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Eve Ensler’s Vagina Magic: Gillian Schutte Speaks to the “High Priestess of Jouissance”

Late last year, Gillian Schutte brought us an entertaining account of supper with VS Naipaul which fast became one of our top reads. Today Schutte reappears within the radars of Books LIVE with the article below which follows from a conversation with Eve Ensler of Vagina Monologues fame. Emotional Creature, a play based on Ensler’s latest book, is currently showing at The Market Theatre in Newtown:

I Am An Emotional CreatureEve Ensler’s Vagina Magic

Jouissance is the word that immediately springs to mind when reading Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues and even more so when meeting her.

In literary terms jouissance is defined as a sexual, spiritual, physical and conceptual feminine life force connoting total joy or ecstasy – and Ensler has it in bucket loads. Seventies feminist writers, Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous, coined the term in relation to a new linguistic movement that celebrated the feminine body through language that stood in opposition to a western patriarchal hold over discourse. In her seminal paper, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa,’ Cixous called on women to create a language that embodied abundance, creative extravagance, playful excess and the physical materiality of the female body instead of seeing the feminine as lack and absence. It seems to me that Ensler is the physical embodiment of this notion. She is the contemporary high priestess of jouissance. Her writing throbs with a palpable sense of textual pleasure which is contagious and The Vagina Monologues has captured the minds of women all over the globe.

It all began in 1996 when Ensler defied a conservative American public and said the word vagina out loud in a downtown New York Theatre at a time when penis was the only genitalia allowed mention in the public arena. She said it with such a force of elation and celebration and humor and poignancy that it resonated collectively with the primal feminine joy that a chauvinistic world had repressed, but not annihilated, and most who heard it wanted more. Ensler kept on delivering. She audaciously ripped off the cloak of shame that a patriarchal order had thrown over most things feminine and re-opened a portal that allowed women to celebrate their bodies and say the word Vagina out loud.

That was fourteen years ago and the energy harnessed in this reclamation of women’s joy, pain and bodily power has taken on a vitality of its own. Ensler’s work, fuelled by embodied feminine language, has become an alchemical life force that simply keeps proliferating, providing support and accessing the sway of women and girls across the globe. She has also founded V-Day, a worldwide activist movement to end violence against women and girls and raises funds through benefit productions of The Vagina Monologues and other artistic works. This year alone over 5,600 V-Day benefit events took place, produced by volunteer activists in the U.S. and around the world, educating millions of people about the reality of violence against women and girls. To date, the V-Day movement has raised over $85 million and educated millions about the issue of violence against women.

Now V-Day is in South Africa to do the first production of Ensler’s latest book – I Am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Life Of Girls Around The World. This precious resource is made up of original monologues about and for girls from all over the globe.

“The process has been remarkable,” says Ensler while eating a health sandwich at Kaldi’s Coffee shop in Newtown. She has 40 minutes with me before she has to get back to the rehearsals. Her eyes radiate with enthusiasm when she talks about the girls who have been selected for the stage production of her book, Emotional Creature.

“There is such amazing energy in that room. These girls have taken to the work with such gusto … and they have also shared their stories with us. It’s organic because we all feed into each other and I will work on new material depending on what unfolds. Already, because of the musicality of the South African girls, we have included dance and song. The play is made up of rants, poetry, questions and facts that speak to the universality of girls everywhere: their resiliency, their wildness, their pain, their fears, their secrets, and their triumphs. You know, the production Emotional Creature is about the heart. It is about the heart exploding and allowing it to feel and connect. It felt so right to do this is South Africa at the Market Theatre. Africa is the heart of the world and I wanted this particular play to begin in this particular place.”

