A few months ago, I attended and later walked out of a performance of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler’s 1996 collection of interview-based, first-person narratives about the female sex organ. It wasn’t that I was offended by Ensler’s tales of love, birth, rape, and sexual awakening. I was just… bored by them.
What had seemed daring and insightful when I first witnessed it as a teenager now seemed tired and out of date, a well-intentioned but ultimately ill-fated attempt to be edgy and “liberated.” I winced at the tale of Bob the vagina connoisseur, for whom women’s genitalia offered a window into their souls. “[Your vagina is] who you are,” Bob tells Ensler’s monologuer. “You’re elegant and deep and innocent and wild.”
As Germaine Greer urged in The Female Eunach, I have tasted my own menstrual blood and inspected my vulva with a hand mirror. But my vision of female empowerment is not one in which the vagina takes on some mystical, quasi-spiritual significance. It is one in which I am no more defined by my reproductive organs than I am by, say, my elbow.
But the vagina, it seems, is having a cultural resurgence – if it is possible for a part of the body that is shared by 51 percent of the population to resurge. It is at rallies, scrawled in black ink on placards protesting rape culture and infractions on reproductive rights, and in viral online comedy videos featuring Hollywood actresses like Kate Beckinsale and Judy Greer. It is smattered over the blogosphere on fourth wave feminist websites such as Jezebel, Feministing, and the one you’re reading right now. Next month, Gen X titan Naomi Wolf will publish a new book titled simply, Vagina: A New Biography.
Forget the Playboy “pussy”, the Grey’s Anatomy “vajajay”, or the Tony Abbott-style “precious flower.” These days, it’s all about the vagina-bomb: the casual, tongue-in-cheek referencing of the technical term for female genitalia at any time, place, or opportunity.
Like Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, the recent deluge of vagina talk is designed to push boundaries; a typographical poke of the tongue at those who are more squeamish, more conservative, or less empowered than the person using the term. But the new vagina dialogues are also less earnest than their 1990s counterparts, rooted more in internet age irony than in spiritual awe of the female body.
There can also be an undercurrent of posturing to them, a note of – as professional pot-stirrer Katie Roiphe put it in a recent article for Slate – “Hey look at me! Aren’t I cool for using this word and irritating and shocking some theoretical [conservative] senator?” The implication, of course, being that it is not shocking and not cool.
Roiphe argues that vagina-bombing plays into “the same puritanical obsession” with the female body that it is ostensibly making fun of and challenging, the one that suggests that vaginas are so powerful and dangerous that they must simultaneously be discussed constantly and not mentioned at all.
But while vagina talk sometimes veers into self-congratulation, it has re-emerged for good reason. Women’s bodies are hot political property right now, with 2012 seeing a major debate over birth control in the United States, public complaints over the use of the word “vagina” in a panty liner ad in New Zealand, and the founding of a controversial “pro-life club” at the University of Sydney in Australia. Then there is the American politician who was too disgusted to even say the word out loud (although he was perfectly happy to legislate the body part it referred to), calling it simply a “V.”
Cumulatively, such tales point to a culture that still believes that women’s bodies are dirty and embarrassing, and that women’s pleasure is perverse and taboo. The kind of culture that, perhaps, could do with a little more vagina talk; with a vagina connoisseur like Ensler’s “Bob”, even. Vagina-bombing is born as much out of frustration as it is out of self-conscious rebellion.
And if talking about your vagina is no longer as edgy as it once was, perhaps this latest resurgence – direct, unflinching and deliberately casual – is perfect for the present moment. Just as one might talk about their elbow.