This story originally appeared in the Vaughan Citizen.
Vagina, vagina, vagina. Say it out loud. No matter how many times you utter the six-letter word, something about it might still make you blush.
But on Feb. 24, one Vaughan woman is hoping to help change that.
Michelle Occhiogrosso is bringing the Vagina Monologues to Maple. It’s more complex than you think. It’s not as perverse as you think. But make no mistake – this is one monologue you won’t hear kids reciting in English class.
The Vagina Monologues is a well-known feminist play that has attracted its fair share of controversy. The play was written 10 years ago and has been performed across the globe. It’s about various women from different ages and backgrounds sharing their thoughts, feelings and experiences related to their vaginas.
The idea is to make women – and men – comfortable with discussing the female organ in public.
“I think when you say the word ‘vagina’ people start to get really nervous,” Ms Occhiogrosso said. “Breaking down the taboo is really important, especially if you want to empower women and give them that collective voice in the community.”
The play is also for good cause, with proceeds going towards Yellow Brick House in Richmond Hill and to help war-affected women in The Democratic Republic of Congo. It is part of the larger V-Day movement, an initiative that takes place every February to raise funds and mobilize both males and females to end violence against women.
The Maple performance aims to raise over $8,000 for the cause.
Ms Occhiogrosso, 24, is the director and producer of Maple’s Vagina Monologues rendition. She is a York University and Seneca College graduate. A resident of Maple, she studied Sociology and Law and originally acted in the Vagina Monologues during her first year at York.
She says at York, the play was easier to put together because there were so many willing volunteers (York has a large women’s studies program). When she came to Vaughan, she realized one of her biggest challenges would be assembling a cast.
“There wasn’t any activism readily available in the community, so I decided to do a production myself,” she said. “It was more difficult, but I think that bringing it to the community, especially to Maple where there’s not a lot of women’s rights movements going on, will be worth it.”
The play features a range of monologues, both funny and sad. While some are uplifting and others heart-breaking, Sarah Renaud, a performer in the play, says the aim is to get people talking about issues surrounding women’s sexuality, no matter the context.
“It’s basically just raising awareness of the fact that it’s something that can be talked about,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a private kind of thing, something that’s frowned upon or kept quiet.”
Ms Renaud performs “The lists”, a monologue that includes asking a vagina, if it could, what it would say and wear.
But not all performances are light-hearted. The play also deals with serious issues such as rape, incest, and genital mutilation. One such monologue is “My vagina was my village”, a performance consisting of Bosnian women who were rape victims sharing their story.
Some such as pro-sex feminist and acclaimed sex author Betty Dodson have criticized the play for this reason and more.
“It’s a real tearjerker,” she said. “It’s a manipulation of the audience.”
Ms Dodson said when she first saw the show, she enjoyed the first half because it was funny, fresh, and uplifting. But she says the second half (which gradually introduces more serious subjects) was “like wallowing in our own abuse.”
“There are a lot of females that run the victim rant,” she said. “We’re all abused by the culture, and the lack of sex education.”
Ms Dodson also took issue with some other elements of the play. For one, she doesn’t like the title because it ignores the clitoris. She said this perpetuates the idea that the vagina is the main sexual organ, not the clitoris.
In addition, she doesn’t like the fact that the script cannot be changed and must be read as is.
“Why are all these young woman standing up on the stage mouthing a playwright’s words? Why don’t they speak their own words”? she asked. “Instead of moving forward and letting women speak their own minds or write their own script, we’re still repeating hers.”
Apart from these concerns, she said the play should put more emphasis on the positive aspects of women’s sexuality, such as how to enjoy sex more.
But Ms Occhiogrosso countered by saying she feels the negative aspects are critical to bring to light, otherwise they will be ignored.
“I feel the second half of the play is the most important, things like violence and rape happen, and we can’t just hide it under the rug,” she said. “I think that’s the most crucial part, because people are hesitant to talk about violence and rape.”
Actresses like Grace DeSantis, who performs “My angry vagina”, a humourous scene of a woman expressing the injustices wrought against vaginas (thongs and Pap tests made the list), agreed. She said for her, the whole idea of the play is to face topics that we’re not comfortable with.
“I think sometimes you have to be out there for people to grasp how serious we are,” she said. “We don’t want to sugarcoat anything and that’s not what this is about.”
That lack of sugarcoating has generated the play some controversy. For example, in 2007, three New York girls were suspended for performing the play at school. In 2005, the Ugandan government banned a performance raising funds for war-affected women.
And while the play is about making people comfortable with the word vagina, Ms Occhiogrosso says the uncomfortable topics are important, so viewers can look at women’s sexuality from polarizing viewpoints.
“By portraying the play like this and showing those negative aspects, it says ‘These things happen, and let’s do something about it’,” she said.
“The reality is that when people leave, you want to make them think about things they never thought about before.”