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Vagina Monologues Sparks Debate About Female Empowerment

By NOELLE NICOLLS

Tribune Features Editor

nnicolls@tribunemedia.net

Dozens of participants joined in a lively and informative discussion at the first roundtable event held last week by the Tribune Women’s Section in conjunction with the Bahamas Artist Movement (BAM), the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas (NAGB) and the Bahamas Association of Journalists.

Against the physical backdrop of NAGB’s “Single Sex” exhibition, which features female portraits and nudes by female artists, the discussion centred on BAM’s recently held theatrical production of the Vagina Monologues, an internationally acclaimed play by Eve Ensler. The play was created in 1994 after a series of interviews with women, exploring the “mystery, humour, pain, power, wisdom, outrage and excitement buried in women’s experiences”.

The roundtable was an open forum that allowed audience members to engage with panellists and share their views on pertinent issues arising from the play. Panellists included Rowena Poitier, BAM founder, journalist Judy Terrell, Dr Juliette Storr, president of the Bahamas Association of Journalists, Donna Nicolls, senior counsellor, Bahamas Crisis Centre, Leslie “LezzBoogie” Tynes, 100Jamz personality and Crisis Centre volunteer.

One of the many topics discussed focused on the issue of female empowerment, an issue raised by the monologue “Because He Liked to Look at It”, performed by panellist Judy Terrell.

In the monologue, a woman describes how she perceived her vagina as ugly and had been embarrassed to even think about it. She saw her vagina and herself in a new light after a sexual experience with a man named Bob who liked to spend hours looking at it. In the play, Bob is centrally consumed with his love of the vagina. The female character is eager to “get on with it”, while Bob wants to take his time, admiring and appreciating the woman’s vagina. Her initial discomfort and embarrassment vanishes after she experiences the way in which Bob demonstrates his admiration.

His obsession is deliberate to advance a wider point about the tension many women feel when it comes to their bodies. The monologue, as with the entire play, confronts women with their own self-hatred and fear of their bodies.

Feminist critiques of the play, however, have expressed discomfort with the notion of a woman being empowered as a result of a man, which the “Because He Liked to Look at it” monologue suggests. Echoing those sentiments, an audience member wondered about women seeking validation from a man: “When I saw the play, I found it very interesting that there was not a female friend, a mother, a sister or anyone that would make her feel empowered. I just thought it was interesting that the woman in the monologue had to be empowered by a man.”

In response to the critique, Judy cautioned against restrictive definitions that set out legitimate ways to be empowered.

Considering the bad rap men get as a result of the bad behaviour of some, “isn’t it great to have a man who can empower a woman? Some men value women more than we value ourselves,” she said. And in those instances, shouldn’t the positive impact of an experience with a man be embraced if it leads to a woman having a breakthrough in her own self-understanding?

“There is nothing wrong with a man making you feel good,” said Judy. Embodying the character in the play, Judy said she saw Bob as a vehicle through which the character developed. “She doesn’t owe Bob anything,” she said, describing how he simply served a purpose in the character’s own personal development.

Having survived sexual abuse as a child, Judy said participating in the play was an empowering experience. She came to see her vagina as the essence of her womanhood, and tapped into a new source of feminine power.

“I am a divorcee. I have sex and I have a vagina I really love. I would say that I have never felt so liberated. (The play) really empowered me as a woman. I have come to understand my vagina in ways I have not before,” said Judy, who took on the name “the happy vagina” during rehearsals.

A College of the Bahamas student in the audience said she related to the woman in Judy’s monologue. She too struggled with having a positive image of herself until she met her very own Bob, whose actual name was Marvin. For a long time, she said, she looked and longed for validation in the wrong places.

“Now I have my Bob. He takes me to the place where I have never been. I am not afraid to embrace it. I am just glad that I got my empowerment at age 25 years because the road I was on would have destroyed me. But I thank God I got it and I own it,” said the audience member.

Many other issues were discussed, including the rampant “cutta culture”, the role of education in socialising girls and boys, the need for community structures that support the family, the impact of the patriarchy, the church and the media in understanding female sexuality and relationships between men and women. The Women’s Section will continue to explore in depth each of the issues raised through the forum.

*Tribune Features Writer Jeffarah Gibson contributed to this story.

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