I want to know what the outcome of the play and the workshops will be for young South African women. Ensler’s eyes glitter with passion when she replies. “There is this mandate for women to please in every country in every culture; please the fashion industry, please your husband, please through housekeeping and religion … the list goes on. That mandate has made those of us who are older progressively mute and has undermined our authentic selves. Often times when we do access our wildness or authenticity we feel a sense of loss of control or madness and it is frightening. Girls have not had that happen to them yet. They are still themselves so this piece is a call to not please. It is a call to dance, to create, to invent, have discourse, do anything but please. Be defiant, be questioning. If we can get to girls before they go underground and before they get shutdown then we have a whole new wave of energy and women are so powerful it would translate into a whole other natural resource.”

It crosses my mind that this freedom from patriarchal restraints may simply not be possible for many girls in South Africa – many of whom have been violated before they are teenagers; some of whom are head of orphaned families and living in abject poverty in a country where the statistics for violence towards women and children are overwhelmingly high. I ask the question that is on the lips of many South African feminists who want to know how a celebratory take on the feminine body is even possible for those who live outside of the middle class comfort zone. Ensler is moved by the question and uses her work in Congo in her answer.

“I always use Congo as a good example of women’s ability to access their joy. Congo has the worst record of atrocities towards women but I have experienced or witnessed more celebration and more aliveness in women in Congo than women in any other part of the word. V-Day Congo works with the Panzi Foundation, which recently opened up a place called City of Joy — a safe haven for women who have been victims of violence. So many people said, ‘you can’t call it joy … women have been abused and it is a place for survivors.’ Yet those women have such a deep sense of joy and are so expressive of it that many who visit say they never want to leave. It is such an authentic celebration of their lives and it is infectious and magnetic.”

Everything in me resonates with what Ensler is saying though I am aware of the political danger of treading the dichotomous landscape between celebration and suffering. But for me there is this one space inside a women’s being that is rightfully hers and cannot be accessed by the forces of misogyny and imperialism. It is the indestructible magic of being a woman and it is a magic that is accessed when a woman knows her truth. If women are still able to locate this source after the worst brutality then that shows the true might of a women’s power – and the fact that women have survived centuries of abuse at the hands of patriarchy and imperialism is proof of this power is it not?

Women have accessed this energy in the direst circumstances and war ravaged landscapes. They have used it to drive struggles and start revolutions and survive the worst atrocities. Does the current doctrine of political correctness demand that we not recognise that this joy exists, even in women who are up against all the odds? When everything has been taken away from women is there not something inherently neo-colonial about another force going in and saying that they cannot express joy because this does not fit a particular doctrine of suffering? Survivors are obviously not joyous about the torturous experiences they have endured. But they are able to eventually re-discover that place that has not been touched by the heinous violations that have been wreaked upon them by forces beyond comprehension. Of course, having said all that, what we want, above all, is a world that obliterates this systematic violence and abuse of women and in the end perhaps it is that indestructible source in women that will drive this change.

Ensler, herself a cancer survivor, nods her head in recognition of my musings. “Women have a great capacity for joy, even those who have been through the worst violations. Once you pass through the worst brutality you have, bizarrely, the capacity for the greatest joy. Once you have gone through the grief, your facility for both empowerment and joy is immense. Grief and birth and grief and joy, they are right next to each other. In our workshops we have had many girls telling their stories… many of them just weeping … but afterwards there was a huge celebration. You often find that women and girls who can express their grief and express their rage and express what is buried and shoved down … that an enormous energy and joy and power comes right after and it is the accessing of this power that will drive the change in this world. The Congolese women taught me this.”

“I can see why this notion is almost impossible to fully grasp,” she continues. “Many of these women have had their vaginas totally destroyed by violent rape and mutilation. They have been dispossessed of their homes and their loved ones. How is it possible that they can still express such a deep joy? Yet they accessed that joy when they felt safe and it was such a heightened joy that transcended anything I had experienced before. I had to step outside of everything I believed about suffering and accept the gift these women were revealing to me and I learned about the real strength of womankind on such a deep level. I’ve also seen women access this incredible energy when they are outraged and have had enough … like the women at the forefront of the Egyptian Revolution… so it is all there … a potent natural resource that is ready to unleash its potency onto the world and I believe it will happen.”

