With the flair and audacity of Beyoncé’s surprise album, last Friday’s performance of the Vagina Monologues took the classic show in original and personalized directions. New monologues grappled with abortion, masturbation, transsexual experiences and the fluidity of queerness, as well as street harassment. As with previous years, this year’s show generated a whirlwind of emotions, from screaming out loud laughing to silent, stunned awe.
“This year we tried to include a lot more voices that don’t get heard in these pieces and take out some of the ones that we find inherently problematic,” history and sociology double major Hailey Jures (senior) and co-president of Vagina Monologues said.
Jures, who has been involved with the Monologues for the past three years, said that she and other members of the group wanted to make the show more relevant to the Occidental community and to put the cast members’ voices directly into the show. The Monologues, written by playwright Eve Ensler, first debuted in 1996.
“Everyone in the show recognizes that it was revolutionary for its time, but the show hasn’t aged well,” politics major Estrella Lucero (senior) and Vagina Monologues co-president said. “We need to keep it new and relevant.”
To that end, the show incorporated five entirely novel pieces written by members of this year’s cast, including Lucero’s piece “Something Queer.”
“We wanted it to be applicable to the community rather than just what Eve has written before,” Diplomacy and World Affairs major and cast member Harneet Kaur (senior) said. “It’s our performance; our artistic input is in this year’s show. It’s super different than previous years, which makes it really special.”
The performance retained the heavier, more gut-wrenching monologues from the original production, including “Bad Men,” in which three cast members narrate experiences with abusive, violent men. “Say It” condemns Japan’s continued failure to apologize for systematized rape of “comfort women” during WWII. The cast members prefaced it with the news that one of the remaining comfort women died earlier this month, bringing the number of survivors down to 55.
“As an empowerment group, an activist-based group, we’re trying to challenge what’s been given to us and push [the Monologues] a little bit further,” Jures said. “We’re trying to adapt to our ever-changing world to really think critically about how we’re representing these ideas.”
While all performances provoked strong feelings, not all were feelings of anger or sadness. Interspersed between Eve’s uproarious pieces “Reclaiming Cunt” and “Wear/Say,” this year’s performance included originally-produced monologues like “Cuming of Age,” which explored masturbation and the shame women often associate with masturbating. The monologue recounted the occasional mishaps that happen when young women first experiment with masturbation as well as the awkwardness of walking in on a masturbating roommate.
Olivia Davis (first year) adapted “Angry Vagina,” a piece from the original, by rewriting significant chunks to give it it a new feel, according to Jures. Davis talked about how the world tends to not consider the comfort or happiness of vaginas, lamenting the lack of user-friendliness of tampons among other complaints.
Kaur also modified “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy” monologue, more affectionately known as “The Moaner,” by including Occidental-specific moans like the “Marketplace moan,” the “ResEd moan” and the “library moan.” The audience clapped and howled with laughter when Kaur shouted, “I think we can fit three in here!” at the end of the “ResEd moan,” jesting about Residential Education and Housing Service’s (REHS) tendency to put students in forced triples while making a less than subtle sexual innuendo.
Jures and Lucero intended to make the new pieces as accessible as possible and help facilitate dialogue after the show. The events of last spring brought the reality of sexual assault on campus into the open and last year’s performance, according to Jures, helped people think more critically about sexual assault.
Sexual violence at Occidental has not disappeared even if the discourse has quieted down, so Jures and Lucero hope that this year’s performance sparks more conversation about not only sexual violence but also sexuality in general. Both Lucero and Jures wanted to make the additions as relatable as possible for all students.
“Everyone who goes can find at least one piece or one part of one piece that they say, ‘Yes, I connect with that, that’s really special,’” Lucero said.
Lucero’s piece “Something Queer” especially resonated with the audience on Friday, garnering snaps of agreement throughout the monologue. In it, she dismantled the gay/straight binary by exploring from a personal perspective what it can mean to fall somewhere in between.
“It’s something you’ve never been able to put a name to,” Davis said. “Students can identify with the show in ways that they didn’t know they would identify with it.”
Although this year’s monologues covered a lot more thematic ground, Jures noted that violence against women remains the leading cause of harm to women worldwide, with one in three women experiencing sexual or physical assault in her lifetime. For that reason, violence, abuse and disrespect of women remained a prescient thread in the show.
