No vagina, no problem

Directing The Vagina Monologues has been an incredible, trying and illuminating experience for me. I became involved with this project when I learned that the Women’s Center wanted to put on a production but needed someone to take charge of it. From the start, I could not help but think it slightly paradoxical that a gay male director would help to produce a work so obviously and intimately about women’s bodies and sexualities, but despite the irony, I felt confident that this would be a success. I foresaw nothing trying or illuminating at the outset, but now, several months after initially agreeing to undertake the task, I feel differently.

Sure, I knew going into that project that there would be times when I would be the odd man out, the sole person without a vagina in the room, but I felt, perhaps brazenly, up to the task. I was sure of my ability to see a project through to its completion and of my ability to think critically about the social and political implications raised in this infamous and celebrated play by Eve Ensler. Given my experience in other gender and sexuality activities on campus, from taking women and gender studies classes to co-chairing the Queer Student Union, the content of the play seemed to me, at times, completely within my domain.

But was it? Are giving birth or female genital mutilation (FGM) really part of my lifestyle? Not directly, not now, and perhaps not ever. At times in the course of production, I felt out of place not only as the male director, telling actresses how to talk about vaginas, but also as a gay young man whose life is currently quite uninvolved with the realm of vaginas. I wondered, while rehearsing monologues about grown women masturbating for the first time or about frightful visits to the OB/GYN, whether I had any connection to the play I was directing. However, if nothing else, those moments of disorientation and alienation made me realize how numerous and complex issues related to gender, sex and sexuality are. Personally, during my time at Williams, I have devoted more of my time thinking about the workings of heterosexism, especially on this campus, but there are other gender and sexuality-related issues to be discussed, and it was good to be exposed to them.

A conversation I had with members of the cast and the assistant director illuminated for me how particular issues about women and their bodies can also have universal implication. In this conversation, spawned by one of the monologues, we talked about girls and women who feel the need to trim, shave or wax their pubic hair to make their vaginas look tidy. While some in our conversation claimed to feel compelled to adhere to what they considered an unfair double standard, others refused to apply the vocabulary of tidy and untidy to their bodies and refused any hair removal. One young woman brought up the idea of reciprocity, asking her partners to do appropriate maintenance from time to time as she does. This hair conversation and its monologue allowed me to abstract from a particular case to more universal questions about how sexual relationships are negotiated and on whose terms, and from there, I was able to think how this applies to my own life and relationships.

As I found ways to gain from the experience of directing this play, I hope the community-at-large benefits too. Of course, I sincerely hope that everyone who attends sees a show that is well-acted and smartly directed, but I also hope that the play is a catalyst for talking more about gender and sexuality issues on this campus. As in my own personal example, I hope that we recognize that though our community is one so very open-minded and understanding, there are more and multiplying gender and sexuality concerns and, accordingly, that we need to continue to investigate. Maybe the play will raise community-wide consciousness on the situation of women in the Congo. Or maybe we’ll investigate, as a community, whether a certain four-letter-word can be reclaimed, or what we think of reclaiming pejorative words in general.

In short, for those who were able to see The Vagina Monologues last night and for those who will see it tonight, I hope it is, as it was for me, a trying, incredible and illuminating experience. I also hope that those who see this work feel compelled to share their personal epiphanies and discoveries gained from the experience of seeing the play with ever broader audiences, out into the general public at Williams and beyond, because there are always new things to be taught and learned.

Raff Donelson’09 is a philosophy and political science major from McKeesport, Pa.