Since her one-woman show The Vagina Monologues became a hit in 1997, much has been written about writer-activist Eve Ensler.
Since her one-woman show The Vagina Monologues became a hit in 1997, much has been written about writer-activist Eve Ensler. It was a privilege to sit down with her, and to see first-hand how one woman turned her creative success into a global movement aimed at ending violence against women.
At 49, Ensler has the infectious energy of a child, the wisdom of an older woman, kind eyes and a perfect pageboy haircut. She speaks quickly and passionately about the topics that concern her most: stopping violence against women, deprogramming patriarchy, gender fluidity, the word cunt and her love of women. She leaves you with a feeling similar to that felt after your first women’s studies class: an inspiration to band together with your sisters and dismantle this virus called patriarchy.
Ensler is a radical feminist with a vivid imagination. For The Vagina Monologues, she interviewed over 200 women, asking them questions about their vaginas like, If your vagina could talk, what would it say? Once the show took off, and Ensler began touring the States, women started approaching her after performances and telling her their stories of abuse. These stories motivated Ensler to start V-Day, originally a one-day event first held on Valentine’s Day 1998, to raise awareness about sexual abuse.
Since then V-Day has become a global movement aimed at stopping violence against women, including incest, rape, battery, female genital mutilation and sexual slavery. Through her performances and her V-Day movement, Ensler is redefining feminism to include the imagination, and creating a global support network that helps women activists do their work in different communities. V-Day raises funds through benefit performances of The Vagina Monologues and donates that money to women’s organizations around the world that are doing something locally to end violence against women.
In 2002, V-Day performances in over 800 cities and at 550 colleges raised over $7 million. Now, that money is going toward various causes, including building a safe house in Kenya to support young girls seeking to avoid genital mutilation.
When you began The Vagina Monologues some years ago, you said a lot of women came up to you with their stories and that’s what started the V-Day movement. Were you surprised and shocked that after 30 years of feminism, women were still experiencing self-hatred?
Totally shocked. I assumed people had gone through what I had been through in terms of feminism. I was really blessed to have come of age in the seventies, which was totally a feminist period. My life had been so altered by radical feminists, by women who were thinking differently. My whole being was created out of that. When I started doing these interviews, I was completely shocked. There was one particular age group that had been impacted by feminism but before and after that [age group], it hadn’t seemed prevalent.
Did you find the women who were older were less liberated than the women who were younger?
No, it’s the people who are my age in their forties, fifties and sixties who are really liberated. The younger women were just as un-liberated as the older women were. In their heads, they had an idea of liberation but they didn’t know what orgasms were. They didn’t know where their clitoris was and they wouldn’t feel comfortable telling a partner how to give them pleasure. They wouldn’t feel comfortable asking somebody out. It was really shocking.
Maybe the sexual revolution was less about sexuality than it was about politics?
I also think that it takes a long time to change patriarchal consciousness because it’s in our DNA and if you don’t work on it all the time, people slip back.
Is it in our DNA or is it cultural?
At this point it’s been programmed into us. It didn’t begin in our DNA, but it has gone on for so long that you are literally born into this chemical patriarchal tent. If someone is there, from the time you are born, giving you that message it gets right into you. Just look at body image, for example. I have been interviewing teenage girls about their bodies. Most teenage girls are growing up believing that if they don’t have a flat belly like Britney Spears, they are worthless. The question is how do we all help each other break out of something that is unbelievably powerful? I have been a radical feminist most of my life and I am obsessed about my stomach. I would like to tell you that I walk around saying, Oh yeah, I love my body. I love everything about it. But when I was finished with The Vagina Monologues, I woke up one day and loved my vagina but hated my stomach. Suddenly, I was in my forties and I didn’t have my flat little stomach.
What do you think is the worst thing women can do to themselves and to each other?
