By NOELLE NICOLLS
Some women go through their entire lives never once seeing their most sacred and private body part: the vagina. The mere mention of the word sends shocks of shame throughout the body, not to mention the thought of actually saying the word with one’s own tongue. Instead we are taught to disguise it with any number of pseudonyms, ranging from derogatory to crass to trite: toonkie, pookie, choochie, the list goes on; in fact, one online list has 932 nicknames for vagina.
It is an extraordinarily odd position we women find ourselves in, being so unconsciously ashamed of the quintessential definition of our very womanhood. The most basic biological differentiating factor between a man and a woman is that a woman has a vagina, a complex sex organ that is critical to sexual pleasure and reproduction; the vagina can bring a woman to orgasmic ecstasy and child birthing agony. It is a sight of dehumanizing trauma in sexual abuse and joyous delight in conception.
So why do women have such an aloof sometimes abusive relationship with their vaginas, and is our relationship with the vagina symbolic of how we see ourselves more broadly? Due to a general social conservatism and religiosity, there is a certain socialisation that causes women to believe the vagina is a nasty, dirty, forbidden place. This negative self perception undermines a woman’s worth and personal power.
While women have a certain mastery of using the vagina transactionally - to get something, whether intangible love or material assets - it continues to be a source of shame for many, and its essence is usually only celebrated and affirmed when being objectified.
Last week, the Bahamas Artist Movement (BAM) staged an hilariously funny and outrageously important performance of the internationally acclaimed theatrical production, The Vagina Monologues, to confront the community with all of its most uncomfortable feelings about a woman’s genitalia. In line with Zumanity, Cirque du Soleil’s provocative exploration of sexuality, without the acrobatics and costuming, The Vagina Monologues dramatically presented the stories of women as they contemplated their own womanhood through the symbolism of their vaginas.
The award-wining play was created in 1994 by Eve Ensler after a series of interviews with hundreds of women on sexuality and sexual abuse. It has been performed around the world as a device to help end violence against women and inspire a global movement. BAM acquired the rights for a ‘V-Day’ benefit production and decided to stage the event as a fund raiser for the Bahamas Crisis Centre, whose tireless efforts have helped many women, men and children in crisis. Audiences are already asking for an encore performance of the sold out show.
If a vagina could talk, what would it say?
If it could speak, would we listen? If it could dress, what would it wear? These questions and others took centre stage on Friday night, making an important statement in the interest of women’s liberation.
An experienced pool of talent ensured there were no awkward first time experiences during the virgin showing in The Bahamas. Actress, director and women’s rights activist Rowena Poitier delivered an arousing performance of the many ways women moan: from the polite to the machine gun, to the mountain top. In contrast to the performance, the monologue by public relations executive Lia Head-Rigby, spoke to the ways in which women are often caged and conservative, self-restrained and self-conscious when it comes to expressing who they are or wish to be, in and outside of the sexual context.
Many Bahamians attended the show not knowing what to expect. Some probably heard the word vagina used more times in the two hours than they had in their entire lifetimes. And the explicit content - including purposefully used sexual references and profanity - was overbearing for some. Thankfully, the actors were unapologetic about making the audience uncomfortable. They committed fully to their characters and to articulating the real stories and experiences of women around the world.
As organisers seek to stage an encore performance, it would be a crying shame if they were pressured not to do so, particularly in the name of political correctness, and any efforts to suppress their performance should be exposed. Anyone who is offended by the play’s sensibilities is free to stay home, walk out or disassociate themselves from the production. I for one, will encourage the brave and progressive women who chose to step on stage and compel them to do it again. The Bahamas is a country rated number one for having the highest numbers of rape per capita in the world. This indictment on our society offends my sensibilities, and perhaps, just perhaps, one piece of the puzzle is examining how women see themselves and the relationships they have with their vaginas. Perhaps, one piece of the puzzle is connecting Bahamian women into an energetic global movement committed to ending violence against women. Perhaps one piece of the puzzle is for Bahamian women, particularly older women, to stop being so coy and to start talking to younger women about their vaginas, so these women might grow and learn from their elders.
