Book Review, Cloche Hat, Family Guy, Feminism, Gracie and Frankie, Harry Potter, Manipulation of women, Play, Playboy, Queer Theory, Rape, sexual Education, Sexual politics, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, Superbad, The Big Lebowski, The Penis Book, The Vagina Monologues, Vagina, vaginal imagery, Vibrators, Voldemort, Vulva, What Vaginas Smell Like, What Vaginas would Wear, Women's Bodies
If I had a vagina myself I think it would wear a cloche hat. I know it originally as a “flapper hat,” but that’s far too obscene when discussing women’s lady-bits. I’m thinking that it would have to be light gray with a solid black band and a feather or else a felt flower along the right side to really make everything pop. My vagina would never wear red or pink or maroon hats, for that would be too grotesquely obvious, and in fact the only color near those shades I would ever consider wearing would be a deep wine, and the name of that particular hue would have to be as obscure as the dye that produced it for nothing is too good for my vagina.
This is all a lovely exercise in imagination, but the conflict remains that I have a penis and penises don’t look good in hats.
Like so many things in my life I learned about the Vagina Monologues through Family Guy. If you listen close you can hear thousands of feminist’s cringe after reading that. Given what the Vagina Monologues are actually about, and given the fact that Family Guy has, in the last few seasons, done little to actually help its own reputation as being a den of refuge for sexist humor this cringe isn’t entirely unwarranted. Still the image of a woman’s waist, clad in just a pair of pink panties doing stand-up, was actually pretty funny and a great opportunity to observe the real originality of the early seasons of the show. Whether Family Guy is sexist or not is for the YouTube comment sections, the point is watching that show exposed me first to the idea that The Vagina Monologues was a performance that had something to do with Vaginas and, most assuredly, feminism in some form or capacity.
On that same note before actually sitting down to read the book I had never considered how the smell of vaginas could actually play a role in how a person felt about their own. Likewise, it was a revelatory experience reading the names of various types of clothes women would wear, or dress, their vagina in if they got the chance. Vaginas, and here my maleness really shines, were just internal body parts for women that had to do with sex and childbirth. In my defense, growing up in East Texas I rarely heard the word at all, and in fact actually saying the word aloud was like muttering the name of He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, yet another famous V word that really needs to be spoken aloud so that we as a society can eliminate the fear that surrounds it.
Voldemort, I’m talking, writing, about Voldemort. And vaginas.
Eve Ensler, who is the main performer and writer (really compiler) of The Vagina Monologues has a section where she reads just the smells women have offered for vaginas, either their own or others and I have to list out a few because they range from beautiful to morbid to hysterical:
Earth, Wet garbage, God, Water, A Brand-new Morning, Depth, Sweet Ginger, Depends, Me, No Smell, Pineapple, Paloma Picasso, Roses, Yummy candy, Somewhere between fish and lilacs, Peaches, the woods, Strawberry-kiwi tea, Fish, cheese, ocean, sexy, a song, the beginning. (93-95).
She also provides several lists throughout the Monologues and I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the list of clothes women provided when asked, “If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?”:
A beret, a leather jacket, mink, a pink boa, jeans, a male tuxedo, emeralds, an evening gown, Armani only see-through black underwear, Sequins, Something machine washable, Angora, a red bow, a leopard Hat, a silk kimono, glasses, sweatpants, An electrical shock device to keep unwanted strangers away, a pinafore, a slicker. (15-17).
I’m sure if I read that out loud to my wife she would appreciate the “electrical shock device” but that’s just because she would, if it were possible, be a supervillain that destroyed people for fun. As for myself, like I said above, my vagina would wear a cloche hat and look fabulous while doing so.
These lists though are important to read and listen to, principally because they do not come from just one woman’s imagination. The Vagina Monologues is not so much an original play, as it is the readings of various testimonies of women from all walks of life. Ensler has made a career talking to women and hearing their stories and she repeats their stories for audiences so that they hear from a woman in her 80s who had never even seen her vagina, a six year old girl who says her vagina would smell like snowflakes, survivors of rape-camps during the war and genocide in Bosnia, lesbians and their sexuality, women menstruating, a woman who hated her vagina until she met a man who loved it, a woman who had an orgasm once during her teens and the resulting “flood” embarrassed her too much to worry or think about it for almost 40 years, and the stories could literally fill volumes from that point on.
