by Ioana Pelehatăi
I’m a child of the 90s, my Sex Ed consisting of sneak peeks into Bravo magazine, because it was “shameful.” I don’t really know how, but I was struck by a bolt of feminism.
I first came across The Vagina Monologues – a text already famous in the US at that time – when I was 17 or 18, on the long since decommissioned station Acasă. Back then, TV still had the occasional outburst of life. Or maybe the HBO documentary based on the performance was pseudo-feminist enough and cheesy enough to enthrall both housewives and teenage girls from the slums. Or maybe I still had patience for the TV, since there was no Facebook. Or maybe I was too young. Maybe it was ME Tori Amos was singing to “’Cause sometimes / I said sometimes / I hear my voice / And it’s been here / Silent all these years.”
My currently critical understanding of the text has nothing to do with how I related to it at the time. Why would I make retrospective negative projections? It would reflect nothing genuine. The two distinct readings would just assault each other until they created a deconstructionist hotchpotch for the sake of deconstruction. So I’d rather say it as it is: The Vagina Monologues came at the right time. Total mindfuck: they’re talking about the first period on TV, about the rapes in Bosnia, about all the screws and sprockets which make up the vulva, about the words that never appear in subtitles. About – big deal! – things everyone’s familiar with nowadays.
I was about 18. At the next book fair I went to (with my parents, as always), I took out a bill from the envelope with my scholarship money, covered the small book containing The Monologues with my hand and then brought it with me to class. It didn’t cause an uproar in our liberal, Anglophile girls’ school. But it was cool to see those words, neatly strung out on paper. It was cool to talk about them because they existed as text. Therefore, they had dignity. Therefore, it was OK to acknowledge them.
I still had no idea about naming as an act of conveying power, and I clearly remember that until The Vagina Monologues, feminism was a nasty thing, with hairy legs, burning bras and nothing else, really. And yet, a drop of this nasty thing suddenly involved me. Weird.
I saw only one staging of The Vagina Monologues. I’d just finished high-school and an NGO staged a performance of the text in a club, with students and teachers from my school. This staging became a tabloid story and it would make no sense to rummage through the cesspool and explain how it happened. It’s enough to say that none of the students from that cast were underage. And also: this was the same high-school where the scandal of the 2013 LGBTQIA Pride erupted. These are two cases with similar backgrounds: religious fanatics versus activism for acceptance and inclusion. But the shock came on a different level: that of diverging opinions.
Me: “It’s OK to talk about those things in a text, in the theater, in the public sphere.”
Them: “How can you talk about sex, masturbation, homosexuality and rape in a school (the performance was staged outside the school, actually)? The text is vulgar, the minds of these young girls should not be subjected to such things.”
The conclusion was difficult to come to: taking a step back and switching the focus works well as mental hygiene. Understanding the other side (“opposing” is too divisive a word) became a goal in itself. In the meantime, Eve Ensler lost the support of pro-sexuality feminists, among them Betty Dodson. Several feminist groups criticize the text for its stance against men and heterosexuality, for drawing a direct line between sex and violence, for ignoring the importance of sexual education for pleasure, for becoming a massive fund-raising bandwagon, for glorifying a form of rape in the initial version of the text and so on. I understand these arguments and I mostly agree with them. The Monologues have become obsolete and have been partly taken over by the mainstream, as have many texts which voice realities silenced for a long time. Today’s good feminism is different, it’s more relaxed, more inclusive and it doesn’t impose the privilege of the white, middle-class woman on minorities.
So what am I to do with my references? With The Vagina Monologues, with pathetic Tori Amos, with all the things they taught me? The only thing I can do: take them as they are. Acknowledge them and update them. And, from time to time, give them a voice.