Photograph: Martin Argles/The Guardian
After theatre group at all-female Mount Holyoke College blasts the play for not doing enough to include transgender people and people of colour, Eve Ensler tells the Guardian: ‘I would like to believe the play is outdated but sadly it isn’t’
The playwright Eve Ensler has dismissed claims made by a university theatre group that her famed play the Vagina Monologues is “inherently reductionist and exclusive”, insisting the play is just as relevant now as when it was first written.
Students at the all-female liberal arts school Mount Holyoke College have decided to break with a decade-long tradition of putting the play on at Valentine’s Day, arguing that it does not do enough to include transgender people and people of colour.
“At its core, the show offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman,” an email circulated circulated among members of the college’s Project Theatre group states.
The note, obtained by the student news website Campus Reform, continues: “Gender is a wide and varied experience, one that cannot simply be reduced to biological or anatomical distinctions, and many of us who have participated in the show have grown increasingly uncomfortable presenting material that is inherently reductionist and exclusive.”
The Project Theatre chair, Erin Murphy, a 22-year-old senior theatre student at the college, confirmed to the Guardian the email’s authenticity but declined to forward a copy.
The play, which premiered in 1996, is now performed all over the world on 14 February to raise awareness of gender-based violence.
“I would like to believe that the play is outdated and irrelevant but sadly it isn’t,” Ensler said. “I travel the planet, I’ve just come from many countries and the United States where 51% of the population has vaginas and aren’t able to have agency over those vaginas. We know that one out of every three women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime – so we know we have a long way to go before vaginas are liberated.”
Ensler told the Guardian that while she stood with the students at Mount Holyoke to fight transphobia, she disagreed that the play was in any way transphobic.
“I think it’s important to know that I never intended to write a play about what it means to be a woman, that was not what the Vagina Monologues ever intended to be,” Ensler said. “It was a play about what it means to have a vagina. It never said, for example, the definition of a woman is someone who has a vagina … I think that’s a really important distinction.”
Ensler added: “When we use language, we have to be very careful what we say.”
The Vagina Monologues is updated to include a new monologue every year. In 2005 Ensler added a new piece, entitled “They Beat the Girl Out of My Boy”, written entirely from the perspective of a trans person.
It has remained an optional piece for inclusion since it was written.
“I don’t think inclusion comes from refusing to acknowledge our distinctive experiences or trying to erase them. It comes from listening to our differences and of the right for everyone to talk about their reality – free from oppression and silencing,” Ensler said.
“I think we have to create a space for the over 3 billion women who have vaginas to talk about our vaginas – the oppressions, and suffering and secrets and pleasures they have – without it being seen as dominance and transphobia,” Ensler added.
“At the same time I say, as the Mount Holyoke students are saying, that we can’t define gender or womanhood based on anatomy and genitalia, right?”
Ensler drew attention to the fact that the play has been designed to include actors of colour.
“Thousands and thousands of women of colour [have] performed the Vagina Monologues for the last 20 years,” Ensler said, adding that the off-Broadway production featured a woman of colour in each cast for four years straight.
Murphy told the Guardian that Project Theatre had performed “They Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy” in 2010 but have not performed it since.
“We felt that the play didn’t reflect all of the voices of the Mount Holyoke community; as such we decided to create our own,” Murphy said. Mount Holyoke College has recently changed its admissions policy to allow trans people identifying as women to apply for entry.
“In our discussions among the board, we felt that the monologues in the current core that we perform offered one perspective on the experiences of people of colour, women of colour in society – we totally totally recognise the validity in that. But we felt it was maybe time to hear some other perspectives,” added Murphy.
Ensler said: “I celebrate people writing their own plays that unveil and undress sexuality and the dimensions of gender. I think there should be more and more and more plays written about that.”
Mara Kieslingis, the founding executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said it was difficult to come down on either side of the debate about the play’s relevance.
“I don’t think you can expect any play to be anything other than the writer’s point of view. I do not know if the Vagina Monologues is an exception,” said Kieslingis. “But colleges also have an obligation to be open, accepting and inclusive to all students.”