“A lot of people have a hard time admitting there’s a problem,” Kaur said. “They think it’s not a real thing. Our duty is to help get a positive discourse going.”
To that end, Jures and the rest of the cast attempted to delve into the issue from different perspectives. Jures performed “The Best Boyfriend,” a piece adapted from the trans monologue series the “Naked Eye,” which probes the way we conceive of gender and sexuality based on our sexual organs. The monologue was prefaced with a startling statistic: While the average person has a one in 18,000 chance of getting murdered, a transgender woman of color has a one in eight chance of getting murdered.
Other new additions, like “My Body is Not a Public Space,” criticize the widespread acceptance of street harassment. Before the monologue, which closed the show, a cast member listed numerous statistics about women’s experience with street harassment, including that 99 percent of women report having experienced some form of street harassment, according to Stop Street Harassment.
“So many women will identify with the street harassment monologue because it’s something that we’re made to feel like it’s just a part of life, but you don’t have to deal with it,” Davis said. “[The Monologues] are important because they make a space for people who didn’t necessarily have the space to talk about these issues. What we’re doing this year is so different. These are issues in our own community; it’s personalized.”
In response to those who claim that the Vagina Monologues are no longer relevant or that their tactics are too “in your face,” statistics on domestic violence, sexual assault and other forms of violence against women shared at Friday’s performance underscore the urgency of the show’s central mission.
“There are two types of people: the ones who are like, that’s disgusting, that’s so gross, who think it’s just a bunch of feminist bullshit,” Kaur said. “The other people are so excited and know they’re going to learn something from it and are there to support their friends.”
Lucero added that the Vagina Monologues are as relevant as ever precisely because of such arguments. A problematic understanding of how women should behave in society underlies the claim that the Monologues’ advertisements are “off-putting.” Using the same understated design as Beyoncé‘s surprise album for the evening’s program and for fliers in the root, however, this year’s cast let the power of the vagina speak for itself.
“To me, that brings up the idea that women should be quiet, as though there’s a standard of loudness we’re allowed to be,” Lucero said.
The group benefits Occidental in multiple ways, according to Lucero. It helps individual women in the cast feel more comfortable with the word “vagina” and all its attendant associations. This comfort, and the culminating production itself, radiates outward into the larger community to make discussion about women’s issues more accessible to all students.
“It’s this big beautiful space to learn from other amazing people,” Lucero said. “[The Monologues] have this dual purpose of building relationships with people in the group and they seek to empower the rest of the community. I’m so much more comfortable now talking to anybody and everyone about these issues.”
Kaur, who saw the show for the first time her first year at Occidental, remembered watching “The Moaner” monologue and thinking that she would never perform something like that. Yet four years later, Kaur moaned in 16 different tones and styles to the thrill of a packed Thorne Hall.
“People perceive [the Vagina Monologues] as an attack on all white males, but it’s totally not,” Kaur said. “It’s a mirror to society. It’s really important to listen because people don’t listen.”
The hope among all cast members is that the excitement and energy from Friday’s performance will spill over into the rest of the community, so that students—male or female—who find the words “clitoris” or “vagina” too aggressive can more ably enter discussions about issues raised in the Monologues.
“It’s very interesting that it’s 2014 and people are still scared to talk about vaginas,” Lucero said.
Undeclared sophomore Magda Wittig, who sculpted the steel vagina outside of Thorne and performed in Friday’s show, described her inspiration for the piece as coming from the stigma around menstrual blood.
“You’re in this world because of [menstrual blood]—it’s something mystical and beautiful, yet it’s shoved under the table and not put in public spaces at all,” Wittig said. “It’s not in the public eye in any way, and I wanted to challenge that a little bit.”
Wittig envisioned audience members walking through the sculpture and interacting with it before and after the show, yet was surprised to see the degree of hesitancy from some students.
“I wanted it to be something that was strong but had an ethereal shape, kind of like a uterus doing a backbend,” Wittig said of her sculpture. “My dream was to show the intricacies of the female anatomy and what would it be if it took a shape. Collectively our uteruses are doing a backbend, contorting for other people.”
Lucero announced after the show last Friday that the group raised over $5,000 in ticket and t-shirt sales for Planned Parenthood and Peace over Violence. By last Wednesday, the group had already raised $4,500.
“It’s up to the larger campus now, not just these ten women, to change campus culture,” Jures said. “We need other people to take it and run with it.”