A Culture of Vaginas: Representations of the Vagina in the 21st Century America

Kyra Detone, Union College - Schenectady, NY


In 1996, Eve Ensler opened her acclaimed, off-Broadway performance of The Vagina Monologues in New York City with these lines: “I bet you’re worried. I was worried. That’s why I began this piece. I was worried about vaginas.” These lines and Ensler’s monologues as a whole pose a provocative question for the modern woman, one that has been present in feminist dialogue since the late 1960s: Does the vagina have a community in American society? Nearly three decades after the first production of The Vagina Monologues, in what is argued to be a “postfeminist” period, scholars, writers, artists, and filmmakers still grapple with this question. In order to determine successfully the presence and quality of America’s “culture of vaginas,” questions of language, representation, and reception have to be assessed from their appearance in society during the Women’s Movement through present day. Recognizing the lack of discussion and appreciation of female genitalia in relation to their lived experiences, feminist activists associated with the Women’s Health and Liberation Movements of the 1960s and 1970s encouraged women to develop new societal dialogues, often through consciousness raising, to remedy this absence. Feminist groups such as the Boston Women’s Health Collective and the Fresno Feminist Art Movement created spaces in which women could vocalize their concerns regarding their bodies, motherhood, sex, and sexuality. In doing so, these communities equipped women with the tools to develop dialogue on these issues from within institutions of patriarchal society. The result was a variety of cultural materials, literature, film, and art, meant to introduce the vagina into public conversations. “A Culture of Vaginas”: Representations of the Vagina in 21st Century America examines academic scholarship, advice literature, and multiple forms of visual media that re-evaluate the presence of the vagina in social dialogue of the twenty-first century. Like the work of the Women’s Health and Liberation Movements, as well as subsequent waves of feminism, the efforts of these scholars, artists, and independent activists have attempted to counter the taboo surrounding female genitalia with unambiguous conversation and representation. What makes twenty-first century efforts different from those forty years earlier is the nature of the societal landscape, which has not only been influenced by the pervasiveness of conservative ideology and divisions within feminist discourse, but also by growing generational dependence on technology. To study the influences of such cultural phenomena on the way students talk about the vagina, “A Culture of Vaginas” features an analysis of Union College student responses to a survey on social media and language usage. Trends among student responses to the survey alongside examination of societal representation of the vagina suggest that non-taboo appearance of female genitalia appear in accessible yet private niche communities. These niche communities, while available to the greater public, also maintain a sense of privacy as they must be sought out on a website, or in a bookstore, gallery exhibition, or film screening. These communities’ existence suggests a demand for safe environments in which women and men can address issues related to female genitalia. Such communities’ prevalence as well as attempts to maintain anonymity point to the lingering taboo of openly discussing female genitalia, specifically the vagina. Though these topics are relevant to the twenty-first century American woman’s experience, analysis shows that women must give themselves permission to participate in the conversation. Until women are able to speak about these issues without such hesitation, the taboo surrounding open discussion of female genitalia will endure.