“TheirStories” Aims to Transform The Vagina Monologues "From the Inside Out"

Arts and CultureTheatre

Arlene Banuelos / The Triton

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Editor’s Note: On March 8, 2019, The Triton published ‘TheirStories Aims to Transform The Vagina Monologues ‘From the Inside Out.’ Since we published the piece, individuals from the trans community have criticized the piece for trans-exclusionary language and tone. As Managing Editor of the paper, I formally apologize on behalf of The Triton. Going forwards, we will be making a greater effort to recruit trans voices and listen to the trans community. Those efforts will include reaching out to the LBGT Resource Center and other on-campus groups. We will also be researching best practices for writing about trans people in order to put together internal guidelines, starting with resources such as this style guide for writing about transgender people, and this media reference guide from GLAAD. If you have other suggestions for policies or procedures we could implement, we are open to hearing them. You can write a letter to the editor, send me an email at managing@triton.news, or arrange to meet with me to discuss the ways The Triton can improve.

The author of the piece, Kate Zegans, has prepared the following statement:

As the author of this piece, I appreciate the critical feedback I’ve received; I firmly believe it has pushed both the Triton and myself in the right direction. It’s important to me that an article is not doing harm to the public, especially when it concerns already persecuted communities. My first instinct was to ask for the article to be pulled, and it’s still one I stand by. However, I realize if we were to pull the article there would be no reference for the readers to understand the problems with it, and I want those to be clearly understood. I stand by my praise of UCSD’s production of The Vagina Monologues and TheirStories. They have created a tangible cultural transformation within their organization in just two years; this, as well as their spirit of empathy, deserves recognition. I do not, however, stand by my own language regarding the trans community in this article. To anyone who was upset by this article, rightfully so, I apologize for the distress I caused. To the trans community, for not doing better the first time when it counted, I apologize. To participants of this year’s Vagina Monologues and TheirStories, I apologize that I did not do better in an article discussing your organization, which I still respect deeply. I did not intend any harm, but harm was done nonetheless, and I would like to take full responsibility for that. If anyone would like to email me at katezegans@gmail.com with questions or concerns I am happy to talk.

Editor-in-Chief Mo Al Elew, Arts and Culture Editor Sabira Parajuli and I have decided against retracting the piece for transparency’s sake. Instead, we have made a series of changes to the piece, which you can read in more detail here.

For many, Eve Ensler’s 1996 play The Vagina Monologues calls to mind the image of white women adorned in scarves and black turtlenecks, pacing about the stages of small liberal arts colleges. The production has been embroiled in controversy from all sides of the political spectrum: Moderates have brushed the show aside as radical and pretentious; conservatives like Georgetown graduate Anthony Bonna have asserted that the play “attacks traditional values,” and recently,trans people have pointed out that the show excludes trans women. Many people currently question the premise altogether, as exemplified by this statement by the Women’s Media Center: “I am more than my vagina.”

Yet those same words were uttered by Sage Murphy-Cristal at UC San Diego’s 20th production of The Vagina Monologues, held February 22–25, 2019. During Murphy-Cristal’s original monologue, “My Hematite Ring,” she described her experiences as an asexual woman. The piece, which was first performed last year, was reprised due to its student impact; 2018 directors Emily Butler and Pratyusha Meka both described separate instances of students approaching them to express how they resonated with the monologue.

Is UCSD’s rendition of The Vagina Monologues free from accusations of racism and transphobia? This year’s directors—Jordan Krikorian, Suzete Lourenco, and Sriya Podila—worked to emphasize intersectionality throughout the production, from its introduction, to a projected video explaining intersectionality, to the stories themselves. Graphics boldly stated that “the present is intersectional,” and leaflets detailed the history of notable, diverse, feminists such as Malala Yousafzai, Princess Ka’iulani, Marsha P. Johnson, and Wilma Mankiller. 

