Ensler intends to make it clear that the future is female.
Eve Ensler intends to make it clear that the future is female
Eve Ensler sees the vagina as a genie, and prides herself for letting it out of the bottle. The Vagina Monologues, a play she wrote after interviews with a diverse group of 200 women across the world about their vaginas, has been performed in 130 countries and 45 languages since it premiered in 1996. A powerful writer and a powerful performer, the 56-year-old has also energised the movement to create a planet where women can thrive, not just survive. Buoyed by her own struggle to reclaim her life after a childhood of being sexually abused by her father, Ensler started V-Day (V stands for Victory, Valentine, Vagina), a global movement to stop violence against women. A speaker at the TED (Technology Entertainment Design) conference being held in Mysore over 4-7 November, Ensler intends to make it clear that the future is female.
Q Your last book, Insecure At Last, was published in 2006. What have you been working on since?
A I’ve been working on this book, I’m an Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World, for the last five years. It’s coming out in February and will actually premiere in India—I love the energy, and the theatre of India. It’s different from The Vagina Monologues in that although there are some stories that are real, it’s fiction. In the last 11 years, I’ve travelled so much across the world and seen little girls in different kinds of prisons. The more I travel, the more it hits me that we can do all we want to help women, but the damage is already done. This book is really my cry, my call, my hunger for girls’ resistance around the world.
Q Is that what you’re talking of at the TED conference?
A Yes, I’m talking that the future is girls. That if we want a future, focus on the girls. Girls are most alive, they are like young visionaries. They have this ability, this morality, this way of… they’re just alive. They’re emotional creatures. And what we do unfortunately in every culture is that we shut that down, and we get them to behave and we get them to be polite, and we get them to play by the rules. And if we were to really invite girls to be who they naturally are, it would be like adding a whole new energy force to the world. It would bring insight, it would bring passion, it would bring energy, it would bring sexuality, it would bring vitality. It would be a force that would help us find a way out of the crisis within the species.
The statistics around girls right now are really frightening. I’m not saying we shouldn’t focus on boys too, but my particular focus is girls. Boys are taught to come into power, to rule the world, be in charge, to run their companies. And that isn’t what girls are taught to do. Because they’re deprived, many poor girls are forced to marry at young ages, are vulnerable to HIV, sexual exploitation and physical violence. A full range of economic opportunities are devalued because of gender biases. Many people don’t understand that girls are worthy investments and that they should be protected by their families.
Q You had actually set a deadline, 2005, by which you wanted to end violence against women. Aren’t you less optimistic now?
A I’m ceaselessly and insanely optimistic, because I have to be, and because I am. I see enormous victories with grassroots women everywhere and I see the prominence of violence against women holding more centrestage than it’s ever been. At the same time, the violence hasn’t ended. In fact, I still am in shock every day about the unwillingness of the world to understand the centrality of violence against women, and how it impacts everything. The fact is, while we are making dents in patriarchy and cracking it, we haven’t yet opened up the centre of it to bring forth a new paradigm. But I have no doubt that the new paradigm is coming. It’s just taking a little longer than I had hoped.
Q What will it take to stop violence against women?
A If the UN statistics are true, one in three women on this planet has been raped or beaten. There are six billion people, over half of them women. So that means one billion women have been raped or beaten. If all those women were to rise up, things would change overnight, wouldn’t they?
Q You’ve written that you have come to terms with being sexually abused as a child by your father. Is it really possible to put something like this behind you?
A I really do feel I’m no longer walking the world my father stood in, raging and being resentful or any of that. In terms of the consequences of such violence, being beaten up, growing up in an environment of being sexually molested, could we ever put that behind us? The low self-esteem, the self-hatred? You know there are days when you don’t have a floor; it just falls away. I think we struggle with that forever. But it’s certainly not the struggle that it used to be. There are many, many days when I’m perfectly happy, and then there are days when the rains come. But I’m not sure whether that’s true of everyone. I think one of the reasons I fight so hard to stop violence against women is that I know what it’s taken in my particular life to overcome the violence. I know how many hours, I know how much time it’s taken to get better. I don’t want women to spend their energies being divided.
Q How did your vagina start to heal itself?
A I think writing has always been a profound healing thing for me. And I think writing The Vagina Monologues and performing it every night certainly was. In fact, I can remember the night when I actually landed in my vagina, and I was like ‘God, I’m in my vagina’. I think for many years I lived outside of myself, was very detached about myself, and disassociated myself from my body because so many terrible things had happened there. And I was performing The Vagina Monologues every night, and doing it and doing it and doing it, and one night it was like ‘Oh my God, I’m in my body. I’m back. I’m not afraid anymore.’ You say vagina enough times and it’s like a genie, right? It’s out of the bottle.
Q Do you feel The Vagina Monologues overshadows your other works?
A It’s a complicated thing. On the one hand, how could I not be eternally grateful for the success and for the phenomena and for what we’ve been able to do with the play? And then I wrote a political memoir, Insecure At Last, which I’m very proud of and actually feel has some of my best writing. But nothing will ever be what The Vagina Monologues is. It was a phenomenon, it was a different thing.
Q What gives you your sense of security?
A I don’t have any sense of security, ever. I’m perfectly happy without it. I don’t long for security. I think it’s an illusion. What I long for is to be part of humanity, and to know there is love, or to be present wherever I am, and for people to make the connection between poverty and patriarchy, and poverty and the lack of true democracy and the availability of resources to people in their own countries. But to say that I’m going to be secure ever is ridiculous. To long for it is such a ridiculous thing because you’re constantly going to be disappointed. I long for freedom, that’s what I long for. I long for justice, and I long for peace and all those things make me stronger.