As she speaks it occurs to me that this must be the very resilience that a deranged misogyny has been trying to stamp out for centuries through the witch hunts that saw the death of over 200 000 women in Europe alone. A contemporary form of this misogyny is seen in the constructed image of the perfectly groomed ideal woman in advertising, which all but stamps out her vitality. It is this vitality that is so elusive and yet so embodied, that it scares the bejesus out of those men who have the misfortune of not being part of it, and century after century they find new ways to imprison and control the feminine.

I ask Ensler if the unleashing and harnessing of this feminine power will translate into revolution. I for one am an ardent advocate for the rising up of women in a unified voice that shouts out loud and clear that it is now enough. We want to be safe. We want to be joyous. We want to be free from the consumer-driven advertising industry that is premised on convincing women that we are deficient. We do not want war. We want an equal society that does not favour a patriarchal discourse over a feminine one, or a white discourse over a black one or starve the majority of people in the world because of the greed of a minority. We want a new world order.

“What’s going on with women across the planet is so extreme … both in violence being perpetuated against women and this huge desire on the part of women everywhere to be free. That kind of constellation of those two things happening – and the Vagina Monologues being there at that moment for whatever reason – really has created a type of radical activist movement. Last year alone there were 5000 productions of it in 1400 venues around the world. It has been translated into 48 languages and has been performed in far-flung places such as Congo and Mongolia. And this is one movement of many other feminist or matriarchal movements. So in spite of the world which seems dismal, I have great hope that there is this other world attempting to emerge and is emerging, not as fast as we’d like it, but it is emerging,” Ensler enthuses.

Since this V-Day phenomenon began with a word I ask Ensler, if like the 70’s feminist Helene Cixous, she too believes that reclaiming a feminine language which stands in opposition to the ongoing patriarchal hold over discourse is part of the revolution.

“I do think so. Yes, language and discourse is what controls people’s thoughts and behaviour and the world has been controlled by a patriarchal discourse for way too long. The feminine discourse is about putting our concerns, our bodies, our language and our selves forward so that we actually exist in the culture and we’re not just these objects that are banished and mutilated and discarded and raped in the dark. But it is not in intellectual discourse that this change will occur … although that is an important part of it… but in our bodies. We don’t change in our heads, we change in our bodies and I think that the next step in the women’s movement – and has been for the last few years – is to move what we know into our bodies. I know of many strong women who are still with abusive partners. They have a liberated consciousness but are still with men who abuse them because their power remains in the intellectual realm and has not translated into body. Reclaiming and naming your vagina is part of that reconnection with your body.”

As committed and passionate as Ensler is about women’s issues, she does have a few detractors. Some feminists here have said that while this is all well and good for educated middleclass women – to a young marginalised South African girl who is vulnerable and lives in a patriarchal society, saying the word vagina out loud could endanger her, as could a confident attitude or a defiance of the men around her. I ask Ensler to respond to this.

“I really do not imagine girls running through the streets chanting vagina. We don’t encourage girls to do that and neither do we work against the culture that the girls live in. Learning to reclaim your body and name the part of you that has been pushed underground… knowing your vagina, owning your vagina, cherishing your vagina and gaining knowledge of your body, empowers you. In my view it may make a girl safer from the predators in her society. And you know we should trust girls more. So many vulnerable girls develop incredible resourcefulness on their own with nobody telling them what to do. I think there is a tendency to box girls and see them only as victims and go in and rescue them or impose your views onto them instead of working with what they have already achieved on their own through their own intuition and power. If it is culturally not acceptable to say the word vagina in front of certain people I am hopeful a girl will have the self-preservation to not do it. It is an empowering relationship with her vagina that can remain private but she is in conversation and connection to her body. And of course it is a whole society that contributes to a situation where girls are vulnerable to the un-channelled anger of men who have been disempowered and take this out on the feminine. We should all seek to change that society and the ills that consumerism and capitalism and uncaring governments have imposed upon human beings.”

