Em House ’09 is a graduating Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies (FGSS) major. She recently sat down with the Argus to talk about the Vagina Monologues, which she both acted in and directed, and whether the play is as “liberating” for women as its proponents say.
LW: What’s your senior essay topic?
EH: It’s about “The Vagina Monologues” as a work and a practice of feminist theory. My paper focuses on how the term “liberation” is used in conjunction with the show, and specifically how [“The Vagina Monologues”] tends to re-inscribe the patterns of oppression that it’s supposedly challenging.
Basically, I address the issues of “liberation” from three different perspectives: first, the actual theatricality of the show, asking whether this is in any way a type of “liberation theater” and if there are intersections with Augusto Boal’s ideas of a “theatre of the oppressed.” Secondly, I’m looking at Ensler’s connection and conflation of the vagina with the woman. Although body narratives have the potential to be “liberatory,” the second chapter addresses the ways that locating liberation in a type of biological inherency limits that potential. Thirdly, I look at the way that “The Vagina Monologues,” through the V-Day organization, attempts to invoke and build a type of “global sisterhood.”
LW: What were your conclusions? Do you think the Vagina Monologues is liberatory?
EH: I think the most positive thing that comes out of “The Vagina Monologues” is the conversations it creates. I think that creating this framework for sharing stories about embodied experience is really important. However, I think the way the show does this has a lot of problems. To begin with, it conflates the vagina with womanhood in a really problematic way. It silences a lot of voices, not just queer and inter-sex folks, but really anyone who doesn’t see the vagina as being representative of their identity. And because claiming the vagina is seen as being liberatory, these folks are all kind of mapped out of Ensler’s liberation. Similarly, because of the way that Ensler “races” certain monologues, it creates this aesthetic of what oppression and trauma, and conversely, liberation, look like. She spotlights various demographics of women every year, all of them supposedly “third world women.” It marks oppression as a nonwhite, “third world” thing, and then liberation a white, “first world” thing. She’s recreating the binary of “us and them,” the liberated and the oppressed.
LW: What made you decide to write about the Vagina Monologues?
EH: I’ve had my own conflicted relationship with this show. I was introduced to it in high school by the first girl I was totally into. It seemed like more than just a show, it was like a mini social movement. Then I performed in the show later on that year. I performed a monologue that started out “I love vaginas, I love women,” when I was not out at the time. It became this vehicle for expressing myself, what I couldn’t otherwise say. I directed informal performances of it for two years of high school, and performed it my first year at Wesleyan, and directed it my sophomore year.
I’ve had increasing awareness of the show as I’ve grown with it. It’s like a long-term relationship: at first there’s a honeymoon phase, where you think it’s all great. Then you see pieces of it that bother you, and then you just can’t live with the other person…(laughs) I think Eve Ensler and I have broken up. But I think we’re at a place where we’re amicable, at a distance.
Argus: Have there been any classes or professors at Wesleyan that inspired you for your senior essay?
House: My freshman year I took “Gender in a Transnational Perspective” with Professor Anu Sharma, and it shifted my view of the world radically. When I was directing the show my sophomore year, she was incredibly patient and talked with me several times about how the show deals with all sorts of issues about representation. In addition to that, Professor Mary-Jane Rubenstein is my advisor, and from the beginning she has consistently expanded my point of view. You know, she saw the show for the first time this year, but since Sept., she’s provided direction and insight to this paper that have totally blown open the way I’m writing my essay.
Argus: What are your plans post-graduation?
House: I’m looking into going into outdoor education and making outdoor adventure experiences both more economically and culturally accessible. It seems like a huge departure from what I’m writing about, but I’ve found really interesting connections about how do we create solidarity, how do we let people express themselves authentically. I love the way when you take kids out into the woods, you’re separated from society, and you get to create our own rules to some extent. The ways you can bring in these ideas of liberation and personal authenticity, they really influence the rules you can set for these groups. Hopefully by making these experiences more accessible, this kind of change can be more widespread.
Argus: Any thoughts on leaving Wesleyan?
House: I’ve had a great education at Wesleyan. I’ve been surrounded by the most inspiring group of people of my life for the past four years. Some people look at graduation as a departure, like you’re leaving so much behind, but honestly, there are so many inspiring people in this world. Yeah, I’m sad to be saying goodbye, but you take those people and the tools of your education with you, and you get to bring those out into the rest of the world—and I’m grateful for that.