My reader may interrupt and ask why a whole book is really necessary when talking about Vaginas, but to this complaint I can offer only contempt or pity. You see the most popular essay I have ever written was about dicks. Big black dicks to be precise. Almost every day I pull up White Tower Musings and see that some other person has typed in some charming assortment of words involving “penis,” “black,” “girls fucked,” and “Mandingo.” There is a near constant worship and fascination with penises, which is ironic when you remember the fact that people will seemingly do everything they can to talk about penises without actually saying the words penis. If there is a paranoia or embarrassment with acknowledging vaginas in our culture, there is a dramatic and sometimes violent fear or disgust of the vagina.
Two cultural references probably give better examples than I could. The first is from the movie Superbad. Jonah Hill is defending his free use of pornography and when the issue of penetration comes up he has a line that’s revealing and truly pathetic.
Evan: You could always subscribe to a site like Perfect Ten. I mean that could be anything, it could be a bowling site.
Seth: Yeah, but it doesn’t actually show dick going in which is a huge concern.
Evan: Right, I didn’t realize that.
Seth: Besides, have you ever seen a vagina by itself?
Seth: [shakes his head] Not for me.
Likewise in the movie The Big Lebowski, Julian Moore plays an artist who is probably the exact image of feminism every anti-feminist thinks about when they masturbate to how much they hate feminism. She introduces herself to The Dude before mentioning a particular quality about her art.
Maude Lebowski: Does the female form make you uncomfortable, Mr. Lebowski?
The Dude: Uh, is that what this is a picture of?
Maude Lebowski: In a sense, yes. My art has been commended as being strongly vaginal which bothers some men. The word itself makes some men uncomfortable. Vagina.
The Dude: Oh yeah?
Maude Lebowski: Yes, they don’t like hearing it and find it difficult to say whereas without batting an eye a man will refer to his dick or his rod or his Johnson.
The Dude: Johnson?
These two impressions are just microcosms of the larger issue which is that people are often encouraged to ignore and feel repulsed by vaginas at the same time they’re taught to love and adore them. One example of the book provides a beautiful, in every sense of the term, demonstration of this when she interviews a group of senior women:
I interviewed a group of women between the ages of sixty-fie and seventy-five. These interviews were the most poignant of all, possibly because many of the women had never had a vagina interview before. Unfortunately, most of the women in this age group had very little conscious relationship to their vaginas. I felt terribly lucky to have grown up in the feminist era. One women who was seventy-two had never even seen her vagina. She had only touched herself when she was washing in the shower, but never with conscious intention. She had never had an orgasm. At seventy-two she went into therapy, and with encouragement of her therapist, she went home one afternoon by herself, lit some candles, took a bath, played some comforting music, and discovered her vagina. She said it took her over an hour, because she was arthritic by then, but when she finally found her clitoris, she said, she cried. This monologue is for her. (23-4).
From here if my contester has any other objections I’m afraid they’re going to have to leave them at the door, because after this story The Vagina Monologues aren’t just relevant they’re more important than ever. It’s important that men and women, especially from previous generations to realize, that sexuality is not limited to youth. For my own part I learned this lesson by reading Ensler’s play, but also from the show Gracie and Frankie. Originally when the show began I wanted to watch it because I loved Martin Sheen in West Wing and growing up Dad would often let me watch Law & Order where Sam Watterson was always the most interesting part of the “law” slot. The show is about two couples and Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin play the wives who find out over dinner that their husbands have been having an affair for close to forty years. Gracie and Frankie, who at first hate each other, begin to live together and so the show follows them as they try to figure out what’s next and where to go after the life you’ve built suddenly stops. The end of the last episode of season two brought the issue of elderly women masturbating however because Frankie receives a vibrator as a gift (I think it’s a Hitachi wand) and she sprains her wrist.
I sound painfully virginal when I write this out, but I didn’t think women over a certain age masturbated. Even if I did, I just didn’t really consider it because being a young man masturbation is a far more personal experience and you usually don’t think about other people masturbating while you’re masturbating. The attitude is, sexist as it may be: of course men masturbate, but why would a woman?
