by Christina Hoff Sommers, American Enterprise Institute
Note: Some of this material -- from a recent Wall Street Journal column -- may be a bit startling and perhaps mildly offensive to some; nonetheless, the language is quite necessary to the very important point that the author is making, and your editor highly recommends it.
"We proclaim Valentine's Day as V-Day . . . V-Day is a fierce, wild, unstoppable movement." This is the manifesto of a fervid group of women who are committed to transforming Valentine's Day into a holiday of female empowerment.
V-day, which stands both for Vagina Day and Violence Against Women Day, is the brain child of Eve Ensler, the author of the off-Broadway hit "The Vagina Monologues." Anyone tempted to dismiss the new holiday as a passing fad should think again. V-Day is gaining support and becoming more fashionable each year.
Karen Obel, a national director of V-Day, explains why Feb. 14 was targeted: "Someone's instinctive reaction to Valentine's Day is romance, hearts, love, all of the gentler things about relationships . . . unfortunately it's not all romance and flowers and chocolates."
Gloria Steinem, in the foreword for the published version of "The Vagina Monologues," suggests (wrongly) that the romantic symbol of Valentine's Day represents a female organ and female power: "The shape we call a heart . . . resembles the vulva far more than the organ that shares its name. . . . It was reduced from power to romance by centuries of male dominance." In Ms. Steinem's view, romance enfeebles and distracts women. By transmuting Valentine's Day into Vagina Day, women are supposedly reclaiming their power.
Celebrities and Celebrations
V-day was launched in 1998 in New York with a performance of "The Vagina Monologues" that included Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon, Lily Tomlin, Glenn Close and Winona Ryder. Ticket prices ranged from $100 to $1,000. This year's V-Day extravaganza is taking place in Los Angeles, with yet another celebrity cast.
More than 145 colleges will host V-Day celebrations. Festivities will include performances of Ms. Ensler's play as well as workshops, concerts, lectures and art exhibits -- most focusing on the horrible things men do to women. Not content with just one day, Brown University will devote most of the month of February and part of March to V-Day 2000: Among the scheduled events are 16 performances of the "Monologues." There will also be a masturbation workshop called "Sex for One," in which a former associate dean of student life, Toby Simon, will offer female students detailed instructions on how to achieve sexual fulfillment all on their own, free of the perils of rape and battery that supposedly attend male-female intimacy.
Obviously, "The Vagina Monologues" is the locus classicus here. Ms. Ensler tells us that the play is loosely based on interviews "with a diverse group of over two hundred women about their vaginas." In the play she makes the sweeping claim that "women secretly love to talk about their vaginas." (My unofficial survey of a few friends and my mother suggests she is dead wrong about this.)
One New York Times reviewer raved about the play's "wonderfully outrageous humor"; another said the writing "had the intensity of poetry." It won an Obie award. I saw it recently and find I agree with Camille Paglia's judgment: "It's vulgar, lugubrious, corny exhibitionism with a poisonously anti-male subtext." I had the impression that the V-Day message, implicit in the play whatever the month you see it, was lost on most of the audience. They enjoyed the raunchy humor but will continue sending and receiving flowers, chocolates and holiday cards.
There are no admirable men in the "Monologues." There is a callous unfaithful spouse, a rapist child molester, a 16th-century lawyer who tormented and convicted a "witch," 19th-century doctors who mutilate girls to prevent them from masturbating, two vile boys and Serbian gang rapists. The play presents one (statutory) rape sympathetically: It describes the sexual initiation of a 13-year-old girl by an older woman as a "a kind of heaven."
Ms. Ensler's monologue talks about women's "vagina brain." "The reason we're in so much trouble on earth is that the vagina intelligence has been damaged." Male batterers, abusers and rapists are responsible. "Most of the women in the world spend their lives either defending against violence or anticipating violence or recovering from it." Ms. Ensler counts the U.S. among the worst offenders, claiming in the play that there are half a million rapes each year. Her V-Day Web site reports that "22 to 35% of women who visit emergency rooms are there for injuries related to on-going abuse."
Statistical reasoning is not a strong point of the vagina brain. Ms. Ensler's numbers on American rapes are almost five times higher than those given by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The bureau also reports that approximately one half of 1% of women who visit emergency roots -- not 22% to 35% -- are there for injuries related to domestic abuse. Ms. Ensler is a gender warrior, and in all wars the first casualty is truth.
Hillary and Eve
Ms. Ensler's fame is considerable. Hillary Clinton chose her to serve on the exploratory committee for her Senate
run. According to the New York Times, Ms. Clinton will be writing the foreword for Ms. Ensler's next book. With the
help of some of her influential followers, Ms. Ensler is planning to fill Madison Square Garden for V-Day 2001. As
Glenn Close told the Times: "You don't just hook-up with Eve. You become part of her crusade. There's a core of us
who are Eve's army."
Ms. Close says that Ms. Ensler "has given us our, you know, souls back." Ms. Paglia has a less heady explanation for the celebrities' devotion: "Most of them are hysterical, aging actresses looking for a Great Subject."
Despite her notable successes, Ms. Ensler complains of the lack of enthusiastic corporate support. "If these were men, if this was Clint Eastwood or Robert Redford doing a play about penises, mark my word, they would have corporate funding." (Mark my word, they would neither ask for nor get funding for any such project.) Actually, when Ms. Ensler sought support from more than 50 corporations for V-Day 1998, two -- Sony and ABC -- did come through.
But corporations are surely right to keep their distance. Eve's army is marching on a favorite and beloved holiday that stands for comity and harmony between men and women. The women who have joined with Eve would be well-advised to leave her divisive crusade and look for another Great Subject.