still be relevant. I hope it won’t continue to be. I hope when I come back to Princeton for my 20th reunion that the Monologues won’t be shown, or if they are shown, it will be strictly a period piece (ha) and will be horribly, excruciatingly outdated. I hope Princeton University pays for everyone’s tampons. I hope someone comes up with a better idea than a tampon because honestly what the fuck is a tampon. I don’t think it will be irrelevant, but I can hope.
Before Robbins leaves, I ask the two directors what we lose when we don’t talk about our vaginas.
If the word wasn’t taboo, “we might think that we are proud to have this beautiful part of our body,” says Robbins.
“It was at some rehearsal,” says Cohen, “and someone said: ‘well think about the amount of times that guys say penis.’”
“It’s a lot,” says Robbins.
“It’s a lot! It’s amazing.”
“They even have a penis game.” Robbins looks mock-stricken. “We don’t have a vagina game!”
“Yeah,” says Cohen. “That does suck.”