Dick Jokes for Women

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One of the most dolorous public features of the breakdown of the Giuliani-Hanover marriage was the mayoral wife's decision to take her earnest turn in the lineup of female actors reading The Vagina Monologues. It was clearly an aggressive and explicit act of revenge. However understandable it might have been, Hanover was willing to associate herself with a bizarrely self-righteous and whiny production that has now achieved iconic status?despite its scene of statutory rape, about which more later.

Finally the violence of her decision was abated when the Mayor's prostate cancer became public knowledge and the association of private parts?the bodily bits that are designed to fit together?with a theatrical event almost obsessed with private parts clearly became an unendurable burden to all concerned. So she dropped her plan.

Meanwhile, the show is a large national event. It has been performed at countless colleges, often as part of the yearly "take back the night" seances that are now common features of the collegiate feminist calendar. For a while it was linked, through the capital letter V, with Valentine's Day. Presumably it was supposed to serve as a political antidote to the sentimental heterosexual romanticism associated with Feb. 14.

Now it has moved on to more poignant matters. The V is attached to Violence. The show is heralded as a feature of efforts to end violence against women. Who can be against that? Evidently no one, because the latest incarnation of the presentation is weirdly called "Take Back the Garden"?an evening at Madison Square Garden this Saturday, Feb. 10. At least 70 actors ranging from Oprah to Calista Flockhart, all with vaginas and all relatively well-known, will be present and perform the piece and music in some fashion or another. The evening is underwritten by the usual array of companies and funds collected will "benefit programs to end violence toward women and girls."

Other groups have also piggybacked on the success of the play. Because I've contributed to it, I was on a Planned Parenthood list advising me with great pleasure that the organization will be staging the play for fundraising?a bitterly wrongheaded decision, since many potential male contributors will find the entire adventure dispiriting or at least confusing. But this is par for the Planned Parenthood course of paying hardly any attention to the males who are directly part of the problem it seeks to address. Now it is also running the risk of alienating them rather than just ignoring them.

But what are the monologues about? As nearly everyone knows by now, author Eve Ensler interviewed a number of women on the subject of their genitalia, with responses from thwarted resistance to discussing the matter to outbursts of warm relief at finally having been asked about the subject. She decided to collect an array of comments, as well as existing literary material, and had the effective idea of inviting changing casts of well-known women to read the words.

When I saw it, the largely female audience responded with whoops of joy and applause for broken taboos. Clearly the piece resonated with many women and offered a legitimate opportunity to engage in candid discussion of matters that many had presumably felt unable to do in the past. That in my opinion it lacked art and heart seemed to have no effect on its reception. The fact that had men created it it would have almost surely been vilified as a sexist affront appeared to have no relevance whatever. It was a female dick joke instead. Evidently, that was and is okay. And Donna Hanover had thought until medical decency intervened that a public person with some broad responsibility could be associated in public with a self-satisfied cavalcade of revelation about matters of high privacy.

There was one especially troubling bit. It was read by the formidable singer Audra McDonald, who shouldn't waste her talent on this sort of thing. It was about an older woman, who from the text and its reader seemed to have dark skin. She is well-off, has a car, a fine apartment, a sleek selection of grownup drinks. The story is told from the point of view of a young girl she befriends, who is happily astonished to see a woman of her group with such clear signs of prosperity and personal pleasure. Not only that, but she and the woman engage in sweet and agreeable interaction with the body parts that are the subject of the evening.

The girl seemed to be about 15. The description was of formal statutory rape. Did anyone protest? Was there any scrutiny of the matter by anyone? Evidently not. Political sentimentality overrides all, even lubricious violence against a girl.

The entire episode of the Monologues is intriguing. It appears to foreshadow an increasingly normalized and acceptable sexual apartheid in this society. While Madison Square Garden has been by no means a gender-equal venue, given what remains disproportionately male attendance at sporting events, I cannot recall an event there in which there was an explicit emphasis on male sexuality. Certainly not one in which more than six dozen of the participants were men of public note. The personal has clearly become political, and appears to have sharply changed the rules of public discourse for women and about women.

While there are a few wan men's studies programs at universities, it is women's studies that has carried the pedagogical and administrative day, and it also appears to be the working rule that members of women's studies programs will be women. Certainly nearly all the students are female, and the salience of the kind of attention to women the Monologues reflects may in part account for the increase in female enrollment in universities, up to more than half the overall student population?56 percent to be exact.

Of course, much of this turnabout is fair play. Men used to be the majority of students, and at some good institutions the only students. Curricula certainly provided wholly inadequate attention to the behavior of women, while their concerns were regarded as soft. Little effort was made to accommodate childbearing to the successful career, and there were informal barriers to female entry to a host of professional schools. It's time such inequities disappear, both for equity itself and because women have the same need to prepare themselves to earn a living as men do?perhaps even a greater need, since so many of them will become mothers without husbands.

Nevertheless, the kind of segregationist sexual narcissism implied by the Monologues may well have odd costs. If nothing else, many women still associate with many men, who may be bewildered by their partners. Half the children women have will be boys. There are no separate countries to which the combatants in the sex war can return when it is over.

Advertisements for the play contain the bathroom-humor tag line "Spread the Word." Maybe don't. A monologue is one thing, a dialogue quite another.

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