The Guardian (UK) Story on Eve Ensler: "The Whole Truth"
Women the world over were wowed by The Vagina Monologues, and 'vagina lady' Eve Ensler became an unlikely star. Now she is at it again, with a new play that aims to reveal the bigger picture. But will an audience with the author (and a revelation by Jane Fonda) help a sceptical Decca Aitkenhead see the light?
Eve Ensler has been saying the word "vagina" wherever possible for the past eight years and does not appear to tire of it. The writer of The Vagina Monologues takes great pride in being known as "the vagina lady" and her peculiar fame has circled the globe. Ensler has become a worldwide celebrity icon for women who find hearing the word vagina spoken in public to be a profound and transformative experience.
Their response has always completely bewildered me. I read The Vagina Monologues and thought it sounded like post-feminist confectionery - fleetingly bonding, perhaps, but scarcely more consciousness-raising than a trip to see the Chippendales. Germaine Greer took part in a British performance of the play and found it a "much-hyped and fundamentally unchallenging piece of buffoonish American hoop-la". The scramble of actors to land the part where they got to say "cunt" on stage seemed to smack more of a celebrity bandwagon than a feminist movement, and some critics suggested Ensler was little more than a theatrical one-trick pony, exploiting the word vagina as a publicity stunt.
But Ensler has now written a new play, The Good Body. It is another series of monologues by women, but this time about their whole bodies. The play opens with an admission that the playwright loathes her stomach, and proceeds through a series of monologues featuring a woman with anorexia in Kenya, an Indian woman addicted to the gym, an African-American teenage girl at fat camp, a model almost entirely rebuilt by her plastic surgeon boyfriend. Its message is simple: "Love your body and stop fixing it. It was never broken."
With a sleek ebony bob, russet red lipstick and mildly unconventional outfits, Eve Ensler looks like a hippy Anna Wintour. She is physically charismatic, and has a way at 50 of seeming both maternal and girlish - a fast-talking New Yorker, yet yoga-calm. Most striking is her intense emotional engagement. She is what therapists describe as "present".
Ensler has done a good deal of therapy. Her middle-class childhood was scarred by a violent father who raped and abused her from the age of five to 10. She doesn't like to say much more about her childhood, except that her emotional survival strategy was to "fight back". By her early 20s she was "as wild as it gets" - an alcoholic drug addict living naked in communes, having "massive amounts of sex". At 24 she met her first husband and with his support sobered up.
But from her mid-20s to late-30s she suffered from profound depression as she struggled with the legacy of abuse. Her marriage eventually ended, although the couple remain close friends, and 15 years ago she met an artist and psychotherapist with whom she has been since. She attributes her salvation to love and long years of therapy, as well as many years of writing. By the early 1990s she had become a modestly recognised, though "way, way downtown", New York playwright, staging productions for audiences of no more than a few hundred.
Then, in 1994, she wrote The Vagina Monologues. It was an unexpected and instant hit. Women queued up afterwards to tell her stories about their vagina, often stories of rape, abuse and violence - and the play transferred to off-Broadway. Ensler used some of the proceeds to found V-Day, a worldwide movement to end violence against women, and persuaded famous actors to star in gala performances in Los Angeles and New York. By 2001, V-Day had become a global phenomenon. Through V-Day there have now been 2,300 productions of the monologues in 1,100 cities, including Islamabad and Kosovo, and they have raised more than $25m.
Ensler's brand of feminism has evolved since The Vagina Monologues. She says her new philosophy is a longing for women to stop trying to transcend their body, in an assertion of intellectual equality, but to name and return to it as the source of female wisdom and power. Women have fallen for a post-feminist delusion that the greater their physical self-control, the greater their prospects of happiness, not realising that alienation from their own bodies actually destroys the possibility of empowerment.
"What a way to control us. This skinny thing is genius," Ensler exclaims. "It's genius. If you're hungry you don't have a lot of energy, and it's really hard to think. You can't do anything except think about food! What women are doing to their bodies is so utterly frightening - and, more importantly, so distracting. And if we don't get off it, it's going to be devastating."
The single greatest source of futile preoccupation and self-reproach in women's lives today - even the most apparently liberated women's lives - is the very thing that makes them female. It is taken for granted that a woman will despise at least part, if not all, of her body, and increasingly considered advisable for her to go to any lengths necessary to correct it. Self-acceptance would be tantamount to self-neglect.
This false prospectus, according to Ensler, has been responsible for the decline of feminism's international power. Women alienated from their own bodies no longer identify themselves by their universal femaleness, but isolate themselves instead into unisex categories - profession, class, nationality - in which a broader sense of sisterhood is meaningless. The feminist context of their problems has become lost.
"When I was researching The Good Body," Ensler explains, "I went to a vaginal laser surgery centre in Beverly Hills where women were tightening their vaginas and trimming their labia. I flew from there to Kenya, where women were having female genital mutilation. And I thought, this is bizarre. What's different about it? Somebody got it into their heads that if they got a tight pussy they'd be more lovable. Somebody got it into their heads that if they got their clitoris cut off they'd get a husband. What's the difference? It's some system that got imposed to shut women down and cut them off. That's what people have to understand. Every culture has a mechanism for ritual operations that they utilise to impose their particular beauty tyranny and control women."
