I mentioned last week in passing that I had auditioned for and been cast in a local production of Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues." My involvement in this production represents a personal triumph for me for many reasons.
For one thing, as I've talked about on this blog on other occasions, I suffer from depression that has at times, specifically in the years since giving birth to my son, become completely debilitating. It is a huge step for me just to become interested in something outside the sphere of the bare minimum of activities I have to do to survive on a daily basis. To have an interest, something that sparks energy and has meaning for me...I would not have been physically able to do this two years ago, a year ago, even six months ago. It's a sign that I'm healing; I'm on the right track.
Also, besides just being able to DO SOMETHING other than work, take care of Eliot, sleep, rinse, wash, and repeat, the audition and the upcoming performances represent a venturing outside my comfort zone. I've always been incredibly, painfully shy. When I was a kid, I was terrified of walking up to the counter at McDonald's to ask for ketchup. I wouldn't even order my own food with my mother standing beside me. I would whisper into her ear what I wanted, and she would relay my order to the restaurant worker. And I'm not talking here about when I was two, or three, or four. I'm talking about when I was in junior high. Not. Even. Kidding. So auditioning, SPEAKING, out loud, in front of people, voluntarily. It's a pretty big deal for me. Huge, actually.
But what's more important to me than overcoming either of these obstacles is the play itself. "The Vagina Monologues" is a series of stories told from the point of view of individual women from across a spectrum of ages, races, sexual orientations. Each monologue speaks of a different type of experience with the vagina (or really, to be more accurate, the vulva). There are monologues about positive and negative experiences: the topics range from menstruation, sex, masturbation, genital mutilation, and rape, to the power of naming one's body parts, to giving birth. At their best, the monologues and their performance creates a sphere of acceptance and understanding, an atmosphere where women can reflect on what it means to be a woman. Our bodies have been admired, used, co-opted, and exploited, but they are also capable of bringing us great pleasure, and of bringing life into the world. "The Vagina Monologues" is a celebration of the power and beauty of the female anatomy, just as it is a critique of the patriarchal society that has systematically devalued women and women's experiences.
The play is not without its flaws. There has been plenty of criticism leveled at the piece from all different corners, and at least some of this criticism is valid. But again, at their best, the monologues spark discussion and debate, and get people thinking and talking about feminism. Not everyone will love every monologue; some are problematic, some are difficult to listen to. But any woman who's ever used a tampon will relate if only in some small way to "My Angry Vagina," and anyone who's ever witnessed a vaginal birth will recognize the sense of wonder and awe conveyed by "I Was In the Room."
The monologue I will be delivering at this year's production is a more divisive one: it's titled "Reclaiming Cunt." As I learned the hard way (and should have known already), the word "cunt" sparks automatic, gut-level reactions in some people. In fact, it's a word I also take extreme exception to when used as a pejorative term for a woman. Somehow, it feels worse, more nasty and more personal than calling a man a "dick." Somehow there's a sense of shame attached to the word "cunt," and a sense of dirtiness. Negative connotations all around.
When I saw that this was the monologue I had been assigned, my first thought was, "What in the world have I gotten myself into?!" I didn't know whether I could do it. But my second thought, the thought that followed quickly on the heels of that first shocked and dismayed one, was, "Yes. I can totally do this. Absolutely." I can and will do it not in spite of the problematic nature of the term, but because of it. It's really the monologue that suits me the most. As a writer and a teacher of writing, I love the English language. I love words. I love rhyme and rhythm and sound, the way certain words feel in my mouth as they roll off my tongue. And "cunt," frankly, when you strip away all the negative connotations of the word, and just think about the word itself, the letters and the sound...well...it is a lovely word. The amazing thing about language is that it's very much alive. The meanings of words aren't rigid and fixed, rather they stretch and bend and are transformed with time and use. I refuse to accept "cunt" the way we've all heard it used. I refuse to accept it as a label, as a term snarled viciously to cut me down or silence me. I can revel in the beauty of its consonants and vowels; I can imbue it with my own meanings, celebrate it, reclaim it. And that's exactly what I'll be doing on February 4, 5, and 6th, as I perform in "The Vagina Monologues" along with a small group of brave women who believe, as I do, that our bodies are beautiful and deserve to be celebrated, that we deserve to be safe, that we deserve to have a voice.
The proceeds from this production will benefit two local agencies, a domestic violence shelter, and our local sexual assault and counseling service. That in itself is reason enough for me to get involved.
But the fourth reason, the fourth impetus for my involvement in this production, is to honor the memory of my dear friend Molly. If she were here today, I know that she would be crusading for the very same causes. She was a strong feminist and an amazing woman. She pushed me outside my comfort zone countless times (and not always with positive results). The theater was her playground, her turf. The person I was when I knew Molly...well...that person would never have been able to do what I am doing today. Today I am stronger, and that strength is at least partially the result of having known her.
While I realize that not everyone is going to be cheerleading my performance in a couple of weeks, I know for certain that the people who matter the most to me are going to be right there by my side. They won't all be able to be there in person. They won't all be physically filling a seat in the audience. But I know they are, and always will be, there with me in spirit.