Last week, I stumbled upon an article about my alma mater, Mount Holyoke College, and the decision of Project: Theater, a student organization, to retire the play “The Vagina Monologues,” which the theater board feels “offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman.” They have decided to stage another production that is more inclusive, particularly of transgender women.
This decision provoked a lot of ire on the internet. There was an outcry from groups who heard only part of the story and concluded that the college was “censoring” the voices of women. A shout also went up from groups who want to keep the tradition of “The Vagina Monologues” and its focus on women who are born with vaginas. According to a statement from Mount Holyoke issued on Jan. 26, a group of students independent from Project: Theater have decided to put on their own production of the play.
to expect a single play, novel, or poem to be 'inclusive' is an inherently flawed expectation.
As an alumna of Mount Holyoke, I support Project: Theater in their desire to evaluate traditions so that they can evolve with society. If the students wish to stage something new, it is silly for the media and outraged Twitter-users who are completely unaffected by the decision to make a national case of it. That said, as a novelist and teacher of literature, I find it problematic to fault Ensler’s work as “extremely narrow.”
Diversity in the arts is essential in our multicultural society, and institutions that promote the arts --including student-run theater groups — must bring the voices of those historically underrepresented to the fore, but no single work can represent all experiences. Any given story, regardless of its medium, can offer only a small handful of perspectives; to expect a single play, novel, or poem to be “inclusive” is an inherently flawed expectation.
What makes a piece of literature great? What allows it to transcend time and place? It’s not the plot. Theorist Christopher Booker argued that all plots fit into one of seven categories: Overcoming the monster; Rags to Riches; The Quest; Voyage and Return; Comedy; Tragedy; and Rebirth. Before Booker, Leo Tolstoy claimed that there are only two basic plots: A stranger comes to town, and someone goes on a journey.
It’s not the events of a story that give it force. And it’s not just the characters, either. It’s how characters are rendered through narrative voice and the particular details that emerge from a clear, singular point-of-view. Through the very details that “narrow” a story, the reader or viewer enters the world of the narrative and lives vicariously through the story. Literature allows us to share in another’s experience as the other person perceived it.
Stories are conversations. They communicate with their audiences and with other works of literature across time and place. Calling a story “too narrow” is confusing a conversation for a conclusion. What we need is not one story that includes all views, but more stories.
If the theater group at Mount Holyoke wishes to perform a new play instead of “The Vagina Monologues” in the name of adding more stories to the “V Day” discourse, that’s a commendable decision. It is not, however, one that needs to be phrased as “We’re NOT staging ‘The Vagina Monologues’ because it’s too narrow.” That statement is dismissive of the value of “The Vagina Monologues” and unnecessarily inflammatory. Wouldn’t it be better to say, “This year we’re doing something new because we want to add to the discussion begun by ‘The Vagina Monologues’”?
What we need is not one story that includes all views, but more stories.
Further, to argue that a new set of monologues will be “less narrow” than Ensler’s original play is inaccurate. Whatever the students create will present a different set of narrow experiences than “The Vagina Monologues.” The particular stories told in each production are equally valid, not despite their differences, but because of their differences and the dialogue that can exist between them. The two student groups at Mount Holyoke with their separate performances have a tremendous opportunity to create just such a dialogue, and I hope the existence of two shows does not become divisive.
In Time magazine, Ensler penned a response to the decision of the Mount Holyoke Project: Theater group. She wrote:
Inclusion doesn’t come from refusing to acknowledge our distinctive experiences, and trying to erase them, in an attempt to pretend they do not exist. Inclusion comes from listening to our differences, and honoring the right of everyone to talk about their reality, free from oppression and bigotry and silencing.
I think we can all agree, we are still a long way from a society in which everyone can speak freely about their lives and experiences. Writers, publishers, and theater and film production companies can be powerful forces in advancing an inclusive conversation, and they will do it one, narrow, particular story at a time.