In some of the more emotionally painful performances in the play, Sarah Chemaly portrayed a Bosnian woman who had been gang raped, a victim of war. Kimann Zoraa portrayed an abused teenager whose “coochie snorcher” was like a “bad luck song” most of her life. It was a sight of pain and blood because of the sexual abuse experienced in her childhood. Kimann’s character found liberation through an unexpected sexual encounter with another woman. Entrepreneur and entertainer Jennifer Hadland explored child birth, while TV, film and stage actress Sania Johnson performed an entire monologue about the hair ‘down there.’
The format of the theatrical franchise allows cultural nuances to be woven in only to a small degree, as it is for the most past standardised. So the experiences were familiar, although not necessarily universal. But they served as a gateway for self examination and the examination of the Bahamian community. Although the vagina is problematic for some as a metaphor, it is symbolically appropriate, not only because of its biology. It is about time women started to speak on behalf of their own vaginas. A woman’s sexuality is commercialised by every Tom, Dick and Harry for every purpose imaginable; it is seen as the prize for many conquistadors. Yet women seem to be the only ones without the latitude to speak freely.
The ultimate purpose of the show was not sensational. It used smart humour and raw emotion to lift the veil off a taboo subject to spark an empowering new conversation about “the mystery, humour, pain, power, wisdom, outrage and excitement buried in women’s experiences”. It was a bold statement that hopefully led audience members to engage in careful self re-examination of body-image, sexuality and gender norms that could ultimately help to end violence against women.
Christena Pazos played the part of a 72-year-old woman who had never seen her “forbidden territory” before and was uncomfortable speaking about it. Turns out, she had a traumatising experience as a young woman during a sexual encounter. She was humiliated by her partner over an orgasm that came like a flood.
Singer, actress and crochet artist Leah Eneas expertly performed the “My Angry Vagina” monologue, in which a drunken woman with an angry vagina crassly articulates the real but otherwise muted cries of her vagina in the face of the many injustices committed against it. In doing so, she ponders how a woman can find happiness in a society that is always trying to objectify her, powder her up, prod her and impose things upon her.
The angry vagina laments the fact that commercial manufacturers are always creating products with chemical fragrances - scents like flowers and rain and spring gardens – to make the vagina smell like everything except what it is supposed to smell like.
Leah’s character speaks a real but uncomfortable truth about what she believes it should smell like.
The monologue is an important one, because the angry vagina is symbolic of a woman in pursuit of happiness, trying to cope with a host of external injustices and pressures imposing upon her personal space and sense of self. From tampons, described as “dry wads of cotton” that make a vagina feel frigid, to thong underwear, which the angry vagina said were counter to a woman’s need for freedom of movement, air circulation and openness. Of course the cold gynaecological forceps that many women never get accustomed to; the angry vagina questioned why doctors can’t simply warm them up.
If a vagina could speak, it is entirely plausible it would be like the angry vagina. What audiences should not have missed, however, is the point that they do speak. The language is subtle, but it is discernible if women only take the time to listen.
Actress, teacher and environmentalist Pam Poitier, daughter of Oscar-winning actor Sir Sidney Poitier, performed a monologue about a woman who was frustrated by her accidental orgasms. She had orgasms in the past, but she did not know “how to have them”, which made her feel disempowered. Before going to a therapist, she said her vagina was an abstract concept. She had no idea where her clitoris was located or that it contained 8000 nerve endings and was the only organ in the human body serving a purpose purely for pleasure. When she looked at her vagina for the first time, she said its depth and multifaceted layers amazed her.
Journalist, mother and self-proclaimed “happy vagina” Judy Hamilton performed “Because He Liked to Look At It”, a monologue describing the experience of a woman who thought her vagina was ugly and was embarrassed to even think about it. After a sexual encounter with a man who liked to spend hours looking at it, she grew from her mortified stance to a position of personal power.
The Vagina Monologues was a refreshing production that was entertaining, emotionally moving and intellectually engaging. It created a holistic space for women to open up about one of their most sacred assets and one of the most taboo subjects.
• Noelle Nicolls is the Women’s Editor at the Tribune. Follow her on Twitter @noelle_elleon.