There are so many bad things we can do to each other and ourselves. One of the things I am exploring in this new piece [called The Good Body] is the tyranny of being good and what it means to every woman. The worst thing we can do to ourselves is to think there is a certain way to behave, and be preconditioned by that, be censored by that, and shut down by that. The worst thing women can do to each other is not support each other’s bigness, boldness and sexuality. The preconditioning to be jealous of each other is so deep. It’s like if one woman moves ahead, you’re gonna die. That’s the programming: if one of us moves ahead the rest of us will just die off and that will be the end.
What do you think is the best thing women can to for themselves and each other?
The best thing we can do is say, OK, I have jealousy she’s gorgeous, she’s fabulous, she’s brilliant, she’s moving ahead. But what am I going to do with it, as opposed to undermining and putting [a woman] down? If I feel jealousy, I decided I am going to buy someone a present. That is my way of saying, I am going to rise to whatever you are putting out there, however you are raising the bar. It’s a way of rising to the challenge as opposed to saying, look how beautiful she is, look how skinny she is, look how intense she is, which women do without even knowing it. It’s a pathology. I don’t think there is anything more significant on the planet than women not supporting each other and not really celebrating each other’s power and success. Most women are scared to stand out because they will be targets; other women won’t like them because they are too big or self-serving or grandiose. Those are the women I admire, though. The other day, we were talking about the word cunt and how much I love that word. If someone is a cunt, I know she will be a good friend. If I hear someone saying, that woman is such a cunt, I say, give me her phone number. Usually that word means that someone is self-determining; they know what they want and they go for it. They don’t apologize; they move forward in the world, and I want to know those women.
I read that you don’t identify yourself as a heterosexual even though you are in a straight relationship. I wondered if the categories of gay and straight inhibit us, or prevent us from really coming together?
When I did the (NY) Times article, I was so conscious of how people want you to be defined as something, and it would be a lie for me to say I were one thing when I had relationships with women and have been involved with women sexually. I don’t want to say that I have lived the life of a lesbian because I don’t face the kind of dynamics and struggles they do. Yes, I am with a man but I am not going to identify myself as a straight person when I have loved women. I love the term gender fluid where people can love whoever they want and that can change, shift and evolve. I see it in younger women in college. They have a much more gender fluid reality where they are with a woman for three months and then they are with a man, and then they are with two [partners]. It moves, shifts and changes and to me, that’s the paradigm. Because of oppression, homophobia and sexism, we create iden- tities to protect and nourish ourselves and give us communities. These identities are definitely crucial at certain stages but they also become prisons and roles, little boxes that you then have to identify yourself within. The dream is that the oppression starts to lift and people can be multi-identified and maybe never even identified, just be sexual nomads. You build your mud hut of sexuality today and when it disintegrates, you move on, as opposed to saying, This is my house forever and ever and I will always be dyke or heterosexual that’s something that is contained.
Do you believe in universal human values?
When you travel to other cultures, and see these universal values clash with local cultural values, how do you ferret out what the truth is when dealing with oppression and violence?
One of the things about V-Day that I love, and that I learned early on, is we don’t have assumptions. When I first went to the former Yugoslavia during the war, I brought all these American assumptions about how to fix people and make it better. Within the first eighteen hours, I was radically awakened. It was like a slap in the face. I realized that I had no idea how to help anybody, no idea who I was or who anybody was. Again, it’s this fluid thing. There are certain basics that I believe in, like stopping violence, ending censorship, a woman’s right to have a voice and her right to her sexuality. But how those things are interpreted is different in each culture and you have to just show up and listen. With V-Day, we don’t go into a culture with our own agenda like stopping FGM [female genital mutilation]. We support women who are doing that work like Agnes [Pareyio] in Kenya, who is working to stop genital mutilation, and Esther Chavez in Juarez, who is working to stop women from being killed. Then we fuel that and support it and love those women for doing that.
I was reading a statistic [from a 1988 study] that said 42 percent of women who are raped in college tell no one. And I wondered if part of your mission with V-Day is to inform women that they shouldn’t feel ashamed of the violence they experience?
