Taboo turned theatre: The Vagina Monologues

Photo courtesy of Haris Bhatti
Photo courtesy of Haris Bhatti

The audience is tense. They’re sitting on the edge of their seats, nervously glancing around the room as if to size up their fellow spectators, imagining how they’ll behave in a matter of minutes when the lights go down and the show inevitably begins. After all, the crowd is about to sail into what is likely uncharted territory for the majority of the students, parents, and friends populating the Red Doors, maybe even a majority of the world: Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues.

This annual production is inspired by V-Day, a campaign supported by Muhlenberg that, according to The Vagina Monologues program, marks “a global activist movement to end violence against women.” All proceeds from the show, which amounted to over a thousand dollars this year, are donated to Turning Point of Lehigh Valley, a local Allentown women’s shelter—but the impact of The Vagina Monologues (hereafter referred to as TVM) is by no means exclusive to the power of monetary donations.

Artistic director Emily Hoolihan ’17, who has become increasingly involved with TVM throughout her four years at Muhlenberg, personally feels the positive effects of the play within her own life, as the two have become irrevocably intertwined.

“[TVM] holds a special place in my heart because I’ve watched the show grow over the years with new actors coming in and graduating actors leaving,” Hoolihan said. “Additionally, TVM has helped me grow into the person I am today—a confident, more educated woman! Because of this show, I’m always caring for and loving my woman-self.”

It’s not only the seasoned veterans who have gained a new perspective since their time in the show—Mallory Lewis ’20, who brought to life “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy,” experienced a similar sense of growth.

“TVM is something that I’ve wanted to do for a while. There was a time in my life where I felt very ashamed and powerless being a woman. My older sister saw me feeling down and told me to read TVM. I remember feeling empowered for the first time in a long time,” said Lewis. “It really is such an empowering thing to see and hear! As women we don’t talk about what it MEANS to be women often. We don’t acknowledge the patriarchy unless it’s behind our screens. This is a public setting where we can feel connected, strong, and united.”

Perhaps this is why being an audience member of TVM is such an interesting experience—while the performers have some idea of what to expect (though they had never seen each other’s pieces performed until opening night!), spectators might be caught off guard by the outright acknowledgement of so many issues that are usually shoved behind closed doors. Emily Hamme ’20, who introduced “Because He Liked to Look At It” and was featured in “Six Year Old Girl,” believes it is this sense of shame that perpetuates our collective unwillingness to bring up certain aspects of our reality.

“It’s important to include real discussions about vaginas and women’s rights because the lack of talking about them makes it a taboo topic and then the cycle of animosity toward women just continues,” Hamme said. “I thought that the monologue about the women from Bosnia and Kosovo was very powerful. It was a depiction of sexual assault that was intense and gave an insight into the atrocities that survivors of rape and war-torn countries experience.”

Though TVM certainly doesn’t shy away from the hard-hitting issues surrounding vaginas, the show isn’t without a lighter side, as exemplified by Hoolihan’s favorite monologue, the curse-happy, relatable rant that is “My Angry Vagina,” performed this year by Armida Flores ’19.

“I think every individual with a vagina understands this one,” said Hoolihan. “Seriously. No one likes tampons, OB-GYN appointments, and thong underwear can be the worst! I think individuals with vaginas SHOULD be angry. For a long time, the vagina has been a sign of weakness, but I think this piece and all the others show that we are NOT weak! We are empowered and ready to stand up for our rights as human beings!”

This is, after all, the locus of TVM: the idea that people with vaginas, a body part that has so long been stigmatized and ignored and ordered into hiding, could possibly raise their voices to echo the millions of people before and reflect the millions of people after them, bringing power and oppression together in a collective, poignant song is radical. It’s radical, and it’s important.

It might make some squirm in their seats, might encourage some to look away—and that’s okay. Hoolihan, Lewis, and Hamme all stated, to some degree, that the show is meant to spark questions and ignite thoughts about why we may feel uncomfortable at certain points. Perhaps that spark is a necessary shock to action, a perfectly timed electrical jolt that works its way up our spines and out through our fingertips, bringing us to life in ways we’ve never thought of before.

For a few hours, we lived in a world where vaginas were talked about without a smokescreen of taboo and distractingly nervous giggles—a world where they were seen for what they are and what they could be. That world isn’t yet our world, and maybe it never will be, but we’ll never know until we take the first step.

Perhaps, for someone sitting in the audience in the Red Doors on Friday or Saturday, looking around at the rest of the crowd with a mixture of fear and anticipation, The Vagina Monologues was that step—the first of many.

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