Society has a problem with vaginas. People seem to have no difficulties discussing the intricacies of male genitalia, yet there are still many who see the vagina as a taboo topic — mostly because women have been conditioned by society to be ashamed of their sexual organs. Thankfully, there is a play that has been helping women free themselves from this embarrassment since 1996: The Vagina Monologues.
This year, the University of Calgary will be hosting a performance of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, presented by the Women’s Resource Centre and the Werklund Foundation Centre for Youth Leadership Education. The play will be performed from Feb. 12–13 at the Boris Roubakine Recital Hall and all proceeds will go to the Discovery House, a women’s shelter in Calgary. Dr. Shirley Steinberg, the play’s director and the director of the Werklund Foundation, says that the impetus to have The Vagina Monologues at the U of C came from the shock that they were not here already.
“I was at the Women’s Resource Centre as a collaborator and I asked, ‘So when are The Vagina Monologues this year?’ and they just sort of looked at me and said ‘We don’t have them,’ ” explains Steinberg. “I said, ‘But every big university has them every year,’ and they said, ‘Well we don’t, and we’ve always wondered about that.’ ”
While the U of C did host The Vagina Monologues over a decade ago, they have not become a part of the university the way they have in other post-secondary institutions. Steinberg felt that a comeback was needed, and with prior experience in theatre, she was the perfect person to make it happen.
“My former world was one of a theatre director, so it was very clear to me that we need to usher ourselves into the 20th century, let alone the 21st century, in Calgary,” says Steinberg. “Most universities do have it once per year, so that became a very important part of the decision. This kind of became the cause célèbre, and so we decided to do it.”
The play is presented as a series of monologues from several different characters, each with their own experiences to share about their vaginas. While the monologues change every year, the theme of the vagina as a tool of empowerment stays the same. Steinberg believes that The Vagina Monologues can help to free women from the stigma attached to their vaginas, and help them to feel more comfortable and more confident with their bodies.
“It’s emancipatory,” says Steinberg. “Originally, Eve Ensler was just doing some ethnography, getting narratives from women about their embarrassment about their vaginas. Men talk about their penises all the time. We make penis jokes, there’s a performance called Puppetry of the Penis and we build buildings that look like penises. There’s this phallic world that we’re all kind of conscious of, but vaginas are different. So Ensler put together these monologues in the ’90s and realized that they were blowing people away — that it was a very emancipatory way for women to share and become equitable with their own sexuality and sexual organs.”
However, the play is not simply about playfulness and sexuality. There is a darker side to the performance, one that addresses the grim realities of how difficult life as a woman can be.
“Of course, an important piece of that was the knowledge that women are being constantly raped and harmed and disfigured vaginally,” says Steinberg, “and the amount of female circumcision that exists in many third-world countries.”
While she found it difficult to balance the lighter side of the play with the darker side, Steinberg believes the humour present in The Vagina Monologues is still very important in helping to fight against oppression.
“With oppressed people there tends to be more humour than people who are very bourgeois and have never had anything happen to them,” says Steinberg. “I think humour is the way some people stay alive.”
One of the most important parts of The Vagina Monologues is the way it offers a chance for any woman to perform, since no prior experience in acting is required to audition.
“Because it’s done as a reader’s theatre and because it’s suggested we don’t use many actors at all, we have a lot of women who are never on stage,” says Steinberg. “So it is doubly emancipatory in a lot of ways. I like that direction.”
Two of the play’s actors, Gael James and Crystal Yarham, are students in the U of C’s education program. They explain that they hope The Vagina Monologues can help raise awareness about the violence some women go through in our society.
“I think it educates people, both some women and some men, about vaginas,” says James. “It’s also a really wonderful fundraiser. It builds awareness about our need for a women’s shelter and about violence against women, since a lot of these stories are about violence performed against women and their vaginas. Maybe this will get people to think twice before they do something awful.”
“I think it is a really important cause, and I think that a lot of times women, especially women with children, feel like they can’t get out of a bad situation,” says Yarham. “Since all of the proceeds are going to a women’s shelter here in Calgary I think that will help bring a lot of awareness to this problem.”
Every year, The Vagina Monologues help women leave behind the shame society has attached to their vaginas, while educating audiences about the importance of feminism. Steinberg is quick to dismiss claims that feminism is no longer relevant in today’s world, explaining that while things may seem different at a glance, there is still a lot that needs to change.
“As a woman and a feminist, nothing’s changed,” says Steinberg. “It looks better, of course, but the reality is that we have fewer women leading Fortune 500 companies than we did 40 years ago. Women have only now been allowed into combat roles in the American military, when of course they have been brutalized and murdered throughout the ages in warfare. I’m not one that thinks we’ve come a long way. I think we have a long way to go. I don’t think we’re in a post-feminist era.”