OK, so maybe this doesn’t apply to everybody, but it does to the world of aging California hippies that I kind of belong to – indirectly, anyway.
Every year about this time, millions of dollars are raised by students who perform the play, the Vagina Monologues, and donate the take to the cause of fighting violence against women. If you haven’t seen it, have a go. It’s probably playing somewhere near you.
More on that in a minute. I feel a memory tugging at me.
When I was a kid, we learned, of course, that sex is naughty. So was nudity and anything to do with the body parts that had to do with sex. Even before I knew that they had to do with sex, actually. (That’s before I learned that all the body parts can have to do with sex, if you’ve got a healthy imagination.)
A baby sitter insisted I wash my hands first thing in the morning “because you never know where your hands go at night.”
And then there was this wonderful expression – “down there.”
Down there was a magical place. We couldn’t talk about it, but we knew there was something terribly special about it because the very thought that others might actually see it drove the adult world into a tizzy. Little Georgie next door kept getting scolded because he wouldn’t tell his mother he had to pee. He just grabbed himself “down there” and embarrassed the hell out of his mother.
Between the 1940s and 1950s, when I was learning about the connection between magic and body parts, and the 1960s, when hot tubs were the norm, the world seemed to have turned completely upside down. My first night in San Francisco I spent in the Haight-Ashbury, and I watched the area grow as people would put flowers in their hair and walk the streets sometimes with no clothes on at all. The magic was all gone. Down there was now just another place between hither and yon.
Not that I lost my shyness about the naughty parts. I could bathe in the nude, and nobody wore clothes in hots tubs. Gone was the sense of shame. But there was still a sense of decorum, and there was something tacky about calling attention to yourself by walking around bare-assed in public.
But we lost all fear of talking about the naughty parts. We began using words like penis and vagina, previously used only in the doctor’s office. And, of course, to take some of the self-consciousness out of it, we then created new words for children to use. In my house “ass” was the German word “Po,” short for “Popo” usually (to make it cute for kids) in the diminutive, “Popöchen.” And I learned early on that the same word could be both a noun and a verb – like pipi. Or was that peepee? (Spoken language, you see, not written, so we never worried about spelling.) Others had hinie (hiney? heinie?), which we avoided because it was also a bad word for Germans.
When my niece, Amy, was about three or four years old, she was playing in a sandbox in the backyard. This is Berkeley, so naturally her mother saw no reason to object when she took all her clothes off, much to the chagrin of Amy’s grandmother, who was visiting from South Carolina. But then Amy suddenly rushes in the house and says to her mother, “Mommy, mommy, I got sand in my giny.”
Grandma about fainted. “Harriet,” she says to her daughter, “Where on EARTH did she learn a word like that?”
“A word like what?”
“You know – that word for “down there.”
“What should I have taught her to say, “I’ve got sand in my c**t?”
I loved the way Harriet and Craig raised their daughter. I think Amy does too, several decades now since this event. We lived our lives as members of this liberal American bi-coastal culture, and as members of a generation with an enormous gap between us and people who would go around saying things like “down there” when talking about one’s giny. Vagina.
For me “down there” belongs with 23 skidoo. Our generation taught their children words like giny. And what do they do? They then go and write an absolutely must-see theater experience called the Vagina Monologues. Imagine what this all would have done to Rip Van Winkle.
Out of curiosity, I just went to Google News and typed in Vagina Monologues just now and discovered, to my delight, that it’s playing at the moment
• at the Ridgway University Center in Evansville, Indiana, for the fifth year in a row, “open to people of all ages”;
• at the Smith Theatre at Oakland Community College Orchard Ridge Campus, 27055 Orchard Lake, Farmington Hills, Michigan;
• at Wartburg College, a Lutheran school in Waverly, Iowa;
• at a school called Creative 360, 1517 Bayliss, Midland, Michigan;
• at Smith College;
• at USC;
• at Bates;
• and at the Women’s Resource Center at Southern Oregon, for the 10th year in a row.
