By Mara D’Amico and Sara Chapman
One in three women around the world will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. With seven billion people on this planet, that equals more than one billion women who will become victims of violence. Playwright and activist Eve Ensler wrote The Vagina Monologues after interviewing a diverse group of more than two hundred women about what it means to be a woman. The play, produced to raise awareness about violence against women, conveys a different aspect of the lived female experience – including topics and themes like sex, violence, sexuality and sexual orientation, menstruation, female genital mutilation, rape, love, and birth. By putting on a production of The Vagina Monologues, college and community groups raise awareness about violence against women while also raising funds for local organizations working to address this systematic problem.
The Vagina Monologues is a key tool used by V-Day, a global activist movement to end violence against women and girls, to raise funds and awareness concerning gender-based violence. It seeks to end acts of gender-based violence such as rape, battery, incest, female genital mutilation (FGM), and sex slavery (About V-Day, 2014). The V-Day organization actually arose from the reactions of women after seeing performances of The Vagina Monologues. In 2012, the organization supported the production of more than 5,800 V-Day events around the world in more than 167 countries (About V-Day, 2014). In the fourteen years that V-Day has been operating, the movement and the events it supports have raised more than $90 million for grassroots and international organizations that work to end violence against women and girls (About V-Day, 2014). Although the play is not without significant criticism from social conservatives and feminists alike, productions take place around the country, and globally, with significant fanfare and success. In addition to The Vagina Monologues, V-Day now includes four other dramatic pieces that college and community groups can produce (About V-Day, 2014).
On October 25, 2012, when we decided to stage a production of The Vagina Monologues in Little Rock, Arkansas, it is safe to say we were unaware of how deeply this would affect our classmates, our community, and ourselves.
The first production of The Vagina Monologues staged by female students from the Clinton School of Public Service took place in February 2013. Mara D’Amico and Sara Chapman directed it, with 17 female students acting in the play and many others in supporting roles. This single performance raised over $2,000 and many rolls of toilet paper and paper towels for Women and Children First, Arkansas’s largest domestic violence shelter.
The second production took place in March 2014, again directed by Mara D’Amico and Sara Chapman, with 22 female students acting and many more supporting in various capacities. These two performances raised over $1,600 for Green Dot, an anti-violence training program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and many rolls of toilet paper and paper towels for Women and Children First.
The March 2014 performance of The Vagina Monologues by Clinton School students clearly illustrated the increased interest and importance of this topic among our classmates. Male peers who witnessed the show the previous year were eager to be supportive and as involved as possible. In addition to volunteering in various capacities at the show – as ushers, running sound and lights, and accepting donations to name a few – the male students of the Clinton School also wished to publicly express their support for us, their female classmates, and their dedication to stopping violence against women. This resulted in a beautiful, moving video of our male peers – the men we see and interact with on a daily basis – giving messages of support, reaffirming their belief in the importance of women and their safety, and making conscious commitments about what they would do to address the topic.
Productions of The Vagina Monologues can and do serve as consciousness-raising activities for actresses, volunteers, and audience members, and increase the chance that individuals will continue to advocate for action in the future. This is especially important for men, who may not be aware of the ways in which gender-based violence shapes the daily life of their friends, classmates, partners, family members, and themselves. It is often through witnessing The Vagina Monologues that men – and women – become aware of just how pervasive and severe violence against women is.
The fundamental goals of producing performances of The Vagina Monologues are to raise awareness about violence against women and to raise money for local organizations working to address violence against women. Since the individual monologues contained in the play cover a variety of aspects of the female experience, including but not limited to sex, sexual orientation, rape, and female genital mutilation, the audience experiences a roller coaster of emotions and gains a deeper understanding of what it means to be a woman through women’s stories.
Further, a production of The Vagina Monologues creates a safe space to discuss typically taboo topics. This is done in a variety of ways. First, the female classmates who choose to act in the production cultivate a strong sense of community. This happens through regular rehearsals, discussion of their own individual lived female experience, and sharing deeply personal stories with one another. Peers share their stories of rape or sexual assault for the first time, women grapple with the sexism they’ve experienced in their own lives, and discuss the merits of identifying as feminist or not. The space does not always exist for these types of conversations in our everyday lives, but the time spent together preparing for a play focused on these topics naturally allows and encourages these types of discussions. This has certainly been true for the productions of The Vagina Monologues in which we have been part. Some of our favorite moments from our two years in Little Rock have been during the preparation and presentation of the play.
Second, a sense of curiosity is piqued among classmates who are not directly involved in the play’s production. It is liberating to be involved in a production of The Vagina Monologues and the actresses will naturally discuss the experience outside of rehearsal time. Through these discussions and the prevalence of the word vagina, a word not typically in most people’s vernacular, other classmates tend to get very interested and curious for more information. People ask questions and want to learn why so many of their peers are involved. This opens yet another space for conversation about the show and violence against women.
Third, a sense of desire develops among male classmates to become informed and involved. Those who are not familiar with the play will typically hear a lot about it, and will begin to sense how deeply their female classmates are affected by violence and a sexist society. This generates a desire among some of our male classmates to contribute in some way. Since individuals who identify as male cannot be involved as actors or directors of the play, they often find other ways to be involved. This was exemplified in our male classmates’ involvement for the March 2014 productions.
Through all these contexts, we are able to build a platform for talking about the issues many of us care so much about. Those acting in a production of The Vagina Monologues are doing it for a reason – we’ve either directly experienced violence, or we have someone close to us who has. Many of us want to discuss these issues, but people do not always want to listen, or are insensitive to the extent to which sexism and patriarchy impacts us all. This show generates a buzz and creates a space for us to talk and for others to listen.
It is essential to build upon the momentum started by a production of The Vagina Monologues. Many are inspired by what they see, and would like an outlet to turn this inspiration into action. By continuing these conversations, learning how violence affects our everyday lives, and making a commitment to acting to address violence against women, we can all have a collective impact.
[You can catch this year’s production of The Vagina Monologues April 10th and 11th at 7:30 at the Clinton School of Public Service’s Sturgis Hall.]