Q Do you see yourself as a writer first or an activist or a performer?
A I’ve stopped worrying about the first. I’m a writer and an activist, and they’re all part of the same story. I think all these things, first and second, is so patriarchal, like the hierarchical value of thinking. I write and I’m an activist and they are both part of my soul. And now, because of the scope and size of V-Day, it never really ends. So I get to write eight hours a day and I do V-Day eight hours a day. And then I sleep. And sometimes they merge, and hey, 16 hours.
Q How successful has V-Day been since it was launched? Any failures?
A When we started V-Day 11 years ago, there was one performance of The Vagina Monologues in one city. This year, and last year, we probably had 4,200 productions, in 1,400 places, in 130 countries, in 47 languages. We’ve raised $70.7 million over the last 11 years, probably moving closer to $80 million now. So we know that the movement is growing, and there is change in all those communities, real change. I just want it to move along a little faster.
As for failures, I suspect our interaction with the political system is fraught. I think our job is to push the edge, and open the conversation and get people to really ask questions they are not asking, and break taboos they are not breaking. And sometimes I think we try to do things inside the system that often are interesting, but they’re not my favourite things. So, finding out how to interact with this system is the challenge.
Q What are the projects V-Day is supporting in India?
A We’ve been supporting Jagori in Delhi, and I was really happy to support the sanctuary for women they built in Himachal Pradesh. And we’re supporting groups trying to stop sex trafficking of girls, and groups working on the education of girls, and I would very much like to support the pink sari gang [in Uttar Pradesh]. They’re really working to stop the ‘virus’; I think they’re fabulous. I would like to find them when I’m in India. One of things we’re hoping is to identify war groups that V-Day can support in India.
Q You hear brutal stories of violence on women day in and day out. How do you keep your sanity?
A I dance a lot, and I cry a lot. To be honest, when you see the resilience of people, when you see girls rising up and doing brave revolutionary acts in the face of so much oppression, it’s very inspiring. It’s hard not to have courage then.
Q Any time you just wanted to quit it all?
A I’ve never wanted to quit, but I have days when I don’t get out of bed because of the sorrow of what I see. When I sometimes come back from Congo, when I see how many little girls have had their insides ripped open by rape, or when I see the kind of suffering that exists in the world, the insane and completely unnecessary poverty, it feels unbearable. But the fact is I never say I’m going to stop. I just say I have to drive for a while.
Q Earlier this year in India, Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal produced your play with Bollywood actor Imran Khan in one of the parts.
A Yes, the piece he read from is called A Memory, a Monologue, a Rant and a Prayer, a book we compiled written by men and women. It’s a monologue to stop violence against women. It has been performed by men all over the place, but it was the first time in India. In fact, I’m actually about to do a very big performance on 14 November in Pakistan. Believe it or not, The Vagina Monologues was performed there before it happened in India. I thought that pretty funny.
Q The idea for a recent play, The Good Body, came with your own obsession with your bloating body. How comfortable do you feel in your skin now?
A It was just my stomach! You know, it’s really funny, after I did The Good Body, my relationship with my body actually became less fraught. I’m not saying I’m ever free of fraught because now that I’m ageing, that’s a whole new thing to deal with. But I must say I’m the happiest with my body I’ve ever been. I think it’s the notion of realising the gratitude I have for my body, that my body stands up for me in so many ways, it take me around the world, it doesn’t get sick, it allows me to do this work and I push it really hard, sometimes I don’t respect it the way I should and it’s still loyal to me. I think when you get older, when you see your body supporting you, hanging in there for you, staying strong, it’s the most important thing.
Q ‘If it was rape, it was a good rape.’ This line from The Vagina Monologues, spoken by a 13-year-old girl after being seduced by a 24-year-old woman, drew a lot of criticism. It was later changed for performances.
A Here’s the situation with this line, it came out of the mouth of the person. And I thought it was an interesting line since it was so ambiguous and complicated. It was written and done before the play became a play and we started a worldwide movement to end violence against women. I really debated for years whether I wanted to change that line, because there is art versus activism. And then I finally decided that if the play was now serving a worldwide movement to end violence against women and girls, I would have to take into consideration what that line was doing and what it was communicating. And so I made a decision to change the age of the girl to 16 and change the line. I never felt absolutely sure it was the right decision. I think in terms of serving all that divides us in the world, it felt like the right thing to do. As an artiste, I don’t know. I didn’t take the piece out of the book.
Q Does your work sometimes make you resentful of men?
A No, I don’t hate men at all. It’s funny, the more I do this work, the more I feel for them. I think the tyranny of patriarchy is so much more damaging to the soul. To bring up boys so they can’t feel, and they can’t cry and they’re taught to be numb and to commit heinous acts they never feel and they always have to feel like they know what they’re doing when they don’t know what they’re doing. That’s terrible.
Q What were you told to call your vagina in your childhood?
A I don’t even remember. I don’t think anyone much called it anything. I don’t remember it really existing.
Q If your vagina could talk, what would it say?
A It depends on the day, my dear. I love this phase of my life. I’ve never felt better, never felt more happy to be a woman. As for menopause, I don’t see why it’s called that. I call it ‘menogo’.