The Vagina Dentatalogues

Just go read Elizabeth Reis on the Mount Holyoke College non-production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues at Nursing Clio:

Intersex activists have coined the insightful slogan, “No Body is Shameful®,” to draw attention to the shaming and forced cosmetic adherence to the idea of a “normal” body. Of course, here they are talking about people born with atypical sex development, like the one in 5000 infant girls born with MRKH Syndrome [Mayer-Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser (MRKH) Syndrome]. Since the nineteenth century, girls born without vaginas have endured the surgical creation of such anatomy. This reconstructive “corrective” surgery, described eloquently here by Esther Morris Leidolf, in a narrative she calls the “The Missing Vagina Monologue,” has never been done for the pleasure of the girl, but as her physician bluntly explained when she was only thirteen years old: so that she “could have a normal sex life with her husband.”

This is the kind of violence that The Vagina Monologues speaks to, even though there are no intersex characters in Eve Ensler’s play. It doesn’t matter (though it would be a good idea!). Watching the play encourages us to appreciate the profound refrain, “No Body is Shameful,” whether we have a vagina, want a vagina, like vaginas, or just love hearing the word spoken rebelliously and repeatedly on stage.

I like Reis’s point about the surgical violence done to women’s bodies for men’s pleasure.  I know that many trans* people have embraced this kind of surgery as something that can make them whole or complete, but I sometimes wonder where the feminist critiques of allopathic medicine have gone sometimes in the trans* celebrations of the power of technology to alter people’s bodies through hormones and surgery.

(Believe me, I’m not a particular fan of that line of thinking.  I’m no crunchy earth mother.  I love anaesthesia, C-sections, and vaccinations!  Bring them on.  But I have a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, circa 1984, and I know that feminist criticism of allopathy has been a big part of second-wave, post-1960 U.S. feminism.  These critiques have made changes or at least choices for women that never existed forty or fifty years ago.)

Reis is suggesting that it is important for feminists to consider the roots of this kind of surgical expertise and medical knowledge, which are rooted in the desire to normalize bodies and sexualities, not to celebrate their queer or trans* differences.  Should this make a difference to trans* people who see hormones and surgery as technologies that can make them whole and complete?  Probably not, but feminists should remember and think about it.

5 thoughts on “The Vagina Dentatalogues

  1. Why use the propaganda term “allopathy”, which is purposed by practitioners of fake medicine (“homeopathy”) to make it sound like fake medicine and real medicine are genuine alternatives on some sort of equal level of legitimacy? Why not use the neutral descriptive term “modern medicine”?

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  2. At some point, I think the term for the opposite of homeopathy was osteopathy. At least my grandmother (born late 1890s) was very insistent that her father (born 1860s?) was an osteopath (i.e. real doctor) not a homeopath. (sorry; bit off topic)

    “The Missing Vagina Monologue” is horrifying, not least because, as far as I can tell, there was no reason not to postpone decisions about surgery until the prospective patient could make them herself, as an adult with a matur(ing) sense of her own sexuality and how it might best be expressed using the body with which she was born, with or without modification. And then, of course, there’s the business of ignoring the other components of the syndrome that interfered more significantly with her daily life and career. That’s outright medical malpractice.

    And yes, the missing monologue also seems like a good example of how the conversation started by “The Vagina Monologues” can be continued and expanded — usually a better alternative, to my mind, that shutting down speech, even, in many cases, offensive speech, not that I’m willing to put the VM in that category. So I’m in favor of people writing, and performing, more plays on related subjects. I haven’t read enough about the Mt Holyoke situation to feel I completely understand what’s going on, but I gather that at least one new play is, indeed, being written and performed. That seems like a bright spot. Maybe some day there will be theater festivals/series on The VM and its literary offspring? That sort of literary dialogue, rather than an old-fashioned Harold Bloom-esque “killing the fathers” approach, seems more appropriate to feminist discourse.

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  3. I didn’t realize that allopathy had that valence (making it equivalent to homeopathy, or woo in general.) Modern medicine, YES. (Sorry.)

    And yes to the endless revisions and expansion of the VMs, in a kind of fan-fiction explosion.

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