Perhaps this demonstration of masculine solipsism is great Segway into lesbianism.
Ensler interviewed several lesbians, but one in particular came back to the show and told her she hadn’t quite got it right and so Ensler tried again.
“As a lesbian,” she said, “I need you to start from a lesbian-centered place, not framed within a heterosexual context. I did not desire women, for example, because I disliked men. Men weren’t even part of the equation.” She said, “You need to talk about entering into vaginas. You can’t talk about lesbian sex without doing this.
“For example,” she said. “I’m having sex with a woman. She’s inside me. I’m inside me. Fucking myself together with her. There are four fingers inside me; two are hers, two are mine.” (115).
Once again I must profess my ignorance. Being a bisexual man, and former straight man, one is often exposed to “lesbianism” via pornography. This unfortunately perpetuates a bad label because, as boys grow up with the internet as I did, there is cultivated the idea that lesbians are fluid in their sexuality, open and available to men. This is obviously bullshit, but unfortunately nobody teaches you that. Because schools in the United States often cower beneath the might of outraged parents or religiously funded institutions, real healthy sexual education is often a garage enterprise, with the odd sex-ed teacher showing up with condoms and the eventual abused banana. My point is simply this passage was an excellent reminder that lesbianism is misunderstood by many men because no one bothers to teach them that lesbians don’t hate men, they just aren’t part of the equation.
In one of the more powerful portions of the book Ensler discusses her experience interviewing women who survived the “rape-Camps” of Bosnia. The break-up of the former country of Yugoslavia created a political cluster-fuck resulting in an ethnic cleansing and apparently between the bouts of murder a few soldiers established a systemized unit for the consistent rape of women.
I should forewarn my reader that this can be a little rough:
Not since the soldiers put a long thick rifle inside me. So cold, the steel rod canceling my heart. Don’t know whether they’re going to fire it or shove it through my spinning brain. Six of them, monstrous doctors with black masks shoving bottles up me too. There were sticks and the end of a broom.
Not since I heard the skin tear and made lemon screeching sounds, not since a piece of my vagina came off in my hand, a part of the lip, now one side is completely gone. (63).
Ensler’s recordings here serve a historical and political purpose, but I find that simply writing these stories down is a profoundly human act. It’s also a reminder that I lack a great strength because simply typing them out I had to stop.
I had to stop and cry again. Close to 2000 women were impregnated as a result of rape, because of these camps.
But lest I succumb to the morbid conclusion Ensler notes what The Vagina Monologues mean for her later on:
This is my favorite part about traveling with the work. I get to heat the truly amazing stories. They are told so simply, so matter-of-factly. I am always reminded how extraordinary women’s lives are, and how profound. And I am reminded how isolated women are, and how oppressed they often become in their isolation. How few people they have ever told of their suffering and confusion. How much shame there is surrounding all this. How crucial it is for women to tell their stories, to share them with other people, how our survival as women depends on this dialogue. (98).
I hear the complaint immediately. My reader will contest; this is nothing but typical feminist tripe. Why isn’t there a Penis Monologues? Why isn’t there a show where a man reads testimonies by men about their penises and the funny or sad or terrifying stories about their penises? Why should I care about vaginas?
There’s a problem with this argument and it reeks of bullshit. The contester who makes this argument is often self-serving because they are lazy. If the critic who makes this charge is truly serious and is legitimately concerned about the absence of a Penis Monologues then he should stop complaining and actually do something about. Quit your job, start asking men about their dicks, start recording the stories that they tell, start booking gigs, and make The Penis Monologues a thing. But of course they won’t, because it’s as I said before, the critic who suggests the Vagina Monologues are self-serving feminist tripe are themselves just pedantic cowards who need to feel special shitting on someone else’s good time rather than going out and making something of their own.
My animosity aside, there is tremendous importance to The Vagina Monologues as a performance, but for my own part as a written document. Not everyone will be able to see Ensler’s show. Not everyone will be able to meet her and tell her their story or listen to the testimony of other women. The chance to hear the stories is where everything comes full circle. “The Battle of the Sexes” is an unfortunate lingering marketing ploy that, beneath the layers of bullshit reveals an almost mythic truth, which is that men and women constitute their own communities. Calling The Vagina Monologues feminism is of course fair, but it’s also limiting for at stake is not just whether women are allowed to talk about their genitals as much as men. The Vagina Monologues are the community of women recognizing one another, recognizing their differences, and at the same time finding themselves unified by the very fact they each possess the same, and at the same time not so same, set of genitals. Each woman forms a relationship with her vagina the same way a man does with his penis, and by having a venue from which to talk about their relationship women are able to find one another.
