The performance ends and every audience member stands — not in order to applaud, but rather, in a show of solidarity.
On Feb. 26 and 27, over 50 students will perform in an annual production of the Vagina Monologues, put on by the V-Day University of Pennsylvania College Campaign.
Written by Eve Ensler and following hundreds of interviews with different women, The Vagina Monologues aims to bring the experiences of women to a broader audience through an artistic medium. The production is the culminating event of the year for V-Day Penn, part of the global non-profit campaign founded by Ensler that raises funds and awareness to end violence against women, in part through benefit productions of the Vagina Monologues.
Each year, V-Day Penn fundraises between $40,000 to $50,000 in total — much of which is raised through the Vagina Monologues — and all proceeds go to Women Organized Against Rape, Philadelphia’s only full-service rape crisis center. WOAR reaches about 80,000 people annually.
The Vagina Monologues have been the subject of much criticism, some of which stem from the name itself, which can be seen as exclusive of transgender women. Some institutions, such as Mount Holyoke College, have even canceled performances of the play, citing its lack of inclusivity.
"It's a back and forth game. [Cisgender] girls use Vagina Monologues as a way to empower themselves, especially since sometimes ‘vagina’ can be so often considered a dirty word by U.S. culture, so I do support [the Vagina Monologues],” said an openly transgender student on campus, who preferred not to be identified for personal reasons. "It's just disappointing for trans folks to be left out when they're left out of so many conversations revolving around sexual health and sexual violence. But I'll still be watching the Vagina Monologues; this is still something that needs to be watched and heard by everyone."
Students involved in the Vagina Monologues and in V-Day Penn are very aware of the play’s shortcomings.
“Kendra Carson, who's one of our directors, modified the intro to make sure that the wording was better, and she added a couple of sentences essentially saying that we affirm all gender identities and being a trans person does not necessarily mean that you transitioned or that you want to transition," said College sophomore Sophia Griffith-Gorgati, a cast member in the Vagina Monologues.
Members of the movement also reached out to various religious groups on campus, as well as the LGBTQ community, in order to “try to get more voices in our space,” said Wharton senior Maha Subramaniam, co-director of the Vagina Monologues.
“The messages in the show are essential and important, but they're by no means representative of the experience of what it is to be a woman,” said Griffith-Gorgati. "It's tough because on the one hand, you want to affirm and represent cisgender women, but on the other hand, you want to be careful that you aren't saying that cisgender womanhood is the standard for womanhood."
At the end of every show, the cast initiates a call to stand. First, those who identify as survivors are asked if they would like to stand in solidarity. Then, anyone who knows someone who’s been affected by sexual violence stands. At this point, almost everyone in Irvine Auditorium is standing. Finally, the cast asks anyone who’s still sitting to stand up if they would like to join the fight to ensure the end of sexual violence.
“To me, that moment tells us why it's important to keep doing this work,” Carson said. “The problem is so much bigger than we realize in our day-to-day lives.”
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