“My vagina was green, water soft pink fields, cow mooing sun resting sweet boyfriend touching lightly with soft piece of blonde straw,” Kennedy Crowner (C ‘22) sings.
“There is something between my legs,” Zabryna Atkinson Diaz (C ‘19) cuts in. “I do not know what it is. I do not know where it is. I do not touch. Not now. Not anymore. Not since.”
These are the first two lines of “My Vagina Was My Village,” which is one of the monologues in “The Vagina Monologues,” a play written by performer and activist Eve Ensler in 1994 that tells stories of sexual assault, abuse, and women’s sexuality. Since its premier, the show has been performed at universities and theaters around the world.
“Village,” as Kennedy and Zabryna call the monologue, showcases one woman’s traumatic rape during the Bosnian War and her experience coping. There is a range of heaviness among the many monologues in “The Vagina Monologues.” But the show’s title, as well as individual monologues in the show —“The Vagina Workshop,” “My Angry Vagina,” and “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy”—all center on one thing: Vaginas.
The word is part of what attracted Kennedy to the show in the first place. She first heard about it during New Student Orientation last August when she attended an event on the second floor of Houston Hall. Downstairs, she saw a booth with a sign that read, “The Vagina Monologues.” It was an “attention grabber,” she says. “It was just immensely fascinating.”
When “The Vagina Monologues” premiered in 1996, the called it “probably the most important piece of political theater of the last decade.” Since then, that is more intersectional and inclusive of different races, sexualities, and gender identities. As the discourse reaches college campuses, many have started to question whether a show that focuses so heavily on vaginas—belonging mostly to straight, white, cisgender women—can still achieve its intended goal of “.”
Shows across the country consequently have been canceled, including recently at Temple University in 2017. At Penn, “The Vagina Monologues” goes up in Irvine Auditorium this week, and critics and production leaders alike are grappling with these questions of inclusivity.
Each year, thousands of schools and organizations across the nation put on their own productions of “The Vagina Monologues.” This year at Penn, the monologues will be performed on February 15 and 16, marking its 19th annual production. The play is produced by Penn V–Day, a chapter of the “global activist movement” created by Ensler to “heighten awareness about violence against women and girls.” All proceeds go to Philadelphia’s only rape crisis center, Women Organized Against Rape (WOAR).
Ensler started writing the monologues following a conversation with a friend about the effects of menopause on her vagina, which inspired Ensler to write a play about vaginas, according to an article by The Guardian. She then interviewed hundreds of women of “all ages and races” about their experiences with sex, sexual assault, their vaginas, and sexual identity to create a compilation of “fictional monologues.”
“Village,” performed by Zabryna and Kennedy in this year’s production, is set during the Bosnian War in the early 1900s and portrays the traumatic rape experience of a woman refugee. It’s the story of one woman, out of the estimated 20,000 to 50,000 who were raped. Kennedy plays the Bosnian woman refugee before she was raped and assaulted, while Zabryna plays her after the assault.
This is Zabryna’s third year in “The Vagina Monologues.” In her sophomore year, she performed a monologue called, “I Was There In the Room,” which details the beauty of birth. Last year, Zabryna performed “Introduction,” a peppy, get–in–your–face monologue that starts off the show.
But Zabryna says “Village” isn’t like the other pieces she’s performed. The monologue is heavy so that Zabryna needs to enter the rehearsal in the right headspace. “It's very powerful, about still having power despite a traumatic experience, which is something I can relate to.”
While the monologues capture a range of experiences with sex and sexual assault, the fact remains: They are about vaginas. Claire Medina (C ‘22), who identifies as genderqueer, thinks that there should be more to the conversation around survivorship than just the physical body. “It might be worth reframing it as something bigger than ‘The Vagina Monologues.’ Anything bio–essentialist like that seems to be kind of missing the point.”
