They say, "Ignorance is bliss," but is it?
A few weeks ago, a group of undergraduate women at my university were performing The Vagina Monologues. As an excuse to take a break from my midterm exam preparation, I went along to see it with a couple of friends. To be truthful, I was mildly excited if only for the fact that I appreciate controversy, and what could be more controversial than vaginas (and women talking about them, no less)?
As I waited in line before entering the theater, I read the description of the performance I was about to see and was surprised at the depth that was present in what I thought was a comedic production. Around the walls of the room before the theater were tables holding merchandise such as badges, pins, and other vagina-related novelties, many of which had The Vagina Monologues or V-Day Movement (the meaning of which I did not know) symbol on it. The décor ranged from the comedic, as I figured, to the serious, as I did not: one wall had a banner on which students could post-it a message of what their vagina would say if it could talk, and the other had V-Day poster boards displaying statistics on domestic violence. At this point, as I absorbed everything I was seeing around the room, I realized that this was not going to simply be about female genitalia.
I originally believed that it was either a group of monologues inspired by the highly-misunderstood Feminist Movement (something I did not fully understand myself) or a satirical version of that. I even exclaimed to my friends that "If they are going to have The Vagina Monologues, they should at least have The Penis Monologues, or else they are not really celebrating equality at all." I was incredibly wrong, however; the set of monologues each highlighted a specific issue regarding women's rights, inequality or mistreatment -- issues I was not even aware were widespread issues at all. It was not intended to shame men, but rather to discuss the problem we have in the United States and around the world regarding women.
I cannot say I did not feel apathetic to the whole women's rights agenda prior to viewing this performance or even attending UCLA; I, a white female of upper middle class from a generally conservative area of upbringing, had never encountered sexual assault or unequal treatment based on my sexual identity. Quite honestly, I had no apparent reason to care because the problems women face around the world had not noticeably affected me and I was generally unaware of what those problems even were.
Yet, as I watched the monologues discussing pubic hair, tampons, cold OB/GYN tools, and commonplace genital mutilation in underdeveloped nations, I began to realize the underlying point of The Vagina Monologues. The rhetoric used in the performance was uncomfortable; it made some of my friends shy and embarrassed and even angered another friend of mine.
However, as I sat in the intimate, dark theater, the performer side of me connected with what these actors were trying to do. They were neither trying to get the audience to feel bad about their seemingly trivial female issues nor were they trying to incite pity tears during the heartbreaking performances. Rather, they were trying to prove to the audience members that a whole array of female topics, be it small (tampons) or large (rape), riles people's emotions; it makes them angry, scared, embarrassed, or ashamed.
I thought back to my comment about the penis monologues; would those topics make men feel that way? I thought, probably not. Why is it that topics regarding women are so sensitive, regardless of age? Why have I, personally, always been accused of being crude simply because I don't view topics such as these to be a private, inappropriate matter? I felt liberated as I watched some of my bravest friends transfer this inner dialogue of mine onto the stage in front of men and women alike.
After sitting through an hour and a half of some of the bluntest monologues I had ever heard -- there was a monologue devoted entirely to the controversy behind the word "cunt" -- I looked around the theater and wondered if everyone felt the way I did. Did they feel suddenly empowered, ready to take action, ready to scream along with the actors? Were they touched by the message of the pieces; were they able to read in between the lines? I felt all of these things. I had never been so moved by a performance in my life; did the audience feel these things too?
'I am taking a stand for the women in my life: my mother, my sisters, my future daughters."
The performance closed with each actor holding hands around the edge of the stage announcing why they participated in the production, and therefore in the V-Day movement. The movement, I found out, was The Vagina Monologues' non-profit organization to which its proceeds go that fights to end domestic violence, sexual assault and other women-related violence. In this moment, I thought, no matter what each audience member felt about the method in which the message was sent throughout the show, surely they must realize now what it all really means.
After the house lights had risen, signaling to the audience that the show was officially over, my mind went wild with questions that seemed to be unanswerable. For instance, why do we feel inappropriate saying the word 'vagina?' Why are thirteen year old girls afraid to tell their friends that they had just gotten their first period, while boys cannot wait to talk about the playboy magazines and porn they had just swiped from their parents? Both are pretty equivalent marks of the emergence of puberty among boys and girls, yet the former is so much more embarrassing. Why is this? I can't answer the question, but I certainly feel upset about it.
That weekend changed the way I see myself as a woman, the way I look at my mother, and the way I am going to look at my daughters. I now consider myself responsible for participating in this dialogue that no one seems to want to engage in. I do not wish to tip the scale so that men are lower than women, but rather to tip the scale so that men and women are on truly equal playing fields. The Vagina Monologues instilled this drive in me, and for that I am grateful. Maybe in the future we can discuss the problem regarding men, but right now, it is about women.
I just cannot be satisfied until we are all treated as humans regardless of sex, and I credit The Vagina Monologues for causing this unrest. However, one thing I cannot forget is how I felt before: uninterested. How funny this is to me; how I could have been so ignorant before. I always thought of myself as a socially aware individual, which makes me wonder how many eighteen year old girls (just like myself) will not realize the world they are stepping into upon graduating. I can only hope that someday the message that The Vagina Monologues is sending is heard on college campuses everywhere, until puberty, sex, OB/GYN visits and rape on college campuses are not hush-hush topics.
It is not the conversational appropriateness of the aforementioned topics that matters to me, but rather the cultural attitude it symbolizes: being comfortable with who you are, regardless of gender, sex, sexual orientation, race or appearance. The Vagina Monologues may have made all of us in that theater a little uncomfortable, but the value in that hour and a half of unease cannot be mistaken, nor will I ever forget it.