This week marks 20 years since seminal play, The Vagina Monologues, was first performed. Here, author Eve Ensler tells Stylist’s digital features editor, Sarah Biddlecombe, what she’s learnt since the play came out – and what she hopes will happen next.
It’s hard to imagine now, but 20 years ago women felt uncomfortable saying the word ‘vagina’ out loud. Instead, they opted for all manner of synonyms, from the cutesy “powderbox” to the inexplicable “mushmellow”. Vaginas were a taboo topic, not to be spoken about in public.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and this inoffensive term has finally entered our everyday lexicon. This shift in thinking can be attributed, at least in part, to The Vagina Monologues, a groundbreaking play with one mission: to celebrate all parts of women.
Written by Eve Ensler, the play is told through the eyes of women of all ages, races and sexualities, and is full of humour and empathy. The stories explore themes such as sex (both consensual and non-consensual), body image, violence and freedom, all of which were shocking topics to discuss so openly when it was first performed.
So what was it like to step on stage and unapologetically broach these topics on such a public platform? Speaking to stylist.co.uk, Ensler describes the interaction between herself and the audience as “sacred”, and explains how her words helped other women speak out – many for the first time.
“When the play came out, people really had a desire to tell their stories,” Ensler says. “After every show, women lined up to tell me things they had never told anyone – and sadly, 90% of those women were talking about being abused in one way or the other, from being raped to incested. The play gave them permission to talk.”
The Vagina Monologues cracked women’s collective voices open like a nutshell and, in the play’s 20th anniversary year, we are seeing a similar event take place. Following the sexual abuse allegations levelled at Hollywood heavyweight, Harvey Weinstein, women have come forward in their droves to join the #MeToo movement. Founded by activist Tarana Burke, the movement has shed light on the sheer scale of misogynistic behaviour that women deal with in their lives.
“We’re on a continuum,” Ensler says. “We’re part of this long trajectory to dismantle the patriarchy – but it’s taking an awful long time.”
And to finally dismantle it, Ensler believes we need a systemic overhaul. “It’s looking at a real revolution where we go from a patriarchal paradigm to a feminist paradigm,” she says. “That’s the hard work. It really requires a leap in consciousness.”
Ensler points to Donald Trump, who she calls the “predator-in-chief”, as one of the obstacles to achieving this. “There are these women telling their stories and breaking out, but this country is run by a self-confessed assaulter who openly bragged about grabbing women’s pussies.”
And Trump isn’t the only man holding the revolution back. Ensler believes that if men – all men – don’t get involved in the movement in a “very serious, massive way”, we will never be able to move “from policing the patriarchy to dismantling it”.
Last weekend’s Golden Globe Awards were a prime example of this. The ceremony effectively paid tribute to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, with women joining together in solidarity to wear all-black outfits on the red carpet. For the first time, they openly challenged the status quo at every possible opportunity, from Debra Messing slamming E! live on air for paying women less than men, to Natalie Portman scorning the all-male shortlist for Best Director. It was a delicious two fingers up to the patriarchy, and an exciting sign of change.
In contrast, however, the men at the ceremony did… nothing. Host Seth Myers made a few Weinstein gags, but that was the sum total of the men’s involvement. Not a single man who won an award gave even the vaguest mention of the movements, or the mood of the evening. Ensler is unimpressed by their silence.
Similarly, in relation to the controversial #NotAllMen movement, in which men took to social media to prove that they themselves were not part of the problem, Ensler says simply that their messages are “not enough”.
“It’s not enough to say you’re not an abuser,” she states. “It’s not about blame and shame, it’s about awareness and consciousness. It’s about asking how we can all wake up and turn this tide so that women are not living in fear, women have equal rights and equal pay, and their stories matter and can be told.”
We totally agree, but it’s equally important to examine those men who do actively perform violent acts against women.
“Violence against women is not a women’s issue. It’s a men’s issue,” Ensler insists. “We don’t rape ourselves. I know there are many good men who aren’t rapists, and who aren’t batterers. But they’re passive. They don’t engage with this in the way they would engage with things that really matter to them. And until they do, I think we’re going to be here, building shelters, creating more hotlines. And having done it for 20 years, I’m exhausted by that.”
After 20 years of hard work, it does seem that there have been many positive outcomes from Ensler’s work. The Vagina Monologues inspired V-Day, a radical grassroots movement to end violence against women and girls, which sparked One Billion Rising, the biggest global call for action with the same goal. And Ensler’s incredible work over the lasy two decades also includes a project called City of Joy, supporting women survivors of violence in the Congo.
“I’m really proud that, for years now, we’ve really worked to make this a movement that is owned and directed by local women,” Ensler says. “You look around the world and it’s grassroots activists who are rising in thousands of places this year. They are self-directed and self-motivated and determining what they are rising for.
“We’ve been working with some women for 15 to 20 years, who have utterly changed their communities. It’s incredibly moving and hopeful to see that happen.”
Next, Ensler is set to perform in a new one-woman show based on her memoir, In The Body of The World, and she is excited about the “huge” year ahead: there will be around 800 productions of The Vagina Monologues performed globally this year, and the seventh annual One Billion Rising march will take place on Valentine’s Day.
And, while she hasn’t yet seen the change she wants to see, Ensler feels positive for the future.
“There have been so many risings over the past year, and it’s very heartening to see,” she says.
“You work for years and years and it finally pays off, and you can look around now and see that things are changing.”
You can purchase the 20th anniversary edition of The Vagina Monologues for £6.99 here
You can watch The Vagina Monologues at The Bread and Roses Theatre in Clapham next month
Images: iStock, Dakota Corbin, Rex Features