The Vagina Monologues turns ten

February 13, 2010

Eve Ensler transformed the New Orleans Superdome into ‘Superlove’ for a celebrity-studded event to campaign against violence towards women

Few people know that New Orleans is the vagina of America. Few would suggest it. “It is fertile. It’s a delta. And everyone wants to party there,” explains Eve Ensler, activist, feminist icon – and the author of The Vagina Monologues. Never one to act on a small stage when a bigger one would do, last weekend she turned the New Orleans Superdome into the Superlove – a two-day global event to mark the tenth anniversary of her V-Day movement, the campaign to stop violence against women which she founded on the back of her play.

Not everyone got it. “When Eve told me New Orleans was the vagina of America, I was like, oh sweet Jesus,” says the actress Kerry Washington, putting her head in her hands. “Sometimes I think, Eve, do you really want to go there. Really? But now I get it. Its sexy, everybody loves it – but when it has problems nobody wants to know.”

Ensler has been coming to New Orleans for more than two years, working with local women’s groups. With benefit performances for V-Day taking place in more than 80 countries, the anniversary could have been staged anywhere, but Ensler chose New Orleans because of its recent unhappy past. “New Orleans has been a war zone for women.” And, yes, because New Orleans is the vagina of the most powerful nation in the world. It looks that way on the map she demonstrates, making a little vagina shape between her thumb and forefinger. She has written a new piece to christen the event called Welcome to the Wetlands.

It seems a stretch, but it appears to have paid off. The concrete overpasses to the Superdome, that were filled with the corralled, homeless, citizens of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, are now filled with women. One office worker looks sick of standing in line until asked what she thinks about The Vagina Monologues and V-Day coming to her city. “Are you kidding?” she shrieks. “This is the best thing that has ever happened to me.” A well-manicured Southern matron appears an unlikely convert, until she says: “In Alabama, they press us down, but this is gonna raise us up!” Women are excited; New Orleans is excited. But Ensler has bigger plans. For this is V-World. Her world, over which she presides – part rock star, part President.

Eve Ensler was one of the more fascinating figures to emerge into public life in the 1990s. Instantly recognisable, with her black bob and red lipstick, an encounter with her was both buzzing and draining.After years of anonymity as a New York playwright and political campaigner – among other stunts she staged street protests dressed as a nuclear bomb while passers-by spat at her – she was taken by surprise to be catapulted into stardom by the success of The Vagina Monologues.

Going to see the production was to ride a roller-coaster of emotion. Each event was made up of a varying number of monologues, read by different women, initially Ensler, but later including actresses and famous personalities. All the monologues relate to the vagina. You could laugh at the old lady who discovered her vagina was better than the Grand Canyon, cry with the Bosnian woman who was raped by soldiers in My Vagina Was My Village: get your hair blown back when Ensler instructed you that she was “reclaiming c***” and she wanted you to chant it with her.

Ensler’s loud, nightly, staged orgasms meant that she was quickly dubbed the “vagina lady”. With success, she turned her time, and a portion of her profits, over to creating V-Day, a charity aimed at stopping violence against women. And that meant all violence against women in the world. En route, she recruited a cast of A-list celebrities including Oprah, Jane Fonda, Glenn Close, Salma Hayek, Kerry Washington and Rosario Dawson. Kate Winslet was among those who turned out for the first V-Day benefit performance in the UK at The Old Vic in 1999. That was back in the days when Ensler performed the show herself at The King’s Head in Islington, London. “Ah, the King’s Head,” she says fondly. “I had to pee in a pot because there weren’t any toilets.” She returned to London in 2001 for a successful West End run, and annual V-Day performances have continued up and down the country.

Few could have predicted V-Day’s spontaneous success – ranked as a top ten charity, it retains only a few staff, working from their own homes, tuning into a global grassroots network of women that have raised more than £25 million.

Under a giant vagina in the renamed Superdome/Superlove, the celebrations commence. The mostly female participants enter, appropriately, through an origami-like vulva, glowing red. On stage, women from a local Native American tribe open the proceedings, dancing in full regalia, while a female Buddhist priest looks on beatifically.Jane Fonda is in the third row of the audience, smiling gamely as people take her picture on their mobile phones.

After all this, Ensler’s own speech could be an anti-climax. Despite ten years in the spotlight, she continues to look slightly awkward – slipping on to the side of the stage while a local girls choir and Baptist preacher whip the audience into an almost ecstatic frenzy. She begins on a strident note, her voice echoing loudly in the dark depths on the arena. Within minutes she has traversed the world’s misery: the state of New Orleans, the continued suffering of women in Afghanistan, the victims of brutal and systemic rape in Congo, the plight of the missing, murdered, women of Juarez in Mexico and the US Defence Department statistics that reveal that one third of women serving in the military will be raped during their time, often by other soldiers. When she returns to the theme of turning the Superdome into Superlove to redeem the suffering that has taken place there, she breaks down and cries for several moments. “We love you, Eve,” one woman in the audience calls out. “I love you too” she shouts back.

