Over the past few years we've gotten used to the new custom of celebrating Valentine's Day, the holiday of romantic love, with performances of The Vagina Monologues, the play by Eve Ensler which takes a decidedly jaundiced view of relations between men and women. This year, however, Amherst Regional High School managed to break new ground, and cause some shock waves, by putting on an official high school production of the play.
The controversy has focused on the play's sexually explicit nature, which is hardly surprising. The idea of teenage girls performing Ensler's monologues—complete with graphic sexual descriptions, in-your-face vulgar language, and reenactments of orgasmic moans—in front of an adult audience is rather freaky. Amherst Bulletin columnist Larry Kelly, one of the few parents who publicly objected to the production, has noted that many of those girls aren't old enough to be admitted to an R-rated movie. (His proposal that the cast be limited to seniors was shot down.)
One particularly questionable monologue deals with a 16-year-old girl who learns to love her genitals and, by extension, herself after a sexual encounter with a 24-year-old woman. In the original version of the play, the girl was 13 and the monologue included the statement, "If it was rape, it was a good rape." This segment has repeatedly caused controversy, and Ensler has toned it down in response to criticism.
Yet even with the changes, we are talking about a 24-year-old seducing a 16-year-old after plying her with alcohol. This would most likely be a crime under Massachusetts state law (though the law is somewhat confusing, variously setting the age of consent at 16 or 18 depending on the circumstances). Does anyone think that a high school or a college would produce such a play, or that feminist groups would endorse it, if it condoned a 24-year-old man having sex with a 16-year-old girl?
Of course, in the world of The Vagina Monologues, any positive depiction of a male-female relationship, regardless of age, is pretty rare. With one or two exceptions, men are depicted as oafish at best and abusive at worst.
The status of The Vagina Monologues as a feminist classic is somewhat mystifying. A major part of the play's message is that, as a woman, you are your vagina. Call me naive, but I thought one of feminism's basic ideas was that women are not defined by their anatomy. In a New York Times interview a few years ago, Ensler talked about women's special "vagina intelligence" in which "understanding of the world comes through the body." While it's important for teenage girls to have a positive attitude toward their bodies, I would hope that our educational system would encourage them, first and foremost, to understand the world through their minds.
The play's focus on male violence and abuse toward women is even more troubling than its focus on female bodies. When a Fox News reporter asked one of the adult women in the audience at Amherst High if she was troubled by the material about an adult woman having sex with an underage girl, the woman replied, "That's nothing compared to the level of abuse that women have gone through, that this drama talks about." Appearing on NBC News, 17-year-old Kristin Tyler, who helped organize the event, stated that "one in five girls in high school are either sexually or physically abused on a date."
Of course male abuse of women is a real and serious problem; but in modern-day America, relations between the sexes are far more complex and far more balanced than that. Studies on dating violence, for instance, show that it's very much a two-way street. Aside from that, a play that purports to celebrate women and dwells so relentlessly on the evil that men do sends girls the wrong message. Betty Dodson, a feminist sex educator, has been harshly critical of The Vagina Monologues because "women end up celebrating sexual violence and not the creative or regenerative pleasures of erotic love."
A few years ago, Amherst High canceled a production of West Side Story because of concerns about racial stereotypes in the famous musical. How ironic: Back then, school officials apparently missed the fact that West Side Story is actually about the evil of racism. Now, they have missed the fact that The Vagina Monologues actually promotes victimhood and hate, not empowerment.