I’ve also heard some accusing Ensler of merely re-fetishising the vagina. This view insists that what she is doing is no different to pornography and that she is feeding right into the hands of the male obsession with the vagina and is drawing unnecessary attention to it. Personally I don’t get that at all. As a writer who subscribes to the shrine of ‘writing the body,’ and is compelled to write in white ink (breast milk) and who holds a special love for the pagan word cunt and believes that these ‘profane’ words, reclaimed, do hold a certain energy that is empowering to women — naming the vagina makes complete sense to me. I ask Ensler to respond to this allegation.

“I cannot see how this can be mistaken for pornographic fetishisation of the vagina. You know naming the vagina makes women the subjects of their own lives – it makes the subjects of vagina their own – not the fetishised objectified and often brutalised patriarchal view of the vagina. Rather it is a way to start the conversation with our own bodies, to cherish and make our bodies safe. But most of all to reconnect with our bodies, in particular our vaginas… so that they are no longer separate to us or symbolic and mythic things that are no longer part of us.”

One only has to read about the manner in which The Vagina Monologues has continued to politicise, delight and empower women all over the world in all sorts of communities and cultures – as well as recognise the amount of money V-Day has raised through benefit performances of this play – to appreciate the positive impact this has had womankind. All monies raised from these benefit concerts go to community-based projects that focus on stopping violence towards women and girls. The enormity of this vagina phenomenon is mind-blowing, as is the fact that it all started because Ensler found her truth and said the word out loud. She said ‘no more’ to the patriarchal hold over language and spoke the feminine body which had been silenced for thousands of years. And witnessing the force that lies in the reclaiming of this one word, this one precious bodily part, it is no surprise that a patriarchal system tried to silence it altogether.

The word vagina contains within it magic and Ensler is the catalyst for the unleashing of vagina magic to the four corners of the world. She has, uncannily, blended celebration and activism and it is an alchemy that works. Other than the usual bible belt right wing patriarchal rhetoric, which cautions good Christian housewives about the ‘Eve’ nature of wayward women such as Ensler, and one or two didactic male political boffins who criticise her approach to politics as not rigorous enough, there have not been that many detractors to her path – a path which is, thankfully, the antithesis of a missionary path of conversion and aid but is based on support and facilitation – Empowerment Philanthropy.

I take a break from talking so that Ensler can finish her sandwich and coffee and I can gather and consolidate my charged thoughts. I have been studying the French Poststructuralist Feminist theories over the past two years and quickly became an impassioned follower of L’écriture feminine (writing the body) because I recognised in the philosophy something that has been my inclination all along.

I have been writing the body since I was a young teenager and anyone who has read my work knows that I have a particular fondness for a sometimes impious use of language – populating both my academic, activist and fictional writing with bodily metaphor and playful profanity. If the pen is a metaphorical penis then I write with my clitoris and quite honestly I have often been aware of the fact that my vagina has a lot more to say than my mind. It is only recently that I engaged with Ensler’s writing though and I have no idea what took me so long. It occurs to me that she is the missing link that I have been searching for – between the 70’s feminists of L’ écriture feminine and a contemporary practical version of this notion. The Vagina Monologues and other works, the V-Day movement and the vagina magic that has grown out of it, is a linguistic, political and bodily phenomenon. It is the sensual and political language of the body spoken through the body.

In my mind Ensler has transcended the Cartesian mind/body dualism and bought back the pantheistic experience of the body with its sexuality and intellect indivisibly united – and it is a celebration that dances wildly in the face of the fire and brimstone wrath of a patriarchal, capitalistic, heteronormative, linear interpretation of life – a destructive anti-celebratory phallocentric force that has for centuries been thrust upon the entire global community. Enough already!