EE: Definitely. Part of what is really exciting with the college campaign is they are all anti-shaming campaigns. And it’s been growing every year. We started with 50 colleges and this year we are up to 672. All of [these colleges] will be doing benefit productions of The Vagina Monologues to raise money. All of these campaigns are about women finding their voices. They walk around with t-shirts that say, Do you know where your clit is? They do weeklong educational seminars and debates. They talk about sex, rape and women’s rights. It’s incredible to see how it’s grown in five years. I was just at Stanford, where they have been doing it for five years, and the show has gone from a 200-seat theater to a 1200-seat theater. There is a whole ritual around passing the binder to who-ever starts [the event] the next year. That is really thrilling because it’ becoming institutionalized yet non-institutionalized. It’s being passed on literally from sister to sister. It’s not inside the system. It’s inside their bodies. That is the dream, that [the ritual] will go from girl to girl, the same way patriarchy spread from girl to girl.
This year was the first V-Day world summit in Rome. What vision came out of that event?
That was really wonderful, there were 25 V-Day activists from around the world participating. We created the vision before the summit, which is to let V-Day become V-World. V-World is what it looks like when the violence has ended. When we put that idea out to the activists, it was incredible where they went with it because even to imagine a world without violence is a difficult feat at this point. The greatest impact of violence is on the imagination. Violence has robbed us [of our imaginations] because we are so much in fear and fear is really antithetical to the imagination. One of the great things about Rome was everyone had a vision and a lot of great ideas were generated.
You are an artist, writer and activist; are these categories ever in conflict?
It’s such a hard balance. My dream is to get to a place where I could just be a writer. On the other hand, I don’t know who I would be if I weren’t an activist.
Do you find art in activism?
Of course I do. The Vagina Monologues is an activist piece. I can’t imagine writing something that doesn’t contain activism anymore. When I was younger, I really freaked out because I had those two parts in me and I thought I would never live with these two because they were both so extreme. Then I wrote this piece called The Depot for Joanne Woodward which she ultimately directed Shirley Knight in. It was about nuclear disarmament. It was the first time those two parts came together. Then when I look at The Vagina Monologues leading to V-Day, it’s incredible. This is the life I dreamed of. The world is in dire shape right now and to be honest, it feels indulgent to be writing plays that are simply entertaining when there are people living the way they are in Afghanistan. When women are suffering the way they are all over the world, it feels bizarre to me that I could write something entertaining without dealing with that. I am not judging writers who are doing that, but for me it’s like driving a Cadillac through the poor streets and saying, Look, people are starving but hey, I have a Cadillac.
What message do you have for men?
When I started doing The Vagina Monologues, I had a lot of not so great feelings about men based on my own history and a lot of men I had met in the world. If you just keep opening up yourself, you get to that part of you that doesn’t have empathy for someone. What I realized is that I have so much sorrow about men in my own being. Sorrow about who they have become and who they have been forced to become, to a large degree, within this virus [of patriarchy]. What I would say to men it’s really simple in a certain way is cry. One of the great gifts women have been given is we get to cry. When I cry, everything gets better; it’s my way of healing myself. After a good cry, I can move ahead. It’s when I am refusing to cry that I am in total pain. Men have been denied this and it’s the greatest punishment. It’s like being punished for life. If I were to say anything to men, it’s cry take five years off and sit down with your best friends and your sisters and cry because you are in total grief. All the violence, all the madness or a lot of it, is coming from that sorrow and grief that doesn’t get experienced. All of us should open grieving centers for men.
And we’ll just be sexual nomads?
Exactly. We will be sexual travelers and they will be grievers. We need to take five years where everyone stops having babies for a while because we need the population to simmer down, and women get to travel sexually and men get to weep. Then we would be evened out, we’ll come back together and we’ll be fine again.
Velvetpark Magazine, Issue 4 (Spring 2003), 20-27.