The Good Body is in many ways a globalised dramatisation of The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. Wolf identified a direct correlation between the increase of women's power and the shrinking of fashion's edict of the "ideal figure". Models got thinner, clothes got smaller, and women who as 1950s housewives had been allowed to be content with naturally rounded figures now discovered that to be successful professionals they had not only to be good at their jobs, but to spend a large portion of their life in the gym and of their salary on cosmetic improvements. Despite having opportunities now to change the world, when asked what single change they would like to achieve, repeated surveys of women always produce the same answer: weigh less.
But Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth in 1991. Susie Orbach published Fat Is A Feminist Issue in 1978, Andrea Dworkin was railing against diets long before that, and long-established feminists such as Greer have therefore questioned whether Ensler is offering anything new. "There are serious and important points to be made about women's attitudes to their own bodies," Greer wrote, "but feminists were making these points 30 years before Ensler clambered on the bandwagon."
Nothing annoys Ensler more than the suggestion that her work comes too late to have relevance. It provokes a rapid-fire outburst of evidence to the contrary; when the monologues first became a hit, for example, CNN famously ran a 20-minute profile of Ensler without using the word vagina. It was truly a remarkable editorial decision - but surely only an example of the peculiarly prudish nature of the US.
"Hel-lo! What about Paris? When they first staged the play, they said they couldn't put it on unless they changed the name. And Rome! They only put it on in Rome two years ago. There has been nowhere - not one country - where this word did not cause problems. So when people say they've been there and done it, I laugh. I go, really? Really? You've done it, have you? So that, for example, young girls are being brought up to know their vaginas and touch their vaginas and look at their vaginas? Nowhere is this happening in the world. Do you think there's sex education happening anywhere, where girls grow up to know what their bodies are, to look at their bodies? It's not happening. Not happening."
She is right; it clearly is not. If anything, attitudes are moving in the opposite direction. When Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth, plastic surgery was still relatively rare; 13 years later it is not only routine but sold to women as a trophy of empowerment: you're an independent girl now, you can afford to buy this gift to yourself. How can Ensler explain women's willingness to buy into this idea?
"The whole problem with feminism was that it was always too 'heady'." The reply is instant and emphatic. "So women were changing their ideas, but they weren't changing their being. It was all in the head. And so, for example, you could be a very strong woman and have a great independent job - but you could be with a husband who still battered you. We didn't change our bodies or our beings, so all this stuff kept happening. Now there's a chance for this next movement to change all of us, not just our heads."
How does Ensler intend to achieve this? An insight was offered by a conference she organised in New York this autumn, attended by 1,500 women. The event was co-hosted by an organisation called Omega - a vaguely new age foundation ("Dedicated to awakening the best in the human spirit") which usually holds spiritual retreats and yoga weekends. This made for an interesting aesthetic mix. Young V-Day activists wore T-shirts that read "Value your vagina. Vote!", Omega devotees wore floaty kaftans from India, and in the exhibits hall there was a touch of Camden Market meets the student union.
Ensler's collaboration with new age therapies struck me as surprising, for she describes herself as a radical feminist. A therapeutic emphasis on "inner spirit" is a very long way from the radical feminism Ensler grew up with in the 1960s and 70s, and many activists of that era would consider talk of "doing work on ourselves" fundamentally antithetical to their political project. It is men, they would argue, who need working on.
"I used to be a militant maniac," Ensler admits, smiling slowly. "I used to divide the world into good and evil, right and wrong, because it was much easier. I don't see the world like that any more. It doesn't bring about change. I've been involved in social activism my entire life and I would argue that many people involved in social activist movements have done very little work on themselves. And that has created power structures and power dynamics that are just like the ones we're trying to get away from. Look at the inability to unify on the left - the endless fragmentation. I've just seen so many dynamics repeated over and over that don't work. And I think it has to do with people ..." she pauses delicately, "not having any self-awareness."
Anyone who has been involved in leftwing activism could not fail to recognise what she is talking about. But feminism based on new age spiritualism can come dangerously close to pseudo-mysticism, hints of which were on show at the conference. From a stage adorned with candles and flowers there was talk of internal "rivers", of "waters flowing", and of other opaque symbolism. One young researcher stood up and solemnly announced: "My focus is the empowerment of women. And what I know is that women know what they know." Can Ensler truthfully say she knew what that statement meant?
"I'll tell you exactly what that means." Her answer is quick and forceful. "When you say to a woman you know what you know, there's not a woman on this planet that doesn't have an inner voice. One that she's learned to disregard because of patriarchal censorship. Like when people say to a girl, why did you get in the car with him? And she says, 'A voice inside me was telling me not to.' Only she'd learned to disregard it. That's what knowing what you know means."