To illuminate the production’s past and present, I sat down with two of this year’s directors, Krikorian and Podila, to discuss transphobia and The Vagina Monologues. In my research, I also caught up with three of last year’s directorsEmily Butler, Pratyusha Meka, and Hannah Lykinsabout their experiences in the 2017 production, the turning point for The Vagina Monologues at UCSD.

The 2017 production was one of the first instances of two nonbinary individuals participating in the UCSD production. Unfortunately, the radical acceptance of cisgender women was not equally extended to these two transgender participants, from a lack of respect for pronouns and the prevalence of phrases like “pussy power” and “vagina warriors,” down to the vaginas on the backdrop of the stage. According to Lykins, the cast group chat used disrespectful language against trans people, prompting one of the individuals to leave the production. Unfortunately, some cast members criticized them for speaking up. Not only did this experience lead to the loss of their monologue, but it also caused the other nonbinary individual to respectfully discontinue the use of their story in subsequent years, not wanting to be involved with the production.

In 2018, Butler, Meka and Lykins, along with Antonia Lorenzo and Vaishnavi Paudel, decided things needed to change, prompting their decision to direct the show in a radically different way. This began with the creation of “TheirStories,” (replacing the previous use of cast-written monologues called “HerStories”) a gender-inclusive program through which any student could submit a monologue to the show. The program promised that monologues surrounding aspects of identity would exclusively be performed by actors who share that background.

“Not everyone can relate to a story about a certain gender, sexuality, or race,” Lykins said, with Meka adding, “but just because you went through one thing and I didn’t doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to understand your experience.”

The 2018 production was also an open act of defiance. “There’s no room for change built into The Vagina Monologues,” Lykins explained. While registering to be an official Vagina Monologues production, she had to sign an agreement promising not to alter the script or performance in any way

2019 director Sriya Podila said, “We take these liberties because we feel that they are necessary to uplift the voices which have been erased.” I was reminded of a line from the original Vagina Monologues, which states that “my revolution relies on anarchists.”

If the 2018 production was the beginning of a revolution, it seems to have found its voice in 2019. Krikorian emphasized that “this is a production which wants to change from the inside out.” The show hopes to move away from performing pieces from the original Vagina Monologues to exclusively performing “TheirStories” pieces once enough are accumulated. But even without this goal becoming fully realized, I believe the production has created a more inclusive space.

Perhaps the most significant evidence of this is that two trans men, Bias Lammoochi and Ryan Sullivan, chose to perform in this year’s show. Lammoochi, a graduate student, called the production “a very inclusive environment,” and Ryan Sullivan praised the directors for “wanting to hit every point of intersectionality.” When I asked Sullivan why he wanted to participate, he answered, “I felt I could be a part of spearheading [the show’s] movement away from its exclusive past towards an inclusive future.”

Other cast members described the show as something that improved their allyship. Suzana Hossain said the show “taught [her] that the things [she] says can hurt other people” in regards to pronoun use. Jane Coates echoed this sentiment, saying being in the cast “has been really good for my development as a person.”

In this way, UCSD needs The Vagina Monologues and TheirStories. As Emily Butler put it, “People in this school come from backgrounds where they haven’t been exposed to this stuff. As a more conservative UC [campus], this show provides an important infusion of feminism and inclusivity.”

The Vagina Monologues also desperately needs UCSD, because in many ways UCSD does justice to The Vagina Monologues in a way small liberal arts colleges cannot. Criticisms of The Vagina Monologues typically come back to the fact that the play is inescapably infused with a wealthy white feminist perspective. UCSD, however, is large, public, and diverse. In order to be a part of modern feminism, the show needs a modern production. The UCSD directors from the past few years have clearly defined this based on a sentiment of respectful rebellion against the show’s history.

As Lammoochi said in his monologue, “People need to care about queer lives more than the dying art of some stubborn mess of paper.”

Kate Zegans is a contributing writer for the Arts and Culture section of The Triton.

This article was last updated on March 15 at 10:30 a.m. A previous version of this piece misspelled Hannah Lykins and Sriya Podila’s names.