Tyranny of the invisible

On a recent trip to New York, I passed a pleasant afternoon watching a series of unsavoury males being violently separated from their penises. The movie Teeth is an entertaining enough comedy-horror update of the myth of vagina dentata, or the toothed vagina. It tells the story of the teenaged Dawn, leading light of her local chastity chapter but struggling to contain her burgeoning desires, who discovers when an encounter with a suitor turns violent that she possesses a unique method of dealing with rapists.

It’s certainly not recommended viewing for anyone with a castration complex, nor would I lead a stampede to claim it as a work of feminist consciousness­-raising. But what’s interesting about Teeth — incidentally, written and directed by a man — is what it doesn’t say. For all the gorily chopped cocks, by my count the word “vagina” is uttered only twice, both times as part of the Latin term. Even in a film that’s all about one, vagina remains a dirty word.

This week marked the 10th anniversary of V-day, the international Valentine’s fundraiser founded by Eve Ensler, the writer of The Vagina Monologues. Since its inception in 1998, the campaign has held events in more than 120 countries.

I saw The Vagina Monologues in the late 1990s. Based on interviews with women, the pieces range from the dippy (if your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?) to the devastating (a survivor of a Bosnian rape camp). The premise was that women were uncomfortable talking about their genitals, were encouraged to believe that they were ugly or smelly or shameful, and that this evening would allow them to reclaim a sense of sexiness and pride. It went on to become a global phenomenon.

Like most women I talked to at the time, I had mixed feelings about the enterprise. There was something terribly depressing about the idea that women’s sexual confidence had advanced so little that we still got a thrill out of hearing the word spoken in public. Was this sanctioned naughtiness the best corrective for sexual shame? Wasn’t it all too American, too 1970s?

But I also found Ensler’s Monologues incredibly endearing. As well as being schmaltzy, they were wry, and unapologetic, and often moving. There was a generosity in those voices that was — and still is — entirely absent from the shaved bare, surgically enhanced, pornified ideal of the vulva. And perhaps it’s more of a comment on contemporary culture than on the work itself that the Monologues have always seemed at once dated and ahead of their time.

Ten years on, their enduring popularity tells its own tale. Nor is this a purely Western peccadillo: Unicef is coordinating a V-day event in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and clandestine readings have been held in Saudi Arabia. Ensler also appears to have inspired a fresh wave of activism in the allegedly postfeminist generation: most of the English events this year are organised by college and university groups.

It seems absurd, in these sexually saturated times, that the nomenclature of women’s genitals remains problematic. In an interview a few years ago, Ensler claimed that before her monologues, nobody said the word vagina openly. In many ways, though, “vagina” is besides the point. More troublesome are its colloquial sisters. There is still no playground equivalent of “willy”, no descriptive that isn’t clinical, coy or misogynistic. “Fanny” is too twee, “pussy” too porny — and “cunt” remains the most shocking word in the English language. Were there not vastly more important questions to address, there’s an interesting piece of research to be done on the impact of growing up knowing the most intimate part of your body is also the grossest insult you can use.

Ensler has described vagina as an “invisible word”, yet it’s the visible one that’s in need of reclamation — which is why the most memorable moment of her show is when she gets the inevitably largely female audience to shout “cunt” at the top of their voices. Given the impetus, in all parts of the world, to tyrannise women’s bodies, it’s not surprising the Monologues still resonate. As for Dawn in Teeth, if her vagina got dressed, would it wear a mouthguard? — Â

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