For many, Eve Ensler’s 1996 play The Vagina Monologues calls to mind the image of white women adorned in scarves and black turtlenecks, pacing about the stages of small liberal arts colleges. The production has been embroiled in controversy from all sides of the political spectrum: Moderates have brushed the show aside as radical and pretentious; conservatives like Georgetown graduate Anthony Bonna have asserted that the play “attacks traditional values,” and recently, modern feminists have accused the show of excluding women without vaginas. Many people currently questionthe premise altogether, as exemplified by this statement by the Women’s Media Center: “I am more than my vagina.”
Yet those same words were uttered by Sage Murphy-Cristal at UC San Diego’s 20th production of The Vagina Monologues, held February 22–25, 2019. During Murphy-Cristal’s original monologue, “My Hematite Ring,” she described her experiences as an asexual woman. The piece, which was first performed last year, was reprised due to its student impact; 2018 directors Emily Butler and Pratyusha Meka both described separate instances of students approaching them to express how they resonated with the monologue.
Is UCSD’s rendition of The Vagina Monologues free from accusations of racism and transphobia? It certainly seems so. Intersectionality was emphasized at every beat in the production, from the introduction given by this year’s directors, to a projected video defining and explaining intersectionality, to the stories themselves, which discussed race and gender as they relate to womanhood. Graphics boldly stated that “the present is intersectional,” and leaflets detailed the history of notable, diverse, feminists such as Malala Yousafzai, Princess Ka’iulani, Marsha P. Johnson, and Wilma Mankiller. I wondered what inspired this approach to The Vagina Monologues at UCSD.
To illuminate the production’s past and present, I sat down with two of this year’s directors, Jordan Krikorian and Sriya Podila, to discuss transphobia and The Vagina Monologues. In my research, I also caught up with last year’s directors—Emily Butler, Pratyusha Meka, and Hannah Lykins—about their experiences in the 2017 production, the turning point for The Vagina Monologues at UCSD.
The 2017 production was one of the first instances of two nonbinary individuals participating in the UCSD production. Unfortunately, the radical acceptance of cisgender women was not equally extended to these two genderqueer participants, from a lack of respect for pronouns and the prevalence of phrases like “pussy power” and “vagina warriors,” down to the vaginas on the backdrop of the stage. According to Lykins, one of the individuals left the production after explaining in the cast group chat, in response to a “hey ladies!” greeting, that the language used was disrespectful. Unfortunately, some cast members criticized them for speaking up. Not only did this experience lead to the loss of their monologue, but it also caused the nonbinary individual to respectfully discontinue the use of their story in subsequent years, not wanting to be involved with the production.
In 2018, Butler, Meka and Lykins decided things needed to change, prompting their decision to direct the show in a radically different way. This began with the creation of “TheirStories,” (replacing the previous use of cast-written monologues called “HerStories”) a gender-inclusive program through which any student could submit a monologue to the show. The program promised that monologues surrounding aspects of identity would exclusively be performed by actors who share that background.
“Not everyone can relate to a story about a certain gender, sexuality, or race,” Lykins said, with Meka adding, “but just because you went through one thing and I didn’t doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to understand your experience.”
The 2018 production was also an open act of defiance. “There’s no room for change built into The Vagina Monologues,” Lykins explained. While registering to be an official Vagina Monologuesproduction, she had to sign an agreement promising not to alter the script or performance in any way.
2019 director Sirya Podila said, “We take these liberties because we feel that they are necessary to uplift the voices which have been erased.” I was reminded of a line from the original Vagina Monologues, which states that “my revolution relies on anarchists.”
If the 2018 production was the beginning of a revolution, it seems to have found its voice in 2019. Krikorian emphasized that “this is a production which wants to change from the inside out.” The show hopes to move away from performing pieces from the original Vagina Monologues to exclusively performing “TheirStories” pieces once enough are accumulated. But even without this goal becoming fully realized, the production seems to have created a radically more inclusive space.
Perhaps the most significant evidence of this is that two trans men, Bias Lammoochi and Ryan Sullivan, chose to perform in this year’s show. Lammoochi, a graduate student, called the production “a very inclusive environment,” and Ryan Sullivan praised the directors for “wanting to hit every point of intersectionality.” When I asked Sullivan why he wanted to participate, he answered, “I felt I could be a part of spearheading [the show’s] movement away from its exclusive past towards an inclusive future.”
Other cast members described the show as something that improved their allyship. Suzana Hossain said the show “taught [her] that the things [she] says can hurt other people” in regards to pronoun use. Jane Coates echoed this sentiment, saying being in the cast “has been really good for my development as a person.”
In this way, UCSD needs The Vagina Monologues and TheirStories. As Emily Butler put it, “People in this school come from backgrounds where they haven’t been exposed to this stuff. As a more conservative UC [campus], this show provides an important infusion of feminism and inclusivity.”
The Vagina Monologues also desperately needs UCSD, because in many ways UCSD does justice to The Vagina Monologues in a way small liberal arts colleges cannot. Criticisms of The Vagina Monologues typically come back to the fact that the play is inescapably infused with a wealthy white feminist perspective. UCSD, however, is large, public, and diverse. In order to be a part of modern feminism, the show needs a modern production. The UCSD directors from the past few years have clearly defined this based on a sentiment of respectful rebellion against the show’s history.
As Lammoochi said in his monologue, “People need to care about queer lives more than the dying art of some stubborn mess of paper.”
Kate Zegans is a contributing writer for the Arts and Culture section of The Triton.