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Eve Ensler, Patrick Reilly take on 'The Vagina Monologues'


Originally published in:
The Fordham Observer
02/04/2005

HEATHER LIEBLING

As the In Strength I Stand (ISIS) production of Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” inches ever closer (the play is slated for Feb. 18 - 20), it is clear that the struggle for free speech is far from over. Playwright Ensler, while encouraged by the ongoing hard work of ISIS and its constituents, remains frustrated with what she considers the success the Cardinal Newman Society has had over Fordham University. Founded by Patrick Reilly, FCRH ’91, the Cardinal Newman Society has tried to encourage Fordham, as well as several other Catholic universities, to thwart production of the play on campuses.

Ensler continues to follow the battle ISIS has fought at FCLC, and she is disturbed that our administration could be influenced by the Cardinal Newman Society’s agenda.

“It really makes me sad to think that there is anybody at that school who wouldn’t support the idea of women becoming empowered,” Ensler told The Observer.

Jeffrey Gray, vice president of Student Affairs, and Christopher Rodgers, dean of students at FCLC, declined to comment for this article.
“The way women become empowered,” Ensler said, “is to know their bodies and to own their bodies and to feel comfortable with their bodies and to feel agency over their bodies. And I don’t believe that’s at odds with anything spiritual.”

But according to Reilly, Ensler is incorrect. “There are ways to discuss women’s bodies in ways that are proper and ways that are improper,” he said. “We feel [‘The Vagina Monologues’ is] improper, not only to Christians, but to social decency.”

The dispute became a public issue when the Cardinal Newman Society took out a full-page ad in USA Today in Feb. 2004 imploring the community members of Catholic institutions to send in letters to have future productions of the play on campuses shut down. Ensler feels the Cardinal Newman Society should be focusing on more pressing matters.

“Does the Cardinal Newman Society stand up and talk about all the pedophiliacs in the Catholic Church?” Ensler asked. “The fact that most of the money spent in the Catholic Church is spent on legal fees to defend priests [accused of] molesting little boys and girls? ... I don’t see the Cardinal Newman Society taking out a $20,000 page ad to protest all of the priests who have raped and molested little children. To me, that would be money well spent.”

According to Reilly, Ensler’s arguing of this point is a “red herring,” and attacking priests in the Catholic Church is not part of the Cardinal Newman Society’s agenda. “In two instances where professors at Catholic colleges have been accused of sex abuse, we’ve reported on that,” Reilly said. “As far as going after priests who have abused children, that’s not part of our mission.”

Perhaps the most contentious issue surrounding “The Vagina Monologues” controversy is the monologue titled “The Little Coochie Snorcher That Could,” in which a previously abused 16-year-old girl describes sexual activity with a 25-year-old woman as being her salvation. The older woman also provides the young lady with alcohol. Reilly and the Newman Society feel that, in this way, women are being made to look like “aberrant sexual beings,” and that the play therefore demeans women instead of dignifying them.

“That piece is based on a true story,” Ensler said. “I didn’t create it. That’s real. It’s not taking a good or evil position. It’s ambiguous. Life is complex. Life is full of mystery. … And that was that woman’s experience. … You can’t rob people of their experience whether it fits into a certain code or not. And I’m not endorsing anything. I’m sharing a woman’s story and I’m sharing her experience.”

In reference to the alcohol consumption by the teenager, Ensler defends the material by citing the realistic nature of the situation. “Should we think that 16-year-old girls don’t drink?” Ensler questioned. “If art is going to now become something that has nothing to do with life, how will it ever help us transform our lives?”

But according to Reilly, “the play does not present reality. Anyone who suggests it does is sick in the head. … The molestation scene—that is openly encouraging that practice. … There’s nothing ambiguous about it, the character is saying that was a good thing. It’s presented in every way as a good thing for this girl.”

So how would Reilly have reconstructed the play? “I wouldn’t have presented that story,” he said. “Or I would at least make it clear that what this woman thinks is not a good thing.”

Ensler maintains that this particular monologue is just as essential as the others in the play. “I would never take the ‘Coochie Snorcher’ piece out because I’m not ashamed of the ‘Coochie Snorcher’ piece,” she said. “It reflects a point of view, a character, a story. That’s what art is.”
Another issue that has been raised in this ongoing debate is the question of why the use of the word “vagina” itself seems to be so controversial.

Reilly feels that the word is “a technical term” and one that is “not always used in polite conversation.” In fact, when the Cardinal Newman Society’s ad appeared in USA Today last year, the word was altered, appearing as “V*****” in all mentions of the play’s title, according to the article, out of “respect for women’s dignity and young readers’ innocence.”

Ensler posits that the reasoning behind some people’s fear of the word “vagina” is that it’s a source of women’s power and that people are terrified of women’s power.

She feels it is important for vaginas to be given a voice in order for women to become empowered. “I believe that where vaginas are kept in the dark, where women have silence and women aren’t able to talk, usually terrible things happen to them,” she said. “And where people are able to openly speak out, then amazing things begin to happen.”

Reilly, however, feels that a woman’s dignity should not be symbolized by a woman’s vagina. “The general public does not consider vaginas to be the symbol of women’s dignity,” he said.

As of now, in regard to Fordham’s production of the play, ISIS intends to, with the support of many sects of the faculty, put on “The Vagina Monologues,” having been denied access to the Student Activities funds by Student Affairs. ISIS has, as in the past several years, been working closely with V-Day, an organization founded in 1998 by Ensler and other New York women, to put on productions of the play. The money raised by ticket sales will be distributed to “grassroots, national, and international organizations and programs that work to stop violence against women and girls,” according to vday.org, the organization’s official Web site.

Ensler said that, so far this year, 651 colleges worldwide, from countries as far away as Cairo, Lebanon and Japan, have signed up to put on a production of “The Vagina Monologues.”

“They all understand the value in girls knowing their vaginas and feeling good about their vaginas and telling the true stories of their vaginas,” she said. “It would be a shock to me that Fordham University, smack in the middle of Manhattan, would come out to be the most conservative university in the world. … [The Cardinal Newman Society] is one interest group. It’s one very limited point of view. The fact that a university would be shut down by that is not something to be proud of.”

But Ensler remains proud of the efforts of Fordham students who have been active participants in this debate. “[They] are really working to get the play done in spite of these obstacles,” she said. “I’m very proud, and I stand with them.”