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So hot right now: Vagina is the new black

The word "vagina," is having a cultural moment, according to Rebecca Keegan of the Los Angeles Times. Once unmentionable, the word is popping up in movies, TV shows, magazine covers, and political debates. The Beauty Myth author Naomi Wolf's new book, Vagina: A New Biography, will be out in September, 2012. I don't mean to brag, but Jewish women deserve a lot of credit for bringing this once-hushed word to the fore.

The push to help women take ownership of their bodies began in 1969 when a group of Boston women gathered to discuss women's health issues. In 1971 the group was legally incorporated as the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, which published the groundbreaking volume Our Bodies, Ourselves. Of the 12 women participating in this incorporation, nine were Jewish, including Esther Rome, Paula Doress-Waters, Joan Ditzion, and Nancy Miriam Hawley.

Then, Eve Ensler's Obie-Award-winning play The Vagina Monologues, based on Ensler’s interviews with more than 200 women, debuted in 1996. "Everybody told me to change the title," Ensler told the Los Angeles Times. "'You're never gonna get this play done.' The whole idea was that you made a political and artistic choice to go see a play called 'The Vagina Monologues.' I used to say 'vagina' was more dangerous than Scud missiles or plutonium. You couldn't put 'vagina' on the front page of a newspaper."

The play, based on more than 200 interviews with women, made use of the word "vagina" in a radically public way, hacking away at the stigma associated with female genitalia one show at a time. On February 10, 2001, The Vagina Monologues was performed at New York City's Madison Square Garden, raising over $1 million for Ensler's V-Day movement, which works to end violence against women and girls. Today the play has been translated into over 35 languages and run in theaters all over the world.

According to Laura Berman, assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology and psychiatry at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, the "vagina vanguard" is generational. She explained that the Los Angeles Times, "The women raised by the Our Bodies, Ourselves women" (who probably saw or performed in The Vagina Monologues in college or graduate school) are now at the point in their lives where they have power and influence. These women are writing and directing scripts and screenplays, editing magazines, and blogging for large, mainstream audiences. Lena Dunham is a great example. Dunham is the creator and star of HBO's "Girls," which uses the word vagina in nearly every episode.

But despite the newfound vagina love, there is some concern about the way the word is being used--namely as a punchline in comedies like "What to Expect When You're Expecting" or "2 Broke Girls." Some, like Bill Maher, think we may have "run it into the ground this year." Lauren Miller and Katie Anne Naylon, co-writers of the romantic comedy "For a Good Time, Call …," actually reduced the number of times "vagina" appeared in their script. Miller told the Los Angeles Times "It had sort of become a punch line too many times. It was almost like we were having too much fun with it."

Despite it's current trendiness in pop culture, it seems there's still a ways to go before the word vagina is stripped of its taboo and is able to stop being the punchline of its own joke. "There's always something interesting when liberation begins to happen," Ensler told the Los Angeles Times. "There's a frivolity that gets associated with it. It can cheapen things. It depends who's using it and why. We are making progress, but I think you don't ever make progress without push back."

How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "So hot right now: Vagina is the new black." 29 May 2012. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 22, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/so-hot-right-now-vagina-is-new-black>.

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