Vagina Monologues Panel Pinpoints Controversial Scene as Cause of Debate

Monologues panel discussion
USF Profs. Nikki Raeburn, Peter Novak and Dean of Students Mary Wardell discussed the controversy surrounding the performance of “The Vagina Monologues” in Presentation Theater. Religious colleges get lots of flack for hosting the performance. (Melissa Stihl|Foghorn)

With colorful paintings depicting various parts of the female body displayed on stage in the Presentation Theater, several key members from the production team of “The Vagina Monologues” hosted a panel discussion that focused on the criticism that the provocative series of speeches prompts. Producer and alumna Julie Henderson introduced guest panelists Peter Novak, associate dean for the arts and humanities and a performing arts professor, Mary J. Wardell, associate vice president and dean of students and Nikki Raeburn, a sociology professor and breast cancer survivor. Each guest brought a unique perspective- that of a gay person, a single mother and a former student at a Jesuit seminary program. Along with these members of the USF faculty, director Meg O’Connor and cast member Megan Pohlman, a sophomore psychology major, tackled the topic of why some groups object to the performance that Novak described as a community ritual.

“The Vagina Monologues” is a series of speeches that is based on hundreds of interviews of women conducted by feminist activist and advocate Eve Ensler in 1996. Ensler asked these women about their sexual experiences and received spirited answers to her odd questions, like “If your vagina could talk, what would it say?” and “If your vagina could wear clothes, what would it wear?” The monologues surround not only topics concerning female sexuality- masturbation, orgasms, and the body- but also social concerns such as how we define gender and historic sexual abuses like Japanese “comfort women” during World War II.

One critique that the panel addressed is that “The Vagina Monologues” is too exclusive. The title itself appears to be marketed to women only. Novak, the only male panelist, said that women’s voices need to be heard, and that this takes priority over men’s feelings of exclusion. He said, “The show becomes a worldwide phenomenon that is vital and important.”

Wardell said, “Each woman has multiple narratives to be told.” She went on to say that the performance allows students to further expand the dialogue about violence against women. Raeburn was concerned about whether the performance could adequately represent all women’s views. The performance attempts to display a wide variety of women; for example, the monologues include single, married, straight and lesbian women. It also integrates the role of women as mothers, spouses, partners and providers. Raeburn pointed out that gender is socially constructed and that modern society determines what is masculine and what is feminine. Pohlman posed a question that illustrated this idea: “What does it mean to be a strong, powerful woman?”
The question of how women interpret gender is not what many conservative groups are concerned with.

Novak, who once attended a Jesuit seminary program, thinks that these groups oppose the “Vagina Monologues” performance because people are affronted by the idea of the body, as it appears provocative and threatening. More specifically, Novak points to the monologue in which a woman who was raped experiences “salvation” after a sexual encounter with an older woman. Some Catholics and other religious groups vehemently oppose the use of religious language and terms like salvation and baptism to describe an act which some churches would consider sinful. Novak said of those who criticize the show on moral grounds without having seen the performance, “They’re missing the point.” He spoke of the deeper message of human connection and its power to heal.

According to Novak, USF receives hundreds of e-mails each year saying that a Catholic university should not perform the play. However, “The Vagina Monologues” is performed on the USF campus every year. Samantha Schwartz, executive producer of the College Players, acknowledged that USF president Fr. Stephen Privett, S.J. responds to these critics and allows it to be performed. Novak said the administration is very supportive and “very open to the presentation.”

The profits from the Vagina Monologues performance go to Ensler’s nonprofit V-Day organization that supports women’s groups that tackle the issue of violence against women. Henderson said that this year’s production profits totaled $6,052. In recent years, Ensler has been focusing on preventing female genital mutilation with young girls in Africa.

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