Superlove is a pinnacle for Ensler’s years of efforts. It is “V-World” she tells the audience – a place where women get their power back; a place where suffering can be transformed through love. If you’re too cynical or too emotionally stunted to go there – that is your problem, she implies. But who lives in V-World? Hollywood sparkles some glitter over it for sure, and it has a strong following among the type of middle-class activists with time and money to pursue such causes. It is both trendy and hippy-grungy. The New Orleans event is sponsored by the W hotel group.

But across town in the devastated Lower 9th ward, a group of women from the Superlove have arrived to plant a vegetable garden. The advocacy centre where they congregate has green and rainbow flags hanging from the windows and a van outside that claims to be the “Toxic Avenger”. The women start making rose clippings to give out at V-Day, and paint little hearts on them.

V-World might, in fact, be a perfect constellation of new age hokum and celebrity hubris were it not grounded by people carrying out the grittiest kind of human rights work. And they do attend in number.

“When I heard about Eve Ensler I did not want to get involved with her,” says Christine Schuler Deschryver from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “We’ve had so many celebrities passing through. They cried a lot but all they left behind was their business cards.” Deschryver works with woman and girls who have been violently raped and suffer from fistula – a condition that leaves them doubly incontinent. The problem in the Congo is so systemic that there are now vast hospital wards full of victims. “When I saw Eve holding these women, listening to them, it really touched me. She is not here for the short haul. She is genuine.” Deschryver is pleased that V-Day’s focus next year will be on the women of the Congo.

UN statistics show that a third of all women in the world will be beaten or raped in their lifetime. In Britain, where a quarter of all women are attacked by someone they know, the police receive a complaint about domestic violence every 12 seconds. It is these figures – shocking in their magnitude – and the women who constantly seek her out to tell their stories that spur Ensler on. And she has won their respect. “There is a big gap in leadership on women’s issues,” Irene Khan, secretary-general of Amnesty International, says, “Eve has filled it.” In the run-up to Superlove, Ensler embarks upon a 20-city speaking tour to mark V-Day’s ten years. At her first stop in Smith College, Massachusetts, 700 women line up to talk to her. There is an event outside, drumming up support for Barrack Obama, that attracts far less attention. Making a brief stop back in her New York apartment two days later, she ponders the nature of her public appeal. She has just seen a play with a character that’s supposed to be her – which must be unsettling. “It was too glib to be me,” she says. She admits that the actress and playwright may have been put off by her being there. “I hear she waves her hands around a lot.” She did not tell the writer what she thought. “Like I’m going to say, you’re not deep enough.” She rolls her eyes.

Eve Ensler is intense. Her old apartment in New York was boldly red. The new one, bought after a messy break-up and property battle with her partner, dubbed The Apartment Monologues, is noticeably more understated. “I was feeling the need for…less red,” she says.

She is playful and flirtatious while getting her photo taken, giving the photographer the finger and poking her tongue out. Later they get into a discussion about Israel and the Middle East and she quickly looses her composure. “The world is f****d!” she says angrily, tears in her eyes.

In the V-Day war room next door, three assistants sit, telephone earpieces attached to their heads, scanning their laptops for a never-ending barrage of e-mails. Two walls are covered with arrows and maps that could pass for a plan of the Normandy landings – except yellow notes have brief notations such as “c***”, “clit fact” and “Birth – Jane Fonda”. That night, at another stop on her speaking tour, Ensler takes a Churchill-type stance; thrusting her arm forward in a two-fingered peace sign to the audience.

“I’m a little scared of meeting her,” one young woman confesses, “she looks so severe.” In her speech, Ensler switches between impassioned, tearful, funny and angry. Answering questions afterwards, she commands the stage with assurance, batting off answers – refusing to be drawn into complicated policy discussions, listening to personal stories just long enough. A queue from the audience snakes back down the auditorium.

“What do you think about stripping?” asks one young student, getting the biggest laugh of the night. “I’m so not going there,” Ensler replies lightly. “But you’re the only one who can help me,” the girl persists. “I can’t tell you what to do,” Ensler says firmly, before adding that in her own life she has done many wild things because she was dissociated from her body – which is not to say that she didn’t enjoy them at the time.

