***Content warning: This op-ed describes a theatrical production that contains triggering and/or sensitive material including sexual violence, eating disorders, moments of trans-, queer- and homophobia, as well as suicidal thoughts.
The first time I ever saw “The Vagina Monologues,” I was a freshman at Stanford, sitting in the front row of the Roble Hall Theater. As a sheltered first-year college student from a conservative town in North Carolina, I found the production absolutely revolutionary. I was floored by the boldness and bravery of the student performers: reenacting orgasms and childbirth on stage; shouting the word “VAGINA!” at the top of their lungs; grappling with painful topics including sexual violence and homophobia. The evening ended with a standing ovation. As a cis, heterosexual woman, I left the show feeling affirmed, energized and empowered. I naively assumed all other woman-identified folx felt the same.
A year later, as a sophomore and Director of Events for the Stanford Womxn’s Coalition (WoCo), I co-produced “The Vagina Monologues” with fellow WoCo member Gabriela Torres-Lorenzotti. We viewed it as an important opportunity to re-center women’s voices and stories on campus, while also raising awareness about the ongoing epidemic of violence against women.
That winter, in my leading role as co-producer, I quickly discovered that the show was not as progressive or inclusive as I had once believed. In response to our first casting call, I received a number of messages from students who were concerned with the trans-exclusionary, body-centric nature of the play. Upon further examination of both the script and the history of the production, I soon realized that these students’ concerns were just the tip of the iceberg.
Most apparently, the show falsely equates having a vagina with being a woman. From the title of the production to the content of its monologues, Ensler’s work continues to perpetuate the gender binary, reducing gender to biological or anatomical distinctions and erasing the identities of those who identify as gender-queer and gender non-conforming. Despite Ensler’s supposed goal of elevating all marginalized gender identities, only one of the 14 monologues centers the voice of a transwoman. Furthermore, among the monologues that are intended to be performed by/representative of women of color, the vast majority are focused on depictions of sexual violence, further propagating colonialist portrayals of non-western Women.
In the 1980s, “The Vagina Monologues” was a groundbreaking production in its own right; in 2019, it is no longer relevant, representative or inclusive enough.
With this in mind, Gabby and I began to envision what a more inclusive monologue series on the experiences of gender at Stanford might look like. While we appreciated the structure of “The Vagina Monologues” and its feminist intent, we also wanted students to see themselves in the stories told on stage.
Inspired by the work of students at Carleton College and Mt. Holyoke, we sought to create a collection of all-gender monologues written, performed, and directed by Stanford students that explored gender through personal experience.
Under the directorship of Matthew Zheng, an incredibly talented and innovative Stanford freshman with an extensive background in queer performance, the “Dear _____ , Monologues” began to take shape.
The production will feature nine monologues presented in the form of letters. They vary widely in style, tone and content: We will hear about our peers’ tenuous relationships with their parents, unpack a student’s journey with depression, and see a live rendition of what it feels like to give yourself a bikini wax. There are moments of joy, anger, grief, love and everything in between.
The show is not comprehensive — there are many voices that are not represented and many stories left to be told. It is just the beginning of what’s possible.
We hope these narratives will challenge the way you view and conceptualize gender, not just in your own life but in the lives of those around you. None of the stories included are artificial or imagined — they are lived realities that do not necessarily have happy or easy endings. They are a reflection that gender is not a static concept but one that is dynamic, always shifting, and subject to interpretation.
Regardless of your own gender identity, background or level of prior engagement, we hope you will join us in Roble Hall Theater this Thursday, March 14 and Friday, March 15 at 8 p.m. to celebrate the courage and resilience of the brilliant students in this show and the work we have done and will continue to do to build a more inclusive Stanford.
Buy your tickets HERE
All proceeds from our shows will be donated to A Woman’s Place.
— Audrey Huynh ’19
Contact Audrey Huynh at ahuynh14 ‘at’ stanford.edu.