Claire is a member of Penn Non–Cis, a student group that provides safe spaces for trans, gender non–conforming, and non–cisgender people of all identities. They and some other critics of “The Vagina Monologues” agree that it should pick whether it wants to focus on the trauma of those with vaginas or the trauma of women. Brennan Burns (C ‘20), a trans woman who’s also in Penn Non–Cis, says the monologues should “connect these two ideas and focus on bringing it all together.”
Claire adds that trans narratives should be more widely included in the monologues, especially since those disproportionately affected by sexual violence are trans women of color. “You can't have a revolution and overthrow this system unless it's led by the people who are most affected by it.”
In fact, because of similar issues of inclusivity, “The Vagina Monologues” at Temple was replaced last year by “a new Temple–specific event,” according to a statement by Alison McKee, the director of the Wellness Resource Center (WRC) at Temple. McKee and others at the WRC reached this decision following a feedback session hosted by the WRC in which student organizations on campus expressed concerns that the monologues were “not inclusive to all races, sexualities, and genders,” as stated in the article by The Temple News.
Nu'Rodney Prad, director of student engagement at Temple for the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, Advocacy, and Leadership, echoes these concerns.
“When we say ‘vagina,’ it's a gender piece,” he says. “It automatically right there kind of excludes, without no reason or intention, our trans population, for instance.”
Performers and critics of “The Vagina Monologues” believe the show is a product of its time. In 1996, the play first debuted as a one–woman show in a small theater in Soho, New York.
The effects of the show, which won an Obie Award in 1997, were transformative. Following the shows, women came up to Ensler with stories ranging from rape and assault to sex life and orgasms, Ensler told The Guardian. It encouraged women to “openly talk about their bodies and sexuality,” Forbes reported. At the time, a play that highlighted cisgender women’s vaginas was “groundbreaking.”
Claire mentions that their mom and her generation felt really connected to “The Vagina Monologues.” “Maybe it’s a tool that has outlived its usefulness,” Claire says.
Monique Howard, executive director of WOAR, points out that her organization faces similar assumptions about who its resources and community are intended to serve, largely because of their name: Women Organized Against Rape. Nonetheless, she emphasizes that WOAR—much like V–Day—is open to everyone.
“The organization was organized by women,” she says. “It does not say, ‘services only women.’ It's the women organized against rape. We are an organization that was started by women that were organized against rape, and in the ‘70s, the only people who were organized against rape were women.”
Nevertheless, members of “The Vagina Monologues” and the broader Penn V–Day movement are grappling with what many see as flaws and outdatedness of the show.
Bella Essex (C ‘19), and Fiona Jensen–Hitch (C ‘19) are the director and producer, respectively, of V–Day this year. Fiona says although the show does include a story of a transgender woman, it’s “very, very specific to one experience of the individual.”
Although the show’s narrative might be “incomplete,” Fiona and Bella say specific licensing rights prohibit performers from changing the monologues. Fiona says she didn’t realize how legalized the whole process was until she received an email listing all the rules they had to follow from V–Day, the global movement started by Ensler following the success of “The Vagina Monologues.”
“Realizing that we're trying to do this work to both support an organization and also provide a space for people has been really difficult,” Fiona says. “Especially when we have ideas about how we want to improve the space or … make it more welcoming for whomever that is, and that's been really difficult to navigate.”
The national organization has tried to circumvent some of the obstacles the original script poses to the ever-evolving feminist movement. In the past, Ensler would write a spotlight piece each year “that addresses a section of the femme–identified community that hadn't previously been represented in the show,” Bella says. “The scripts that you would look at today are very different from the original one.”
This year, Ensler did not write her own spotlight piece. Instead, each show will perform its own personal monologue written by one of Penn V–Day’s own community members.
Bella says this piece tells the story of a Penn student finding the V–Day community and auditioning for “The Vagina Monologues,” while simultaneously experiencing sexual assault. “It talks about what happened [after the assault], what they did to overcome that, the people in their life who were really important to them, and what that healing process looks like, how they were able to move past it.”
The personal monologue is one avenue to address the monologues’ problems with inclusivity. Bella stresses that Penn V–Day wants to acknowledge these problems “head–on, so really not trying to skirt around it.”
