Looking Good, The Adonis Complex, and The Vagina Monologues

More Pep Rally Than Play
New books dissected over email.
Feb. 12 2001 4:23 PM

Looking Good, The Adonis Complex, and The Vagina Monologues

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Chris, Erik,

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I'm going to save men for later, if you don't mind. I just saw a performance of The Vagina Monologues, and I want to discuss it while my ears are still ringing from all the moaning and chanting.

Do you remember Gloria Steinem's 1978 essay, "If Men Could Menstruate"? Steinem imagined that men wouldn't be shy or embarrassed about their reproductive hydraulics. "Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event: Men would brag about how long and how much," Steinem suggested. Feminine hygiene products would include "John Wayne Tampons, Muhammad Ali's Rope-a-dope Pads, Joe Namath Jock Shields--'For Those Light Bachelor Days.' "

On Saturday night I saw Steinem, along with Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, Calista Flockhart, Glenn Close, and dozens of other actresses, perform The Vagina Monologues in front of 18,000 people at Madison Square Garden. You may have found the book insultingly modest, but this event sure wasn't: It lasted several hours, included elaborate costumes and musical interludes, and generally felt like equal parts workshop, Academy Awards ceremony, and Borscht Belt comedy routine.

I wonder if Steinem thought back to her essay amid all the hoopla. After all, TheVagina Monologues gives us women behaving very much like Steinem's menstruating men: cracking bawdy jokes about their anatomy, swaggering about their secretions, and generally congratulating themselves on the beauty and vigor of their reproductive hydraulics. Even the celebrity endorsements and the product pitches were there. Milling around before the show, I was reminded of the scene at the Lilith Fair, another event that proves--as my former colleague Judith Shulevitz has pointed out--that feminism has, among its myriad other incarnations, become a potent marketing force. The event was sponsored by Lifetime, Liz Claiborne, Marie Claire, Tampax, and other businesses that sell heavily to women. Out of these, Tampax made the most of the marketing opportunity, with young women wearing t-shirts that said "Celebrating Vaginas Since 1936" and "Tampax: The Revolution Continues" and handing out free tampons (which was pretty funny: Tampax has long marketed itself as the soul of discretion, purveyor of a device that would help you keep your period a secret).

Chris, of course you're right about the play's dramatic shortcomings: It's triumphalist and self-congratulatory, and as with most expressly political art, its medium is only a weak receptacle for its message. The Vagina Monologues is less a play than a pep rally. Whatever subtlety it has was sucked out by the audience. Take the narrator who sarcastically mouths off about the p.c. script for feminist body worship: "I mean, I know it should have happened in a bath with salt grains from the Dead Sea, Enya playing, me loving my woman self. I know the story. Vaginas are beautiful. Our self-hatred is only the internalized repression and hatred of the patriarchal culture. It isn't real. Pussys unite." The audience cheered after every line, the irony--and the narrator's bitterness at the failure of this rhetoric to do anything for her--completely lost.

Since you two couldn't attend, I took my boyfriend, and he giggled pretty hard at a couple of passages that had left him cold in print. Surprisingly, I squirmed a few times. It's a little terrifying to hear your privates discussed in Madison Square Garden, and there were moments when I wasn't sure that I wanted the actresses on stage as in touch with my own vagina as they clearly wanted to be. And I couldn't get into the audience participation, the call-and-response stuff. The Vagina Monologues, like Take Back the Night, operates on the theory that the best way to combat silence is to be extremely vocal, as if a bunch of marchers could ameliorate the private shame of a rape victim, or as if women shouting in New York City could compensate for, say, the enforced silence of women in Afghanistan. I've always found that kind of math well-intentioned but unconvincing, and Saturday night wasn't any exception.

And yet I want to defend the show, to explain why Chris is wrong to say that the play owes its popularity only to a bunch of overheated extremists, wronger to say there's nothing of quality of in it, and wrongest to compare it to The Turner Diaries. (Isn't that a hate-group bible? Chris!!) I can think of lots of reasons why hundreds of thousands of women have flocked to watch The Vagina Monologues, and most of them revolve around what a reassuring experience it is. The play is like a late-night pajama party where girls get to trade notes about their most secret shames and frustrations. The sympathetic, forgiving tone of the play is balm to any woman who's ever stumbled over what to call her vagina or leaked an embarrassing fluid. It's immensely comforting to hear familiar rituals like gynecological exams subjected to Seinfeldian "what's up with that?" treatment, with comediennes cracking wise about paper gowns that rip and cold instruments that freeze your insides. Finally, the play seems like good medicine for the depressingly high number of women--most estimates hover around 20 percent--who can't experience orgasm. Indeed, the piece you quote with such disdain may overreach in comparing orgasm to self-fulfillment. But how many guys do you know who have never come?

Most of all, I really dug the play's silliness--not its intellectual silliness, but its silly sense of humor. The Vagina Monologues presents a kind of sexual slapstick that's usually reserved for guys: Think of the hilarity of Portnoy jacking off into the family liverwurst or of Ben Stiller's fly-snagging accident in There's Something About Mary. I'm not suggesting that we need more of this kind of comedy simply for equality's sake. Rather, it's the service it performs--reassuring us that we're normal, that our experiences are shared even if they aren't discussed. Portnoy, Stiller, and their kin allow us--well, allow men--to re-imagine their own sexual fumblings, often their first ones, as even more absurd and disastrous than they really are. I can't think of many female examples of the genre, can you? (The best one I could summon is the scene in Slums of Beverly Hills in which Natasha Lyonne and Marisa Tomei dance around with their vibrator.) Maybe The Vagina Monologues isn't quite as hilarious as Portnoy's Complaint or There's Something About Mary, but it's a start. Or maybe the reason you don't find it funny is that this kind of humor depends wholly on identification.

Anyway, Erik, I'm eager to hear what you have to say, especially since you know so much more about smut than Chris or I. If you had a daughter, would you want her to see The Vagina Monologues? How about the way the play is now being turned into a social crusade, a sort of Take Back the Night for women older than college age? And does the strange congruity between Steinem's essay and The Vagina Monologues mean that the former has aged poorly or well? To say nothing of the beleaguered men in Looking Good and The Adonis Complex, who are working just as hard to achieve physical perfection as Ensler's women are to achieve physical sensation. Let's hope to start in on them soon.

Yours,
Jodi

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