Here at the college at which I am still, remarkably, employed, students are performing a version of The Vagina Monologues, which consists of a series of solo discourses on vaginas, mostly written by real women out there in the real world, who have honest-to-goodness, real vaginas. The monologues are performed by women, who also have real-life vaginas, in the material, imminent presence of an audience, so that there can be no mistaking what’s present. It’s a global and an annual event, occupying the days leading up to Valentine’s Day. Funny, sad, angry, wistful, and at least one hundred other adjectives—but not fake—The Vagina Monologues demonstrates how art can, indeed, reshape reality, as Plato feared.
The performance project that Eve Ensler invented twenty years ago zeroes in on signification. Things mean things, you know. A heart shape means love, for instance, which is to say that a heart shape signifies love. There’s nothing especially love-ish about a heart shape, but because we’re privy to the arbitrary convention by which heart shapes signify love, we know what’s going on when we see a bumper sticker that reads: I ♥︎ My Ukrainian Levkoy. You might well wonder how anyone could ♥︎ a hairless cat, but there’s no mistaking that love is somehow involved.
Things can mean things so vigorously that things meaning things can determine reality. If you’ve ever felt a little guilty about entering a door marked “exit”, you know what I mean. And we don’t need Marx to tell us that we’ve learned to control each other by way of shaping how things mean things. If you found yourself inside a building, all of the exit doors of which were marked “enter”, would you be able to leave the building without feeling guilty? Would you wander around, endlessly, looking for a door marked “exit”, even while you could see the outside perfectly clearly through all the “enter” doors?
A more real-world illustration. Old Glory is just a bunch of rags stitched together in a pattern. But you can’t burn it. For that matter, we’re supposed to call that composite of rags “Old Glory”. We—that is, some of us—have imposed a system of things meaning things on everyone, and the enforcement of that system ensures that we—that is, some of us—can inhabit the reality that most suits us.
In India, these days, there’s a growing movement to lift the restrictions that many Hindu temples impose on women. Some few Hindu temples simply keep women out. More commonly, and according to very old, very well-established systems of things meaning things, women can’t enter some Hindu temples while menstruating.
These certain Hindu temples are not alone, of course, so it’s unfair to single them out. The globe’s major religions all recoil from menstruation, and all impose restrictions of one sort or another on individuals who have vaginas. In these religious cases, vaginas are things that mean things, and the meaning that vaginas offer supports the imposition of boundaries on what women can do.
Vaginas are things that mean icky. As with the ♥︎ that isn’t love in any existential way, but only indicates love by way of a purely arbitrary or conventional relationship, a vagina only means icky by way of an arbitrary agreement that the vagina will indicate ickiness. If we follow Charles Sanders Peirce, here, the long-standing vigor, across cultures, by which vaginas mean icky has made the vagina into a symbol—a phenomenal combination of sign and signified that enacts an interpretation. In a symbol, sign and signified are so wrapped up together that it seems perfectly unnatural to take the sign apart from what it signifies. Sign, signified, and signification all get fused into what seems to be reality itself. Consequently, the symbol appears to be, rather than to mean, and we find reality giving itself up to arbitrariness.
It all becomes perfectly natural: the vagina becomes symbolic of ickiness, and so the vagina itself is icky. Clearly, you can’t have something icky in a sacred precinct. So, it follows that women can’t enter the sacred precinct. If it were possible for women to move around without their icky vaginas, women wouldn’t be so icky, and they’d be perfectly welcome on holy ground. Duh.
As it happens, theatre is particularly good at reinforcing relationships between things and what they mean. The theatrical act of forbidding women to enter a temple embeds a conventional meaning in the physical reality that all who are present inhabit. That is: the fact that women can’t enter the sacred precinct demonstrates that vaginas are icky. The same thing happens when the governor of a state stands in front of a university building—and before a crowd and cameras—to prevent certain people from enrolling. Standing in front of the auditorium to keep some people from entering might be, merely, a symbolic act. But the performance imposes meaning on the bodies that are present.
For the same reasons, theatre is particularly good at severing the relationships between things and what they mean. A real-life body in a performing space can assert its own signification, against the conventions that a culture, society, or class sustains in order to sustain itself. The Vagina Monologues can smell Plato’s fear of what theatre can do, and it pounces on theatre’s especially robust capacity not only to mean things but to change what things mean. Whoever said that a vagina is icky?, asks The Vagina Monologues. More importantly, The Vagina Monologues offers a battery of new things that vaginas can mean, and by performing those new meanings in the form of real-life bodies with real-life vaginas, the Monologues sunder, often delightfully, the conventions that society insists are a manifestation, simply, of the way things, naturally, are.
It’s the performance of The Vagina Monologues, and other such deliberate and audacious theatrical endeavors, that will change what vaginas must signify, and, inevitably, the reality of which vaginas are a part.
image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Rose_cultivar_groups#/media/File:Rosa_%27Bullata%27.jpg