And at first it will just be about the differences but then the similarities. Women who were abused, women who are lesbians, women who never found their vaginas and perhaps still haven’t, these connections and differences make the Vagina something more than a place where babies go in and out, it makes them a symbolic totem from which women can find one another as individuals, as women, and feel connected to someone else.
Ensler ends her introduction with a statement that is almost a manifesto:
In order for the human race to continue, women must be safe and empowered. It’s an obvious idea, but like a vagina, it needs great attention and love in order to be revealed. (xxxvi).
One of the best teachers I ever had was a woman, and during one of her lectures (I think it was during Jane Eyre) she told us that consistently it has been observed that the way societies remain advanced is by educating women. Education is a frightening activity, and requires dedication for it often a tedious exercise. Most of all however, it requires real courage that comes from inner strength.
A book like The Vagina Monologues is vital, not simply because it’s a wonderful feminist document, but because it affords women, as well as men, to examine the way we as a society and culture view vaginas, how we treat people who have them. Rather than hiding them, or being disgusted by them, we should at least have the courage to at least talk about them. Even if we’re uncomfortable, even if we’re scared, and even if we’re simply apathetic, we should still try and find the effort to ask a few simple questions about them and listen to what the other has to say. These little questions matter, because they encourage reflection.
They also make me reevaluate the cloche hat, but damn if nothing else looks good on my vagina. And sun hats are just so blasé.
For my own part, I didn’t get a chance to work it into the article. but here’s my vagina story.
For my own part, though I don’t have one myself, vaginas have always been a mystery. When I was five years old I had the nasty habit of going through my father’s stuff. Usually his desk because he has nice pens and pencils. One day, and I’ve never forgotten it, I was looking through his drawers, shortly after he’d told me not to, and when I opened one of them I saw a naked woman resting against an old aluminum radiator. This was my first Playboy magazine. Boys are supposed to go through a “latency period,” a period of life when “girls are gross” and one forms homo-social bonds with other boys. I never had that. My first memory ever was a girl, and looking at the girl on the magazine I felt an overwhelming urge to be “close” somehow. I knew it was bad looking at this, but I stole it under my shirt and snuck off to my room. Once the door was closed I opened the magazine and studied each picture. It was a collection of centerfolds from the late 90s to the original founding of the magazine. There were lots of beautiful women in all manner of poses, and while the breasts were nice to look at what I’ve never been able to let go of is the impression of seeing a woman’s vulva and pubic hair. I didn’t know what a vagina, a vulva, or pubic hair was, but I did know one thing for certain: I liked it.
I would eventually steal this same magazine over and over again through the years until I found the internet, but those women were my first exposure to vaginas. I may have come to find Playboy a rather repulsive institution over the years, but I can never take away that first moment when I realized that women were different and my interest in them seemingly doubled over night.
This is my vagina story.
I found this Daily Show Meme a few years back and I’ve been holding onto it hoping to find a proper place for it. I hope you enjoy, and also allow to reflect on the fact that a woman using the word vagina in a public debate on abortion was barred from speaking. Let that sit in and then reflect on how American culture handles, or doesn’t handle, vaginas in discourse.
I’ve discussed vaginas a lot in this essay and I’ve used a lot of images that are reminiscent of vaginas, or refer to vaginas, or act as pseudo-vaginas, but like The Penis Book before it would be a mistake to be coy about this, so below is an anatomical rendering of a human vagina. No jokes. No funny. Just what it is. And in fact, if you pay attention, this isn’t a vagina at all, this is a vulva, a word which, when often spoken aloud, makes people either giggle, roll their eyes, or become righteously offended.
And that’s the point. Vulva and Vagina are words, medical terms, and we can’t even say the word without either giggling or else feeling repulsed. It’s just a part of the human body and the healthy attitude isn’t to fear it, but to acknowledge it, because the alternative isn’t really working in anyone’s best interest.