“Conservative. Intolerant. Close-minded. Words often used to describe Boston College.”
These were the words of Larry Griffin, the then editor-in-chief of The Heights, when The Vagina Monologues first came to BC in February of 2002. Griffin’s column, titled, “Broken barriers and open minds,” told the narrative of a small group of students that overcame the University’s stereotypical conservatism-and arguments of its “Catholic identity”-to put on Eve Ensler’s controversial 1996 play with the help of the Women’s Resource Center. Griffin went on to applaud the intellectual courage of the administrators who made the show possible, and he ended referencing an unusual sound coming from the O’Connell House.
“That sound you heard on Saturday night wasn’t a raucous party or the cracking of a few beers, those typical sounds you hear every weekend on the BC campus,” wrote Griffin. “The sound was barriers breaking and minds opening-resounding like the bells of Gasson over the entire campus.”
Twelve years have passed-can you still hear it?
The narrative has changed remarkably little for The Vagina Monologues. Now an annual tradition, the BC production has served as a talking point for dozens of reviews, columns, and editorials-published in The Heights and elsewhere-over the last decade. The vast majority of these pieces shared Griffin’s positive spirit, praising the courage of the cast and commenting on the radical, empowering message of the show.
Notably, an outspoken minority has occasionally resurfaced the criticisms referenced in Griffin’s 2002 column. Most recently, the now-dissolved Observer published an “Open Letter to Fr. Leahy” last February recommending the show be discontinued for its “controversial exploitation of human sexuality.”
But for a play allegedly so controversial, The Vagina Monologues is unusually long-lived. Simply put, no show at BC compares to it in terms of longevity. (The closest thing, in the way of a recurring show, is probably the Chorale Christmas concert.) Minor changes will be made to the show from year to year, with the monologues themselves interchangeable to a point, but the basic framework has stayed the same.
There comes the question: is The Vagina Monologues as typical to BC as the “cracking of a few beers” at this point? The answer, for me at least, is a resounding “no.” Last Saturday was my first time seeing the show, and honestly, I really thought I knew what to expect. I’ve seen some pretty unsettling things in my life, and knowing the basic premise of the show, going to it seemed safe enough. I expected to hear a set of the well-meant parables of “positive sexuality.”
That’s not what I got. One monologue in particular haunted me that night. “The Little Coochi Snorcher That Could” recounted an interview of a woman in the shelter system who got raped twice growing up, once as a young girl by one of her father’s friends, and again at age 16, by a 25-year-old woman. What I discovered later that night, with some research, is that modern productions of the show actually sanitize the original interview. The second encounter actually happened when the women was 13, and removed from the details of this incident was the line, “If it was rape, it was a good rape.”
The show, if properly understood, will be devastating. It should break your heart. Those too ready to accept or reject the play somewhat miss the point. Some might say the show is morally ambiguous, or even immoral-I say it’s morally mute.
The empowering bit of the performance has nearly nothing to do with the play itself. The show has plenty of laughs and beautiful moments built in, but some key pieces of it-the sexual violence, the mutilation-it’s not something anyone actually “endorses.” Eighteen years after its writing, Ensler’s play remains one of the most disturbing in American theater, and yet, these stories must be told.
The Vagina Monologues becomes empowering not through its story, but rather the willness of a brave few to tell it. The space between acting and living is irreparably closed in these performances. The parts aren’t learned-they’re lived.
“Conservative. Intolerant. Close-minded.” Do these words still apply to BC-did they ever, really? Twelve years ago, it was difficult to imagine The Vagina Monologues coming to BC. Today, it’s difficult to imagine it ever leaving.
At the bottom of the program for this year’s show, there was a note reading, “The actors hold note cards to represent that the words are not theirs, but those of the original interviewed women.”
None of the actors held note cards.