A sinking feeling hit me at about 7.45pm on 10 February. I was in a $250 seat at Madison Square Garden. The gala benefit performance of The Vagina Monologues had just begun, and already I was looking around for the nearest exit.
If, like me, you have not been paying close attention to the zeitgeist recently, you may not know that The Vagina Monologues, which began as a small theatrical production several years ago, has grown planetary tentacles and has attracted legions of fans. The performances raise large sums of money to help women at the mercy of religious ideologies, ethnic cleansing, unbridled global capitalism, hideous cultural practices and plain old rape. Excellent causes; who could object? So why did I want to run screaming out into the dark, freezing cold streets?
For a start, there was Eve Ensler, the creator of The Vagina Monologues. My God, she was irritating. "I was worried about vaginas," she sings out loud and clear, dressed in a gorgeous (symbolically) red gown, striding around the stage, her face projected on to huge TV screens, her voice amplified to permeate the far reaches of the Garden.
Ensler's concern about vaginas was inspired, as she frequently says, by spiritual entities that she calls "the vagina queens", as in: "I feel like the vagina queens came down and selected me to serve." To do the bidding of the VQs, Ensler interviewed women across the social spectrum. In response to her probing questions, these women apparently spilled the beans about their vaginas and Ensler then worked up their words into recitations, using the material as it best suited her purpose - or the purpose of the vagina queens, which, frankly, remains hidden from me. For this, Ensler has won an Obie award and the support of the rich and famous. At the very least, she has cornered the market on the subject, which has grown to industrial size. The VMs are performed to sold-out audiences; if Ensler isn't performing them herself, they are franchised out to college campuses, among the many venues.
On this celebratory night, Ensler, backed by the Vulva Choir, is performing her work alongside a huge cast of famous, and a few stricken, women. The performance is the culmination of "V Day", a day to "Rock, Rally and Rise Up to Demand an End to Violence Against Women".
Most of tonight's sold-out audience of 18,000 is of the vaginal persuasion. Tampax is among the corporate sponsors (what could be more appropriate?) and, after collecting my gift of a cunning Tampax holder, I find my seat - which, incidentally, is draped with a banner assuring me that I am in a "Rape-Free Zone". And that, I am happy to tell you, proved to be true.
Let me admit to a certain disposition: I abhor feel-good identity politics; I hate audience participation; I do not want to mention, let alone discuss, my vagina, and particularly not with strangers. So when, early on, Ensler exhorts the audience to say the word with her - "Vagiiinaa!" - and then demands to know "How many vaginas are in the house?", and when thousands of members of what can only be called the vagina cult so identify themselves by screaming in joyous response, my eyes begin to dart desperately, seeking the exit signs.
From that moment on, things go rapidly downhill. Beautiful and famous women - 70 women, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, Glenn Close, Amy Irving, Brooke Shields and Gloria Steinem among them - take the stage, dressed in every imaginable shade of (symbolic) red finery, to read Ensler's pieces. They recite pet names for the vagina - mimi, toto, pussycat, poontang, split knish . . . They tell us what vaginas would say if they could talk: "Slow down, feed me, yum yum, lick me . . . " They inform us of Vagina Happy Facts: for instance, that the clitoris has 8,000 nerve fibres, twice as many as the penis. "Who needs a handgun when you've got a semi-automatic?" they ask.
"Yaaaaay!" cry my sisters. (There seems to be an assumption, shared by Ensler and her audience, that sexual pleasure was something unknown to women until Ensler pointed out the exact location of the vagina, its accoutrements and the best uses for the equipment.)
The lovely Glenn Close thrills by inciting the audience to shout: "Cunt! Cunt!" Jane Fonda, who has been an object of feminist suspicion because of her frequent marriages to rich and powerful men and, not least, because at one time she flaunted her spectacular figure in exercise videos, redeems her feminist credentials by taking us, step by step, through the vaginal canal in childbirth. Calista Flockhart, a very slender (not to say anorexic) TV actress, wearing a red microskirt that barely covers her guess-what, recites a piece called "My Short Skirt": this is an ode celebrating the freedom of women to wear whatever they wish, and scolding those males who assume that an invitation to sexual attention lurks in a costume that barely covers a woman's guess-what. Now, to me (and probably I was alone in Madison Square Garden in taking this position), the above is a prime example of how ideology makes people stupid.
I'm not unwilling to give some credit to Ensler's project. Her intention is not only to give the vagina a public airing, but to provide succour and funds to women who have problems other than the emotional state of their vaginas: the stricken women I mentioned briefly above. To that end, Oprah appears on stage, dressed in red satin and glittering red sequins, and recites, to mighty applause, a piece called "Under the Burqa", concerning an Afghan woman forced to wear this garment. When she has finished, she descends the steps of the stage to lead forth a small figure, clothed in the awful tent of cloth. It is Zoya, a representative of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, who speaks not of the sexual organ, but of the horrors for women of life under Taliban rule. Three African women also take the stage to speak starkly about the custom in their countries of female circumcision, which, with funds raised by supporters of the VMs, they are working to eradicate.
The appearance of these few women crystallises a problem that has plagued me for some time. For many years, it has been the fashion in the United States to use the term "lifestyle", rather than what we simply used to call "life". I was never able to explain why "lifestyle" drove me up the wall. Well, try this: might it not be in bad taste to speak of the "battered woman lifestyle", of "lifestyle under the Taliban", of "the lifestyle of the clitoridectomised"? On the other hand, I do see that Eve Ensler has documented the lifestyle of certain vaginas, and I call it twaddle.
Eve Ensler is appearing in The Vagina Monologues at the New Ambassador's Theatre, London WC2 (020 7369 1761), until September
Dorothy Gallagher's How I Came into My Inheritance and Other True Stories will be published by Picador in November. This article is reprinted from the spring/ summer issue of Arete. Subscriptions (£21 per year - three issues) to: Arete, 8 New College Lane, Oxford OX1 3BN