Photo by David Spigolon.
Just over a decade ago in the basement of a SoHo café, playwright Eve Ensler began performing a series of moving and celebratory monologues dealing with the shame many women have over their physiology and sexuality. Since then, The Vagina Monologues has evolved to legendary fame, so far staged in 120 countries and translated into 45 languages. Ensler’s success also inspired her to create V-Day, a non-profit, worldwide movement opposing what she now calls “femicide”—violence against women and girls—which includes rape, incest, sexual slavery, and female genital mutilation.
V-Day events, which occur over the first three months of each year, are running in 1,250 locations in 90 countries. For this year’s 10th anniversary, New Orleans’ Superdome will be hosting a gigantic celebration featuring Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Jane Fonda, Salma Hayek, Jessica Alba, and Jennifer Hudson, among others. Many women of New Orleans are still displaced and living in poverty after Hurricane Katrina, and a quarter of all families live below the poverty line (including more than 40% of children).
Local artist and activist Tanisha Taitt has been organizing Toronto’s V-Day celebrations since last year, which culminate this weekend (March 15–16) in two performances of The Vagina Monologues at the Capitol Theatre. The long list of performers includes musician Tara Slone, Canadian Idol‘s Theresa Sokyrka, Canada’s Next Top Model finalist Sinead Brady, broadcaster Janette Luu, and stage actor Janet MacEwen. Dub poet, actor, and playwright d’bi.young will read “Welcome To The Wetlands,” Eve Ensler’s new Katrina-inspired monologue.
During a speech by Eve Ensler at last week’s Tickled Pink event, Taitt was shocked when Ensler publicly extended a personal invitation to participate in the New Orleans event as Canada’s representative. A survivor of violence herself, the honour was profound for Taitt. We asked her a few questions about V-Day, the appreciation of good men, and the phenomenon that is The Vagina Monologues.
Ten years after the debut of The Vagina Monologues, many people are still uncomfortable saying the word “vagina.” Why do you think this is?
We live in a society that instills shame in our girls from a very early age, teaching them how that part of their bodies is something to be shrouded in secrecy—rather than it being something sacred and an intrinsic part of who they are. You hear people telling their little daughters not to let people touch them in the “bad” place or the “naughty” place, which suggests (intentionally or not) that it’s the place that’s bad instead of the touching.
What effect has Eve Ensler’s flagship work had since its debut?
V-Day has created safe houses for women in war zones, including Africa and the Middle East, provided funding for the continued operation of thousands of shelters for battered women around the world, fought for the legal equality of women in oppressive nations, fought for an end to female genital mutilation, and, through the beauty of art, has given voice to the story of womanhood around the planet.
Do you find that many women still have trouble dealing with issues related to their health and sexuality?
Definitely. There are women who, depending on where they live, don’t even know that they have rights where their body is concerned. Their body belongs to their husband, parents, village, etc. But also, right here, are women who don’t feel comfortable talking to their parents—even their spouses—or turning to people who can answer their questions. They don’t mature into sexually healthy women because they’ve suppressed their feelings and been denied advice and information that could help them make better choices. Often the unhealthiness manifests itself as either extreme repression or promiscuity.
Though we all have women close to us who have been survivors of violence (whether we know about it or not), do we also tend to forget the situation of women in the rest of the world?
I think that most people are aware of the fact that there are atrocities committed against women in other parts of the world. It’s easy, though, to see it as something removed from one’s own life, especially when there are horrible things also happening here. The difference though is that in many parts of the world, the laws don’t even exist to protect the women. At least here if the violence is revealed, there is recourse. There are places where it’s ignored, and others where it is sanctioned. Imagine being abused regularly and knowing that there is no calling the police, because what’s being done to you isn’t a crime.
What does The Vagina Monologues offer the men in the audience, and how do you answer their potential claim that it’s “not for me”?
I think TVM can help any man who has a woman in his life who he loves to understand her better, be it his wife or sister or mom or friend. You can’t say that it’s “not for me” unless you’re also willing to say that gaining insight into stories of women’s lives isn’t for you too. There are two genders on this planet and we need to love and understand each other for humanity to continue.
You’re personally very vocal about honouring the presence of good men, and Ensler also includes men as victims of the culture of violence.
It is so important to me that honouring women never dishonours men. Men are beautiful and they are our brothers. Some, unfortunately, behave in ways that are an affront not only to women but to other men as well. A good man, to me, is one who is always mindful of how all that he is affects other people and strives to never be an instrument of pain. A good man using his voice to lift others up, not push them down. He sees his strength as a gift he can use to help his life and those of others. A good man aims to be haven, not a weapon.
You organize V-Day activities in Toronto—why is this movement so personal to you?
I was sexually assaulted as the age of nineteen, and years later was a Crisis Line Counsellor at the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre. I have heard so many stories that would make your blood run cold, and have travelled my own journey, and it’s definitely made me a more empathetic and more introspective person.
Women who have been abused often feel trapped and embarrassed, holding their crisis as a secret. What is necessary for the resolution process?
First and foremost, it’s the honest belief—and not just the logical understanding—that they are not to blame for what’s happened to them. So many women take the guilt onto themselves, either because they’re made to feel that it’s something lacking in them that justifies the abuse, or they can’t bear to face the reality that their power was taken from them. That’s especially true when the abuser is someone they love or someone they chose to be with. They question their judgement—their sanity even—and are terrified of being judged or seen as damaged if they reveal what has happened to them.
Eve Ensler personally invited you to represent Toronto—and Canada!—in New Orleans this year. What was it like to get that news?
That was one of the most emotional moments of my life. I am so in love with V-Day but it is the work of so many people, and I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t had an amazing experience as an actor in the show before I took over as Producer/Director. So I see it as a tip of the hat to everyone who has played a role in V-Day Toronto, not just now, and brought it to a place where I and the whole team are so fiercely passionate about keeping it great. Going to New Orleans is a thrill—being chosen by Eve to represent this movement there is just a tad mind-blowing to me. I can’t wait to meet some of the women of New Orleans who are brave and beautiful and battling on.
What’s next for you this year?
I will be in the cast of a new show, Me So Lovely, in August. It’s a new work around the theme of body image. I’ve also been approached about directing another show and am reading the script, and I’m job hunting right now! I work for a great company but feel that something new is around the corner. My soul is just very full right now and it needs to find somewhere where it can overflow. I’ve barely started.