Seated in a half-circle, dispersed over chairs, couches and beanbags, about thirty students have gathered. An improvised stage has been created with desk lamps and strings of fairy lights. Zoë, the student who has organised the event, welcomes the crowd and thanks them for coming.
As the sun starts to set and the room becomes darker, the first monologue begins. A voice speaks through a recording: ‘’I bet you’re worried: we were worried. We were worried about vaginas’’. Continuing, the voice tells the origin story of the play with flowing words. The names that we give vaginas are listed, the audience laughing as the voice rattles: powderbox, poochie, poopie, poopelu, poonani.
“You ask me what would it wear? What kind of question is that? What would it wear? It would wear a big sign: CLOSED DUE TO FLOODING.”
On February 26th, students of Leiden University put on a performance of The Vagina Monologues, a collection of stories from women about sexuality and gender-based violence.
A student portrays an elderly woman – displeased to be asked about her “down there” – recounting the moment that pushed her into a lifelong discomfort with her own vagina. “It’s part of the house, but you don’t see it or think about it. It has to be there though, ‘cause every house needs a cellar, otherwise the bedroom would be in the basement”. The woman thanks the invisible interviewer: she’s never told anyone this before. The piece feels almost like a cautionary tale: is this what happens when we don’t talk about it?
“They beat the girl out of my boy… or so they tried.”
As the monologues continue, hilarity and stillness alternate. One monologue tells the story of a transgender woman, several students taking the stage to perform the piece. The words ebb and flow as painful memories and severe trauma are recounted. Zoë shares with Entrepot, “The whole ‘making vaginas a topic’ because it never has been, is a kind of fight against the silence built around it by the patriarchy.’’
Students enter and leave the stage, each monologue telling its story. One woman recounts looking at her vagina for the first time, through a mirror. Another explains why her vagina is so goddamn angry: “an army of people out there thinking up ways to torture my poor-ass, gentle, loving vagina”. One student performs ‘The Little Coochi Snorcher That Could’, detailing the story of a girl who is raped as a child, and revealing fragments of her story as she grows up. After the performance, she reflects: ‘’I just don’t understand how a culture can be so asleep on a topic like this.’’
‘’I call it cunt. I’ve reclaimed it, ‘cunt.’ I really like it. Cunt. Listen to it. C u n t.”
To Zoë, there’s a special value in performing these stories among small groups of students. “I think the intimate setting creates this very safe place, where people can feel comfortable, and feel like a 30-person community that is having this experience together.’’ Pao, a fellow student who attended the event, adds: ‘’College campuses are appropriate places to start talking about this, because they are usually filled with open minded people. I think it’s the first step to open up a debate.”
The play has received extensive criticism over the years – much of it for its (lack of) treatment of non-Western and transgender women’s stories. It has been eye-opening to come to understand and appreciate the intersectional critiques of the play. Still – with all its flaws – the effect that The Vagina Monologues can have on audiences is tangible. Built up out of real stories, the play makes for a conflicting viewing experience. There is misery and laughter, discomfort and liberation, bluntness and reflection. For some, there’s a sense of defiance.
The Vagina Monologues aims to reflect the complexity of our relationship with vaginas, but it also tries to tell a larger story: the context within which that relationship so often becomes troubled. It makes me think: if this relationship is embedded so deeply within our lives, why not talk about it?