Since the 1990s, students from Mount Holyoke College, an all-women's school in Massachusetts, have staged an annual production of The Vagina Monologues. Not this year. The college is retiring the ritual over concerns that the play—penned by Eve Ensler in 1996 as a way to "celebrate the vagina" and women's sexuality—is not inclusive enough.
In a school-wide email from Mount Holyoke's student-theater board, relayed by Campus Reform, student Erin Murphy explained that "at its core, the show offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman … Gender is a wide and varied experience, one that cannot simply be reduced to biological or anatomical distinctions, and many of us who have participated in the show have grown increasingly uncomfortable presenting material that is inherently reductionist and exclusive."
Good riddance!, I say; though I admire how women's groups have used The Vagina Monologues to raise funding for anti-violence programs, the play itself has always been a little too schmaltzy for my liking, its tone a little too outdated. That it's become (and remained) a millennial student staple has always surprised me. I wouldn't be sad to see more colleges ditching the show.
But I just can't get on board with the logic of Mount Holyoke's dismissal, similar strains of which have been seen elsewhere recently. Last January, for instance, a fundraiser for a Texas abortion-advocacy group came under fire because of its title, "A Night of a Thousand Vaginas," which some argued was hurtful to trans individuals.
In both cases here, the argument is premised on the idea that a) not all women have vaginas, and b) some men do have vaginas, because some trans individuals identify and live as a different gender than they were born without getting genital reconstructive surgery. Ergo, a trans women is a woman, full stop, but she may have a penis. A trans man is a man, full stop, but he may have a vagina. Fine. I get that. I'm cool with that. And, regardless, it doesn't matter if I'm cool with it, because how other people define their genders/bodies/sexualities is none of my concern. If you are a woman without a vagina, neat; there is totally room for all of our experiences in this great big, crazy world.
Yet I am a woman with a vagina, and this becomes an area of my concern when people start saying that I shouldn't reference or acknowlege that—that it's in fact bad and intolerant so 20th century to even speak about it. The fact that some trans women don't have vaginas doesn't negate the fact that the vast majority of women do. And now, in the name of feminism, "female-validating talk about vaginas is now forbidden," as one anonymous writer on a Mount Holyoke messageboard put it. "That's so misogynistic under the guise of 'progress.'"
But "we can't present a show that is blatantly transphobic," countered another student, displaying the kind of rhetoric that is troubling in all this. There's certainly nothing wrong with wanting to stage a women's show that includes trans perspectives (on genitals or whatever else), but that doesn't make a show without those perspectives transphobic. It just makes it a show without those perspectives, in this case one written almost 20 years ago. And while it might be hard for today's students to imagine, in those days discouraging people from talking openly about female sexuality or suggesting that gender was anything but a social construct is what would earn you the approbation of feminists.