And that’s only the first page. Pages and pages of schools show up on Google News around the country putting on the Vagina Monologues this week.
If you’re not familiar with the play, it’s basically a series of monologues written by Eve Ensler in 1996, regularly revised and added to, following interviews she conducted with 200 women about their views on sex, relationships, and violence against women. Two years later, the play had evolved from a celebration of women’s freedom into a way of raising consciousness about violence against women. You can’t sit through the play without squirming. (I’ve seen it a couple times, including a great performance directed by another niece, Paz, at Stanford.) Not because the naughty words are made plain, and naughty behavior is taken for granted. But because you are forced to see how making those words naughty has been part of the struggle for power. If I can force you to be ashamed, I’ve got you where I want you as surely as if I can cause you to be afraid.
The Vagina Monologues has made its way around the world, including, believe it or not, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Since 2004, monologues have been added documenting the experiences of transgender women. This year, it’s premiering in Armenia.
The play bothers lots of people. Many object to its strong lesbian orientation. Others say it generates hatred of men. Camille Paglia doesn’t like it because its frank use of naughty words strikes her as too obviously just another self-conscious bourgeois exercise. Every nut’s got an opinion on this piece which, if you just sit back and let it wash over you, is likely to strike most people as simply a terribly effective piece of social commentary and appeal to decency.
Except, of course, if you believe way down in your heart that sex really is dirty and there is simply no way for nice people to talk about “down there,” because it just isn’t done, and there’s no way around it, and that’s that.
Look how this plays out in the two catholic churches, for example. I’ve been focusing on the two catholic churches for the past several blogs now, but in case you haven’t been poring breathlessly over every word, what I mean by two churches is the one with the focus on generosity, compassion and love, and the one with the focus on sin and guilt and obedience to authority. Call them the Vatican II Church and the Vatican I Church, respectively.
Nothing illustrates the gap between them like the Vagina Monologues. At Georgetown, for example, women argue that it’s entirely within the Jesuit tradition to use the theater to address pressing social issues. They’re simply being Jesuitical. On the other hand, Catholic Campus Watch insists St. Ignatius is rolling over in his grave. To them, it’s an “anti-Catholic message of indecency.”
Georgetown is hardly the only Catholic college to put on the Vagina Monologues with regularity. This year it’s being done at the University of Detroit-Mercy, Notre Dame, and Boston College, as well.
And in California, at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, where they are up against that venerable institution known as TFP.
Don’t know if you know the TFP folks, the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property. It is an organization of lay catholics who say they are concerned about “the moral crisis shaking the remnants of Christian civilization.”
You gotta love that remnants bit. They tell us the TFP have over 120,000 active members, volunteers and donors, all “peacefully defending the values of tradition, family and private ownership.”
TFP’s website tells you what they say is the story from the students’ perspective:
Catholic students are hoping the notoriously lewd play by feminist activist Eve Ensler, The V-Monologues, does not disgrace the campus of Saint Mary’s College of California.Aside from the fact that it’s catholic students putting on the play and there’s something wrong with that assumption of who is catholic and who is not, there’s that terribly interesting inability to say “the V word” again. Just like Amy’s grandmother.
I suppose they should get some credit for not saying “The Down There Monologues.”
You’ve got to feel sorry for them. There was a time when men ran pretty much everything, when children were seen and not heard (even when they were being abused), and when if anybody was going to do something about violence against women, it was going to be men. Since women didn’t put on plays where they talked about their ginies and made millions of dollars, they were pretty much dependent on men to take care of the problem. Problem was, you couldn’t really talk about sexual violence any more than you could talk about vaginas. Nice people simply turned away.
Happy Valentine’s Day. Go see Vagina Monologues if it’s playing near you – and it probably is. And give those Vatican II Catholics a round of applause for not being afraid to speak out against violence against women.
And maybe check out, while you’re at it, the TFP website where they deal with the “Lewd V Monologues” at St. Mary’s. You’ll see the quotation from Matthew 18:6:
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.Huh?
You can’t cast the first stone, so now you want to drown those young girls?
Tradition? Family? Property???