Another reason why some feminists have been dubious about Ensler is her willingness to promote her work through celebrity. Among the conference speakers were a number of Hollywood stars. Didn't their presence distract from more important matters? There was a time, she agrees, when she would have said the same. "But there came a day - it was during the anti-nuke days - and there I was on a street corner, handing out flowers, as I did on a regular basis. And some guy spat on me and called me a dirty commie. And I thought to myself, this isn't working. This just isn't worth it. You are not changing anything. This is just for me. I'm just doing this for me to feel good; I'm not changing the world.
"And at the time I was so opposed to celebrity culture, and so opposed to the hierarchy of some people matter and some people don't. But there came a point where I said, OK, you can go on like this and you can stand on the street corner - and you can be right. But not have an impact. Or you can figure out another way of doing this so that people will actually show up to hear what you're saying.
"Do I think it's great that we have a celebrity system where some people matter and some people don't? No. But do I think we'll always create icons and legends? Yeah, I probably do."
Ensler's most eloquent celebrity supporter has turned out to be Jane Fonda. For women under 35, Fonda is synonymous with her workout video, which in turn is synonymous with the 1980s. The Jane Fonda workout was sold to women on a promise that it would help make them thin but, more importantly, that it would make them strong. It was self-punishment masquerading as self-empowerment.
Fonda now travels the world on behalf of V-Day, and was interviewed by Ensler on stage in New York. She addressed the audience in a voice breaking with emotion. "My father always married women with thin legs," Fonda said. "He used to send messages through his wives: tell her to wear longer skirts. By adolescence I hated my body. And you can't be in your body if you hate it, so I moved out and into my head. I'd moved out of my body to disown it because I wasn't perfect enough for patriarchy - and I didn't move back until I was 61.
"I was bulimic and anorexic for 35 years. I lived on willpower; I have tremendous willpower. I'd just will myself into exercise, and all the while I was living in my head, being perfect." Fonda said she had always loved trees. She was teaching herself to think of her legs as Arizona sycamores. "I've betrayed my legs. They've never betrayed me."
Fonda said her moment of epiphany about her body had come while she was watching a performance of The Vagina Monologues. "For 20 years I thought I was a feminist - and then, while I was watching, my feminism just slipped from my head into my body - I felt it - and I've never been the same again. As I've begun to heal, I could feel a need to fill my body with what I was seeking all along - which was actually my feminine soul."
Life-changing epiphanies were once the stock-in-trade of feminism. Women read The Feminine Mystique and suddenly saw the light - they recognised themselves in Betty Friedan's unfulfilled housewife, obsessed with the trivial tyranny of housework while the world passed them by, and they wanted a change. But the women's movement stopped producing new epiphanies, and it gradually unravelled from emotional certainty into self-doubt and dispute. Young women today could be forgiven for thinking that feminism was little more than the name given to an interminable media debate about how to get your work/life balance right.
Having grown up in this era, the last thing I expected from Ensler was a moment of epiphany. It certainly wasn't forthcoming from The Vagina Monologues. But as she and Fonda were talking about bodies, quite suddenly the penny dropped. I felt something happen inside - intellectual anger about beauty tyranny changed into physical rejection of it, a less sophisticated but more formidable force - and I understood the difference between them.
Feminists have for generations been urging resistance to the tyranny of beauty. But their language has been grounded in "issues", with the effect that Botox or anorexia became interchangeable with equal pay and flexible working hours. Ensler is proposing something quite different - not a version of feminism that includes, among other things, an argument against hating our bodies, but a feminism that derives entirely from trusting our bodies. "When things change in your body," Ensler says, "you say no to things. You have to."
It is hard not to feel angry that feminism still has so far to go - and this may explain why some feminists have found Ensler so irritating. The popularity of The Vagina Monologues can be read as a depressing revelation of how little earlier feminist works had achieved. But it is hardly Ensler's fault if women still get a thrill out of hearing the word vagina; her plays are transforming armchair post-feminists into activists, and radicalising women more effectively than a whole generation of feminist theory.
And The Beauty Myth is not the only book that appears to have passed many women by. There were some at the conference who could have stepped straight from the pages of The Feminine Mystique. One woman was 60 and said she felt rather uneasy with the "politics" she'd heard here. She had raised her sons "in a traditional way", and they were fine men. But then she added, uncertainly, "I'm coming up to retirement age. I'm going to see a fortune teller and I want to ask, will there be more for me to do? I've been in the same house for 30 years. I've just redecorated it. But I don't know. Maybe it's time to move on - I think, maybe I should get out there. But I don't know where to go." She paused. "I'm a bit afraid, to be honest. But I think I'm capable of more."
Ensler is the first feminist in a generation to have won this 60-year-old woman's interest. The capacity to inspire epiphany in others is a life-changing gift. It is remarkable to inspire it in a woman who had never given feminism a thought - but possibly even more so in a younger woman who imagined she'd heard all that feminism had to say.
· The Good Body by Eve Ensler is published by William Heinemann on October 21 at £10.99.