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Our Bodies, Herself 

Shouldn't a radical feminist come up with some radical insight about body image?

Wednesday, Jul 14 2004
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When you sit down in a theater, the usual reflex is to flip through your program and learn a little something about the show. I didn't need to do that at Eve Ensler's latest. I've seen Ensler perform The Vagina Monologues twice. What else could I learn?

Her new Broadway-bound monologue is a 90-odd-minute routine about self-consciousness, fat, and body image. A lot of it plays like stand-up comedy. Other bits play like The Vagina Monologues, using the same interview techniques: Ensler portrays women from around the world talking about their plump, aging, or embarrassingly sexual bodies. Parts of it are very funny. But Ensler also misses a thoughtful through-line for all her sharp-edged portraits: From a "radical-feminist" examination of body obsessions you expect some radical insight, an epiphany or a blaze of self-awareness that will allow women everywhere to quit being "slaves to vanity," as George Sand put it once in a different context. But no. Ensler's kvetching leads to cliché.

Here it's helpful to look at the program. Ensler explains in an interview that the reason women really, really, really want to be thin is that they've been raised by convention, society, and (male) authority to be proper and good. "Ultimately, it is all about control," she says. "A pattern is set up dictating the way your body is supposed to look."

Ensler's interviews uncover this pattern in fragments. She starts with Helen Gurley Brown, the 82-year-old former editor of Cosmopolitan, who still does (or pretends to do) 100 sit-ups a day. Brown talks about her childhood, when her mother called her "ugly." We get the idea that she edited Cosmo as a lifelong compensation for an inferiority complex. "Through Cosmo I've been able to help women everywhere," she says, and the irony is meant to be thick, since of course Cosmo is one of the instruments of female oppression. Brown seems like a strange old bird, self-possessed if a little whacked, and I wanted a rounder portrait of her eccentricities, but Ensler narrows it to a snapshot of an old fifth columnist lacking (Ensler's) awareness that she belongs to a pattern of control.

Bernice, an African-American woman in a fat camp who gives amusing rants about skinny girls and talks about swimming naked in a pool ("chunky dunkin'"), is funnier, and so is Carmen, a Puerto Rican woman who explains all about the Latin obsession with solid female butts. "When we're young we learn to move 'em around, like driving lessons," she says. "Backin' up, turning around" -- and Ensler shuffles up and down the stage with her ass out. She has an evident love for people like Carmen and a talent for picking out their charm. From this introduction to ass culture Carmen starts to complain about "the spread," or the creep from solid, round Latin buttocks to fattening Latin thighs. "When men see the spread," she says, "they see their mothers."

Ensler's accent falters, but she has a natural feel for Carmen as a whole. She's also terrific in a suburban New York Jewish voice, even if it's the same voice she used for a different character in The Vagina Monologues. Here a woman tells what happened after a visit to a "vaginal laser rejuvenation center," intended to tighten her vagina and improve her sex life. (It didn't work.) She compares blow jobs for her half-hard husband to eating lobster: "At the end of it, what do you have? I'm always hungry afterwards."

Other characters work less well. Ensler isn't convincing as women from India, Afghanistan, and Africa. (Her accents are weak, so it's not clear why she insists on world travel.) But the centerpiece of the show is a long, dark interlude with a woman in a hospital bed, recovering from a fourth liposuction, telling the bizarre story of her relationship with her plastic surgeon. She describes preoperative "red marks all over my body, like the kind you'd get on your spelling test in seventh grade?" But she insists that Ham -- her surgeon and husband -- has "literally" changed her for the good. Ensler lies in a hospital robe under a TV camera, which delivers the image of her reclining body to a murky, closed-circuit screen. The audience watches her from above, like a visitor to the hospital. The more this character talks about Ham the more he sounds like a modern Dr. Frankenstein, and the scene works a weird Gothic power as a portrait of his creation, of someone who so morbidly wants to please.

The plastic surgery monologue seals Ensler's point about being "good," and it seems, on the surface, to indict the whole rich-world culture of self-beautification. How deep does her indictment cut? Well, reading the program helps: "Capitalism plays quite a role. I don't know which is the chicken and which is the egg, as far as capitalism [and body issues], but in order to be good we have to consume more. In order to be perfect, we have to buy certain products."

And there you have the fuzzy thinking responsible for Ensler's unstructured show. She's so obsessed with how "capitalism" or "society" might have jerked her around that she never seems to notice how beauty, especially for women, is a form of power. If the pressure to look sexy were just a function of being "good" under capitalism, it wouldn't dog radical feminists like Ensler into their early 50s. The lust to look good is a will-to-power, like the lust for status or money. It's natural. It's not evil. But it does limit and oppress and eventually degrade the soul. For a mature woman like Ensler to blame Helen Gurley Brown for the damage seems a bit silly, but by the end all Ensler can think to do is send up a prayer for "self-acceptance" that might be a bromide from Cosmo.

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