I am overflowing with passion at this stage. I want to ululate and shout slogans and continue talking to this woman who is so in her truth that she not once makes you feel less than her, despite her fame. She vibrates with activism, sisterhood, motherly support, feminine appeal, playfulness and an abundance of kindness – but I also sense that her boundaries are strong. I am mindful that she has to get back to her rehearsals and will not waste her time. But as it turns out we speak for a further 20 minutes, shed some tears and conjure up some slogans. It is a somewhat euphoric experience engaging with Ensler. Her mind is like nectar as she makes up spontaneous ludic words for ideas that enter the conversation. She talks about “Vevolution” as opposed to revolution. She speaks ideology with a passion that is missing from most conversations of today. Other than my politically left ex-political prisoner husband and a smattering of friends, I don’t get the opportunity to meet like-minded activists that often and I’m a great believer that the time for reclaiming leftist ideology and revolutionary speak is now.

I posit that a New Age discourse has turned out to be nothing more than a middleclass comfort blanket that allows one to passively ‘transcend’ the suffering of others through a simplistic consumerist ideology based on a misreading of ancient texts and the narrow manipulation of the concept of manifestation. I’ve actually heard so-called Buddhists say that those people who live in conditions so bad that even a poor white man’s dog is considered better off, have manifested their own reality and must take spiritual responsibility for their poverty. The mind boggles at this antithesis of compassion and empathy. People who buy into this are never going to agitate for change are they? Ensler, who is Buddhist herself, agrees. She makes up a term for this – Bu-Caps. (Buddhist Capitalists). We laugh from our bellies.

I propose that a liberal politically correct discourse has created an insidious silencing of alternative voices and that we have no choice but to speak collectively in a radical language that insists on social justice and egalitarianism for all. I use South Africa as an example of this – where a PC rainbow nation liberal discourse was quickly adopted after apartheid was dismantled – a discourse that tries to dupe us all into believing that we live in a post-race and post-feminist society, which of course is total bullshit. It throws a cloak of niceness over the dire poverty and starvation that is the fate of the majority of South Africans. It denies it’s own phallocentrism. We are all on shaky ground in this epoch. “Oi, Don’t get me started on liberalism,” says Ensler.

I suggest that it is time for women to form a sisterhood through which we can speak a common (not homogeneous) language that stands in opposition to this insidious ongoing patriarchal hold over discourse and that, in solidarity with the seminal feminists of écriture feminine and herself, I too believe this will happen through the bold reclamation of our sex … but that more often than not I am shot down by feminists who translate this as impractical ideology. Ensler acknowledges this but says that at the same time this reclamation of our sex is fast becoming a global phenomenon. We agree that women need to rise up in a unified voice with the mandate to smash capitalism and dismantle patriarchy in order to see real change. There is simply no other way to gain freedom for all women all over the world. We agree that the collective harnessing of our jouissance is the fuel that will enable this feminine revolution.

It feels to me that in meeting Ensler my final portal has been opened and I have the confirmation that everything that I believe in and am passionate about is out there and real. I am not ‘mad’ after all for here is someone who walks the feminine path with truth and conviction and as a result has changed the world for women in a way that is as indestructible as the joy that resides within our deepest recesses. I am in no hurry to say goodbye but after an exhilarating discussion Ensler has to get moving. I ask her if there is anything further she’d like to say for the interview. Her eyes glitter again as she talks about her passion for the stage.

“I think the theatre is a powerful tool for this “Vevolutionary” wave. Theatre is such a great carrier. It carries things in body … it is of the body, so I think it is a language that gets carried into people. And what is so incredible about the theatre is also the immediacy of the message. It moves people because it comes from the body. You can move through a range of things so quickly. You can move from one to the other and it is accepted because it is drama. But you know what I call life the world calls drama,” Ensler laughs. Her infectious laugh comes from that place where joy and mirth and resilience and activism resides. It is from her body.

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Photo courtesy Tony Stroebel of RedLetter


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