The Vagina Monologues Are Silenced

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Several years ago, some religious colleges and universities were roiled by debates over whether The Vagina Monologues should be performed on their campuses. Many – several of them Catholic – were coerced into allowing the controversial play on the grounds that it would offend against “academic freedom” not to.

At least one college, however, has now taken the bold step of banning the play from campus, although perhaps not for the reasons you might expect. Mount Holyoke College, a self-described “liberal arts college for women,” has now decided that the play is “not inclusive enough.”

Well, it’s all about women, isn’t it?

No, as it turns out, it’s not.

For you see, the student-theater board at Mount Holyoke banned the play from campus because, as it explained, “at its core, the show offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman.”

You might be thinking: “Hurrah! Why were women being reduced to a body part in the first place?” Don’t women often complain: “I’m not just a body part”?

Sure, but that’s not the problem. Because, it turns out, Mount Holyoke is banning the play because it excludes “women” who – and I’m sorry, but I’m not making this up – don’t have vaginas.

Oh. Wait. Huh?

One headline applauded Mount Holyoke’s decision, saying: “Some Colleges Are Moving Past Eve Ensler’s ‘Cisnormative’ ‘Vagina Monologues.’”

Eve Ensler, the play’s author, responded in defense of her work, saying: “I think it’s important to know that I never intended to write a play about what it means to be a woman, that was not what The Vagina Monologues ever intended to be.”

I’m certainly glad she cleared that up. She and those Catholic campus protesters are in agreement there. But now that we know it’s not about women, what is it about?

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“It was a play,” says Ms Ensler, “about what it means to have a vagina.” (So it is all about a body part.) “It never said, for example, the definition of a woman is someone who has a vagina. . . .I think that’s a really important distinction. . . .When we use language, we have to be very careful what we say.”

For sure. Very, very careful. Because it’s increasingly clear that everyone has a target on his/her/its/their back these days as the educated elite play their perpetual game of ideological up-manship; who can “one up” the other guy in self-righteous indignation at failures to uphold a scrupulously correct gender ideology. And since I can’t imagine a situation in which you wouldn’t be “using language” – we think in words – I suppose you should just always be “very careful” about what you think. Modern “freedom,” as George Orwell predicted, requires people always willing to be on the look-out for evidence of “thought crime.”

So, although I really don’t much care what Mount Holyoke College does or doesn’t do, nor do I think that a campus culture should be judged on the basis of whether students do or don’t participate in The Vagina Monologues, I have two concerns.

The first is simply that what is getting lost in all this mess of language up-manship is women – real, live women with the specific needs women have, some of them biological. As a man, it’s not my place to say, but I think women should.

Granted, a woman isn’t just her body, but it takes a radical sort of Gnosticism to claim that being a woman – or a human being, for that matter – has nothing whatsoever to do with one’s “embodied-ness.” Women’s health issues aren’t merely emotional, psychological, or cultural. There are some serious physical and biological realities too.

Is no one else concerned that certain people may now be invading territory that properly belongs to women and, in effect, elbowing them aside? It’s not clear to me, for example, that someone like Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner set out to learn from women what it is to be a woman; rather the media set him up as “woman of the year” the moment he changed some (but not all) of his body parts.

Rachel Dolezal wasn’t allowed to claim the mantle of “black,” even though she was devoted to the cause of racial justice; but Bruce Jenner was named “woman of the year” because he added a pair of fake breasts? Talk about reducing women to body parts!

Women bleed a pint of blood every month, then carry babies in their womb for over nine months, and go through hours of excruciating labor, and Bruce Jenner is woman of the year? I admit, as a not-too-bright “guy,” I’m not getting it.

What will happen in the coming years, I wonder, to invaluable things like women’s sports and women’s literature, plus women’s high schools and colleges (like Mount Holyoke, to name one obvious example)? Will they disappear because of the desires and designs of certain – how do I put this delicately – men? Women athletes are already noticing the potential problems.

I’m sorry to be a “Cis-sy” about this, but it worries me, even if it’s not entirely my business as a non-woman sort of “guy.”

Something else worries me too, though. When Catholics complained that The Vagina Monologues violated their fundamental principles, they were excoriated as troglodytes. “Academic freedom” had to reign supreme. Now that a group has somehow managed to get further left than anybody else, what happened to the cry of “academic freedom”? Was it just a bludgeon that some people used cynically to beat their opponents over the head with?

I for one actually believe in “academic freedom.” But if people become convinced it’s merely a tool of ideology and not a principled position, then they’ll get cynical and, as with the boy who cried “wolf,” they won’t rally to its cry anymore.

And that really worries me, because we all have reason to care about free and open dialogue.

Sadly, though, some people prefer monologues – except when even that becomes ideologically suspect.

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Randall Smith

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His most recent book, Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, is now available at Amazon and from Emmaus Academic Press.

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