Those wild things included teenage years roaming the country, drinking, drugs and having lots of sex with men and women. She was a woman on the edge. “I had darkness, I still have darkness,” she says. “I was such a loser. I was tragic. I was broken – but either you turn that into something else or you perish.” It took decades to recover from a childhood of sexual and physical abuse from her father, but she is now reconciled to the consequences. “I’m a damaged person, that’s inescapable. Sometimes I cry on an hourly basis.” When the road to rock stardom was denied – she was in a band but they turned her microphone off – Ensler was left with her true vocation, writing. Even on stage with famous women, she mesmerises the audience. When Jane Fonda and Jennifer Hudson step up, women cheer. When Ensler takes the stage, they scream.

She appears to be at the height of her powers, but all that is on the outside. Her recent memoir, Insecure At Last, emerged from a lengthy weeping session on the floor of a hotel bedroom where, the 54-year-old Ensler says, she found herself feeling “fat and old”. In the book, Ensler reveals her father’s name for the first time – Arthur. “Violence has obsessed me since the first time he threw me across the room,” she says. “But when I used his name I felt something shift. I feel much more passionate about men now, I think many more men will come to V-Day. Before I just didn’t care.” In the book, she reveals that she survived her childhood by imagining that a fantasy character, Mr Alligator, would come and rescue her.

In real life, Mr Alligator never did turn up. But, “this is Mr Alligator” she says, pointing to a wooden ornament on her coffee table. A gift from someone on her visit to the Congo and, she believes, another sign of V-Day’s mystical healing powers.

Back at the Superlove, the emphasis is definitely one of holistic healing. The fashion designer Donna Karan is running an Urban Zen zone for the women survivors of Hurricane Katrina that Ensler has bused in to the event. Sitting among the massage tables and essential oils, Karan says: “These women have never done yoga, they’ve never been touched. This could take them from chaos to calm.”

But for Ensler, calming down is not on the agenda. She is constantly in motion as she speeds from city to city. It would not be for everyone, but Ensler says she yearns for freedom. After divorce from a New York bar-owner, and then a long-term relationship with an Israeli artist and psychotherapist, she is alone. “I go where I want. I do what I want. Work is a pleasure, but when someone is calling you up saying, where are you? When are you coming home?” She pulls a face. “The problem that I have with relationships…” she says, uncharacteristically at a loss for words, “well, its really a struggle”. But now she is dating again, or “having adventures”.

Her fame comes with considerable baggage. “Its weird being the vagina person. There’s an assumption that I know a lot about vaginas. Its intimidating on a performance level.” She says that she cannot imagine a partner who could fit into her nomadic life but she is “willing to move forward to whatever comes next”. More plays and possibly directing a movie will come next. What will not come next is traditional politics. Eve Ensler and politics do not mix. In Blackpool, she performed The Vagina Monologues at a Labour Party conference event with women MPs but wasn’t allowed to meet Cherie Blair, the then Prime Minister’s wife, even though the two were in the same room.

Ensler’s relationship with Hillary Clinton, which once verged on friendship, suffered a major parting of the ways over Iraq. “I’ve been very disappointed in her,” Ensler says. “It is complicated to be a woman in power, but there comes a point when you have to be who you are. Women wanted her to be bold.” Some might say being a “vagina messiah” is easier than being a senator or the leader of a more traditional NGO. Ensler does not agree. “Its hard to be outspoken,” she says, flashing a fiery look. “People don’t like loud, in your face, insistent women. We’re programmed to think, do you like me? Do you like me? Who cares! Sometimes I wake up and think, wow, they really don’t like me.” She shrugs. “It feels bad. Move along.” “She is an icon,” says Sandra Horley, the director of Refuge, who has worked with Eve Ensler on her visits to Britain.

At Superlove, a man in the audience airs his concerns. “They seem a bit fanatical,” he says, gesturing towards the women in the rows in front. “I could imagine them disappearing into the jungle and drinking Gatorade.” This is a reference to the Jim Jones cult of the 1970s and the Jonestown massacre. But Ensler’s fans are quick to dispel the idea that she is messianic. “I don’t see her turning into some kind of dictator,” Kerry Washington deadpans. For if the secret of The Vagina Monologues is that it changes hearts not heads, the secret of Eve Ensler is that she is the woman most women would secretly like to be. The woman who, as Kerry Washington puts it, “does not allow anyone to tell her to be less than she is”.

V-Day is about to meet to decide what the next ten years should bring. “I’m sure Eve will want to do it all,” Washington says, looking tired, “So I guess we’ll do it all.” Ensler is leaving for the airport. She is happy. “If there was a V-World, this is what it would look like ({}).”

Comments (1)

Posted by: Mudit Jain over 7 years ago

Ms. Bartlett, very good article, well balanced although i am an all out supporter of Eve and have just finished reading her bio.
You have lots of good articles on your site

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