While “The Vagina Monologues” remains at the heart of the controversy, production members stress that it is only one part of a broader movement that the play “gave birth to,” known as V–Day. In response to the popularity and support of “The Vagina Monologues,” Ensler created the V–Day movement, which includes other performances and events apart from her play, to “heighten awareness about violence against women and girls.”
Recently, Penn V–Day organized events with other groups on campus, including a poetry workshop on empowerment in collaboration with The Excelano Project and a speakeasy hosted with Mask & Wig. It is also planning on hosting a coffee shop event with Osiris Senior Society in the near future, with the hopes of reaching out to students who don’t want to see the show but want to support the movement.
Like many others in the V–Day movement, Bella identifies as a survivor of sexual assault and joined because of the support and community it offered.
“Being a part of the movement when I was a sophomore and didn’t know as many people at Penn gave me the ability to kind of acknowledge myself as a survivor of sexual assault for the first time, and I felt really safe doing that and I knew I was going to be supported,” Bella says. As someone who identifies as gay, Bella also says the community provided a space for self–acceptance, self–forgiveness, and the “language to talk about my own identity.”
Similarly, Fiona says that being a leader of the movement for the last six months has “completely shifted” the way she views issues of feminism and sexual identity. “It's not even just due to the show itself; it's really due to the people in it.”
But she agrees with those who say that “The Vagina Monologues” may no longer be the most relevant part of the V–Day movement. As Penn V–Day becomes more involved on campus as both a community and a movement, Bella and Fiona say there’s a need for community input in deciding Penn V–Day’s future.
“Whether it's continuing with ‘The Vagina Monologues,’ completely moving away, or something in between…there has to be a community dialogue,” Fiona says.
To facilitate this discussion, Fiona and Bella are planning to host a talkback a little more than a week after the show. The talkback will be a “space for people to provide feedback about how they [feel] about Penn V–Day specifically and the direction…V–Day should go, and that can hopefully inform the future board,” Fiona says.
Penn V–Day members say “The Vagina Monologues” provides more than just a community at Penn. The group also donates all proceeds to WOAR, which services thousands of Philadelphia–area survivors a year through trauma therapy, direct services, and hotline calls.
Despite the various dissenting opinions regarding the play, Zabryna says there is “power in what the show is able to do and the platform it's able to give.”
Regarding the relationship between Penn V–Day and WOAR, Howard echoes this sentiment. “[The play] aligns with what WOAR does in helping people heal from sexual assault and giving them their voice back, or giving them a voice so that we can return them to their authentic self. That's where the true alignment is.”
But the conversation around “The Vagina Monologues” extends past Penn and WOAR. Colleges around the country have wrestled with inclusivity: In 2014, Columbia University’s production team exclusively cast women of color to “center traditionally marginalized identities within the feminist community.” In 2015, women’s college Mount Holyoke canceled the production, citing similar reasons to Temple.
“Even as we recognize the many, many limitations of the show itself, we've also been talking about discussing limitations in the broader feminist movement in the United States, specifically,” Fiona says. “And I think that's been a really valuable discussion, to talk about how … the show fit[s] into that larger narrative.”
Perhaps the monologues provide a way to gauge how much taboos around cisgender bodies and sexual violence have changed since the show was first performed in 1996. Kennedy says that when the show premiered, its frankness “shocked people.”
Still today, monologues like “Village” are a heavy experience for both the actors and the audience. Zabryna and Kennedy say it’s empowering to be able to stand on stage and perform such an emotionally heavy piece.
The transformation and recovery of the Bosnian woman throughout the monologue is powerful and beautiful, says Zabryna. “You see across the monologue how she has an ownership of it and how she gains the power.”
She highlights that “Village” ends on an ambiguous note.
“You don’t need a solid answer to things,” she concludes. “But there is a power in that.”
Allison Wu is a freshman in the College from Palo Alto, California. She is a features staff writer for Street.
[A previous version of this article misstated Bella Essex's class year as 2020. Bella will be graduating in 2019. 34th Street regrets the error.]